Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Jesus ... Best Friend

It's the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of my religious order--the Society of Jesus or Jesuits.   This statue of St. Ignatius can be found in the main body of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

I'm going to be travelling today so I won't be able to celebrate with my community but a few of us in the same situation celebrated Mass this morning.  In the back of our special Jesuit Sacramentary there are prayers that can be recited before or after Mass.  The following was one of the three that were given for today's feast.  It appears to have been inspired by the Anima Christi prayer often attributed to St. Ignatius because it appears at the beginning of his "Spiritual Exercises."

Jesus ... Best Friend,
may your soul give life to me,
may your flesh be food for me,
may you warm my hardened heart.

Jesus ... Best Friend,
may your tears now wash me clean,
may your passion keep me strong,
may you listen to my plea.

Jesus ... Best Friend,
may your wound take in my hurts,
may your gaze be fixed on me,
may I not betray your love.

Jesus ... Best Friend,
may you call me at death's door,
may you hold me close to you,
may you place me with God's saints,
may I ever sing your praise.  Amen.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Now You Know

Last Wednesday I flew to Ronald Reagan National Airport near Washington, DC.  I returned on Friday.  On Thursday and Friday I recorded twelve 25 minute audio and video programs designed to lead people through a "heart-centered" approach to the "Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius."  I recorded four talks each morning and two each afternoon.  It was a bit of a work-out but the material is so familiar to me that it went smoothly and easily.  It is a bit odd to present retreat material to a camera but knowing how people have reacted to it in the past helped.  The one problem was when I told humorous stories or jokes.  With no laughter, canned or live, I wasn't able to judge how long to wait before proceeding to the next point. 

The company for which I made these recordings is "Now You Know Media, Inc." and their catalog of lecture and retreat series is truly amazing.  They even have recordings of talks and conferences of Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton.  I'm not sure when my talks will be edited, packaged, and available but I'm glad to be able to offer to more people the opportunity to grow in their spiritual lives by means of both the "Spiritual Exercises" and Sacred Heart spirituality.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

St. Jeanne Jugan's Sisters

I walked past this triptych of St. Jeanne Jugan several times a day for the last week.  It's on a wall in the St. Ann's Novitiate for the Little Sisters of the Poor in Queens Village, New York.  I've known the Little Sisters, the order which St. Jeanne Jugan founded, since I was a Jesuit novice in St. Paul, Minnesota from 1971-3.  Some of my fellow novices worked at the Sister's home for the elderly poor in St. Paul and we all used to visit a Jesuit, Brother Emil, who lived there.  This is my second retreat at St. Ann's and my fourth retreat with Little Sisters.  With each retreat I learn more about them, their foundress, and their spirituality. 

In my retreat conference this morning I talked about the Eucharist and afterwards we celebrated the votive Mass of the Most Holy Eucharist.  The Gospel of the day was perfect: Matthew 11: 28-30, where Jesus says, "Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves."  The Sacred Heart of Jesus is present in the Eucharist.  Like John at the Last Supper, we can draw near to the Heart of Jesus in adoration and find within that Heart the rest and peace that we need. 

St. Jeanne Jugan, like so many saints, knew this.  Born during the terrible days of the French Revolution in 1792, she died in 1879.  She was declared venerable one hundred years later and was beatified in 1982.  Pope Benedict XVI canonized her in 2009.  Some of her sayings have been collected and the following is one that fits today's Gospel well:

"Jesus is waiting for you in the chapel.  Go and find him when your strength and patience are giving out, when you feel lonely and helpless.  Say to him: 'You know well what is happening, my dear Jesus.  I have only you.  Come to my aid...'  And then go your way.  And don't worry about knowing how you are going to manage.  It is enough to have told our good Lord.  He has an excellent memory."

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Worry and Trust

Here are excerpts from a homily I gave yesterday, Tuesday in the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time.  The readings were Isaiah 7: 1-9 and Matthew 11: 20-24.

One of the biggest and most common temptations that people have to battle is fear.  Jesus addressed this temptation often in his teachings, challenging people to be like the birds of the air and lilies of the field. 

