Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Moses consecrated an altar to the Lord, offering upon it holocausts, and sacrificing victims: he made an evening sacrifice to the Lord God for an odor of sweetness, in the sight of the Israelites.”
—Offertory of today's Mass
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Last week a professor at Bellarmine University in Kentucky published a provocative essay on “Thomas Merton and Liturgical Reform.” Merton, you may recall, was a Trappist monk whom Pope Francis held up last year as one of four "great Americans" alongside Dorothy Day, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Merton died in the late 1960s, so in his last years he witnessed a revolution in the way that Catholics render homage to God. Writing to a Carthusian acquaintance just five days after the Second Vatican Council published its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Merton wrote:
"Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand, and replace them with mediocre forms which seem to us to be more meaningful [but] which in fact are only trite. I am very much afraid that when all the dust clears we will be left with no better than we deserve: a rather silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date series of liturgical forms that have lost the dignity and the meaning of the old ones."

It's a striking phrase: “Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand.” My purpose this morning is not to expound upon the evils of “silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date” liturgy: I think that for the most part I would be preaching to the choir on that subject. Rather, I want to say that Merton's warning about the liturgy applies to all aspects of our spiritual lives. We all stand in danger of throwing away things that are excellent because we do not understand them. Of the many things we stand in danger of throwing away, I will mention three:

  • Silence,
  • Scripture, and
  • The Sanctification of the Hours of the Day.

If there is one excellent thing, above all others, that has been thrown away in our modern age for lack of understanding, it is silence. One of the reasons I love this Mass is that there is so much time for silent prayer. Although there may be noise—singing, a crying child, the ringing of bells—there is always an environment conducive to an interior silence. Silence, whether kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament or sitting in some other tranquil place away from distractions, is something commended to us by the lives of all the saints as a way to draw close to God. In the second chapter of the prophet Habbukuk we read: “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” 

One reason our society hates this stillness and silence because it is not productive, because there is nothing to “show” for time spent in this way. But as Pope Benedict said during his apostolic visit to the United States in 2008: “Time spent in prayer is never wasted, however urgent the duties that press upon us from every side.” Although time spent in silence before God does not usually produce immediately obvious effects in our life, it makes us into reservoirs of God's grace; and if silence is for us a habit we will often find ourselves saying something unexpectedly profound as we spontaneously share the fruit of our contemplation with others.

A second aspect of the spiritual life too often ignored in our day is the importance Holy Scripture. The Scriptures are an excellent and most important way in which we come to know God. St. Jerome said that “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” (Commentariorum in Isaiam libri, Prol.: PL 24, 17.) Saint Basil the Great wrote, “What is the distinctive mark of the faithful? Conforming their lives with complete certainty to the meaning of the words of Scripture, not daring to remove or add a single thing.” (Moralia, Regula LXXX, XXII: PG 31, 867.)

Sometimes, however, our lack of comprehension discourages us from reading the Bible. But we are not alone in this feeling! In fact, even the Bible itself says this about the Bible! In St. Peter's second epistle, speaking of the letters of St. Paul, he says: “There are some things in them hard to understand” (3:16). But although there are many things in the Bible we may not understand at first, if we allow the clean sea breeze of the Scripture to continually blow through our minds it will clear away the stagnant air of our worldly thoughts, and gradually all our reflections, our very way of thinking, will be filled with the scent, with the sweetness of Scripture. [For this image I am indebted to C. S. Lewis.]

This is, for me, difficult to illustrate. I might take as an example the verses from the 24th chapter of the Book of Exodus which serve as the Offertory Verse of today's Mass: “Moses consecrated an altar to the Lord, offering upon it holocausts, and sacrificing victims: he made an evening sacrifice to the Lord God for an odor of sweetness.” If we are inclined to throw away that which we do not understand, these words might pass in one ear and out the other, for there is much in them that may seem strange to us: “Why did God command animal sacrifice? What does it mean to consecrate an altar? Why were these sacrifices done in the evening?” While it is important to answer such questions, it is not always important to answer each of them immediately. One of the great advantages I have enjoyed in the Christian life is that I started reading the Bible, book-by-book I mean, in seventh grade, before I was old enough to let this constant stream of abstract questions distract me from the central concepts that were being communicated by the text. Gradually, the ideas I gleaned from the Bible formed the way I thought about God. This reading and re-reading of the Scripture laid the foundation for my subsequent conversion to Catholicism: 

“Moses consecrated an altar to the Lord,”
just as our worship of the Lord happens in sacred places set apart from the rest of our neighborhoods, on altars consecrated by a bishop;
“offering upon it holocausts, and sacrificing victims,” which offering was a prefigurement, a foreshadowing, of the perfect offering made once for all by Christ on the Cross, the offering which we re-present to the Father sacramentally on this altar each Sunday;
Moses “made an evening sacrifice to the Lord God for an odor of sweetness;” just as the Lord desires that we should pray to Him at certain times throughout the day.

