Tuesday of Week 23 in Ordinary Time

Many moons ago, when I was a young religious I wouldn’t think twice about staying up all night in the dark church and spend hours with God in the silence of the night.  Perhaps some of you did so too.  If you did then you know how hard it can be to stay awake: our eyelids might begin to droop, our minds might begin to wander, and our bed might start looking softer and softer.

Even the Apostles had a hard time staying awake with Our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane.  But we need to remember that it is God who gives us the desire to pray.  And even though we may struggle with sleepiness or distractions in prayer, our effort in itself is pleasing to God.  Every time we decide to turn to God, every effort we make to come into his presence, makes him happy, regardless of the outcome.

Years ago, when I read many books on how to develop the spiritual life, I read Father Jacques Philippe’s book ‘Time for God’.  He says that if you try hard, but are still unable to pray well, you shouldn’t get discouraged.  He explains that if “we are incapable of praying well, or producing any good sentiments or beautiful reflections, that should not make us sad.  We should offer our poverty to the action of God.  Then we will be making a prayer much more valuable than the kind that would leave us feeling self-satisfied.”

When we don’t feel satisfied with our prayer, we can be confident that God is supporting us in our struggle.  When we are aware of our weakness and our need, then we are much more open to receiving the grace that God wants to give us.

Pope Francis has admitted to falling asleep in prayer on occasion.  Saint Jane de Chantal wrote that, “Neither should we be troubled when we sleep at prayer, provided we resist it.”  And Saint Therese of Lisieux, who would also fall asleep in prayer, assures us that like all parents, God loves his children best when they are asleep.

So, at 6:30 tomorrow morning when you stumble into the chapel bleary eyed after a night’s blissful sleep, remember you are in good company.

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Monday of Week 23 in Ordinary Time

Years ago, when I used to read the Sunday newspapers, my favourite section was the Arts & Culture supplement.  I learned early on that critics play an important role in the musical, artistic and literary world.  They help the public to evaluate what is good, and by doing so, they set standards for art.  But critics can also be closed to anything new or different.  For example, one of J.S. Bach’s students called his music “turgid and confused.”  A contemporary of Mozart called his music “overloaded and overstuffed.”  One critic said of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: “It was hard to figure out what all the noise was about.”

You could say that some of the Pharisees who opposed Our Lord had become like those critics.  In their zeal to preserve the Law, they had attached their own limited expectations to it.  One of those limitations was that they taught that curing the sick was forbidden on the Sabbath—unless the sick person was in danger of death.  The man Our Lord healed in the synagogue had a withered hand, so that clearly didn’t qualify.  These Pharisees weren’t willing to admit that God could go beyond their assumptions of what the Law was all about.

This attitude can affect us as well. We can view our own assumptions about God as being the only thing that matters and end up limiting him as a result.  But God wants to take us beyond our expectations, both of who he is and of who we can become.  He is not interested in healing us just enough so that we can squeeze our way into heaven.  God wants to fill us with so much grace that we skip and dance through the gates of heaven, bringing countless people behind us whose lives we have touched.

So, let’s not be like those pharisees or those music critics with their limited expectations.  God has great plans for us.  All we have to do is stretch out our withered hand in faith and see how God fills us with his life, his love, and his power.

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23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today’s gospel is unusual and somewhat puzzling.  Here was someone born deaf and dumb who was suddenly and miraculously cured by Our Lord, but he and those around are asked not to talk about it.  Wasn’t that asking the impossible?  Can you imagine being that deaf man and not talking about your miraculous cure?  Why would Our Lord make such a strange request?

Our Lord’s request wasn’t made out of false humility.  Our Lord wanted people to thank God for His gifts to them and to witness to God’s saving acts revealed in our humanity.  If Jesus stood for anything at all, it was to reveal God’s saving love and actions in our midst.

We human beings have a tendency to seek out, be moved, and be awed by things that are spectacular.  People who normally don’t watch sports on TV almost always watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games, which are pretty much jaw-dropping extravaganzas.  People are thrilled by attending a rock concert or a competitive football match.  And it seems that things need to be totally awesome for us to accept them as reality.  Bogus faith healers and visionaries, along with people who claim to have direct revelations from God are not usually modest in presenting their agendas to us.  How many times have we heard that the Second Coming of Christ is going to happen on such-and-such a day?  How many times have we been told that the end of the world is near?  The media doesn’t tell us what happens to all those people when the healings don’t last and the visions and revelations prove to be false.

