Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Blooming Artist

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Monday, October 22, 2007

The Slow March to Justice

I spent the summer of 1988 in the Portuguese city of Evora, polishing up on the language. My first day, as I was settling into my quarters, I thought about the novena to Saint Theresa. It is said that, if at the end of the nine days of prayer your request is to be granted, someone will give you a rose. I thought to myself that Portugal would be a good place to test this since, alone in a foreign country, I didn't know anyone who would give me a rose.

That evening, one of the priests at the residence invited me to a prayer group in the city. At the end of the service, an older lady walked up to a statue of Our Lady. At the foot of the statue was a vase of roses which she picked up and started to hand out. The last rose went to me. I hadn't even prayed the novena! It was a gentle reminder of God's presence and action in my life.

For every twenty stories I have like that, I have another twenty about prayers which weren't answered. Looking back, though, I'm glad that most of those prayers went unanswered. With time, better things came along or my perspective changed so that I no longer wanted what I had previously begged God for.

Saint Augustine calls prayer an "exercise in desire". Prayer trains our heart to desire what God desires. The power of prayer is not in getting God to give us what we want, but in transforming our heart to love and desire what God loves and desires.

Jesus' parable teaches us that prayers must be just if they are to be answered. The widow is a symbol of those who are easily victimized and often overlooked in the pursuit of justice. Justice is done for her on a human level because of her persistence. God answers her prayer because it is just.

It is true that, no matter how seemingly ridiculous or daunting our challenges are, God cares about them even more than we do. But, it is also true that God has a greater plan unfolding through history which we are just a part of. It is by locating our place in that unfolding plan and committing ourselves to participating in it, that our prayers make any sense. I imagine that many good and pious people in Jesus' day prayed that Jesus be shown to be an imposter, or that they could come up with answers to the challenges he posed. Jesus himself prayed that the cup of suffering pass him by - but only if it be according to God's will. Just like the millions of other unanswered prayers, aren't we glad those weren't answered!

Persistance in prayer is necessary because God's plan takes time to unfold and our hearts and minds are slow to grasp God's work in our lives. God is more like a crockpot than a microwave. And like Moses who grew weary holding his arms up during the battle, we need each others help to persist in prayer both for our personal needs and in our struggle to make God's justice and peace real in our world.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Curing and Healing

When I walked into the waiting room of the hospital lab, I noticed a mentally challenged man whom no one would sit next to. With all the writing I've done lately about recognizing Jesus in the poor, I decided to at least sit next to him. As it became clear to him that I would take the seat next to his, he jumped up and shot his arms up as if signaling a touchdown. He never said anything to me. He just wanted to express his joy at my affirmation of his equal worth as a human being.

Such people - the handicapped, the deformed, the sick - suffer insults to their dignity on a daily basis. They are stared at in public. Their caregivers and family members often talk about them as if they are not there. They are subjected to the messages of society that their lives are meaningless because they are not "productive". Most of the time, they are just ignored or pitied. When they are acknowledged and treated with respect, it draws a response of joy from them that most "productive" people lack.

Jesus' miracles are more than displays of power. They serve to announce the Kingdom of God by restoring communion and drawing forth a response of faith. Lepers were seen as sinners, as being punished by God. As such, they were shunned and barred from worship. Jesus' curing of them signifies that he has come to reunite all those who have been lost to sin and its destructive power. Once the priest has certified that they are clean, they can be restored to the worshipping community.

There's a difference between curing and healing. Jesus did indeed cure. He did remove illness, deformity and leprosy. But, more importantly, he healed. His touch was more than skin deep. It reached into the souls of those he encountered and drew forth a response of faith, gratitude and joy. It took faith for the lepers to approach Jesus not only to believe he had the power to heal them, but to trust that he would not reject them as "unclean". Jesus spoke to the deepest desire of the human person to be recognized as being of equal dignity and to be welcomed into the worshipping community.

