Monday of Week 29 in Ordinary Time

One of my earliest memories is when I started nursery school at the age of four, I was physically excluded from the Wendy House by a bossy girl called Beverley Bolton, who claimed the Wendy House as her personal domain. Eventually the teacher intervened and helped Beverley examine her motives for excluding me, and others, from the Wendy House.

This is not so different from what Our Lord does in today’s Gospel. Instead of involving himself in a financial dispute between two brothers, Our Lord exposes the greed that lurks behind the demand. The parable raises a much more important question than the division of goods. What riches really matter in the long run; the contents of the man’s bank account, or his relationship with his brother?

For Our Lord, the man’s motives matter more than the outcome of his dispute. It wasn’t Our Lord’s role to make the problem disappear; rather he wanted to teach the man how to work through it himself. The solution he offered was meant to go deeper and have more permanent effects than settling this one argument. Essentially, Our Lord was teaching this man how to love his brother.

Our Lord wants to show us how to resolve conflicts by examining the motives and values in our own hearts. Even in a religious community, interpersonal dynamics can cause sleepless nights, if we let them.  Our Lord teaches us that we are all capable of working things out together, as long as we respect each other and leave room for the Holy Spirit to help.  The work of mending relationships starts with each one of us.  And we should be thankful that Our Lord is always with us to help us through it.

Advertisements

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The readings for today’s Mass lead us to think about prayer.  And so how can our prayer life be enhanced and improved through what we have just heard in the Scriptures?  In the first reading we hear how the Israelite army was defeating the forces of Amalek, but only as long as Moses kept his hands raised up, in what has become the traditional priestly posture for prayer – what we call the orans posture.  Aaron and Hur helped Moses keep his arms raised; they supported him by helping him to pray.

In the gospel, Our Lord presents a parable encouraging persistence in prayer.  If a corrupt judge will respond to the continual demands of the determined widow, how much more will the all-powerful God respond to our prayers?

I suppose the first question to ask is what is prayer?  Why do we pray?  Do we have to pray?  When are we just saying words, and when are we really praying?  And what about distractions?  Do distractions demonstrate that there’s something wrong with us, that we can’t pray?  What is the relationship between sin and prayer?  How does sin limit our ability to pray?  What is liturgical prayer?  Why is it imperative that we approach liturgical prayer every week, indeed, when we can, every day?

So many questions, and so little time to address them all.  And because we don’t have several hours to do this, I will simply say that prayer is communion with God.  In a nutshell, that’s what prayer is.  Now, when we hear the word communion, we immediately think of the Eucharist.  In Holy Communion we receive and consume the Body of Christ, and by doing so we are united to God.  The Eucharist is the most powerful communion with God, but it’s one of many forms of communion or prayer.  Taking a moment to talk to God during the day is communion with him and is prayer.  Saying the rosary while shopping in the supermarket is communion with God and is prayer.  Reading the Bible or a spiritual book and reflecting on God’s care for us is communion with God and is prayer.  Notice though, I place the emphasis on communion with God, and not on the rote recitation of words.  True prayer – true communion with God – what we call contemplative prayer – goes beyond words, but words are there to help us get started.

And so why do we pray?  Well, we pray because we need to be united to God – we need to be in communion with Him.  I mentioned the other week that some people have developed a strange notion that prayer keeps God happy.  Even today you hear people say: “I have to go to Mass on Sunday to keep God happy.”  We pray because we need God, not because He needs us.  And this is why we teach our children to pray every day.  Bedtime prayers and prayers at meal times are particularly important.  But it’s also important that children understand that they are praying so they can be happy, not again, this strange concept of praying to keep God happy.

Whether we are children or adults, we have to pray, we need to pray.  We can’t assume that we can handle all the complexities of life without the gracious presence of God in our lives.  Nor can we assume that we have communion with God throughout our day when we don’t open ourselves up to his presence.  If we’re living a lie, or just going through the motions of being a Christian, then prayer will have no effect in our lives.