I think Our Lord’s request for silence was grounded on the fact that He wanted people to pay attention to who He is and what He has to say, rather than His spectacular miracles.  And sure enough, didn’t all of those involved in that healing of the deaf man run out, broadcast it everywhere, and shout all over the place about what Jesus had done?  But the real question is this: Did they change their lives, did they accept Our Lord’s teachings and follow Him?

Our Lord doesn’t want us to be overawed by the spectacular, but rather to be open to God’s word for us.  It’s all about having eyes to see and ears to hear what God wants us to be doing.

So what do you hear when people are talking with you?  What do you hear from the hearts of your fellow Sisters, or from your spouse, from your parents and friends, or from the hearts of your children?  Now I’m not talking about listening to them, but about hearing them.  Do we hear what God has to say to us when He speaks to us in Sacred Scripture?  God speaks to us in a special way in His Church.  The Mass is the privileged place where His word is proclaimed every day.

The Pope is one of the most photographed men in the world.  Whenever he appears in public it’s a media event.  Crowds love the spectacle.  But after the show is over, have they heard what he has to say and do they accept his teachings?

When I was a student in Rome I used to go to the annual Mass in St. Peter’s which began the new academic year.  The basilica was always packed full for the start of the Mass, but as soon as the Holy Father (that was Pope, now Saint John Paul II) had walked up the central aisle and reached the altar, many of the people in the congregation left.  They had witnessed the spectacle of the grand entrance procession and of seeing the pope pass by and that was enough for them.  They didn’t stay for the Mass or to hear what the pope had to say.

Until relatively recently the people of our own nation had ears to hear and they acted on the belief that human life is to be centred on God.  But what do we hear today?  Perhaps the man who was deaf two thousand years ago wasn’t the only one who needed a cure.  For whom was that miracle intended?  Was it just for that deaf man?  Or for the people who witnessed the miracle?  Or for us today?  It’s all about having eyes to see and ears to hear what God wants us to be doing.

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Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

When you read a book or watch a film for the second time, you tend to pick up on details you missed the first time.  But you also risk losing the sense of anticipation about where the plot is leading; you already know how the story ends.  Something similar might happen when you re-read today’s Gospel.  As we celebrate the Birthday of the Virgin Mary, we hear a very familiar story.  We witness Joseph grappling with Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, and we see how their courage and faith helped them deal with the Incarnation.

Try to imagine how Mary and Joseph must have been feeling at the time everything was unfolding.  Their actions hardly resound with confidence.  Mary was “greatly troubled” and quizzed the archangel about whether this was possible (Luke 1:29).  Joseph was ready to divorce Mary when he discovered that she was pregnant.  At that point, they wouldn’t have had the chance to discuss their angelic encounters.  All they could see were the scandalous risks involved with choosing to go forward.  Joseph risked his reputation if he married a woman who carried somebody else’s child.  Mary jeopardized not only her chance of a good marriage, but her life as well.

Yet both said yes, and both did it alone, without even knowing the other side of the story.  How confused and scared they must have been.

If Joseph and Mary had been able to see how their choices would affect the world, if they had been able to see how we would revere them, would it have been easier for them to say yes to God?  Probably.  But that makes it all the more remarkable; they made their choices in the dark, without knowing how everything would turn out.

That’s how we make our choices too.  We persevere in our call to follow Our Lord, both in good times and in bad.  Like Mary and Joseph, our understanding of what God can do with our yes is limited.  We don’t know where God is leading us.  But he does, and all we have to do is trust and obey.

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Friday of Week 22 in Ordinary Time

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Throughout the ancient world, the juice from pressed grapes was immediately poured into a container so that it could ferment into wine.  This container was often a goatskin sewn into a bag.  The volatile and explosive initial stage of fermenting the grapes caused the wineskin to stretch out and expand.  “Old wineskins” had already been stretched, so if they were used again, the fermentation process would cause them to burst (Luke 5:37).  There was only so much ‘give’ in each wineskin.

Our Lord told this parable in order to ask his critics to try to become more like new wineskins.  He told them that the new life he was offering could not be fitted into old ways of thinking and doing.  Life in the kingdom of God required people who had the capacity to stretch along with the movements of God.

Not all of Our Lord’s hearers accepted his words, but those who did were stretched, and were blessed for it.  For example, they had to expand their concept of the Messiah: he was the crucified and risen Son of God, not a temporal king.  They had to accept that the Gentiles were their brothers and sisters, not pagans who would make them unclean.  Because the first disciples’ pliability helped them to respond to the ‘fermentation’ of the Holy Spirit, the Church continued to grow dramatically.