The first reading is a story of fear set in the 7th Century before the birth of Christ.  David's kingdom has been split into North and South, Israel and Judah.  The king of Israel--Pekah--and the king of another country named Aram--Rezin--have created an alliance against a powerful neighbor, Assyria.  They want King Ahaz of Judah to join them in attacking Assyria.  When he refuses, they attack him.  How did Ahaz and the people of Jerusalem handle the impending attack?  In very descriptive terms, "the heart of the king and the heart of the people trembled, as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind."  They are overcome with fear.

God sends the prophet Isaiah to them and tells him to say: "Take care you remain tranquil and do not fear; let not your courage fail before these two stumps of smoldering brands...."  He tells them to take heart.

The passage that immediately follows this one in Isaiah (which is not included in this reading) is the famous "Immanuel" passage of Isaiah where God tells the prophet to have Ahaz ask for a sign.  Ahaz is afraid, though he excuses his refusal to ask by saying that he does not want to "tempt the Lord."  But God wants to give him a sign and it is this: "the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel."  When Matthew quotes this prophetic word in his Gospel he says that this name "means 'God is with us.'"  God was with Ahaz and God is with us in an even more marvelous way.  Jesus is "God with us" who gives us courage by giving us a new heart, his own.  God has a heart for us and he asks us to take it.

In the Gospel Jesus challenges the people in "the towns where most of his mighty deeds had been done."  They had not believed, accepted him, nor been converted.  Warning them with "Woe to you," Jesus practices tough love and calls on them to have faith in him.  His warning is an echo of the last words in the first reading: "Unless your faith is firm you shall not be firm." 

At one time or another, especially when things get rough in our lives and we encounter trials and conflicts, we are tempted by fear and worry.  It is at those times that we are called to exercise faith which, like any of the virtues, is a spiritual muscle that requires regular exercise to maintain and develop and grow. 

I've heard that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta once quoted the cliche, "God will never give you more than you can handle."  Then she added, "I just wish God didn't trust me so much!"

God does trust us.  Why?  Because God sees his grace at work in us.  He sees the image of his Son in us.  He sees the Heart that he gave us through his Son.  It's the Heart that we take every time we receive Holy Communion.  Take (the Sacred) Heart and be firm!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Justice and Peace

Here are excerpts from a homily that I gave yesterday at the Novitiate of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Queens Village, NY.

July 16, 2012, Monday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 1: 10-17 and Matthew 10: 34-11: 1.

Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but a sword."  Why does the Prince of Peace say this?

We're all familiar with something that Pope Paul VI said.  It has appeared on bumper stickers and posters and ads: "If you want peace, work for justice."  And if you want justice, what should you work for?  The answer to that question will explain the words of Jesus.

The classic definition for "justice" is to give others what is their due.  Human rights, like the ones Isaiah mentions--"redress the wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow"--involve justice, giving to others what is their due because of their human dignity.  And where does this dignity come from?  It is not something granted by the State nor by any other human being.  It is the dignity that comes from being made in the image and likeness of God.  Human dignity and rights come from God.  They are not human in origin.  Thinking that they are human in origin has led to all sorts of atrocities from the Nazis determination that some humans were not worthy of life to the determination today that some life in the womb is not worthy of life. 

Ultimate justice means giving to the Creator what is his due.  And what do we owe God?  Everything.  Giving God his due means following the Law of God, worshipping God, giving all to God because everything ultimately comes from God and is given to us on loan.

The problem that Isaiah confronted was the empty worship and rituals of the Israelites.  Their "heart" was not in it.  Their whole self was not in it.  They performed rituals to give God something, but not everything.  They gave God some of their time to, as it were, placate God, so that the rest of their time could be used for their own pursuits.  True worship and justice mean giving God all. 

Blessed John Paul II wrote about this kind of false religion in the Apostolic Letter he wrote to the Church at the turn of the millennium:  "It would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalistic ethic and a shallow religiosity. ... The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction" (#31). 

In the Gospel, after declaring that he has come to bring a sword, Jesus challenged his followers to be whole-hearted, to prefer nothing to him.  Justice required that he, the Son of God, receive worship and that his law be followed.  This is his due.  The First Commandment says: "I am the Lord, Thy God.  Thou shalt not have false gods before me."  Prefer nothing, as the Benedictine motto goes, to Christ. 

