A gift horse

Reading this morning about Saint Aidan, Celtic monk and bishop of Lindisfarne, I recalled the proverb

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

We shouldn’t look at the value of a gift (even if it’s an old horse) but rather accept all gifts gratefully.

But the story of Aidan and the gift horse is quite different, as told in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

King Oswin gave Bishop Aidan a horse with fine trappings so that the bishop could ride to the far-flung parts of his diocese instead of walking as had been his custom.

One day Aidan met a beggar who sought alms. Aidan dismounted and gave the horse and all the trappings to the man. As Bede notes, Aidan “was very compassionate, a great friend to the poor, and, as it were, the father of the wretched.”

The king was a little upset and told Aidan that he had other less valuable horses that the bishop could give to the poor.

Aidan’s response is classic:

“What are you saying, your majesty? Is the child of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?”

No thing, no animal is more valuable than a human being, a child of God.

I also recall a conversation Charlie Clements writes about in Witness to War: An American Doctor in El Salvador. He spoke to some campesinos who worked on a cattle ranch near Suchitoto. They told him how the owner would send them to town to buy medicines for the animals – but they had no medicine for their sick children.

How often are the poor treated worse than animals, than things.

The witness of Saint Aidan is as important today as it was in the seventh century.

Daily life and Saint Bartholomew

Today is the feast of St. Bartholomew, the apostle, often identified with Nathaniel.

In John’s Gospel 1:45-51, Philip finds him seated under a fig tree and calls him to come and see this Jesus. A little skeptical – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” – Bartholomew follows his friend and then follows Jesus.

He is called in his daily life and he lives a life which was probably not full of moments of grandeur, but full of the concerns of daily life, even the daily life of a disciple and a missionary. And I can attest that the life of a missionary is not all excitement; it’s full of the ordinary.

But it’s in the ordinary where we can begin to live out faithful discipleship.

Benedictine Daily Prayer offers part of a sermon of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman for Vigils. This section spoke to me today.

…sometimes we are led to think we ought to be useful on a large scale, and go out of our line of life, that we maybe doing something worth doing, as we consider it.

Here we have the history of St. Bartholomew and the other apostles to recall us to ourselves, and to assure us that we need not give up our usual manner of life, in order to serve God; that the most humble and quietest station is acceptable to God, if improved duly. Indeed, it affords means for maturing the highest Christian character, even that of an apostle. Bartholomew read the Scriptures and prayed to God; and thus was trained at length to give up his life for Christ, when he demanded it.

We are trained at length in the little things, the constant repetitions of daily life. There we learn how to follow, how to “Come and see.”

Radical choices

Decide today whom you will serve?
Joshua 24:15
Will you too go away?
John 6:67
Submit to one another out of reverence of Christ.
Ephesians 5:21

Today’s readings are hard.

We live in a culture where we want to keep our options open.

But Joshua and Jesus are calling us to make a decision.

“Who’s your God?” Joshua is asking: The gods of power, wealth, and pleasure or the God who rescued you from slavery?

“Will you follow me?” asked Jesus. His words are Spirit and life but Jesus offers Himself for us, He is willing to hand Himself over to death and to give Himself to us as food.

The God of Joshua is a God of freedom and justice – but freedom and justice for all, not just the freedom to the “good” and comfortable  life.

Jesus is a God of self-gift, of commitment to all, to life.

But then Paul tells the Ephesians, “Submit to one another out of respect for Christ.” This could also be translated as “Be subordinate; defer to each other; obey each other; give way to each other; be subject to each other.”

However you translate it, it is grating, challenging.

But what would the world be like if we deferred to one another, to we listened to each other (which is the etymological root of obey)?

It would be a lot different, I think. I would not be looking out for myself. I would be looking out for others, for the ways in which the Reign of God can become real for all of God’s people.

As I discern the call to the permanent diaconate, one of the concerns has been the promise of obedience involved. I have been a “free agent” for so long that “subordinating myself” to the “discipline” (or, better, “discipleship”) of the Church seems scary.

But perhaps that is what I need to open myself more to where God calls and not where I want to be.