Reciting words and formulas and just going through the motions is never enough.  The rattling off of words certainly isn’t prayer.  Prayers are not magic incantations that cause something to happen.  So, should we teach our children the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and other repetitive prayers?  Should we say these prayers ourselves?  Of course we should.  But we should also understand that these formula prayers are basically background music to the great symphony of our union with God.  For example, repetitive prayers like the Rosary should be a backdrop to union with God as we consider the mysteries of his great love for us.  The Rosary is an extremely powerful prayer, perhaps because it requires us to be in communion with God for a full fifteen minutes or more.

But how can we pray when our minds are flying and we have so many distractions?  How can we pray on the way to work when we have to focus our attention on driving the car?  Do distractions mean that we are not praying or cannot pray?  How is full union with God possible during the physical portion of our lives?  Well, the greatest saints and mystics all admitted continual distractions from prayer.  During Sunday Mass in every parish young parents struggle to focus on God while their children have their own agenda for the Mass.  The saints teach us that distractions are normal.  What matters is the determination for union with God, the determination to pray, despite the difficult circumstances of our lives.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there’s a big difference between distraction and destruction.  Everyday noise distracts us from prayer, whereas sin destroys our ability to pray.  When we weaken or break our union with God by choosing to sin, we have a difficult time praying because we are seeking communion with God whom we have rejected or even ejected from our lives by committing sin.  We need first to turn from sin in the Sacrament of Penance and then return to prayer and re-establish and re-strengthen our communion with God.

In my opinion as a religious and as a priest, among the many forms of praying, the most powerful prayer is liturgical prayer.  Liturgical prayer is the prayer of the People of God united together forming the Church, bound together by the Holy Spirit and with Christ as its head.  We experience this prayer most often when we come together to pray the Mass.  It is during the Mass that we have the most complete union with God through his Son, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  We also experience his presence when people come together for liturgical prayers in each of the Sacraments as well as in the Divine Office, also called the Universal Prayer of the Church.  The Divine Office is not the private reserve of priests and religious, but is the common prayer of all Catholic people.

Some people still think that liturgical prayer, particularly the Mass and the Divine Office, is just a sort of add on to our daily, private prayer.  Why we come to Mass is found in the very word ‘Mass’.  The word Mass is derived from the Latin word Missa which means ‘to send out’.  At Mass we receive what we need so that we can be sent forth when Mass is over to bring the message of Christ to the world.  We don’t go to Mass just for the experience.  We attend Mass; we participate in Mass, so that we can experience Christ and then bring this experience of Christ to everyone we meet.

If you’ve had the privilege of visiting the Catacombs in Rome, you will remember drawings and paintings on the walls depicting the early Church in earnest prayer to God.  Two thousand years later we are not that different from those ancient Christians.  Union with God – prayer – defines who we are.  The readings for today’s Mass encourage us to ask God to strengthen our union with him – to strengthen our life of prayer.

hg

Saturday of Week 28 in Ordinary Time

The withering criticism that Our Lord levels at the Pharisees and the lawyers may not have the shock value for us that it had for his original audience.  We live in a world when virtually all authority is subject to questioning and sometimes ridicule.  In our culture it’s not unheard of to mock religious and political leaders and to question their motives.  But this wasn’t the case when Our Lord spoke these words of condemnation.

Our Lord was challenging the unassailable religious establishment of his day.  These people made the rules, interpreted them and enforced them with numerous sanctions.  Our Lord was asking his followers to go against that authority on the basis of his personal message.  Our Lord knew that both he and they would be hauled before these authorities to explain themselves, and yet he told his disciples not to worry about how to defend themselves: “The Holy Spirit will teach you.”  Now Our Lord wasn’t urging disrespect for the Law; rather he was encouraging discernment, and the realisation that human authority can get off track and even mislead people.

It’s not easy to go against established authority, even in a disrespectful culture like ours.  But we desperately need the lonely voice of the prophet who will challenge the accepted wisdom of the day.  It’s a vocation that is guaranteed to bring opposition and persecution.

