Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What?! Me Worry?

In the summer of 1969, I and a Jesuit priest and five of my high school classmates embarked on a great adventure.  Every summer Fr. John Eagan, S.J. led a group of six Marquette High Juniors-about-to-become-Seniors on a two-week camping trip around the shores of Lake Superior. 

After a restless night of anticipation, we headed North. Fr. Eagan drove the station wagon. Two students sat next to him in the front and three in the back seat.  One got to lay down in the back of the wagon behind all the equipment.  We came to think of him as the lucky one and we took turns in that spot.  For as soon as we hit the highway, Fr. Eagan pulled out a rosary and invited us to pray.  We rolled our eyes, thinking this wasn’t  looking like it was going to be the fun trip we thought it would be. 

Two weeks later, when it was my turn to have the choice spot in the back where you didn’t have to pray the rosary, I declined and offered to sit up front.  Somehow I had come to enjoy praying the rosary every day as we drove.

I returned from the trip feeling like a new person.  The rosary, the beauty of God’s creation, the sense of community, Mass along the shores of Lake Superior at sunset—all of these worked together to get me past a difficult year.

I’d always done well in school and much of my self-worth was tied to my grades.  But in Junior Year I took Trigonometry and Chemistry and my grades went down.  With my grades went my self-image which also took a beating as I argued with my parents over curfew and the use of the car.  And why is it that just before Homecoming a big zit appears on an adolescent boy’s forehead turning him into a cyclops? 

That summer camping trip helped me turn a corner.  I began Senior Year feeling a lot better about myself.  A seed had been planted.  I thought that perhaps I would enjoy doing for others what Fr. John Eagan had done for me.  Maybe I should become a Jesuit priest like him.

But at seventeen, with my whole life ahead of me, I thought: “There’s plenty of time for that.  I want to see the world first.”  So I went to Dominican College in Racine, Wisconsin. I know: “See the world from Racine!?”  OK.  I wanted to experience more of life before going into the Jesuits. 

Before going off to college, I and a good friend from the previous summer’s camping trip decided, for old time’s sake, to do it again.  We took off, knowing that we would cross paths with Fr. Eagan and a group of six guys from the class behind us.  We camped near them and around the campfire one night we made fun of one of those Juniors.  Bill was an athletic kid, a cross-country runner, but during the day when we came to streams and had to cross by walking on logs, Bill got down and crawled across. 

The trip ended and I went off to college.  In September Fr. Eagan called and asked me to pray for Bill. He’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor.  In November I went to his funeral.  Seeing him laid out in the coffin turned the heat up on my vocation discernment. I decided not to delay doing what deep in my heart I felt called to do.  I visited the Jesuit novitiate, applied, was accepted, and entered the Jesuits after one year of college at the age of nineteen. 

The thought of our mortality—that we do not have forever—gives perspective to life.  Every Ash Wednesday we are reminded that we are dust, that our life on earth is not forever.  We begin Lent asking whether we are on the right track. 

A lot changed for me during those camping trips and what followed.  But one thing hasn’t changed—worry.  On our way back from that first camping trip we gave out awards for the best swimmer, diver, cook, etc.  The award I received was “Worry Wart of 1969.”  Throughout the trip I planned for the worst and asked questions: “What if it’s raining, how can we set up camp and cook? What if it’s dark?  What if we run out of repellent or lotion? What if, what if…?

When I told Fr. Eagan that I was going to apply to the Jesuits he challenged me about the worry.  He said that if I became a Jesuit my path, my future would be a great unknown.  I would have to let go of worry and be flexible.  I couldn’t prepare for every eventuality. 

That has certainly been true.  I entered the Society of Jesus to teach in an urban, Jesuit, college-prep school like the one I’d gone to.  I’ve never done that.  And if I’d known then about what I would face in my forty-five years as a Jesuit, I would have been too afraid to apply.  But I’m glad I did.  I would not have grown or become the person I am today without all those things I would have worried about.

Worry saps our energy and leads to stress that takes a toll on our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  Worry borrows tomorrow’s possible problems and crams them into today.  As Jesus said, “Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Matt. 6: 34).

Worry fosters a negative attitude.  We see the world through dark glasses as we prepare for the worst.  Such preparation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Worry was the “original temptation.”  Prior to the Original Sin, our ancestral parents worried about whether they could really trust God.  Maybe God wasn’t telling them the whole story.  Maybe God wouldn’t be there for them.  Wouldn’t it be better to get control?  There is a saying: “If you worry, why pray? And if you pray, why worry?”  When we worry we try to be in control, to be gods.  So what’s the point of praying if you are trying to be God?  When we pray we put our trust in God and not in ourselves, so there’s no point in worrying and trying to be in control of everything.