This is a teaching that divides.  The world does not accept it and as a result the world is filled with injustice, conflict, and war.  Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the former General Superior of the Jesuits, once wrote: "Injustice is rooted in a spiritual problem, and its solution requires a spiritual conversion of each one's heart...." 

The warning of Jesus in the Gospel is clear: unless we give God his due, unless we believe God and follow his plan for humanity, there will be no justice, there will be no peace. 

So the answer to the question, "If you want justice, work for...?" is "Conversion."  Work for Faith.  Give God his due and work so that all the world will do this as well.

Friday, July 13, 2012

God Labors And So Do We

I have not blogged in a while because last week I was on vacation and this week I've been catching up on all the work that piled up while I was gone.  Now I am in Queens Village, NY, at the Novitiate for the Little Sisters of the Poor to whom I am giving an eight day retreat. 

There was some irony in the fact that I had vacation during the first week of a month when the General Intention of Pope Benedict had to do with work: "That everyone may have work in safe and secure conditions."  The temptation is to see work as a necessary evil that pays the bills so that we can do what we really enjoy doing, like golf, which is what I did during my vacation.  But while one of the effects of the Original Sin was "hard labor" ("By the sweat of your face shall you get the bread to eat" (Genesis 3:19), it wasn't meant to be this way.  Labor was always part of God's plan.  Why? Very simply, since God "labors" in creating and sustaining Creation, so humans, made in the image and likeness of our laboring God, also work. 

Jesus worked.  One of the reasons that people rejected him is that for most of his adult life he worked with his hands.  In last Sunday's Gospel (Mark 6:1-6a) the people in his home town were "astonished" and said, "Where did this man get all this?  What kind of wisdom has been given him? ... Is he not the carpenter...?"  Later, Jesus, who shows us what it means to be human, declared that he was following the example of his Father in heaven:  "My Father is at work until now, so I am at work" (John 5:17).

Work is part of our human dignity, part of what makes us like God.  It is, or can be, holy.

Recently I got together with a friend of mine, Rip O'Dwanny.  We were sitting outside one of his establishments, County Clare, on the East side of Milwaukee, talking, as we do from time to time, about life.  At one point Rip raced upstairs to get one of the fifteen copies of a book that he'd recently purchased to give away to people he knew or whom he thought might appreciate it or find it helpful.  It's by Robert Ellsberg and is called "The Saints' Guide to Happiness: Practical Lessons in the Life of the Spirit."  I was familiar with Ellsberg but not this book which was published in 2003.  One of the things I enjoy about travelling to give retreats and missions is the time I have on airplanes and in airports.  It's time that I spend reading and I began my trip to New York reading this book.

Chapter 3 is called "Learning to Work."  Here is some of the wisdom of the saints that I found there:

From Meister Eckhart: "To be right, a person must do one of two things: either he must learn to have God in his work and hold fast to Him there, or he must give up his work altogether.  Since, however, we cannot live without activities that are both human and various, we must learn to keep God in everything we do." And, "The kind of work we do does not make us holy, but we may make it holy."

From Carmelite Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection's "The Practice of the Presence of God":  "Our sanctification does not depend upon changing our works, but in doing for God's sake that which we commonly do for our own.  ...[God] regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed."

And from the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:  "To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dung fork in his hand, a woman with a slop-pail, gives him glory too.  He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should." 

Finally, from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton:  "The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it."  Ellsberg comments: "How differently we would approach our common tasks--boring and burdensome as they may seem--if we believed our work were in service of the king we seek."

Yes, work can be holy and can give glory to God.  When we "offer it up" as an act of love for God, it acquires eternal significance.  St. Paul wrote this advice to slaves: "Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others..; be slaves of the Lord Christ" (Colossians 4:24).  Moreover, we need not think, like the Shakers, that the work we do may potentially benefit visiting angels.  It benefits beloved sons and daughters of God, persons made in God's own image and likeness, or, as C. S. Lewis puts it, "possible gods and goddesses."  We are such for we were made, in the words of the Second Letter of St. Peter, "to share in the divine nature" (1:4).