Monthly Archives: July 2012

Preaching to the simple

Today’s saint, St. Peter Chrysologos – of the golden word – was a fifth century bishop, renowned for his preaching.

Though he preached in the imperial city of Ravenna, his style was simple and straight-forward. “You have to speak to the people in the language of the people,” he once said.

I was moved by today’s reading in the office of Vigils in  Benedictine Daily Prayer,  by his deep respect for the dignity of all people.

Here in Honduras I often find people who have a low estimation of themselves, partly induced by a system that despises the poor  campesino. The words of St. Peter Chrysologos speak directly to them:

O humankind, why do you think so little of yourself when God thinks so highly of you? Why dishonor yourself when God so honors you? Why be so concerned with the stuff from which you are made and so little with the purpose for which you are made? For you the light  dispels the darkness; for you the earth bears flowers and trees and fruits; for you the air and earth and waters are all filled with marvelous life—all so that earthly life may not be sad and make you blond to the joy of eternity.

More than this, the Creator made you his image and earthly representative. Then, what he had made in you he took to himself and decided to make himself in human form….

Christ was born to restore our shattered nature…

What dignity we bear, all of us. Those who despise the poor, despise Christ.

 

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Scarcity and the Good News of abundant sharing

The story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is found in all four Gospels, but I find John’s account (6: 1-15) very appealing.

Five thousand men – “not counting women and children” – have listened to Jesus in a deserted place. They’re hungry and Jesus wants to feed them.

Asking Philip where to buy food for them, Philip’s response is that it would take more than 200 days’ wages to feed them.

Notice how Philip thinks about the cost. It’s too much, he seems to say. We can’t do it. We don’t have enough cash.

Yet Andrew does see a little boy with five barley loaves – the loaves of the poor – and two fish. “But what good are these for so many?” Andrew notes.  Not enough!

But with Jesus even the little shared by a little boy is enough – and all are fed, so abundantly that there are twelve baskets left over.

The apostles think in terms of money and scarcity, but the little boy offers all that he has.

The little people of this world have much to offer – and so often they do share, as I witness here in Honduras. The despised are the ones who give us the example of what we are called to do – share the little we have.

Dorothy Day stated this well:

People say, “What good can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?” They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time. We can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes.

God, using the little we have, can do great things if we stop thinking from the perspective of scarcity and think of the abundant and gracious love of God.

A Dutch martyr against Nazism

Seventy years ago today, July 26, 1942, a Dutch Carmelite priest was killed by lethal injection at Dachau.

Titus Brandsma was one of millions of victims of the Nazi persecutions but he was different in some important ways.

He was one of thousands of priests imprisoned by the Nazis, many of them at Dachau. But he was not imprisoned merely for being a priest.

Father Titus was a professor of mystical theology who had translated the works of St. Teresa of Avila into Dutch. He was also a journalist and was the chaplain for Dutch Catholic newspapers. He was also an open opponent of Nazi policies, speaking out against the Nazi oppression of the Jews.

In 1941 he protested the Nazi prohibition of Jewish students in Catholic schools. The same year he met with all the editors of Catholic newspapers in Holland to advise them not to run Nazi propaganda despite a decree from the Nazis that all papers had to run Nazi propaganda and advertisements.

After being arrested in January, he was sent to Dachau, where he took further risks by distributing Communion to other inmates. He also provided an amazing example of Christian love advising a charitable response to all guards, even the most brutal, advising prayer for them. “You don’t need to pray for them all day long. God is quite pleased with a single prayer.”

According to reports and his writings he seems to have maintained a deep peace in spite of the suffering.

“I see God in the work of his hands and the marks of his love in every visible thing, and it sometimes happens that I am seized by a supreme joy which is above all other joys.”

 

His deep faith and courage to speak up against evil should inspire us to trust in God and to speak truth to those in power who oppress the poor and marginalized.

 

Father Titus was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1985.

Not as the rulers of the nations

Today on the feast of St. James the Greater, celebrated with special devotion at Santiago de Compostela en Galicia, Spain, the Gospel is Matthew 20: 20-28, one of my favorites and a text that Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon.

The mother of James and John (in Mark’s Gospel, James and John) approaches Jesus to ask Him to give them a favored spot in His Reign.

Jesus asks them if they are willing to suffer as He will. They say yes. The word reaches the other apostles who are upset, thinking that James and John are being favored by Jesus.

But Jesus remarks that “the rulers of the nations lord it over them…But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant… The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life for the ransom of the multitude.”

The political authorities want power to lord it over others, but the followers of the true Reign, the true Kingdom, seek to serve. Service is the way to be great.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., said:

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.

We can be great by serving and in such a way work for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of Walter Rauschenbach in 1918. This Protestant minister was a major proponent of what we call “the Social Gospel.” He saw the centrality of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ preaching and the importance of service, seeking to respond to the social sin in the world.

His realism as well as his hope are clear in this quote:

We shall never have a perfect life. Yet we must seek it with faith…. At best there is always but an approximation to a perfect social order. The kingdom of God is always but coming. But every approximation to it is worthwhile.

And so, seeking the kingdom of God, living as servants, we work for and hope for God’s Reign. And that is not the way of the rulers of the nations.

