Friday, September 28, 2007

The Cry of the Poor

About two weeks ago, I listened to a priest discussing the injustice of the American immigration system. I have to admit that I listened with some skepticism. But, his remarks at the end gave me pause:

"We have to remember that many of these immigrants seek the
intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe. You don't want to be
on the wrong end of an argument with her!"

Though I wasn't convinced by the rationality of his argument, I am convinced that God does indeed hear the cry of the poor, and that I may have to re-evaluate my position on this issue if I am to find myself on the righteous side of it.

Preaching on last Sunday's gospel (Lk.16:1-13), the Holy Father said:

"It is Christ who teaches us the right use of money and worldly
riches, and that is to share them with the poor, thus obtaining
their friendship, in sight of the Kingdom of Heaven."

I run into beggars often enough to unsettle me. Up till now, I had decided that it was better not to give them money, since they may spend it on alchohol or drugs. I have also worried that any quarters I throw in their cup may be enabling their homeless lifestyle.

But, reflecting on the Holy Father's words in light of the gospel, I have decided to take a different approach. I will give whatever little I have on hand, but I'll ask the beggar to pray for me. I will use my wealth to make a friend of the poor confident that God hears their prayer. Now, I become the beggar because my need for salvation and for the intercession of the poor on my behalf is greater than their need for whatever coin I can scratch up for them.

In the Eucharist, we meet Jesus who makes himself poor so that we may receive Him. In receiving Him, we become rich. Just as surely, we meet Him in those who require our help. We have been blessed with such an abundance not to enrich ourselves, but to be instruments of God's generosity and providence in the world, and to befriend the needy, for God surely hears their cry.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

More thoughts on the Prodigal Son

This past summer marked the tenth anniversary of the deaths of Mother Theresa and Princess Diana. I remember ten years ago watching the Today Show and being shocked that they spent the segment on Mother Theresa discussing those who criticized her work in India, while they spent the segment on Princess Diana praising her charitable work and her campaign against landmines. It highlighted to me in stark terms where our culture's values lie.

Ten years later, we are still talking about them. About Mother Theresa, we learned that she continued to serve the poor faithfully even though her spiritual life was often lacking in consolation. As regards Diana, we continue to speculate about the details of her tragic death.

Now, if we have really listened to and taken to heart Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, we should ask ourselves this question: If Princess Diana did follow Mother Theresa into heaven, for which was there more rejoicing?

We should expect that Mother Theresa, who lived her life in a selfless way, would be happy to join in the celebration, because she took more delight in God's mercy than her own accomplishments. Her joy was to serve faithfully in God's house rather than accumulate honors and recognition for herself.

Considering Mother Theresa and Princess Diana may give us some idea of the shock the older brother felt at his brother's return and the complaint of the Pharisees at Jesus' companionship with sinners. God's mercy is deeper than we can ever imagine. It can both delight us and stun us. So if we are quick to claim God's mercy we must be just as quick to extend it to others. If we desire to claim a room in God's house, we must also share our bunk with the least of our sisters and brothers.

If you're like me, you may have sat in your pew during communion and watched people lining up to receive. Sometimes we may judge them because of the way they are dressed or because of their demeanor. We may have thought that they do not understand what they are doing and are not worthy to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. In the light of Jesus' parable and the mercy he has shown us, it is clear how ridiculous such an attitude is. The Eucharist is the celebration here on earth of that gathering of sinners first begun with Jesus' cross and resurrection which will be fulfilled in heaven. The invitation is extended to us if we can focus on God's mercy and love rather than our own accomplishments and what we think we've earned or deserve.

At the end of the day, it will be God's mercy which will be praised. For who could ever accomplish so much as to eclipse the wonder, power and love of God? Who could ever be so great as to enter heaven and command more praise than God himself?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Beyond the hedges

Two sons. Their father is a landowner wealthy with cattle and teaming with servants. The sons labor on their father's property hoping that one day it will be theirs. But they both keep an eye over the hedges surrounding the property wondering whether something better awaits them beyond it. Nonetheless, they are loyal to their father and faithful to his wishes.

Then the day comes when one of them can stand it no longer. Tired of working and tired of waiting, he demands his inheritance in full and storms off to that far away land and the pleasures it promises. The other son, perhaps shocked at his brother's boldness, stays behind to help his father. Maybe he feels stuck as though there are no other options for him now that he is the only one left to help the old man. Or maybe he rubs his hands together knowing that now all the property will be his without having to split it with his prodigal brother.

Then, his brother returns. The older son is scandalized and offended by his father's forgiveness and mercy. We realize that, though the brother never physically left his father's house, in his heart he was long gone. He lived and worked in his father's house, but didn't really know his father. Maybe he thought that all his work and sacrifice would earn him his father's love. He couldn't understand that he had that love already, and that his work and sacrifice should be a generous and joyful response to that love and generosity. Now the son finds himself on the outside when the celebration takes place. Now he becomes the son who left.

The older brother embodies what happens to us when religion becomes a matter of following rules instead of loving our Father. It becomes perfect Mass attendance without perfect conversion. Our body is in the pew, but are heart is looking over the hedge at the world and its empty promises. Sacrifice embitters us rather than freeing us for service. It becomes about what we are doing for God rather than what God is doing for us. And we begin to feel entitled to honors and recognition rather than surprised by grace.