This brings me to my final point, the third spiritual practice we stand in danger of throwing away when we do not understand its value: the sanctification of the hours of the day. Throughout the Scriptures, we see that God's people render Him homage at fixed times. The morning and evening sacrifices of the levitical priesthood as we have just seen in Exodus; the Apostles Peter and John “going up to the temple at” what the third chapter of the book of Acts calls “the hour of prayer, the ninth hour,” or what we call 3pm, the hour at which Our Lord died on the Cross; in the Psalms we read, “Seven times a day I have given praise to thee”.

Sometimes we do not understand how much our human nature thrives on regularity, rhythms, and habits. For this reason, the Scripture and many of the saints exhort us to punctuate the day with planned, regular moments of prayer: to rise at a fixed time and make the first word of each day a prayer: “Serviam!”, “I will serve!”; to pray the Angelus at mid-day; to offer thanks to God in the evening after the close of the day's labors; to pray before bed, beginning at a very young age with the prayers we recite with our parents, and as we grow older transitioning to an examination of conscience in which we review the actions of the day and ask God's forgiveness for our shortcomings.

In monastic life, “the best and safest” of all vocations (St. Teresa of Avila, Life, 3, 5), religious follow a fixed and unvarying schedule of prayer each day, one which revolves primarily around the recitation of the Psalms. The more we imitate that ideal, the more we share in the fruit of that way of life.

I fear that these brief explanations can do little to help us understand the excellence of these spiritual practices, which means that we may still face the great danger of throwing them away. But although my words have fallen short of their task, I ask that you would take these things to heart all the same: Daily silent prayer, daily reading of the Scriptures, and daily prayers of all kinds recited at fixed hours of the day. If these elements are present in our lives, God will do great things through us.

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

This sermon was preached at St. Thomas the Apostle church in Irondequoit, New York on 18 September, 2016.

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Canto 18: Moving Promptly Toward the Good

This essay originally appeared on a Diocese of Rochester blog dedicated to reading Dante's Divine Comedy in the Year of Mercy.  My contribution for the Purgatorio is entitled: "Canto 18: Moving Promptly Toward the Good" is presented here.

As he continues his journey up the mountain of Purgatory, Dante encounters a large group of the slothful. These souls, who in life were slow to pursue what they knew to be good, are now running as fast as they can toward Heaven, and one of them is encouraging the others with the cry, “Mary ran to the hills!” The reference is to Luke 1:39, “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah.” Having been informed by the angel that her cousin was in need, Mary wasted no time in doing the good things that she saw needed doing. I often meditate on this when praying the second Joyful mystery of the Rosary. Mary responded immediately when there was something to be done. Why then do I procrastinate!?

But the problem of slothfulness actually goes much deeper than mere procrastination. What we generally call “laziness” falls well short of the concept of sloth (acedia in Latin, about which St. Thomas Aquinas writes most eloquently in his Summa: ST II, II 35). Sloth is more than just “not feeling like” doing something: it is seeing something that is good, realizing that it is good and desirable, and then choosing not to pursue it despite its goodness. This gets right to the heart of the mystery of human sinfulness. Why do we not pursue the things we know are good?

