Sunday, November 11, 2018

Giving All with Love

I became an uncle at the ripe age of seven and so I wasn't much older than my nieces and nephews.  Sometimes when I played with them and had a toy of theirs, they would grab for it even if their own hands were filled with toys.  They had to let go of one in order to have the one they wanted, the one that I had.

I thought of that in the light of today's Mass readings which teach us that it is only the empty hand that can receive.  Or as the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi goes: "It is in giving that we receive."

Our first reading (1 Kings 17: 10-16) tells the story of how a non-Jewish widow helped the great prophet of Israel, Elijah.  She was dirt poor.  She had only a hungry child and a little oil and flour.  There was no "safety net" in her society.  A terrible drought had ravaged the land.  She was about to prepare a final meal when Elijah came along and asked her for water and food.  Something about the prophet moved her to give away part of her food.  She could have held on to it, not shared, and then, it would indeed have been her last meal.  But her charity to the wandering Jewish prophet opened the way for God's power to perform a miracle.  The jug of oil did not run dry and the jar of flour did not go empty for an entire year.

In the gospel (Mark 12: 38-44) we see another widow.  We see her in contrast to religious leaders and wealthy people who make a show of putting large amounts of money into the temple treasury.  Ashamed of how little she has to give, she tries to put two small coins into the treasury hoping no one will notice her meager offering.  But Jesus notices and praises her.  The others gave vast sums from their surplus, from what they could afford to give and not experience any threat to their lifestyle.  She gave sacrificially, from what she could not afford to give.  They gave for show, to win the attention and admiration of the crowd.  She gave for one simple reason--for love of God.

Perhaps Jesus saw in her a reflection of himself.

Like her, Jesus did not hold back.  He gave all.  He gave his very life, sacrificing it on a cross.  And he continues to give all.

Every celebration of Mass makes present that total offering of Jesus on the cross.  As the second reading (Hebrews 9: 24-28) says, he gave "once for all."  He does not need to die again and again.  But in a mysterious and miraculous way he makes that "once for all" offering of himself present in every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  And after making this offering present to us, he gives himself totally to us--body and blood, soul and divinity--in Holy Communion.  He holds nothing back but gives himself totally to each one who receives him in the Eucharist.  This gift of himself, which we receive with open hands and hearts, gives us the ability to love as he loved.

How can we give all to God?  Let me make a few practical suggestions.

First, at every Mass, as the bread and wine are placed on the altar and then lifted up as the Body and Blood of Christ, we place ourselves on the altar and join ourselves to Jesus' perfect offering of himself to the Father.  It is important to be aware of this, to consciously unite ourselves to Jesus' offering as he is lifted up and makes his total, self-sacrificing offering of himself present to us.  It's also important to have an intention for which we are praying as we join our offering to that of Jesus.

Second, we are called to live, in our daily lives, the offering we make with Jesus at Mass.  This is where a Daily or Morning Offering Prayer can help us.  It can be as simple as waking up and, before getting out of bed, thanking God for another day and offering that day to God.  We can tell God in our own words that we want to offer every thought, word, and deed of the day; every breath and beat of our hearts; every prayer, work, joy, and suffering of the day in union with his total offering on the cross and at Mass.  Then, during the day, especially when we encounter something challenging and difficult, something frustrating and painful, something we would rather not have to face or do, we can renew the offering, telling God that we are going to do this thing we have to do out of love for God and neighbor, as an act of love and for the salvation of every human soul.

Those things that we offer to God may seem very small in comparison to great acts of love for God, like martyrdom.  They may seem very insignificant.  But remember the two widows.  The widow of Zarephath offered the little she had and her charity led to a miracle.  And Jesus said the widow in the temple gave the most because she gave her all out of love.  What matters to Jesus is not the amount, but the love that motivates the giving.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

A Spiritual View of Anorexia Nervosa

When I was given a copy of the book "Little Girl Crying" by Belinda Rose I was intimidated.  Not by the subject: anorexia nervosa and how the author came to complete healing through prayer.  I was intimidated by its length.  I wondered how I could squeeze in the time for this large book in the midst of my busy life.  I can honestly report that finding time was not a problem.  This book reads like a thriller but instead of "who done it?" the question in this fast-paced account of the causes and the struggle of anorexia is "how will she ever come out of it?"  In the course of 450 pages I came to a better understanding of anorexia and more.  Let me highlight three other lessons that can be learned by reading "Little Girl Crying."

