Monthly Archives: August 2013

The fleshiness of the Virgin Mary

In 1950, after the devastation of World War II including the Holocaust of 6 million Jews and millions more in the Nazi death camps and the use of atomic bombs against largely civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pope Pius XII declared as a doctrine of faith the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Her body did not suffer corruption.

In one way this feast is an antidote to war and violence and to all who would despise or use the flesh through rape and human trafficking.

The Assumption of Mary is an affirmation of the body. We are saved, body and soul. We shall all be raised up on the last day; Mary, in the eternity of God, has already been raised up.

Belief that Mary was taken up into heaven and that her body did not suffer the putrefaction of the flesh is an ancient belief in both East and West. The Orthodox celebrate today as the Dormition of the Virgin.

There are innumerable icons of this. In the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome there is a beautiful rendition of the icon in a mosaic.

IF

 

There is another in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

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God has come to save the whole person, body and soul and Mary is the first person to experience this fully.

The fleshiness of Mary and Christ is something we might want to gloss over. But the early church, declaring Mary the Mother of God, emphasized that Jesus was truly human and truly God.

And so in Italy I saw a number of images of Mary breast-feeding, one of my favorite on the façade of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

DSC01601

As I prayed Vespers last night from Benedictine Daily Prayer, the hymn praised Mary,

Who once gave nurture from your breast,
To God, with pure maternal love.

We are called today to remember the gift of the body, to respect it, for the Word became flesh from the flesh of the Virgin Mary.

As Thomas Merton out it in New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 173:

If Mary is believed to be assumed into heaven, it is because we too are one day, by the grace of God, to dwell where she is. If human nature is glorified in her, it is because God desires it to be glorified in us too, and it is for this reason that His Son, taking flesh, came into the world.

In all the great mystery of Mary, then, one thing remains most clear: that of herself she is nothing, and that God has for our sakes delighted to manifest His glory and His love in her.

It is because she is, of all the saints, the most perfectly poor and the most perfectly hidden, the one who has absolutely nothing whatever that she attempts to possess as her own, that she can most fully communicate to the rest of us the grace of the infinitely selfless God. And we will most truly possess Him when we have emptied ourselves and become poor and hidden as she is, resembling Him by resembling her.

The gift of tears

This morning I came upon a video of Frederick Buechner on tears.


This reminded me of an experience I had this past year.

This past February during my pilgrimage to Europe I was overwhelmed, unexpectedly, by tears several times – most notably in Assisi.

My first day there I visited the chapel of the Basilica of Saint Clare that has the famous cross that had been in the church of San Damiano. Before this cross, Saint Francis heard God calling him to “Go, repair my church, which – as you see – is falling into runs.”

I entered the chapel and knelt. I asked God, “What do you want me to do?”

Very clearly I discerned three phrases:

Love.
Love my people.
Love the poor.

And the tears flowed.

Leaving the basilica of St. Clare, I walked down to San Damiano, outside the city walls, and sat there in the small empty church. There was a great peace there – and tears again flowed. Why? I do not know. But the peace of God, witnessed by Clare and Francis, filled me.

The next day after a morning praying in the chapel and walking the grounds of the Carceri, the hermitage where Francis and his brothers prayed (and still pray), I went to the Porziuncula, also below Assisi.

There I prayed in the little church surrounded by a huge basilica. Afterwards I went seeking an English-speaking friar for confession. The friar from Bangla Desh was full of God’s mercy, even as he challenged me to live more faithfully.

He then asked me about Honduras. As I spoke about my concerns, I was on the verge of tears. My heart was aching for the people I love here in Honduras.

Tears can open us to God – reminding us of God’s love and calling us to conversion. But they also should open us to others, feeling in the depths of our being their joys and sorrows.

As Buechner concludes in the video:

[Tears] are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.

St. Ignatius of Loyola writes about tears in The Spiritual Exercises, most often connecting tears with recognition of our sinfulness. But he also sees tears as signs of God’s consolation:

It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God.

Today, I thank God for this gift and pray for my continuing conversion – and my openness to God’s love.

 

God and aliens

Befriend the stranger.
Deuteronomy 8: 19 

So often the immigration debate is conducted in terms of issues of economics or security: what will these immigrants do to my standard of living? how will they affect my security?

On the other hand, advocates of immigrants often rely on an appeal to human rights, to the immigrants themselves. How can we deny these people a chance to live and seek a decent life?

But today’s reading from Deuteronomy 10: 12-22 moves the debate to an entirely different level: who is God for us?

After recalling how God had chosen his people in love, Moses tells the people not to be stiff-necked.

Why?

The Lord, your God … shows no favor and takes no bribes; … executes justice
for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him.

This is the way God acts – befriending the aliens.

