Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blindness--Physical and Spiritual

Fr. Larry Gillick, S.J., had an accident as a child that left him blind. In 1982 I had the opportunity to accompany him to South Korea where we directed retreats.  I served as his physical eyes and he served as my spiritual eyes. I led him around for daily walks and he walked me through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He served as my mentor and supervisor as I helped direct people in the Exercises.

I thought of Fr. Gillick today because the Mass readings are about blindness, both physical and spiritual. 

In the First Book of Samuel 16, God sends the prophet Samuel to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the next king of Israel. Samuel judges the sons by their physical appearance and none of the ones he thinks he is sent to anoint turns out to be God’s choice. God does not judge by appearance but “looks into the heart.”  Thus the youngest (perhaps smallest)—David—is anointed and “the spirit of the Lord rushed upon” him.

We tend to judge people by their appearance—how they look and act.  God looks into the heart. I’ve often thought that if we knew just 1/8 of what a person has gone through in his or her life—the pains and sorrows, the challenges and rejections—we would be much more compassionate toward them. 

We often fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. It’s been said, “compare and despair.”  Why?  One reason is because we compare how we feel on the inside to how they look on the outside.  They look happy and attractive; they seem to “have it all together.”  We think: “if I had what they have, I’d be happy too!”  We get jealous. Such comparisons are unfair and end up in negativity.

Or, we build ourselves up at others’ expense. Like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel (John 9: 1-41), we see others as sinners and think, “well, at least I’m not like so-and-so.” 

Sin darkens our spiritual sight. It blinds us.  Because of sin we focus on the negative in ourselves, in others, in our world.  If I were to tell people ten things about themselves, nine of them very positive and complimentary, and one of them critical, what would they go away remembering and obsessing over?  The negative.  Because of sin we tend to see the glass as half empty rather than half full and so we end up complaining rather than giving thanks.

We need to have our blindness healed.  We need better spiritual sight.  In the Eucharist Jesus gives us his Body and Blood to transform our hearts so that we might see ourselves and others as God sees us.  Because we are anointed in Baptism with sacred chrism, the Holy Spirit “rushes” upon us, giving us wisdom and insight, warmth and light. 

So how does God see us and how should we see ourselves and others?  As beloved.  Precious enough to die for.  Pope Francis put it this way in his homily on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2013:  “For God we are not numbers, we are important. Indeed we are the most important thing to him. Even if we are sinners, we are what is closest to his heart.”

Draw near to that heart, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and see yourself and others embraced by it. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Thirst of Jesus

The readings at Mass today, the Third Sunday of Lent, speak of thirst—two kinds of thirst. 

In the first reading (Exodus 17: 3-7), we hear of Israel’s thirst in the desert during their journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. And in the gospel (John 4: 5-42), Jesus, takes a rest next to a well at noon when a woman shows up.  Both are thirsty, but for more than water.

It was unusual for the Samaritan woman to show up at noon to draw water.  Why didn’t she come earlier, with the other women, at dawn before the intense heat of the day?  Probably because of shame and the abuse hurled at her by the others. She, who had had five husbands and was living with a sixth man, would have heard things like: “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you keep a man? What a disaster your life is!”  So she came at noon when no one else would be around.  But someone else was there. She encountered Jesus.

The woman had, in the words of an old country-western song, been “looking for love in all the wrong places.” She was thirsty for love, for the care and concern of another, but, for one reason or another, she couldn’t find it.  Jesus too was thirsty for love—for her love.  He knew what she had been through and he did not condemn her. Rather, little by little, he led her to the understanding that he was the messiah who had come to free her and all people from sin. He offered her true love—God’s love, the truest, deepest love the world has ever known.  He told her that this love could become a fountain of life welling up within her. 

Later in John’s gospel (19: 28), as Jesus hung on the cross, he thirsted again. He was dying and said “I thirst.” In those dying words of his he expressed not only his physical thirst but his thirst for our love. It is as though he, with arms outstretched, was saying: “I love you this much. All I want is for you to accept my love. With my love within you, you will love me in return and be saved.”