First, the struggle with anorexia nervosa is a paradigm for all human struggle.  Deep down, in every human being, there is a hunger, a hunger to be loved, a longing to know that one is lovable.  Human loves can satisfy that hunger for a while but they do not ultimately fulfill us, for, as St. Augustine wrote: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."  We are made with a hunger for an infinite love that no finite, human love can satisfy.  Only God's love can because God is an infinite love by nature.  Until the author discovered this truth through contemplative prayer she continued a self-destructive cycle of binge eating and purging, always convinced that she was fat and unlovable even at 70 lbs.! Whatever one does or does not do to fill the hunger for God will fail unless God is the object of one's desire. 

Secondly, I was reminded of another book, "Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood" by Wayne Muller.  As a drought forces the roots of a tree to go deeper or the tree will die, so the struggles of childhood can lead one to sink deeper roots.  Deeper into what?  One's relationship with God, certainly, but also into one's relationships with others.  Belinda Rose's struggles ultimately led her into deeper relationships with her three sons, her mother, and others who struggled with psychological illnesses.  From deep pain can come, with God's saving grace, greater compassion and more joy, so much so that Rose can say, like many in 12 Step Recovery Programs, she is ultimately grateful for how her disease led her to these deeper relationships. 

Thirdly, one of the key elements of healing is forgiveness.  Past hurts can leave one bitter.  But bitter unforgiveness and resentment are the fuel that drives the engine of addictions and anorexia.  When it is not dealt with, emotional hurt festers and grows, morphing into an anger which, for those who feel vulnerable and helpless, is turned in on itself.  It's been said that resentment is like drinking from a bottle of poison and hoping that the person who hurt us will die.  As she began to deal with the painful memories that stoked her disease, Rose developed empathy.  A key moment came when she began to understand what led her father to hurt her as he had done.  She learned the truth that "hurt people hurt people."  She prayed and forgave and healed.  In time she learned to imitate Jesus in his redemptive suffering.  Jesus--totally innocent--was hurt and abused.  He suffered terribly but offered his suffering as a powerful prayer to the Father and saved the world.  Rose learned to use her sufferings for others as Jesus did. 

I highly recommend "Little Girl Crying" in order to understand anorexia nervosa and so much more.  Its lessons are universal, for hurt and the need for healing--both individually and globally--are universal. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"That These People May Live"

Today's Gospel (Mark 10: 35-45) is preceded by Jesus' third prediction in Mark's Gospel about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection.  What is the apostles' reaction?  Confusion?  Upset?  No, they are only focused on themselves.  James and John want seats on either side of Jesus when he comes into his reign.  The others are jealous and angry at this request. 

How sad Jesus must have felt at all this.  Yet, he uses this moment to teach the apostles and us about true greatness.  It does not involve honor and power.  It does not seek a position in which people look up to you.  That is not the way of Jesus, nor is it the traditional Lakota way.

Last night I finished reading a book about the great Lakota leader Crazy Horse--"The Journey of Crazy Horse" by Joseph Marshall III.  Marshall emphasized the humility of Crazy Horse that led him to sacrifice himself for his people.  He wrote: "He understood that what is accomplished in the name of and for the people belongs to the people." 

This is the spirit behind the Sun Dance, the great Lakota ceremony in which people make offerings of their flesh or a pierced so that the people may live.  They offer themselves and their flesh for the good of the tribe. 

Jesus did this so that all people may live.  He sacrificed his flesh so that all people would be freed from sin on their earthly journey and freed from death when it ended. 