But Jesus' healing also works its wonders among those who are "normal". Their hearts are opened to the joy of welcoming the stranger, the sick and the needy. Their eyes are opened to the true beauty and dignity of each person. We all long to see and know Jesus. To be able to recognize and love Jesus in the stranger and in the needy is among the greatest blessings we could hope for.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Shifting Sands and Firm Foundations

Before erecting a skyscraper, the builders need to make sure the ground is firm enough to support the foundation and the structure. If the ground isn't firm enough, it will shift under the weight of the structure and the foundation will crack. One method is to pile tons of gravel on the site and leave it there to press down on the soil below. After a few months, the gravel is removed to reveal firmly compacted ground suitable for building.

The Hebrew word for faith means "foundation". So, it's natural for the Bible to speak of God's Word as a "rock" or "cornerstone". God's Word is the firm ground on which we can build our lives. But we also must be firm if we are to be suitable for God's dwelling. God tests our firmness by putting us under pressure.

In Sunday's first reading (Hb.1), Habakkuk laments the destruction he witnesses in the city and God's silence. When God finally does speak His message is that the rash man has no integrity, but the just man lives by faith. The rash man is the one who panics when difficulty arises. He changes his game plan. He doesn't have a firm foundation because he's not in one place long enough to build one. The just man, on the other hand, trusts in God no matter what is going on around him. He responds to pressure with calm because he knows the ground he stands on won't shift beneath him. And, he trusts that his foundation will be made firmer through difficulty.

So, when the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith (Lk 17:5-10), he responds that faith is not a matter of size but of strength. The smallest of faiths can uproot the sycamore. In another place, Jesus says it can move mountains. The apostles were correct, nonetheless, in desiring more faith and in recognizing Jesus as the source of that faith.

Our faith increases in strength when we are patient and trusting under the pressures of life. That pressure makes us firmer and a more fitting site for God's dwelling. We can take comfort that, for the building to eventually be erected, the gravel that's causing the pressure has to be cleared away. Any difficulty we are facing is temporary. But the firm foundation is permanent.

The following poem by Saint Teresa of Avila sums it up perfectly:

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.

All things are passing.
God does not change.

Patient endurance attains all things.
Whoever has God, lacks nothing.

God alone suffices.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The mighty Taunton River

Friday, October 05, 2007

Stopped at the Berkley Bridge

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Okay! Okay! I get it already!

A priest was assigned to a new parish. At his first Mass, he preached a homily that moved the congregation to tears. It was the talk of the neighborhood throughout the week; so much so that, the next Sunday, the church was packed. The congregation stilled to a hush as the priest approached the pulpit. To their surprise, he preached the same homily from the Sunday before. They assumed that he repeated the homily for the benefit of those who hadn't been there the week before. But, the next Sunday, with the church packed again and full of anticipation, the priest gave the same sermon again for the third time now.

In the sacristy, after Mass, one of the altar boys approached the priest saying, "You preach well, Father. When will we get to hear a new sermon?"

The priest responded, "I'll preach a new sermon when I see the people acting on the old one."

The past few Sundays, Jesus has repeated pretty much the same message of love for the poor and sacrifice on their behalf. This Sunday is no different, and as we continue to read from the Gospel of Luke, we can expect more. It's enough to make us say, "Okay! Okay! We get it already!" But, I guess Jesus doesn't think we have.

At the end of Sunday's reading, the rich man calls out to Abraham to have Lazarus warn his brothers about the dangers of their luxurious lifestyle. Abraham refuses. They have already been sufficiently warned. In telling the story, Jesus intends the irony that they wouldn't believe even if someone were to rise from the dead. Jesus knows that he will rise from the dead and that still some will not believe. We've been warned, but we obviously haven't listened.

In the Eucharist, Jesus feeds us, not scraps from the table, but his very self. Just as the dog's lined up to lick Lazarus' wounds, we are fed by Jesus' wounds. We needn't fear the fate of the rich man because Jesus has bridged the chasm between heaven and hell for us so that we may rest in Abraham's bosom. But, we must listen. We must heed the warning. We dare not turn our backs on any poor person we encounter for our failure to console them now may mean future torment for us.