Pope Benedict XVI wrote about this thirst of Jesus in his 2007 Lenten Message:  “On the Cross, it is God himself who begs the love of his creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us. … The response the Lord ardently desires of us is above all that we welcome his love and allow ourselves to be drawn to him.”

The Samaritan woman welcomed the love of Jesus and was drawn to him. But she couldn’t keep the good news of the love she had found to herself. She went to the townspeople, no doubt risking their ridicule and rejection, and told them of her newfound love. They went to Jesus and invited him to stay. He spent two days with them and they too came to believe in the love of the one whom they came to know as “truly the savior of the world.”

Jesus continues to thirst. Will we, like St. Therese and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and so many others, give him to drink?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Our Transfiguration

On the Second Sunday of Lent we always have the story of Jesus' Transfiguration. It brings to mind my 2006 pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Our tour bus for over 40 pilgrims had to park at the foot of Mt. Tabor, the high hill on which tradition has it Jesus was transfigured. Then smaller vans took us up the narrow, winding road to the top.  The view was fantastic, for this high place rises from a plain and one can see, in all four directions, the beauty of the land that was promised to Abraham.  We celebrated Mass there, perhaps on the very spot where Jesus was transfigured.

But what was the Transfiguration? What happened on that high place? Imagine for a moment being with Peter, James, and John. What would you have seen? You would have seen the divine glory of God shine forth through Jesus, so powerful that it even affected the clothes he was wearing. You would have seen Moses and Elijah standing and talking with Jesus. You would have heard the voice of God the Father coming from heaven and you would have been covered by a "bright cloud," the sign of the Divine Presence.  It was a taste of heavenly glory, given to prepare you for the darkness ahead--the betrayal, arrest, suffering, and crucifixion of the one in whom you had placed all your hopes.

Was this, the Transfiguration, the greatest miracle of Jesus before his death and resurrection? Not according to St. Thomas Aquinas.  Then what was?

Was it one or all of the many healings, especially keeping in mind the ones Jesus did from a distance, like the servant of the centurion?  No.

Was it the multiplication of five loaves and two fish, enough to feed 5,000 people?  No.

Was it raising dead people, like Lazarus whose body had been in the tomb for several days or the daughter of a synagogue official named Jairus?  No, not according to St. Thomas Aquinas.

Then what about when Jesus walked on water and calmed a storm? Surely this display of his power over nature was his greatest earthly miracle?  No.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest miracle of Jesus occurred at the Last Supper.  Here's how St. Thomas Aquinas put it as quoted in a letter that Pope John Paul II wrote for the 750th anniversary of the feast of Corpus Christi on May 28, 1996: "at the Last Supper, after celebrating the Passover with his disciples and when he was about to pass from this world to his Father, Christ instituted this sacrament as the perpetual memorial of his Passion..., the greatest of all his miracles, and he left this sacrament to those whom his absence filled with grief, as an incomparable consolation."

At World Youth Day 2005, in Cologne Germany, Pope Benedict described what happened at the Last Supper this way: "What is happening? How can Jesus distribute his Body and his Blood? By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, he anticipates his death, he accepts it in his heart and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence, from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. This is the substantial transformation which was accomplished at the Last Supper and was destined to set in motion a series of transformations leading ultimately to the transformation of the world when God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor. 15: 28)."

This is the miracle that takes place every time Mass is celebrated. You don't have to fly across the ocean to see a miracle or the site of a miracle. You don't have to go across town or cross country to see an unusual spiritual phenomenon. The greatest miracle of Jesus happens right here, but we are often so unaware.

There is more. Not only are bread and wine transformed. We are too.  Pope Benedict again: "This first fundamental transformation of violence into love, of death into life, brings other changes in its wake. Bread and wine become his Body and Blood. But it must not stop there, on the contrary, the process of transformation must now gather momentum. The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ, his own flesh and blood."

Have you ever thought of yourself as the "flesh and blood" of Christ? It seems blasphemous to say that. Yet Pope Benedict says this is what happens when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The two--Christ's flesh and ours--become one and we are transformed. Transfigured, as it were. At every celebration of the Eucharist we are given a taste of heaven. Jesus gives himself to us. The divine glory of Jesus is given to us so that it might shine forth into the world through us.