In one sense we are all aliens. We did not come into this world on our own. We do not live in this world solely by our powers.

We are, as another passage of scripture (1 Peter 2: 11) puts it, all aliens and strangers, sojourners on this earth.

But God befriends us and chooses us.

And so we are called to do the same:

 So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.

 

The poor are the riches of the Church.

He distributed;
he gave to the poor;
his justice remains forever
Psalm 112 (111):9

The most famous story of St. Lawrence, deacon of Rome, is his quip while being roasted on a gridiron: “Turn me over; I’m done already on this side.” He had not only courage, but a sense of humor.

But there is another story that perhaps we should pay more attention to.

Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome appointed to give alms to the poor. In early August 258 Pope Sixtus and six of the deacons were martyred.

Lawrence was spared so that he could gather up the riches of the church to hand over to the Roman prefect.

Lawrence gathered the poor of the city, gave them whatever money the church had, and brought them before the prefect.

“Here is the treasury of the Church,” he proclaimed.

The poor are the riches of the church.

We, as the people of God, ought to share what we have with them – so that there is no poor among us (Acts 4: 34).

We ought to treat them all with respect, associating with them (Romans 12:16).

In an address to his fellow Argentinians earlier this week, Pope Francis reminded us that it is not enough to give alms.

Speaking to pilgrims to a shrine of St. Cajetan, he recalled the theme of the pilgrimage: “With Jesus and St Cajetan, let us reach out to those most in need.”

This speaks of the people most in need, of those who need us to give them a hand, who need us to look them with love, to share their pain or their anxieties, their problems. What’s important is that we don’t just look at them from afar or help from afar. No, no! We must reach out to them. This is being Christian! This is what Jesus taught us: to reach out to the needy. Like Jesus who always reached out to the people. He went to meet them. Reaching out to those most in need.

Sometimes, I ask people, “Do you give alms.” They say, “Yes, father.” “And when you give alms, do you look into the eyes of people you are giving alms to?” “Ah, I do not know, I don’t really think about it”. “Then you have not reached out to those people. You just tossed them some charity and went away. When you give alms, do you touch their hands or just toss them the coins?” “No, I toss them the coins”. “Then you have not touched them. And if you have not touched them, you have not reached out to them.” What Jesus teaches us, first of all, is to reach out to each other, and in reaching out, helping one another.

We must be able to reach out to each other. We must build, create, construct a culture of encounter.

And when we reach out to the poor we find that they are real people – with hopes and dreams like us, with pains and sorrows like ours, or worse.

They are people with capabilities, real people, who dream of a future for their children, who are frustrated by lack of opportunities or by discrimination.

What can we offer them?

Most of all we need to offer them our friendship. accompanying them in their joys and struggles.

That’s what Jesus did. Can we do less?

A peasant prophet

For what doth it profit a man,
if he gain the whole world,
and suffer the loss of his own soul?
Matthew 16: 26
(Douay-Rheims translation)

Seventy years ago today, August 9, 1943, a 36 year old Austrian peasant, husband and father of two girls, was beheaded in a Berlin prison.

Franz Jägerstätter

Portrait von Franz Jägerstätter- St. Radegund/ Schärding 2. Weltkrieg – 1939 – 1945 *** Local Caption *** St. Radegund

Franz Jägerstätter has refused to serve in Hitler’s army. Unlike many in Germany and Austria, he had realized the horror and the sinfulness of Nazis. Even though religious leaders told him to recall his duty to his family and to his “fatherland,” he insisted that he could not do something that endangered his immortal soul.

This man from the small village of Sant-Radegund, Austria, had an understanding of the horror and evil of Nazism that others lacked. In one of his writings from prison he described a 1938 dream in which he saw people eager to board a train. He heard a voice, “This train is bound for hell.” He identified the train as Nazism and considered it is duty to jump off.

He also had the courage to act. He was the only person in his village to vote against the German annexation of Austria. He also took the brave act of refusing induction into the German army in 1943.

He is a real example of someone who was willing to deny himself and take up the cross, as Jesus calls us to do in today’s Gospel (Matthew 16:24).

He did it even though he was virtually alone.

In an extraordinary letter from prison he wrote his wife about his solitary witness:

Today one can hear it said repeatedly that there is nothing any more that an individual can do. If someone were to speak out, it would mean only imprisonment and death. True, there is not much that can be done any more to change the course of world events. I believe that should have begun a hundred or even more years ago. But as long as we live in this world, I believe it is never too late to save ourselves and perhaps some other soul for Christ.

One really has no cause to be astonished that there are those who can no longer find their way in the great confusion of the day. People we think we can trust, who ought to be leading the way and setting a good example, are running with the crowd.

No one gives enlightenment, whether in word or in writing….