Saint Luke

stluke-evangelist

When a poor, uneducated fisherman leaves everything to follow Our Lord, we admire his courage.  But when an educated and successful medical doctor does the same, admiration turns to wonder and we ask: whatever motivated him to make such a sacrifice?  Saint Luke was an accomplished, successful man.  Saint Paul tells us he was a doctor and an artist.

This talented man could have spent his life enjoying the many pleasures that come with success.  Instead, Luke chose the hardships of travelling with Saint Paul and facing all the dangers of a missionary life.  He even accompanied Saint Paul to Rome and stayed with him there during his house arrest.  Such fidelity must have been a great comfort for Paul.  But what attracted Luke to such a life?  Well, as with all of us who have responded to a call to vocation, it began with a personal encounter with Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  Our Lord touched Luke’s heart, and he couldn’t help but follow wherever Our Lord led him.

As Jesus captures our hearts, we too experience what Luke did; we experience the overflowing love of God; and this love changes our hearts, it changes our whole lives.  We no longer want to live just for ourselves and to do what pleases us, but for God.  We want to follow him and we want to be faithful to his word, no matter what.  Despite the ups and downs we do our best to persevere in our vocation.  We long for life in his kingdom, and we dedicate ourselves to spreading that kingdom.

Saint Luke was filled with Our Lord’s love and compassion, and he reflected these attributes in the gospel he wrote, and of course, in the Acts of the Apostles.  Luke is the only evangelist who tells us about Our Lord’s mercy to the outcast tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).  He’s the only one who tells us about the Prodigal Son whose father was so extravagant with his love (15:11-32).  We read these stories confident of God’s great love for us.  May we, like Saint Luke, follow God’s call, and persevere wherever it may lead us.

Saint Luke, pray for us.

St. Ignatius of Antioch

Today we honour the memory of Saint Ignatius who was the second bishop of Antioch after Saint Peter (the first being Evodius).  After being denounced by a fellow Christian, Ignatius was arrested, condemned to death, and transported to Rome to be thrown to the wild beasts in the Coliseum.  During the journey he wrote seven letters to various churches, in which he wrote about Christ, the organisation of the Church, and the Christian life.  These are important documents for the early history of the Church; they also reveal a holy man who accepts his fate and begs the Christians in Rome not to try to deprive him of the crown of martyrdom.

stignatius

You can discover lots of useful and useless information on the internet.  For example, did you know that there’s a restaurant called Club 33 inside Disneyland with a fourteen-year waiting list?  Can you imagine having to wait so long just to eat a burger with Mickey Mouse, and having to pay almost £18,000 for the pleasure?  Most of us are probably more used to waiting a few minutes for the bathroom to become free, or for the microwave to finish, or for a train to arrive.  And what with the growth of smart electronic devices, we now have so many ways to pass the time that we can forget we’re waiting at all.  But that’s not the kind of waiting the psalmist talks about today when he says, “My soul is waiting for the Lord”.

We have all experienced God answering our prayers on a different timescale than our own.  It’s only natural to feel frustrated if we’ve been praying for something for a long time and don’t get an answer as quick as we would like.  Now clearly, this kind of impatient, frustrated waiting is not what the psalmist has in mind.

So, if waiting for the Lord doesn’t mean keeping ourselves distracted, or grumbling impatiently, then what does it mean?  Well, more than anything else, it means trusting that God knows what he is doing, and that his timing is always perfect.  It means saying, “Lord, you know best.  My life is in your hands.”  It also means keeping our eyes peeled and not letting ourselves get so distracted or upset that we forget about the wait altogether.  We need to be confident in God’s goodness, his wisdom, and his schedule.

Wednesday of Week 28 in Ordinary Time

Psychologists have long recognised the sort of behaviour that St. Paul describes in the first reading.  They call it ‘projection’, and it’s a defence mechanism we use to try and gloss over our own faults.  Instead of looking at—and dealing with—our faults, we tend to project them onto other people.  For example, when we spend a lot of time considering someone greedy, lazy, or impatient, it may be that we carry those same faults and are trying to deflect attention from them.  What we most dislike about someone else is often a sign of what we dislike about ourselves.