Like every believer for more than two thousand years, we too are like wineskins, and we have to be willing and prepared to be stretched as the Holy Spirit moves us.  If we get stuck in our ways, then we dry up and there is no opportunity to be stretched.

May we always be open to being stretched by the Holy Spirit so that we can grow in God’s love and presence just a little bit each day.

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Thursday of Week 22 in Ordinary Time

Even if we’re not fishermen or anglers I think we can all sympathise with Saint Peter.  Peter was a professional fisherman.  Knowing the waters of the lake and the suitable times for fishing, as well as understanding the best techniques, were essential to his livelihood.  Having done everything right and having tried all night long he and his companions had caught nothing.

Then along came Our Lord who told Peter to put out into deep water, not the best spot in the lake, and just after the sun had risen, again not the proper time.  Peter began with a protest: “Master, we have worked hard all night long and caught nothing.”  A struggle then took place within him.  He was on the verge of telling Our Lord that what he had suggested was nonsense, but a sudden realisation came over him.  Perhaps it was wise to do as Our Lord suggested.  The miraculous catch of fish was the beginning of Peter’s faith as well as his call to ministry.

We must always remember that God’s ways are not our ways.  Saint Paul was adamant about that, insisting that what seems to be nonsense is in actual fact God’s wisdom, and what seems to be weakness is really God’s strength.  Who are we to tell God how to run the universe?

There are those religious and priests who will say that it’s foolish to persevere with their vocation when the going gets tough, or for married people to struggle to keep their marriage together, when divorce is so easy.   Others judge the Church heartless in its opposition to abortion, when others cry out for the freedom for an expectant mother to do as she pleases with her unborn child.  Some think it is naïve to believe that simple bread can become the Body of Christ.  But, as we have discovered, the ways of God are wise; and they work, as they did for Saint Peter that day on the lake.

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Deceased Friends and Benefactors of the Order of Preachers

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This chapel in which we worship today, indeed the whole complex of Saint Dominic’s Priory and the land on which we stand, is an enduring testimony to a great number of friends and benefactors of our community.  Without their material and financial support, we wouldn’t be standing or sitting here today.  We only have to look around us to see reminders of their generosity everywhere.  The new building being constructed just a few feet away at this very moment would never have happened without the generosity and financial sacrifice of many friends of our community.

Our friends and benefactors allow us to follow our vocation and enable us to live the religious life in this place.  As we now enjoy the benefits of worshipping in this beautiful chapel each day, it is only right and just that we honour the memory of our Deceased Familiars, Friends and Benefactors of the Order in this Mass.  Gratitude, after all, is an act of justice.

My Microsoft Word thesaurus offered the word ‘sponsor’ as an alternative to ‘benefactor’.  I don’t think that’s correct.  We can’t think of benefactors as merely sponsors.  Big companies sponsor events or sports teams, and they have their company name emblazoned across the uniform of the players and the stadium.  Sponsors might pay for school buildings and extensions, and they have their name plastered over the front door.  But while sponsorship is about giving, it’s more about advertising, in effect it’s about calling attention to one’s own greatness and good works, and in some cases it’s about buying fame and prestige.  This is not the case for our benefactors, friends, and familiars.  On the contrary, our benefactors and donors have one very humble and needy aim.  In supporting our life and work they ask for our prayers for their eternal salvation and happiness.  For, as Saint Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

Today the whole Order of Preachers sets aside this Mass to pray for all our benefactors, friends and familiars, especially those who have died.  We offer the supreme Sacrifice of the Holy Mass for their benefit and salvation.  We pray that through the Blood of Christ shed on the Cross for them, they will be purified from all attachment to sin and reach the joys of heaven.

Very often on brass memorial inscriptions we read the words: “Of your charity pray for…” so and so.  For it is charity and not merely justice, that should motivate us to pray for our deceased (and living) benefactors and friends.  This is an act of Christian love for those many people who have enabled us to live the religious life.  Saint Thomas Aquinas says that the love we show towards our beloved dead brings relief and comfort to their souls in purgatory.  And so, we pray for the eternal souls of our benefactors, friends, and familiars; for all those who have helped us.  They are as much a part of our Community as those who make Profession in it.  And so, let us always remember with gratitude our deceased friends and benefactors and ask them to remember us before the Throne of God as we remember them in this Mass today.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace.  Amen.

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