May God give me the wisdom and the courage to make the right choice.

Martyr against racism

Fifty years ago today, on August 20, 1965, the twenty-six year old Episcopalian seminarian Jonathan Daniels was killed in Hayneville, Alabama.

He had come to the south to support the civil rights movement. He, a Catholic priest, and two black civil rights workers hade been imprisoned and were waiting for a ride. They went to buy a soft drink but were confronted by a man with a shotgun and pistol. Jonathan Daniels died protecting one of the women who was threatened by the man with a shotgun aimed at her. Daniels pushed the man down and took the brunt of the blast.

He was among those who gave up the comforts of life and study to participate in the struggle of the poor.

What I find refreshing is this quote which shows not only the faith that was the source of his commitment but also a spirit that was seeking to be free of self-righteousness, one of the temptations of those who struggle for justice and human rights.

“I lost fear. . . when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God. I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one’s motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it.”

This is a lesson for all of us.

A parable for election time

As the United States and other countries approach elections, and as protests abound in Honduras and Guatemala, it might be helpful to meditate on today’s first reading, Judges 9: 6-15.

Abimelech is about to be proclaimed king of Israel. Jotham, who is his youngest brother and is the other survival of Abimelech’s massacre of his seventy brothers, proclaims the parable of the trees from a position of safety on Mount Gerizim.

Jotham speaks of a time when the trees wanted a king. They approached the olive tree which turned down the request, preferring to continue to provide rich olive oil. They then went to the fig tree which also refused, not wanting to give up its tasty fruit. Even the vine rebuffed their offer, treasuring the wine that gladdens the heart.

But then the trees went to the thornbush, the bramble, a prickly bush. Having nothing else to offer the trees, the buckthorn quickly agreed to be king and promised to burn up all the trees that did not submit to it.

Only the good-for-nothing thornbush agreed to be king. Note that the buckthorn is considered by many as an invasive species. According to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, page 140, the thornbush “may claim to offer ‘protection’ … but it hardly offers ‘shade’…, being a ground cover of the sort that propagates forest fires.”

And so Abimelech was king for three years.

But it is useful to recall what precedes this parable.

Abimelech, after the death of his father Jerubaal, wanted control and so conspired with the powerful leaders around him. Seeing him as their ally and “kin,” they took money from the temple of Baal – a false god – and gave it to Abimelech who used it to hire “worthless men and outlaws.” With their help, he went to his father’s house and killed all of his seventy half-brothers. Only the youngest, Jotham, survived.

The parable is meant to reaffirm the tradition that the LORD did not wish that there be a king in Israel, who would possibly set himself up as a god, a supreme real – in competition to the true God, the LORD who rescued the people from slavery in Egypt. (Note 1 Samuel 8: 6-9.)

As Samuel tells the people a few generations later, in 2 Samuel 8: 14-18, the king will recruit their sons for war or for forced labor in the fields or in the arms factories of the time. Their daughters will be forced into domestic servants of the king. Lands will be taken from the people and given to the elite – a sort of “land reform” and redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. The king will demand tithes and enslave the people.

For some of the prophets, kingship was not only a sign of forsaking the rule of the LORD. Kingship was a renewal of the enslavement of the people in Egypt and a ploy to enable the king to keep power by forced labor and war.

Does any of this sound familiar? – for the US, for Honduras, for other nations that claim to be democracies?

It is worth pondering.

Prayer of St. Alberto Hurtado SJ

Today is the feast of the Chilean Jesuit Alberto Hurtado who lived between 1901 and 1952.

img-Saint-Alberto-Hurtado-CruchagaHe combined in his life a deep spirituality, a commitment with the poor, and participation in the struggle for justice, based in his faith.

He founded El Hogar de Cristo for homeless and abandoned children; he helped found a Christian labor union movement; he started a periodical to explain Catholic Social Teaching.

I have written about him in earlier posts here, here, and here. Fr. James Martin, SJ, has a reflection on St. Alberto on the America magazine blog here.

I came across a prayer of his that I think deserves sharing. My English translation is followed by the original in Spanish.