And this is where St. Paul and modern psychology differ.  St. Paul was more interested in urging people to look upward to God rather than just inward to their minds.  He wanted to teach them that no one is good enough to judge another because everyone is guilty.  And of course, St. Paul could speak from experience.  He had once thought himself righteous for observing the Law, but he was able to write to the Romans that “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

So, what can we learn from St. Paul’s reality therapy?  That we are all hopeless sinners destined for perdition?  Not at all.  St. Paul’s whole rationale for exposing our condition is to move us to Christ.  The bad news is that we are all sinful.  But the really good news is that we don’t have to fix the problem ourselves.  We have a Saviour who is powerful enough to lead us out of the mire of sin and into a new life of grace.

And so, the next time you are tempted to judge someone, see what Our Lord is telling you about yourself.  Is he pointing out some area of darkness in your heart?  If he is, then you can turn to the light and be embraced by his mercy.  That mercy is strong enough not only to heal you, but to soften your heart towards everyone else as well.  So let us always turn to him, and let those judgemental thoughts fade away.

Saint Teresa of Ávila

Today we honour the memory of Saint Teresa of Ávila, the Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun and promoter of the Counter Reformation.  With Saint John of the Cross she reformed the Carmelite Order and in 1970 became the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church.  Saint Teresa is an outstanding example for us to follow as we persevere in our Christian vocation.

hhhhhhhhhhhhh

You can nearly always learn something about a person from the things he or she produces.  This is very true of writers, artists and musicians, and equally true of cooks and carpenters and almost any craftsman.   Something of them is very often reflected in their work.  The same is true of God.  Saint Paul insists that we can come to know God from what he has created.

The world is God’s creation and it is a magnificent gift from God to us, and we must respect and care for it.  The harmony and the inner workings of the entire universe are no mere accident.  It stands to reason that no aspect of creation should be taken for granted, for everything has been touched by the hand of God.

And if this is so then everything is sacred and holy.  When we offer the gifts of bread and wine each day at Mass we say the prayer which begins: Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation… which is based on an ancient Jewish meal prayer.  But we don’t ask God to bless his creation as if it needed to be made holy.  The prayer blesses God.  And to bless God in the scriptural sense means to praise him and to thank him.  In other words, the offertory prayers at Mass reflect the belief that we are privileged to share God’s creation.

For more than two thousand years Christians have tended to make too fine a distinction between the sacred and the secular.  But such a distinction is quite alien to God’s revelation.  Sacred and profane, religious and secular, devotional and worldly: these distinctions are found nowhere in the scriptures.  Nothing created is ever evil in itself; it only becomes evil in its misuse by human beings.

From the great gifts of creation, we learn of the wisdom and goodness of God, and we respond to him through praise and thanksgiving.

Monday of Week 28 in Ordinary Time

So many people are fascinated by the lives of celebrities.  If they happen to see a famous actor or a sports personality they become very excited.  And part of the ritual of response to meeting a celebrity is to ask for their autograph or to capture their image on a mobile phone.

In the gospel today Our Lord mentions two people who could have been considered celebrities in their own time: Jonah and Solomon.  Our Lord, with an honesty which is quite blunt and to the point, proclaims that he himself is greater than both Jonah and Solomon.

St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, explains why Our Lord is the only source of salvation; salvation is not to be found in following the Law or any other person than the Lord himself.  St. Paul was most emphatic about that for the people of his own day and his message is quite appropriate for our own times.  There are those who are willing to put more faith in television news commentators or writers in magazines and newspapers than in the teachings of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  Others will go out of their way to catch a glimpse of a celebrity but they won’t spend one extra minute with God in prayer.  They devour glossy magazines, which do little more than spread gossip about celebrities, but rarely, if ever, will they open the Bible.