The Transfiguration of Jesus happened once. Our transfiguration, the transformation that every Holy Communion effects, happens every week, every day even.  We need this transforming "Bread of Life," food for our journey.

The apostles and Jesus descended the mountain and went forth to face the darkness that was gathering. We leave Mass and are sent forth into a dark world with the glory of God within us. We leave to face our own challenges to faith, hope, and love. But we aren't alone as we do so. We are one with Christ, whose Body we have received, and one with our brothers and sisters in the Communion of Saints.  We are not alone in the dark.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


The daily Mass readings during Lent are special because the first reading and the Gospel are designed to complement each other. 

Today's first reading (Isaiah 55: 10-11) says that the word of God waters souls just like the rain and snow water the earth. The word of God bears fruit. In the Gospel (Matthew 6: 7-15) Jesus shares a word from God and teaches his disciples and us how to pray. The prayer he taught--the Our Father--has nourished Christians for centuries.

After teaching that prayer, Jesus goes on to show how essential forgiveness is for a good relationship with God. Not just God's forgiveness of us, but our forgiveness of others.  This word of Jesus often falls on hard hearts like rain drops on concrete. God wants to nourish us with that word and soften our hearts but we need to receive it.

One of the most striking examples of someone who received that word and allowed it to change his life is Fr. Lawrence Jenko. Fr. Jenko was a Servite priest who was kidnapped in early 1985 in Lebanon where he was the director of Catholic Relief Services.  He spent the next 18 months in captivity.

A year before his death in 1996, his book "Bound to Forgive: The Pilgrimage to Reconciliation of a Beirut Hostage" was published.  The following story of forgiveness comes from the first pages of Chapter 1:

Toward the end of my captivity one of my guards, a man named Sayeed who had at times brutalized me, sat down on my mat with me. He had recently started calling me 'Abouna,' an Arabic name meaning 'dear father.' At first I was Jenco, then Lawrence, then Abouna, indicating by the choice of names and tone of voice that a change of heart was taking place. He asked me if I remembered the first six months of my captivity. I responded 'Yes, Sayeed. I remember all the pain and suffering you caused me and my brothers.' Then he asked 'Abouna, do you forgive me?'

These quietly spoken words overwhelmed me. As I sat blindfolded, unable to see the man who had been my enemy, I understood I was called to forgive, to let go of revenge, retaliation, and vindictiveness.

And I was challenged to forgive him unconditionally. I could not forgive him on the condition that he change his behavior to conform to my wishes or values. I had no control over his response. I understood I was to say yes.

How difficult this must have been!  Yet, what follows must have been even more difficult.  Fr. Jenco continued:

I said: 'Sayeed, there were times I hated you. I was filled with anger and revenge for what you did to me and my brothers. But Jesus said on the mountain top that I was not to hate you. I was to love you. Sayeed, I need to ask God's forgiveness and yours.'

Fr. Jenco realized that he was called not only to forgive his captor but to ask for his forgiveness as well. The same seeds of hatred that led Sayeed to brutalize Fr. Jenco were in his own heart.  But the word of Jesus upon which he had meditated for so many years had softened his heart and nourished it. The word removed Fr. Jenco's own hatred and violent thoughts. He confessed his own guilt, his own need for forgiveness. 

I believe that something else gave Fr. Jenco the strength to do this. In the Eucharist, the word of God is not only heard but takes flesh. Over the years Fr. Jenco had been transformed by the One he had received in Holy Communion. His heart had been transformed to be more like the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus. 

Thus the word of God comes to us not only when the Scriptures are proclaimed at Mass or meditated upon in our prayer. The word changes bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ so that  the Word of God can take flesh and give himself to us.  With every word of Scripture and every Mass in which we participate, the Word of God--Jesus--transforms us so that we can love and forgive as he did when he prayed and died for those who crucified him. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Worry and the Sacred Heart

Last Sunday, the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time and the last Sunday before Lent this year, we heard challenging words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6: 24-34).  He spoke against worry.  “I tell you, do not worry about your life…. Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? … Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” 

I must confess: I am a great worrier. My mother was too. She tended to think and to plan for the worst so that she would be ready for it. The problem is that this tends to give one a very negative attitude and causes a lot of needless anxiety.