Since worry is a temptation, it comes from the devil who wants to get us anxious.  The devil disturbs our peace so that we take our focus off God and put it on ourselves.  When we worry we listen to the devil and not to God.

You might ask: “So Father, why do you still worry?” 

I think worry is inevitable, just as temptation in general is.  Temptations challenge us to exercise.  Virtues are “spiritual muscles” that require nourishment (prayer and the sacraments) and exercise (fighting temptation).  When worry comes my way I know I have a choice.  I can obsess or I can exercise by practicing its opposite—trust or faith.  This is where I find certain slogans from Twelve Step Recover programs helpful: “Let go and let God;” “One day at a time;” “This too shall pass.”  I also use the prayer that Jesus told St. Faustina to put on the image of Divine Mercy.  I take a deep breath and pray “Jesus,” holding this “name above every name” (Phil. 2: 9) in my heart and in my lungs as long as I can.  Then I breathe out my worries with “I trust in you.” 

Ultimately trust involves believing in the words of Isaiah 49: 15: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”  God loves each one of us with a deep maternal love.

St. Teresa of Kolkata once said:  “People say that God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Then she added: “I just wish God didn’t trust me so much.” 

Yes, God trusts us.  God allows temptations so that we can grow.  God wants us to grow in the trust that will bring freedom and peace.  Though loving parents are tempted protect their children from all pain and suffering, the world is not free of those.  Painful challenges are part of life.  Some decisions lead to suffering from which children learn important lessons about consequences.  God, loving us like a parent, does not protect us from challenges and consequences.  God trusts us more than we trust ourselves.  Through painful challenges we grow stronger.  Through suffering we learn empathy.

Easier said (or in this case written) than done.  I pray that I remember the words I’ve written the next time I start worrying….

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Love Your Enemies"

Last Friday I was on Relevant Radio’s “The Inner Life” show with Chuck Neff.  We talked about the Gospel for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A (Matthew 5: 38-48).  You can listen to the show here, but the following are some of the points I made. 

Jesus continues his “Sermon on the Mount.”  He challenges us to go beyond retributive justice that inflicts on someone who has done us wrong a similar wrong.  He calls us to give to others not what they deserve but what they need.  And what we all need is love—God’s merciful love.  The practical directives of Jesus—“offer no resistance to one who is evil,” “turn the other cheek,” “hand over your cloak,” “go for two miles,”—should, I think, be taken in the same way that we take Jesus’ directives from last week’s Gospel where Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”  We do not take those words literally, but we should take them seriously.  In other words, Jesus was saying that it would be better to enter God’s Kingdom of Heaven with one less eye or hand than to end up with eyes and hands intact but alienated from God forever.  We have an obligation to oppose evil people in order to protect the innocent.  We must “go the extra mile” in loving them.

But what does love mean?  The world thinks of it solely in terms of romantic or erotic love.  It sees love primarily as an intense feeling of attraction and pleasure.  But true love—the love Jesus revealed on the cross—is an act of the will.  It means wanting or willing the ultimate good of the other, even one’s enemy or persecutor.  That ultimate good is salvation, heaven.  To love our enemies does not mean we have to like them.  We do not have to work up a feeling of affection for them.  But we must never will the ultimate evil of hell upon them.  Rather, we must pray for the conversion that can lead them to heaven.  In this centenary year of our Blessed Mother Mary’s appearance at Fatima, we follow her call to pray for the conversion of sinners and to do penance for that intention. 

One way to pray for our enemies is to try to understand them.  What leads them to hate or persecute us?  I think a lot of sin in the world is recycled hurt.  There is a saying, “Hurt people, hurt people.”  Where the prophet Jeremiah prayed for God to take vengeance on his enemies, to exercise strict justice by giving them the same suffering that they had heaped upon the prophet, Jesus, on the cross, prays to his Father to have mercy on his persecutors because they really do not know what they are doing.  He takes the hurt behind their violence and allows it to be nailed into his body, rather than recycling it. 

Before he became pope, Benedict XVI said:

Jesus “transforms, from within, the act of violent men against him into an act of giving on behalf of these men—into an act of love. What he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, he now does: he does not offer violence against violence, as he might have done, but puts an end to violence by transforming it into love. The act of killing, of death, is changed into an act of love; violence is defeated by love.  This is the fundamental transformation upon which all the rest is based. It is the true transformation which the world needs and which alone can redeem the world. Since Christ in an act of love has transformed and defeated violence from within, death itself is transformed: love is stronger than death. It remains forever” (“Eucharist, Communion,Solidarity,” June 2, 2002).

Love has the power to transform.  It is the most powerful force in the world.  In his homily at the conclusion of World Youth Day in 2005, Pope Benedict, speaking about the Last Supper, said: 

“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 - the Crucifixion - 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. I Cor 15: 28).