Jesus humbled himself.  He--the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity--emptied himself of glory, position, and power and came among us as a weak one.  As the second reading (Hebrews 4: 14-16) says, he was a compassionate high priest, able "to sympathize with our weaknesses" because he "has been similarly tested in every way" that we are.  He knows the struggle. 

In the end, he sacrificed himself on the cross.  In the words of the Gospel, he gave "his life as a ransom for many."  He took our place, freeing us from slavery to sin and to death.

Our first reading (Isaiah 53: 10-11) comes from the fourth "Suffering Servant Song" in which the prophet predicts the Passion of God's Son.  A few verses earlier, Isaiah wrote that the Servant of God would be "pierced for our offenses."  He offered his flesh that all people may live.

Every celebration of Holy Mass makes this sacrifice present.  Jesus, the Head, renews his perfect offering and invites us, the Body, to offer ourselves with him that "these people"--those present, family and friends, national and ethnic groups, and even our enemies--may live.

On October 29 we will remember the first anniversary of the death of a good man who offered himself for others.  Fr. Bob Gilroy, S.J., was born in 1959.  After college he worked in a school for the blind.  He went back to school, earned a degree in art therapy, and then entered the Jesuits.  For ten years, at one time or another, he served the Lakota people at St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud and at the Sioux Spiritual Center where I worked with him.   He was a hospital chaplain, a spiritual director, and instructor in art therapy.  Like Jesus, he was a compassionate priest because he shared in people's weakness.   He suffered childhood diabetes, many resulting health problems, and a kidney transplant. Throughout, he kept his smile and distinctive laugh.   

In closing, let me share with you a poem that he wrote to accompany one of his paintings.  In its simplicity it reminds me of the lyrics of Lakota songs:

Christ is everything.
Stay close to him.
There is nothing else to do. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Your Choice: Gehenna or To Be With Jesus Forever?

In the Gospel at Mass today (26th Sunday, Ordinary Time, Cycle B) from the 9th chapter of Mark, Jesus mentions "Gehenna" three times.  What's this "Gehenna?"  It's an actual place.  Before the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land, other peoples had used this valley outside of Jerusalem as a place to offer child sacrifices to their idols.  The Jews considered it such an unholy and unclean place that it was good for only one thing--burning garbage.

Jesus used "Gehenna" 11 times in the Gospels as an image for hell. 

Hell is not something you hear about much.  It does show up as an expression of anger or hatred.  We use it to condemn our enemies or someone who has done a particularly heinous crime: "I hope they rot in hell!" 

For many it's hard to reconcile hell with a good, all-powerful, and infinitely loving God.  How could God send anyone to hell?

God doesn't.  People choose it. 

The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" says that the "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'" (#1033). 

And Pope St. John Paul II said that hell "is not a punishment imposed externally by God" because "God is the infinitely good and merciful Father" who "can only desire the salvation of the beings He created" (General Audience, July 28, 1999).  God can only will or want our good.  But God cannot force that ultimate good of heaven upon us.  Love must be free.  God cannot force people into heaven.  They must freely choose to go.  And if they choose not to go, then there must be another option for them. 

There are some things that are simply incompatible with heaven.  There is no room for the jealousy that we see Joshua exhibiting in our first reading (Numbers 11: 25-29).  Nor is there room for the injustice and greed that James talks about in the second reading (James 5: 1-6).  There is no room for sin in heaven. 

Professor and author Peter Kreeft, who teaches at Boston College, has a shocking remark about this.  In his book "Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing," he says that "God does not forgive sins."  Then he goes on to explain that God "forgives sinners and destroys sins" (186).  That makes sense.  God loves sinners and hates sin.  God sees how much sin damages our relationship with him and with one another.  It hurts and damages our very selves and leads to all kinds of misery.  So God wants to free people of their sins and throw them into the garbage dump of the cosmos--hell. 