In the summer of 1969 I went on a camping trip organized by Fr. John Eagan, a Jesuit priest at my high school. At the end of it, as we drove back to Milwaukee from the shores of Lake Superior, I and my five fellow juniors about to become seniors and Fr. Eagan, gave out awards to one another—the best diver, best swimmer, best cook. The award I received from my fellow campers was “Worry Wart of 1969.” Everywhere we went I was filled with questions as I prepared for disasters. “What if the rain doesn’t stop and we have to set up our tents in it and the wood is wet and we can’t start a fire? What if we can’t find a place to park? What if the people we are meeting don’t show up? What if the cut on my foot gets infected? What if, what if, what if…?”

During the next year I told Fr. Eagan that I was thinking about becoming a Jesuit. The summer trip had such a positive effect on me that I felt called to do for others what this fun and vibrant and prayerful Jesuit priest had done for me. My words were met with a caution.  Fr. Eagan told me, “Jim, if you’re going to be a Jesuit today, your future won’t be very clearly marked out for you. There will be a lot of challenges and you are going to have to learn to stop worrying so much.”

Some 42 years later I have to admit that he was right. If I knew then all the challenges and difficulties I would have to face, I probably would not have entered the Jesuits. If I had known that I would enter a classroom on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at the age of 26 (prophetically, I thought, on the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist!) and that I would have to be in charge of a one-room dormitory of 60 high school boys in bunk beds, I would have balked at the idea of a Jesuit vocation. If I had known the challenges I would face as the province vocation director and then formation director, I would have chosen a different path. 

But in those 42 years I’ve learned some things .

First, I’ve learned that adversity, difficulties, and challenges don’t come all at once. I’m learning more and more not to borrow tomorrow’s troubles today. As Jesus put it in the last words from Sunday’s gospel: “Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” It’s unfair to cram all of tomorrow’s potential problems into today. This one day can’t contain them all.  Live one day at a time!

I’ve also learned that worrying doesn’t really prepare me for potential problems and instead can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The anxiety and stress that worry causes only make handling the difficulties of life even more difficult.

And I’ve learned that the only way to grow is through facing and overcoming challenges. Through overcoming adversity and dealing with problems, I grow as a person. I grow spiritually and I grow in the virtues.

Worry is a temptation against trust and faith and hope.  When the temptation comes my way, I try to see it as an opportunity to grow in those virtues. Worry is a call to put into practice the slogan that many people involved in 12 Step recovery programs use: “Let go and let God.”

Faith and trust and hope are directed toward an object, or rather, a Person. The faith with which we are challenged to confront worry is in God and the greatest sign of God’s love is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

A few weeks ago when I visited grade school classrooms in Burlington, Iowa on Valentine’s Day, all the students knew that the heart symbolizes love. And when I asked them why the Heart of Jesus was there on the outside of his body in the pictures I showed them, they answered that this was a way to show that the love of Jesus is always there for us.

Some of them had heard the expression “My heart goes out to you.” I explained that this is a way of showing compassion.  The Sacred Heart is a way that Jesus says to us: My Heart always goes out to you. My Heart is always there for you.”  And because the Heart of Jesus is on the outside of his body, it is in a very vulnerable place. His Heart can be and is wounded and hurt. Thorns surround it.

The love of God doesn’t remove or prevent adversity or pain. Our faith in the love of God revealed in the Sacred Heart of Jesus won’t take away all our struggles. It’s natural to think: if God loved me, this pain or difficulty would be taken away.  But a greater sign of love is not to remove the difficulty; it’s to share in it.  The depths of God’s love are shown in the fact that God entered into our life with its worries and struggles, its sufferings and even into death itself.  This willingness to share in suffering and death is a greater sign of love.

I know that I will continue to worry.  That’s not only because it’s part of my personality. It’s because I need to continually exercise my faith and trust in order to keep these virtues healthy and growing.  The Heart of Jesus won’t remove the things that cause worry, but his Heart will give me strength to face them. I know that I am not alone and that Jesus shares my struggles.