“In their hearts, people always and everywhere have somehow expected a change, a transformation of the world. Here now is the central act of transformation that alone can truly renew the world:  violence is transformed into love, and death into life.

“Since this act transmutes death into love, death as such is already conquered from within, the Resurrection is already present in it. Death is, so to speak, mortally wounded, so that it can no longer have the last word.

“To use an image well known to us today, this is like inducing nuclear fission in the very heart of being - the victory of love over hatred, the victory of love over death. Only this intimate explosion of good conquering evil can then trigger off the series of transformations that little by little will change the world. All other changes remain superficial and cannot save.”

Now we receive the Body of Christ and are transformed and empowered to be, as Jesus said, “children of your heavenly Father [who] makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”  To love our enemies as Jesus loved his, means being perfect “just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 

The Pharisees thought of being perfect as God is perfect in terms of following the Law perfectly.  They thought that once they had done so, they deserved God’s favor.  God owed them.  Their motivation was not love but self-interest.  Perfectionism generally turns people in on themselves. They live in fear and not in love and their relationship with God and with other people ends up suffering. 

Ultimately being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is not something we can accomplish by our own will power and efforts.  It requires God’s free gift of grace to which we open ourselves.  That grace is given most powerfully in the Word and the Sacrament which transform us to be children of our heavenly Father, members of the Body of Christ, able to love even our enemies. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The "Faithful Servant and Perfect Friend" of Jesus

While he’s not on the U.S. Church calendar of saints with memorials, obligatory or optional, he is important to me as a Jesuit and director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (Apostleship of Prayer). Today we are celebrating the feast of St. Claude la Colombiere.  He was the Jesuit spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary, the Visitation nun to whom Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart on fire with love for humanity. 

I’ve always enjoyed the fact that he died and is celebrated on the day after Valentine’s Day. All those Valentine hearts are nice expressions of love but the deepest and truest love the world has ever known is found in another heart—the Heart of Jesus. 

Recently I gave a mission at three clustered parishes in the Brawley, California area—St. Joseph in Westmorland and, in Brawley, St. Margaret Mary and Sacred Heart where there is a statue of the visionary to the left of the sanctuary and a painting in the parish hall.

When Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary, he told her that he was going to send his “faithful servant and perfect friend,” Fr. Colombiere to confirm the apparitions and to help her spread devotion to his Sacred Heart.  

When St. Margaret Mary protested that she was “a wretched creature, a poor sinner whose very unworthiness would be capable even of preventing of accomplishment” of his desire, he told her:

“Ah, poor innocent that you are, don’t you know that I make use of the weakest subjects to confound the strong, that it is ordinarily the smallest and the poor in spirit to whom I make my power visible with greater brilliance, so that they will not attribute anything to themselves?”

St. Claude wrote those words down in his spiritual journal.  He continued with these words to St. Margaret Mary in which Jesus refers to St. Claude, designated by “N”:

“It was then that He told me: ‘Turn to my servant N. and tell him from Me to do all he can to establish this devotion and to give this pleasure to My divine heart. Tell him not to be discouraged by the difficulties he will meet with, for they will not be lacking.  But he must learn that he is all-powerful who completely distrusts himself to place his trust in Me alone.’”

May we follow the example of these two saints and place all our trust in the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"Every Life is Sacred"

Last Sunday was Pro-Life Day in Italy.  With that in mind, Pope Francis chose for his February “Urgent Prayer Intention” that the sacredness of human life be recognized.  At the end of his Angelus Address he asked that “we pray for the children who are in danger of the interruption of pregnancy, as well as for persons who are at the end of life — every life is sacred! — so that no one is left alone and that love may defend the meaning of life.” 

From the beginning of his papacy Pope Francis has expressed his concern that all human life—from the womb to a natural death—be protected and honored.  In his first Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” he wrote: 

 “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.”

He went on to link the unborn child’s right to life with all human rights, saying:

 “Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems.”

In his Encyclical on creation Pope Francis also wrote:

 “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”

The theme for Italy’s Pro-Life Day this year was “Pro-Life Women and Men in the Wake of Saint Teresa of Calcutta.”  Mother Teresa frequently said that if the basic right to life of unborn children was not safeguarded, all human rights were at risk.  In her acceptance speech for the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa connected world peace to ending abortion, saying:

 “And I feel one thing I want to share with you all, the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child in her womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other? … I ask His Majesties here before you all who come from different countries, let us all pray that we have the courage to stand by the unborn child, and give the child an opportunity to love and to be loved, and I think with God's grace we will be able to bring peace in the world.” 

As we pray with Pope Francis this month that all human life be recognized as sacred, we ask for hearts like the Heart of Jesus which saw each person as precious and died for all.