I grew up fearing God, that God would send me to hell.  I thought that if I were running to church for Saturday afternoon confession in order to get rid of a moral sin and got hit by a car I would hit the greasy shoot to hell. 

I have a different idea now.  It seems more and more clear that death is a process rather than a moment.  We see this from near death experiences in which people have, for all practical purposes, died; their brain waves have stopped as well as their hearts.  And they somehow return to tell stories of an experience of a life beyond this life. 

I believe that no matter who we are and what we believe we all meet Jesus face to face as we die.  And he asks us one question: "Do you want to be with me forever?"  We might hesitate, feeling shame and unworthiness for our sins.  But Jesus presses on, asking us again, "Yes, I know, but do you want to be with me forever?"  Or we might ask if we can be with him on our terms, holding on to something that has no place in heaven.  Jesus will tell us we can't bring that in; we have to let go.

This is so important to Jesus that in today's Gospel he tells us that if we're holding on to something sinful, it would be better to cut off our hand so that it and the sin we cling to do not prevent us from entering his Kingdom.  Or if we hold on to sin with our eyes, we should pluck them out because that sin does not belong in heaven.  It's garbage that needs to be thrown away.

We might wonder: how could anyone say "no" to Jesus' invitation?  I think of how people can hold on to bitter resentments.  I can imagine people answering "yes" but then, as they cross the threshold of heaven they see someone who has hurt them terribly or an enemy.  "What's he doing here?"  Jesus answers: "He admitted he had done wrong and asked for my forgiveness and I forgave him."  And the response could be: "Well, you may have forgiven him for what he did to me but I will never forgive him. I would rather rot in hell than to spend one minute much less eternity with him." 

We are here on earth for one thing: to learn how to live in heaven.  In heaven there is no selfishness, no lustful using other people for one's pleasure.  There is no greed and injustice, no envy or deceit.  There is no racism and hatred.  There is no unforgiveness. 

We have to let go of those things here.  We need to throw out the garbage, lest we end up clinging to it in the cosmic garbage dump that Jesus called Gehenna.  We don't want anything to stand in the way of answering immediately and whole-heartedly "YES!" when Jesus asks us "Do you want to be with me forever." 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Tom Burnett's Offering

In the Gospel at Mass today (Mark 8: 27-35) Jesus asks his disciples what people are thinking and saying about him.  "Who do people say I am?"  People think he is the reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah or another of the prophets of old.  Then Jesus asks, "but who do you say that I am?"  Peter gets it right.  Having spent some time with Jesus, he can rely on his own experience and not on what others say about him.  He answers correctly: "You are the Christ."  You are the Anointed One of God, the Messiah.

But then Peter gets it wrong.  As Jesus teaches the disciples that "the Son of Man must suffer greatly, and be rejected by" the leaders, "and be killed, and rise after three days," Peter "rebukes" Jesus.  This must never happen to you!  Jesus in turn "rebukes" Peter, calling him "Satan," the tempter who tries to prevent humanity from following God's will. 

Peter and the disciples think that the Messiah will exhibit great military might and overcome the oppression of the hated Roman occupying force.  Jesus teaches that instead the Messiah will fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah, one of which we have in our first reading from chapter 50, in which the Anointed One of God will save through suffering. 

We too are called to know Jesus and not simply know about him.  This knowledge comes from a personal relationship with him.  How do we find that today, so many years after Jesus walked this earth with his disciples?  First, we encounter Jesus in the Scriptures.  There we not only read about Jesus but we meet him.  He speaks to us.  We encounter him in an intimate way in the Eucharist where Jesus renews his total offering of himself for our salvation and gives himself to us in a holy communion.  And we encounter Jesus in the Church, the Body of Christ.  We meet him in one another.

We too are "anointed ones of God."  At baptism we became part of the Messiah's Body, the Body of the Christ and we were anointed.  We became "Christians" or anointed ones through the sacred chrism which we received.  We are anointed as Jesus was and so we share in the work of the Messiah who came not to save Israel from the Romans but to save humanity from sin and from death.  Being Christians does not mean that we will be free from suffering.  Instead, through our own sufferings and daily crosses we will work with Jesus to free the world from sin. 