Do we no longer want to see Christians who are able to take a stand in the darkness around us in deliberate clarity, calmness, and confidence — who, in the midst of tension gloom, selfishness, and hate, stand fast in perfect peace and cheerfulness — who are not like the floating reed which is driven here and there by every breeze — who do not merely watch to see what their friends will  do but, instead, ask themselves, “What does our faith teach is about this,” or “can conscience bear this so easily that I will never have to repent?”

If road signs were ever stuck so loosely in the earth that every wind cold break them off or blow them about, would anyone who did not know the road be able to find his way? And how much worse is it if those to whom one turns for information refuse to give him an answer or, at most, give him the wrong direction just to be rid of him as quickly as possible!

Franz stood alone and is for us a signpost of God in the midst of violence, war, and injustice.

Would that we also be signposts of God’s will – even if it brings the cross.

The quotation from Jägerstätter’s prison letter is taken from Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness. In 2009, Orbis Books published an anthology of his writings: Franz Jägertätter: Letters and Writings from Prison.

Preaching, poverty, and prayer

Saint Dominic – Domingo Guzman – was a contemporary of Saint Francis. Like his contemporary he saw the necessity to preach the Gospel while living in poverty and simplicity.

Dominic began his ministry in southern France, where the dualist Cathars had attracted many, especially by their simple way of life. Dominic saw preaching effectively should include a simple way of life. He and his bishop preached barefoot and did not travel in the fancy carriages of other preachers. They also established a house for women which became the source of the Dominican sisters.

Eventually Dominic and male followers established the Order of Friars Preachers, first with diocesan approval and then later with the approval of the pope.

In one sense Francis sought to personify the Gospel by his life and his preaching, which we witness especially in the stigmata which he bore in the last two years of his life.

Dominic, on the other hand, sought to preach the Good News and saw his followers as disciples and missionaries. For this task, he saw the need for study, something that distinguished him from St. Francis.

But both Francis and Dominic saw the need to live poorly, to witness to the Gospel in the way their friars lived – wandering about preaching, living simply, and begging.

Dominic’s legacy includes great theologians, like St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas. The mystic St. Catherine of Siena was a lay Dominican. Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, the great advocate of the indigenous in the Americas, joined the Dominicans, probably in part because of their strong preaching against slavery. In our days, the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez joined the Dominicans after many years as a diocesan priest in Perú.

Preaching the Gospel does not only demand knowledge of the scriptures. It is not only nurtured by careful study. Preaching the Gospel demands a simple life, a life where poverty has a part.

As he lay dying, Dominic addressed these words to his brothers, as cited in Richard McBrien’s Lives of the Saints :

My dear sons, there are my bequests: practice charity in common, remain humble, stay poor willingly.

Robert Ellsberg, in All Saints, has a slightly different version:

 All my children, what I leave to you: have charity, guard humility, and make your treasure out of voluntary poverty.

If we would follow these words, our witness and our preaching would be much more credible. Perhaps that is why Pope Francis is so inspiring.

But such ministry must also be based in deep prayer.

In the Dominican friary of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico and his students painted frescoes on the walls of the friars’ cell. In the bottom of a fresco of the Mocking of Christ is found the image of Dominic, sitting, meditating on the Scriptures.

St. Dominic (by Fra Angelico)

St. Dominic (by Fra Angelico)

In the sight of the suffering Christ, we are called to meditate on God’s Word – listening to the voice of God.

With this base, we can live the Good News as Francis and Dominic did – in the light of God’s love for us.

 

God and the bomb

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, when Jesus on a mountain top (possibly Mount Tabor) with Peter, James, and John was “transfigured.”

As Mark (9:3) put it in a homey image: “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.“ Moses and Elijah appeared with him and, according to Luke’s account (9:31), they spoke of Jesus’ upcoming death.

On this day, the US dropped a bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing up to 166,000 and leaving tens of thousands more with debilitating radiation sickness. This bombing and the bombing three days later of Nagasaki are the only uses of nuclear weapons in war – and they were used against cities and killed civilians.

President Truman showed no remorse for the use of these weapons of mass destruction. According to Eduardo Galeano, in Children of the Days, Truman said: “We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”

How different was the response of Pope Paul VI (who incidentally died on August 6, 1978), who called it a “butchery of untold magnitude.”

The light of the mount of Transfiguration and the blinding light of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima provide striking contrasts. Des Moines bishop Maurice Dingman wrote of this in a pastoral letter in 1978:

“The very existence of the human race is in jeopardy. We must halt the arms race in the spirit of Tabor or proceed with the armaments race and face annihilation in the spirit of Hiroshima.”

The light of Tabor was not a light of destruction but of self-giving. Jesus was discussing his upcoming death with Moses and Elijah. And as he came down the mountain he told his disciples to keep this secret until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.