Wonderfully, whether we packed our bags and took off or whether we have become blind to the riches of life in our Father's house, we can always return. That house is always there for us and a room is always prepared for us. We just have to expect that the same mercy which our Father lavishes on us so undeservedly will be lavished on our brother and sister as well. If we are so ready and eager to accept it for ourselves, we must be just as ready to extend it to our neighbor. Otherwise, we may find ourselves on the outside when the celebration takes place.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Road to Jerusalem

If Jesus has seemed more pointed, more demanding or even more somber over the past few Sundays, we must remember that we have reached the section of Luke's gospel in which Jesus has "set his face toward Jerusalem." Jerusalem and Jesus' imminent death there cast a shadow over all Jesus' words and deeds. He is well aware of what will happen at the end of this road, and he wants his disciples to be aware of it as well. Like the man building the tower or the king who set out to face his enemy, they must be aware of and prepared for the cost of following him.

Jesus understood - and we must understand - that even though his cross was something he would have to shoulder alone, even to the point of feeling abandoned by God, his disciples, if they were to grab hold of the salvation it offered, would have to themselves have some share in that suffering. And the first step on that journey is dropping everything else and everyone else.

Jesus' words in this weekend's gospel (Lk 14: 25-33) are so strong that they often bounce off us without much of a reaction. There seems to be no practical way of applying them to our life. Jesus cannot mean that we must turn our back on our father and mother whom we are commanded by God to honor. Even worse, it would be a scandal to abandon our spouses and our children!

But, if we were to look honestly at our lives in the light of Jesus' words, there is a truth we must recognize.

Our family may not always be around. Our parents will eventually die. We had a life before knowing our spouse, and it may happen that we will eventually lose our spouse. And our children will eventually grow up and move away.

No matter how many people we live with and no matter how many people are around us, we are ultimately alone.

The only relationship we can never lose is the one we have with Jesus. Though it seems the least tangible of our relationships, it is the most real. Any other relationship only has meaning if it deepens our relationship to him.

Jesus is challenging his listeners - us - to understand the cost of following him. We were created by God to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to take up our Cross and join our suffering to Jesus' suffering so we can also rejoice in his victory over sin and death. That is the meaning of our lives. And everything else and everyone else in our lives has value in as much as they help us on that journey.

Once we grasp this, we don't become less attentive fathers, less loving mothers, dead beat husbands or distracted wives. When we order our relationships along the lines of Jesus' call to follow him, those relationships actually take on deeper meaning. When I see my marriage as a gift, I no longer take my spouse for granted. When I see my children as a mission, I no longer try to live vicariously through them. And instead of blaming my parents for all the dysfunction in my life, I am grateful that they did their best to give me all I have.

There is no getting around it. If Jesus is our Creator made flesh and our Redeemer perfected in suffering, then we must follow him despite the cost. Each of us will live Jesus' words in a different way. But the road will lead to the same place -- to Jerusalem, the city of God and the place of our salvation.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Falling Down

Life is good at humbling us.

Just when we think we are the best, someone better comes along. Just when we think we know our jobs better than anyone else, an issue comes up that makes us look incompetent. Just when we think we are mature in our faith, we cave into a temptation which leaves us empty and bewildered.

Many times, we replace that wounded pride with bitterness. Many times, envy of others fills the space left behind by our deflated egos.

During this past week in response to this Sunday's readings, I have been trying to look at my past and present failures in a different way. Rather than let them be causes for shame and embarrassment, I am thankful for them. Because of my mistakes, I could abandon the pretense of being perfect. I have learned that the people who love me are willing to forgive me and to continue to love me despite my imperfections. Most especially, my failures have taught me to be patient with and compassionate toward those who are struggling.

We have to be careful when reading this Sunday's gospel (Lk 14: 1, 7-14) not to interpret it as an etiquette lesson. Luke calls Jesus' words a "parable" because they are telling us something about how God acts. God lifts up those who are lowly. It is when we are at our lowest that God can finally meet us.

Most importantly, it is when we are at our lowest that we see how quickly we can lose the esteem of others. At that point, we see how irreplaceable is the love of God which we can never lose.

So, at those times when we look like idiots in front of others or something happens to make us the subject of gossip, we have to first thank God for the opportunity to know what it is like to be humbled. We have to remember those who are humbled every day by their poverty or sickness. And we have to beg God that peace, joy and forgiveness may flood in where pride, self-assurance and contempt once held their ground in our hearts.

In that way, we can take our place at the wedding banquet which is the Eucharist. This Sunday's second reading (Heb.12: 18-19, 22-24) calls Jesus' blood more eloquent than the blood of Abel. Abel's blood called out to God for justice, and so Cain was cursed and ostracized. Jesus' blood calls out to God for mercy so we may be forgiven and restored to intimacy. However, we cannot reach out for mercy if we think we have the power to be good on our own or if we have failed to be merciful with others.

Getting knocked down is just the opportunity we need to finally give up on thinking we have it all figured out and to reach out for God's hand which has been there all along.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Litany of Humility by Cardinal Merry del Val

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart,
hear me!

From the desire of being esteemed,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged,
deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected,
deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen, and I set aside,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised, and I unnoticed,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.