Last week we celebrated the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001 when terrorists commandeered four planes.  Three of them hit their targets--the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  One did not; because of the heroes on board it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

Some years ago I spoke about these events at a retreat and after my talk a man named Vince came and
told me that his college roommate was Tom Burnett, one of those heroes.  When Vince went to the memorial service for Tom back in his hometown of Bloomington, MN, he thought at first that he had the wrong person.  The man described by those who offered eulogies was someone who went to Mass every day.  The "Tom Burnett" Vince remembered was someone who had drifted away from the practice of the faith. 

After the service Vince introduced himself to Tom's widow Deena and asked what had happened in the years since he had last seen Tom.  Deena explained that Tom had returned to the practice of his faith. She said that several years before his death he had stopped coming home for lunch.  His job, at a medical technology company in California, was close to where he lived and he used to come home for lunch.  When he stopped coming home for lunch, Deena thought he was just putting in longer hours.  Six months before his death he told Deena that he had been going to daily Mass at a local church.  He explained that he felt God was calling him to do something but he didn't know what.  He figured that if he went to Mass and prayed he would receive an answer.  He had a growing sense that he was going to do something big that would impact a lot of people.  And, Deena told Vince, he knew one more thing: it had something to do with the White House.

You can just imagine this ordinary guy having a sense that God was calling him to something that he hadn't planned.  And that it had something to do with the White House.  Imagine him thinking: "I plans to go into politics, much less run for president.  What's my life got to do with the White House?"

On September 11, 2001, thousands of feet above the earth, Tom Burnett knew what his life had to do with the White House.  He knew where that plane was headed.  He and the others acted, sacrificing themselves so that a greater tragedy would not occur.  They couldn't get control of the plane but they were able to crash it in a field near Shanksville, PA.

What Tom and the others did was heroic. 

As Christians we are all called to be heroic--to sacrifice ourselves, like the Messiah, like Tom, for the good of others.  When children put aside their own desires to obey their parents, they are being heroic.  When parents love their children in difficult circumstances, they're being heroic.  When grandparents care for grandchildren because the parents are not there for them, they are heroes.  When spouses care for their husbands and wives afflicted with Alzheimer's, they are loving heroically. 

Where do we get the understanding, the courage, and the strength to be heroes?  Where Tom Burnett did.  From the Word and Sacrament, from the encounter with Jesus, that is available every Sunday, in fact, every day. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Listening Versus Hearing

If you had to make a choice, would you rather be blind or deaf?  I count among my Jesuit friends one who is blind and one who is deaf.  Having lived with both of them at various times, I'm hard pressed to answer my own question.

If you are blind you have less independence.  You need others to help you get around. But often that leads to greater sympathy and help.

If you are deaf you are able to get around and to be more independent but you are also more isolated.  Communication can be a big problem.  When I lived with a deaf man our community took turns mouthing the words of lectures and homilies and what was being said at large community meetings.  And some people, because they had to make exaggerated lip movements in order to be understood, were too proud or impatient to do so.  There is also a prejudice associated with people who are called "deaf and dumb."  In the book and movie "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" there is a deaf man whom some refer to as "Dummy."

In the Gospel at Mass today (Mark 7: 31-37), Jesus opens the ears and mouth of a man.  He facilitates that man's ability to communicate--to hear and to speak.  But there is a deeper meaning to what Jesus did and we see it in a short ceremony within the Baptismal rite.  At one point the priest or deacon touches the ears and mouth of the one being baptized and says: "The Lord Jesus made the deaf to hear and the dumb speak.  May he soon touch your ears to receive his Word and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father." 

This little ceremony shows us that it is not enough to hear and to speak.  We must listen and act.