The difference is, for me, clear.

Will we let ourselves be transfigured, transformed, by the Lord who gave his life for us and calls us to take up the cross in order to live?

Or will we impose a cross of war and injustice on others in order to preserve our “way of living”?

And so, it is not “God and the bomb.” It is God or the bomb.

 

Bread – a spiritual problem?

Today’s lectionary readings have to do with food.

In Number 11: 4-15, the children of Israel in the desert are sick and tired of eating manna and complain to Moses. We want what we had in Egypt: meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic.  But all we’ve got is this God-forsaken manna.

In the Gospel, Matthew 14: 13-21, also in a deserted place, the disciples see that the people are hungry and want to send them away – everyone on their own. But Jesus tells them to feed the people themselves. The disciples are confused: they only have five loaves and two fish. But with this Jesus feeds the crowd – five thousand men, not counting women and children.

In the desert, the children of Israel are obsessing about their own food. But in a deserted place, Jesus is thinking about the food of others.

A quote from the Russian philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev explains this well:

“The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question.”

What is the question that troubles us – my bread, or the bread of my neighbor?

That is the difference between materialism and real spirituality.

The idolatry of greed

Put to death what is earthly in your life:
… the greed which is idolatry.
Colossians 3: 5

Be on your guard and avoid every kind of greed.
Luke 12: 15

 In today’s Gospel, Luke 12: 13-21, Jesus responds to a request to decide about inheritances by offering what is one of my favorite parables: the parable of bigger barns.

A man had a good harvest and no place to store it. And so he decides to tear down his barns and build bigger ones.

Clarence Jordan was a Baptist preacher, trained in theology, Greek, and agriculture. He founded an interracial community in Georgia which he named Koinonia Farms.

Jordan translated much of the New Testament in his “Cotton Patch” versions which placed Jesus in Georgia. His translation of what happens next is both delightful and challenging:

And I will say to myself: “Self, you’ve got enough stuff stashed away to do you a long time. Recline, dine, wine, and shine!”

But God said to him. “You nitwit, at this very moment your good are putting the screws on your soul. All these things you’ve grubbed for, to whom shall they really belong?”

Many years ago I heard a tape of Jordan on this parable and later read a commentary he had written on this. What I remember makes this even more pointed.

Jordan says that the “rich fellow” was named Sam, Uncle Sam. When he found out that he didn’t have enough room to store his crops, he decided that he needed “bigger barns” to store his crops, instead of storing them in “empty bellies.”

Jesus challenges us today to remember that all that we have is not ours. All that we have is gift, to be shared, especially with the poor.

The early Fathers of the Church were clear on this. As Saint Basil said:

The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the one who is naked. The shoes which you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor. The acts of charity which you do not perform are so many injustices you commit.

Greed is idolatry, because it places us at the center – and God and the poor get nothing  but the scraps.

Loves shares.

Return to Paradise

It shall be a jubilee for you.
Leviticus 25: 10 

Today’s first reading from Leviticus is part of the call for a year of Jubilee every fifty years, when “each of you shall return to your own property, each of you to your own family.”  Debts would be forgiven, the enslaved (probably because of debts) would be freed, and the land would be returned to its original owners.

It is not clear if this was ever practiced in ancient Israel, but it is a clear case of God’s will for equity, for a just society.

People will make mistakes and have to sell their land or sell themselves into servitude in order to make ends meet. People will be subjected to harsh natural conditions and natural disasters will drive people off their land. People will suffer from the greed of some who wish to buy up all the land to enrich themselves.

But God wants equity; he wants to restore the original equity among the people which, according to the Torah, was the original condition of the People of God in the promised land.

As I read the passage this morning, I was reminded of the passage from Micah 4:3-4:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks…
They shall all sit under their own vines,
under their own fig trees, undisturbed…

 The Vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, found also in chapter 2 and 11 of Isaiah, is a call to return to the peace of Paradise, where there is harmony between people and all the rest of God’s creation.

These readings are a challenge to the nations of the world, where inequality reigns, where desire for more moves some to massive accumulation.

I live in a country where many of those who would like to work do not have land of their own and where a few people own much of the land.

Today’s reading is a challenge which, unfortunately, few Christians take into account. Satisfied with giving gifts to the poor, they fail to see the roots of poverty in their own greed and accumulation, in the structures of society which enable massive accumulation.

It would be interesting if someone tried to change things. Land reform is needed – and has happened in a few places in the world. But often those who cry out for real land reform end up like St. John the Baptist – with their heads cut off, or shot as they try nonviolently to defend their land.

But Leviticus 25 seems to be calling for just such reforms.

May God give us the courage to promote these efforts which will help bring liberty to the oppressed.