It goes without saying that this kind of spirit can influence us as well.  And so it’s very salutary that, from time to time, we call ourselves back to reality, to a realisation that we have in Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ the source of all wisdom and all happiness.  Nor do we need an autograph or a selfie as a memento.  We have the Lord Jesus among us right now.  For He is present in the Word we hear and in the Eucharist we receive.

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ingratitude is perhaps the most common of all human failings.  Few things are so hurtful as to be taken for granted without a word spoken in thanks, or praise for a job well done.  Even if we don’t readily admit it, I think we all secretly enjoy a pat on the back from time to time.  Paying genuine compliments to one another helps to build up community and friendship.  But I think what causes most pain is the neglect and the coldness, the antipathy of those for whom we have done our best.  Years ago, I remember one of my former Priors going out of his way to tell me off for complimenting the cook on preparing a delicious meal.  The Prior turned on me and asked me why I was thanking him, after all, he was only doing his job.  It was attitudes like that which led to the collapse of my community.  One of the most satisfying experiences in life is to receive a word of praise as a mark of appreciation for a service rendered or a kindness offered.  And yet, while we are all ready to deplore the ingratitude of others, we are often unaware of our own ingratitude.

As Our Lord travelled to Jerusalem for the last time in his life, he met deep and amazing ingratitude along the border between Samaria and Galilee.  Ten desperate lepers, huddled in their misery, cried out to him for help: “Jesus, master, have pity on us!”  Our Lord responded to their prayer immediately, and he cured them all without a moment’s hesitation, and they went off happy and rejoicing because they were cured.  When only one leper, and a foreigner at that, thought it worthwhile to return to say thank you, Our Lord expressed genuine disappointment at the attitude of the other nine who stayed away and failed to give thanks to God.  Our Lord made the very human and the very moving comment: “Were not ten made clean?   Where are the other nine?”

The leper with the grateful heart is an example to us all, because only he among the ten got full benefit from his encounter with Our Lord.  By acknowledging the source of his newfound health, his spirit as well as his body was healed.  The other nine lacked something in failing to show any appreciation to Our Lord by keeping everything for themselves and giving nothing back.  They missed the great richness and the inner joy that comes from gratitude, from giving thanks to God, and for being generous to others.  The story reminds us of how often we fail to express thanks to God as the source of all goodness, and for all favours received.

John Henry Newman, who as we speak is being canonised by Pope Francis in Rome, knew what it was to be thankful.  He took every opportunity in his writings, sermons and hymns to thank God for his unbounded generosity.  Newman spent his whole life searching for the God of Truth who revealed himself once Newman made that leap of faith and became a Catholic.  And yet it wasn’t all plain sailing for Newman.  Once he knew what he had to do, he began to carry the Cross for perhaps the first time in his life.  When Newman abandoned Anglicanism and became a Catholic, he lost his job and most of his friends.  And yet that time of desperate uncertainty let to a period of great clarity, it led to a sense of peace, and that knowledge of belonging which he found in the Catholic Church, and which for the rest of his life, Newman was so grateful.

We often learn the hard way that the best things in life are appreciated more when they are in danger of being lost.  For example, after an encounter with tragedy, we are filled with a sense of gratitude for our life and we feel a new joy in living.  The real worth of our love for God flows from our ability to recognise the countless blessings, both great and small, which come our way each day.  Coming together to celebrate the Mass each day, or whenever we can, makes it clear that the giving of thanks to God is an essential part of our worship and our prayer life.  The more we get on our knees to thank God for his generosity, the more we will be open to receive the joy of his blessings.  And since the whole of our existence depends entirely on his Will, we should never let a day pass by without thanking God for the good things of life; and also to thank him for the crosses and the trials that put us to the test, because these are opportunities for us to grow in holiness and in faith.

At a time when Catholics were looked down upon in this country, John Henry Newman had the courage to reject what was false and to embrace what is true.  May we follow his example and always do the same.

Saint John Henry Newman, pray for us.