In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (not a novel I particularly recommend, but it is illustrative) the character of Peter Keating has an on-again, off-again relationship with his longtime girlfriend Katie. This relationship is more off than on because Peter always puts his career ahead of his relationships. But one day, reflecting on his life and how miserable he often feels even when he succeeds in his job, he realizes he is only happy when he is with Katie. He realizes that he wants to marry her. So, he asks her to tie the knot. But not right away:
“In a year or two,” he said holding her hand tightly, “we’ll be married. Just as soon as I’m on my feet and set with the firm for good.”
“I’ll wait, Peter,” she whispered. “We don’t have to hurry.”
“We won’t tell anyone, Katie…. It’s our secret.”
That year passes, but nothing changes: there was always something to get in the way, always a “but first…” that kept Peter from acting on his desire to marry the only person who made him happy. Eventually, Katie confronts him about it:
“Peter, I want to be married now, tomorrow, as soon as possible.”
“Katie!” he gasped, regaining his voice. “What happened? Why as soon as possible? […] You know I’d marry you tonight if you wanted me to. Only, what happened?”
“Nothing. I’m all right now. I’ll tell you. You’ll think I’m crazy. I just suddenly had the feeling that I’d never marry you.”
“Look, Katie, we’ll get the license tomorrow morning. […] I’ll come for you at ten o’clock tomorrow morning and we’ll go for the license.”
But when that morning rolled around, Peter had second thoughts. He told Katie that his job was particularly stressful at that moment, but that the difficulty would be over soon:
“And I thought…I thought that if we waited…for just a few weeks…I’d be set with the firm […]. But, of course it’s up to you.” He looked at her and his voice was eager. “If you want to do it now, we’ll go at once.”
“But, Peter,” she said calmly, serene and astonished. “But of course. We’ll wait. […] No, it’s much better. You see, to tell you the truth, I thought this morning that it would be better if we waited, but I didn’t want to say anything if you had made up your mind.”
“Well…” he muttered. “Well, all right, Katie. We’ll wait. It’s better, of course. I…I’ll run along then. I’ll be late at the office.” He felt he had to escape her room for the moment, for that day. “I’ll give you a ring. Let’s have dinner together tomorrow.”
“Yes, Peter. That will be nice.”
He went away, relieved; and desolate: cursing himself for the dull, persistent feeling that told him he had missed a chance which would never return.
Things ended up not working out between Peter and Katie. There was always ‘just one more’ delay. This story illustrates why sloth is more than simple laziness, but is in fact something so radically opposed to our happiness that it constitutes “the beginning and root of despair.” (Josef Pieper, On Hope, in Faith, Hope, Love, San Fransisco: Ignatius, 2012, p. 117) Because we often wrongly identify sloth with “laziness” in the sense of inactivity, many people try to overcome the despair born of sloth by making themselves busy. Peter Keeting was always busy with work, but he went away desolate because the despair that comes from sloth “is not destroyed by ‘work’ […] but [by] magnanimity and that joy which is a fruit of the supernatural love of God.” (Pieper 118, 122)

The Church knows that we often have difficulty in making the leap between seeing what is good and actually doing it, and so she prays as follows in the Collect in the 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time: “O God, from whom all good things come, grant that we, who call on you in our need, may at your prompting discern what is right, and by your guidance do it.”

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church”.

When St. Paul said that he is “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ,” what does he mean? Does he mean that the sufferings of Christ were not sufficient to redeem us?

No! That is absolutely not what he means! The perfect sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is of infinite value because it is the willing sacrifice of God Himself.

So, what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ?

Only “our participation in them.” The only thing that is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is that there are still people who have not fully benefited from them by accepting God’s grace. And St. Paul can say, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” because he knows that the many sufferings that he endured during his missionary journeys were not in vain: Many, many people believed the Gospel message and were baptized because of his preaching.

This missionary attitude is something that all Christians ought to share. We ought, like St. Paul, to feel even that we can REJOICE in our suffering, if this suffering is brought about by our efforts to share the faith with others.

Much of the time, though, we do not have this missionary attitude. Although in this country (at least right now) we don’t expect to suffer martyrdom for witnessing to our faith, as St. Paul did, even when we do have a desire to tell others about Christ we hold back because we’re afraid to suffer the humiliation of being rejected. We’re afraid of appearing foolish if we’re not able to explain ourselves well….

An old man had an enormous apple tree in the middle of his field. He told his two sons to divide the fruit between them. To the older son he gave all the fruit on the left side of the tree. This older son brought a bushel of apples home to his wife and children. They had their fill of apples, they made apple pie, and they canned applesauce for the winter. But so abundant was the fruit of the tree that the ground was strewn with unpicked apples left to fall and rot. The younger son of the old man brought home from the right side of the tree enough apples to satisfy his family, but after they had their fill he returned to the tree. There he loaded a wheelbarrow full of apples and began to transport them to the village. As his old rickety wheelbarrow rolled over the uneven stones of the road, it tipped over and the whole pile of apples rolled away. Those the man could reach he put back, bruised, into the wheelbarrow. Others had rolled so far off the path that he could not retrieve them. But the apples that made it all the way to the village were received by the man’s hungry friends with great joy.