Lord, help me to speak the truth in front of the strong
and not say lies to gain the applause of the weak.

If you give me fortune, don’t take happiness away from me.
If you give me strength, don’t take reason away from me.
If you give me success, don’t take humility away from me.
If you give me humility, don’t take dignity away from me.

Help we always see the other side of the medal.
Do not let me blame others of treason
for not thinking like me.
Teach me to love people as myself
and to judge myself as others.

Do not let me fall into pride if I triumph
nor in despair if I fail.
Rather, remind me that failure
is the experience which precedes triumph.

Teach me that forgiving is the grandest for the strong
and that revenge is the primitive sign of the weak.

If you take away my fortune, leave me with hope.
If you take away success, leave me with the strength
to triumph from the defeat.

If I fail people, give me the courage to ask pardon.
If the people fail me, give me the courage to forgive.
Lord, if I forget You, don’t forget me.

Here’s the Spanish:

Señor, ayúdame a decir la verdad delante de los fuertes
Y a no decir mentiras para ganarme el aplauso de los débiles.

Si me das fortuna, no me quites la felicidad.
Si me das fuerza, no me quites la razón.
Si me das éxito, no me quites la humildad.
Si me das humildad, no me quites la dignidad.

Ayúdame siempre a ver el otro lado de la medalla.
No me dejes inculpar de traición a los demás
por no pensar como yo.
Enséñame a querer a la gente como a mí mismo
y a juzgarme como a los demás.

No me dejes caer en el orgullo si triunfo,
ni en la desesperación si fracaso.
Más bien recuérdame que el fracaso
es la experiencia que precede al triunfo.

Enséñame que perdonar es lo más grande del fuerte,
Y que la venganza es la señal primitiva del débil.

Si me quitas la fortuna, déjame la esperanza.
Si me quitas el éxito, déjame la fuerza para triunfar del fracaso.

Si yo fallara a la gente, dame valor para disculparme.
Si la gente fallara conmigo, dame valor para perdonar.
Señor, si yo me olvido de Ti, no te olvides de mí.

Mary and the resurrection of the body

In [Mary’s] glorified body, together with the Risen Christ,
part of creation has reached the fullness of its beauty.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 241

 Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of Mary into heaven; the Orthodox Church calls this feast the Dormition of the Virgin.

Fresco, Santa Maria Maggiore, Roma

Fresco, Santa Maria Maggiore, Roma

We celebrate the power of Christ’s resurrection and the hope, expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, for “the resurrection of the body” in this feast where Mary shares the heavenly presence of God in both her body and her soul.

It is a feast to celebrate God’s work in bringing creation to fulfillment.

As opposed to a body-denying spirituality, we affirm that God will raise up our mortal bodies and Mary is the first to experience this.

It is therefore a fitting feast for a world that often misuses creation for immediate ends, for a world that often makes the body merely an object of pleasure and thus demeans the body of women, for a world that looks down on and despises the poor.

Mary is a sign of God’s love for the earth, for women, and for the poor.

In his latest encyclical Pope Francis makes this plain:

Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power.

Pope Francis is not the first to note this. In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton wrote:

That God should assume Mary into heaven … is the expression of the divine love for humanity, and a very special manifestation of God’s respect for His creatures, His desire to do honor to the beings He has made to His own image, and most particularly His respect for the body which was destined to be the temple of His glory….If human nature is glorified in her, it is because God desired to it to be glorified in us too, and it is for this reason that His Son, taking flesh, came into the world.

God wishes to be glorified in creation and in the human body and, I would add, especially in the body of woman. As theologians Ivonne Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer have noted:

Mary’s Assumption restores and reintegrates women’s bodiliness into the very mystery of God.

So today we honor Mary as we praise a God who is not afraid of the body, who is not afraid of creation, but was made flesh in the womb of a poor woman and lived among us, enjoying the creation.

So today we honor Mary but we also praise a God who is not afraid of the body, who is not afraid of creation, but was made flesh in the womb of a poor woman and lived among us, enjoying the creation.