 

About to vomit

In this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 6: 30-34), Jesus and his apostles try to get away for a bit of rest, but a huge crowd of people find out where they are going. When Jesus sees them, like sheep without a shepherd, he is moved with compassion or pity.

The word used by Mark is σπλαγχνίζομαι – literally, to feel with one’s guts. But in a footnote in Breaking the Word, Megan McKenna writes:

 The phrase ‘moved to pity’ has two meanings in the Gospel, and here it carries both: to prompt a physical reaction to what one witnesses (for example, throwing up) and to feel such anger toward what you see that you give birth to something new and unimagined. Jesus’ reactions are this strong and he moves to a  new level of intensity in his preaching and teaching.

We sometimes miss the force of Jesus’ reaction because we miss the context.

The disciples had just returned from a missionary journey. Perhaps their preaching stirred among many people a desire for a Messiah who would rescue them from their poverty and the oppression they were experiencing under Roman occupation. And so, many have traveled to find this “Jesus,” this new Jeshuah, Joshuah, who they hoped would rescue them, these people who were walking in the darkness of oppression.

The oppression was real; they experienced it in their poverty, in the taxes, and in the presence of imperial troops.

But they had just seen a sign of the violence of the imperial rule.

In the passage just before today’s Gospel, we read how Herod the king, the local force of Roman oppression, had killed John the Baptist at a dinner party. John had awakened the  hopes of the people and now he was killed.

The people felt abandoned – like sheep without a shepherd who would care for them. And so they seek out Jesus.

Jesus knows their fears, their hopes – and he is moved by the desperation he sees. Perhaps he was moved to the point of nausea, to vomiting.

But Jesus did not stay there. His compassion, feeling with them, moved him to share bread with them – and eventually to share his life for them, giving himself for them.

Am I ever moved to the point of vomiting when I see the poverty around me in Honduras? Am I ever nauseous at the oppression wrought by the economic and political elites here? Or am I complacent or paralyzed in the sight of so much suffering?

Lord, move my guts to nausea and to a holy disquiet so that I may serve those in need and accompany them in the pursuit of justice and righteousness.

Don’t worry: trust

“When they hand you over,
do not worry about how you are to speak
or what you are to say…”
Matthew 10: 19 

I am a person who plans a lot and has usually written out classes and public speeches. A former colleague in ministry jokingly called me “anal-retentive.”

Thus, the advice Jesus gives to his disciples is very challenging. How will I ever be able to explain what I want to say if I don’t have it all planned out, written up, and corrected several times.

However, here in Honduras, I find myself less preoccupied with having everything totally planned. The culture here is not attuned to this way of operating. At times, this is frustrating; at times, it’s downright inefficient; at times, I think it’s even an expression of not really taking some things seriously enough to plan.

I have often connected my over-planning and frustration about the lack of planning with a failure to trust in the Providence of God. This morning I read a very interesting commentary in Bible Diary 2012, that suggests that the compulsion to plan also might reflect a lack of trust in oneself, in the gifts that God has given us:

We associate intelligence with the ability to plan…. Many things in life require planning, but it can become a compulsive habit. If I feel I have to plan everything, it means that I do not trust myself to react correctly in some future situation…. Compulsive planning ensures that I will always live in the past, that I will never fully meet a new situation. Intelligence isn’t an old hat; it is always new. We have to trust the intelligence that is in us; to distrust it is to undermine it.

 

Work and the school of the Lord’s service

Today the Church celebrates St. Benedict, the patriarch of Western Monasticism.

Benedict was not the first western monk; there are numerous examples of monks and hermits in the west (particularly in Ireland).

But Benedict founded a style of monasticism with a rule of life that modified the extreme ascetic practices of many monks and hermits and offered “a school of the Lord’s service” that has endured to this day.

Prayer and work were the ways the monks sought to serve God.

Benedict’s rule, chapter 35, is clear on the dignity of work and the need that all work.

 Let the brethren serve each other so that no one be excused from the work in the kitchen, except on account of sickness or more necessary work, because greater merit and more charity is thereby acquired.

In the course of history, a distinction arose in many monasteries between the choir monks who prayed (and were mostly ordained priests) and the lay brothers who did the manual labor.

Gratefully, this has changed and the value of all work and of non-clerical monks has been revived.

The Benedictine monastery of Mount Saviour, near Elmira, NY, played an important role in my life. During graduate school I drifted away from the practice of my faith. A friend, who had spent some time at Mount Saviour, helped me return – first of all going to Mass at the apartment of the Little Brothers of the Gospel on New York City’s Lower East Side and then a retreat at Mount Saviour.

At Mount Saviour I saw the equality that Benedict proposed. My friend told me about his first visit there. He saw a monk working in the garden and asked to speak with Fr. Martin, the prior. “I am the prior,” the monk answered.

No work, that is honest, is below the dignity of any person – even the prior. Manual work has a dignity for many reasons and should not be despised.

In a world where many of us flee manual labor, the example of Benedict – and of monks like Fr. Martin – should inspire us to “pray and work” as our way of advancing on the “school of the Lord’s service,” preferring nothing to Christ.