Christ is the Apple Tree. God the Father has given to us all the abundant fruits of the Tree of the Cross, the graces of salvation and sanctification. Many Catholics are like the older son in the parable: we receive grace from Christ, and do our best to pass on the faith to our family, our spouse and children, but we do little to share this abundant fruit with others. Like the rotting apples in the field that could feed so many starving people, Christ’s grace remains unshared with a hungry world. But there are a few Catholics who take after the younger son: These are those who share their faith with all who will listen. Now, this requires sacrifice. A sacrifice of time, for one thing. It’s difficult enough to provide for the religious upbringing of our own children without also making provision for the spiritual well-being of our neighbors and friends. It also requires humility. The man in the parable shared apples that had become bruised, and in just the same way when we share the faith it often gets bruised by the way we hand it on. We bruise the faith by our poor choice of words, by our inability to describe our experience. Or we bruise the faith by our imperfections and sins. But just because we can not pass on the faith perfectly does not mean we should not try to pass it on. A man who is already full may refuse your offer of a bruised apple, but to a man who is starving, your brown and mealy apple just might be the best thing he’s ever tasted.

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Friday, February 19, 2016

Canto 14: The Greatness of Good and Evil

This essay originally appeared in a slightly modified form on a Diocese of Rochester blog dedicated to reading Dante's Divine Comedy in the Year of Mercy.  My contribution entitled: "Canto 14: The Greatness of Good and Evil" is presented here.

In Msgr. Luigi Giussani's landmark book "The Religious Sense" he tells of an unforgettable conversation he had with a young man, a budding atheist, who said to him:
Listen, all that you are trying so forcefully to tell me is not worth as much as what I am about to tell you.  You cannot deny that the true grandeur of man is represented by Dante's Capaneus, that giant chained by God to hell, yet who cries to God, "I cannot free myself from these chains because you bind me here.  You cannot, however, prevent me from blaspheming you, and so I blaspheme you."  This is the true grandeur of man."
I must admit that there is something persuasive about the young man's assertion. There is indeed something moving about the indomitable strength of will of Capaneus, who resolutely maintains his obstinacy even in the face of God's eternal torment: "though he wear out the others one by one [...] and hurl down endlessly with all the power of Heaven in his arm, small satisfaction would he win from me." (lines 52–57)  And whereas other denizens of this circle of Hell cower from their punishment, he faces it head-on—literally—suffering the awful rain of fire across his exposed face so as to be free to shake his fist at God.
I don't think I'm alone in responding this way when the greatness possible to man is evident, even though it be used to a bad end.  A quick glance at contemporary media will reveal any number of characters who do evil things but whom viewers enjoy watching for their sheer relentlessness (think perhaps of Frank Underwood on House of Cards, Don Draper of Mad Men, or the building hype surrounding Suicide Squad).  And even our Lord Jesus Christ himself said, in the book of the Apocalypse, "Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth." (Rev. 3:15-16)
As Christians, what should our reaction be to figures like Capaneus, living as we do in a society that increasingly worships anti-heroes?  Certainly we cannot capitulate, we cannot endorse the evil actions of even very talented people.  Nor can we turn to that inoffensive mediocrity, "lukewarmness", which Christ rejected so firmly and which we read about in Canto 3.  Our answer, then, might be along the lines of the one Giussani gave to that provocative young atheist who said that Capaneus represented the true greatness of man:
After being unsettled for a few seconds, I said calmly, "But isn't it even greater to love the infinite?"  The young man left.  After four months, he returned to say that for two weeks he had been receiving the sacraments because he had been "eaten away" all summer long by my response. (p. 9)
People are always attracted to greatness, even when that greatness is grossly misdirected, especially when they do not understand that such people always get their just deserts ("Only your own rage could be fit torment for your sullen pride," Virgil says to Capaneus in lines 62 and 63).  But true greatness, the fullness of what it means to be great, is found in the lives of the saints.  The many impressive feats that have been accomplished out of love for power or money all pale in comparison to the great deeds wrought by those who love God.  And this greatness of the saints is what we will see when Dante finishes his long journey and enters Paradise.  But in the mean time we are faced with a challenge: if people see greatness in the world rather than in the Church, they will undoubtedly follow these same worldly pursuits, and frankly I can't blame them.  It must be our task, therefore, to do great things for God, and so show them what greatness is.

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