Does that mean that Jesus even shared in my battle with worry? The challenges in last Sunday’s gospel would seem to indicate that he didn’t. Yet, if we look more closely at the Scriptures we see that Jesus worried.  His words challenging us not to worry and to have faith came from his own experience.

According to Hebrews 4: 15, we have a compassionate high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because he “has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”  Jesus was tempted by worry. We have to imagine him worrying about his apostles, whether they would ever “get it” and understand the kind of messiah that he was—one who would save the people by suffering and dying for them; whether they would run away in his hour of need and not return?

But perhaps the most striking instance of Jesus’ battling the temptation to become anxious occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane. His human nature rebelled against the suffering and death that he anticipated. He was so anxious that he literally sweat blood (Luke 22: 44).  Yet in the end, the Heart of Jesus, filled with love and trust for the Father, surrendered to his will. He took hold of the cup that he prayed would pass him by and drank it, with its suffering and death, to the bitter dregs. 

The compassionate Heart of Jesus knows anxiety and worry in a way that I have not known. I can always draw near to that Heart which is not hidden but always there. And like John at the Last Supper, I can find the strength to embrace the crosses that will come my way.  I may still worry about them, but I can find faith and trust and the strength to face them in the Heart of Jesus.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Meaning of Ashes

It's Ash Wednesday, the day on which I like to say that the Church puts death right in our face. We tend to avoid any thoughts of death, living as though this life on earth will go on forever. We know it won't, but we don't like to think about its end, our end.  But facing the fact that our life on earth will one day end can give perspective to how we live this life.  It can put us in touch with our end, our goal and purpose. Sin is what ultimately gets in the way of our attaining the purpose for which we were created--union with God and communion with all God's children.  Sin is what disrupts and even negates God's plan for humanity.  Sin is disorder.

That is the title of Mr. Jacob Boddicker's reflection for the Magis Center for Catholic Spirituality. Jacob is a Jesuit scholastic who is finishing his regency--that period of ministry in a young Jesuit's formation between his philosophy and theology studies.  God-willing, Jacob will leave the high school classroom where he teaches and head off to theological studies next year.  I think that his periodic daily reflections reveal the promise that he shows of being a great Jesuit communicator, both in the printed and written word. 

And so with gratitude to God for calling this fine young man to the Society of Jesus, I share his reflection for Ash Wednesday:

Sin is disorder.
Lent is an opportunity for us to repent and re-order our lives to God. The first words of Scripture we hear today reflect this reality: Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. Why such things? They remind us that we do not live on "bread alone" (Matthew 4: 4) and that it is God who fills us with joy and peace (Romans 15: 13). By fasting, by accepting our deep need for God we return to the natural order of things and find peace for, as St. Augustine has said, "Peace is the tranquility of order." When all is right in the world, when we let God be God, we find peace and plenty for if God is our first desire, we are filled.

It is interesting, then, that so many Catholics who have in many respects turned away from their faith choose this day to return. There is something about the ritual of the ashes and the mark upon the forehead that draws them back. Some say they see it as an opportunity to publically announce their identity as Catholics; some just find the ritual of it to be otherwise rewarding. But what is really happening here.
God has burned down the Tree of Eden in the fire of His love and, scooping up the ashes He puts us in our place, as He did when He planted that Tree in the beginning. He does this through His Church whose ministers trace with the ashes the mark of the New and Everlasting Tree; He does this with the solemn reminder of who we are: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Ash Wednesday is the day of all days that we remember who we truly are: creatures of God, not gods ourselves as was the first sin. We reject our self-idolatry and publically profess that God is God and we are not; is there any more radical statement we could make in the world today? Let this cross of ashes crucify our pride, and let us not forget the profound and fundamental truth that it proclaims: we are not God but are His creatures, fashioned from the dust of the earth. Yet though our first ancestors ate from the Tree of Eden and died, we are given a new Tree upon which hangs the Fruit of the Virgin's Womb, "the food that endures for eternal life."(John 6: 27) As we fast from the world let us feast upon the goodness of the Lord, who, for love of us, gives His very self as our food and drink.