Recall last week's second reading from chapter 1 of the Letter of James: "Be doers of the word and not hearers only." 

In today's second reading from James (2: 1-5) we hear about the prejudices and judgments that people make between those who are rich and those who are poor, those who are well-dressed and those who have shabby clothes.  We must not only "hear" the words of James.  We must listen to them and respond, making sure that we do not treat our brothers and sisters, all of whom are made in God's image, differently based on their race, country of origin, or economic status.

And in the first reading from Isaiah (35: 4-7) we hear the challenging words: "Be strong, fear not!"  It's not enough to hear those words.  We must listen to them, take them to heart, and live them.  In other words, the best way that one can "proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father," as the Baptismal rite prays, is to receive this Word of God, allow it to transform one, and then live the transformation one day at a time. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

"Be Doers of the Word"

In the summer of 2006 I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Our group of about 45 stayed in various hotels around Israel where every morning we enjoyed a fabulous breakfast buffet.  One thing was invariably missing at those meals--bacon and ham and pork sausage.  We were clearly in Jewish territory.

In today's Gospel from Mark chapter 7 Jesus says that it is not the food we eat that makes us "unclean" but rather what we think and what we do--"evils [that] come from within and they defile." 

Jesus also confronted the purification rites of the Jewish religion.  Eating a meal with "unwashed hands" was a not a matter of hygiene.  At the time of Jesus it was a religious ritual by which people purified themselves of the "unclean" world before sitting down to share a meal with other believers.  In going against this purification ritual Jesus was declaring that the Creator made the world "good."  We find God not just in temples or churches but in the goodness and beauty of creation. 

Tomorrow we will celebrate Labor Day, the last holiday of the summer, a day on which we honor the dignity of human labor.  It's a good time for us to remember that we give worship to God not only when we gather in church but in every moment of our lives.  Our entire life, including our work and our recreation, is meant to give honor and glory to God. 

This is where our Second Reading from the first chapter of the Letter of James comes in.  James writes: "All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights...."  Creation is a gift from God and shares in the goodness and holiness of the Giver.  Human talents and skills are also gifts from God, given so that humanity can be good stewards of creation, caring for it and developing it for the good of the entire human family.  When James writes "Be doers of the word and not hearers only," we can remember the word God spoke at the beginning--to labor together in caring for good creation. 

Thus we come to our First Reading from chapter 4 of the Book of Deuteronomy which speaks of obeying God's "statutes and decrees."  These are God's commandments and not the human rituals regarding unclean foods and purification rites.  God's Law goes deeper and affects our well-being on earth and in eternity. 

We are all familiar with the laws of nature.  We do well to follow them, for if we don't, we end up hurting ourselves and others. 

For example, physical objects follow the law of gravity.  It's built into their nature as physical creatures.  Humans are physical creatures and need to follow this law or get hurt and even die.  We are free not to follow it, to rebel against this law that restricts our freedom to launch ourselves off a high tower and flap our arms hoping to fly like a bird.  God's law of gravity will still be in force.  We won't so much break that law as break ourselves in thinking that we are above God's law and don't have to follow it. 

But we are more than physical creatures.  We are more than bodies that need to follow the law of gravity for their own good.  We are bodies with immortal souls.  We are spiritual creatures.  And just as there are physical laws built into our nature as physical beings, so there are spiritual laws built into us because we are spiritual beings.  We are free not to follow those laws but if we rebel against them we end up hurting ourselves and others.  Like physical laws, these spiritual laws are not arbitrary, nor are they imposed from on high to restrict our freedom.  They are part of nature, part of the reality of who we are. 

Ultimately, Jesus summed up the spiritual laws of nature in one word--love.  Love God and love your neighbor.  It's not enough to hear this word from the Son of God who only wants our good.  We must be "doers of the word" and put it into practice.  Following the law of love means being true to our nature as creatures made in the image and likeness of God who is Love itself.  If we do this then we will, as Deuteronomy says, "give evidence of [our] wisdom and intelligence."