Monthly Archives: August 2014

Conformed or transformed

Be not conformed to this age,
but be transformed
by the renewal of your understanding.
Romans 12: 2

In today’s Gospel, Matthew 16: 21-27, Jesus calls Simon Peter “Satan,” the adversary, the one who plots against the Lord. Peter wants to block the way of the Cross.

For Peter is thinking – or better, reasoning – not as God does, but as humans do.

We look for advantage, for ways to get ahead, to be in control.

But Jesus transforms the world by giving us a new way of thinking – a way of giving oneself.

Today I recall two people who died on August 31 – one from the US, John Leary, who died in Boston in 1982; the other an Ecuadorian bishop, Leonidas Proaño, who died in 1988. I wrote about them in a blog entry last year, which can be read here.

I met John Leary several times at Haley House in Boston. What always struck me was his simplicity, his lack of arrogance. He was actively engaged in resistance to MIT’s nuclear weapons lab, to abortion, to military intervention – but I never saw the self-righteousness I have seen in some activists.

It was probably his life of prayer, his opening his room to the poor, his service to those in need that kept him grounded.

If no one told you, you would not know that he was a graduate of Harvard University. For him, that was not important.

He was a person who was not conformed to this age but had allowed himself to be transformed by Christ and the poor.

Will I let myself be transformed – or do I let myself be formed by the search for recognition, for security, for honors and wealth?


May God transform me.

Restless hearts

You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.
St. Augustine, Confessions

This morning I awoke with these words running through my mind. Only after a few minutes did I remember that today is the feast of St. Augustine, convert, father of the church, author of one of the most important works in Christian literature, The Confessions.

San Agustín

San Agustín

What do I long for? For what am I called? For what – for whom – am I made?

We are made for love, for Love. In today’s reading (1 Corinthians 1: 2), Paul tells us that we are “called to love.”

In the depths of our hearts we are called to Love – to the God who is Love who loves us and calls us to love.

It’s that simple – and that complicated.

Our being is oriented to love. There is within us a “holy longing” for Love, for God. But we often stop before we encounter God.

We look at something beautiful and long for it, long to possess it, to have it. But merely possessing it does not give us real joy, real fulfillment.

But when we see it as a sign of the love and beauty of God, the love and beauty with which God has endowed the world, we no longer need to hold onto it. We can share it. We don’t need to hold onto it.


Because we see that love is not stingy, love is not something that is characterized by scarcity. Love is giving, love is life. It can set us afire.

And so we can pray as Augustine did in another part of his Confessions (Book 10, chapter 29):

O Charity, my God, set me aflame!


The image is from the church in San Agustín, Copán, Honduras.

Dirty hands

How we greet people is very important and often shows what we think of the person we are meeting.

One thing I’ve noticed here in Honduras is that in public  men usually shake hands with other men, but not often with women or children. There is also some deference to those with power, money, or influence.

So I’ve taken up the custom of shaking hands with everyone – men, women, and children. I want them to know that I value them, even if I can’t remember their names.

Sometimes this gets a little tricky. The young mechanic with greasy hands or the worker with dirty hands are often reluctant to shake hands, apologizing for their dirty hands.

I reply that the only dirty hands are the hands of the corrupt and proceed to try to shake hands. They sometimes offer me their arms instead of their hands.

I had forgotten where this response came from until this morning when I picked up Dom Helder Câmara: Essential Writings. There are two quotes that describe a similar experience.

I think about the man I saw working in the street, emptying dustbins. I had caught his eye. He didn’t dare offer me his hand. I virtually had to force him: “Work isn’t what soils our hands, friend. No hand was ever soiled by work. Self-centeredness is that soils them.”   (p. 121)

I know a priest who likes to shake hands with the trash collectors when they are loading the refuse onto the truck. They try to clean their hands on their clothes. The priest, rightly, says: “No work stains human hands. What makes hands dirty is stealing, or greed, or the blood of our neighbors!”   (p. 143)

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of this Brazilian bishop, friend of the poor, apostle of nonviolent liberation.

Dom Helder identified with the poor, recognizing their dignity. He also identified with the Lord Jesus who became flesh as a poor man.

He would get up at 2 am each morning to pray and he would open his own door when someone knocked.

His simplicity, his willingness to touch the hands of the poor, inspires me to be even more committed to prayer and to solidarity with the poor.

Hands joined in prayer should be hands that embrace the poor.


Which side are you on?

Simone Weil was an enigmatic woman. She felt called to be a Christian but never entered the Catholic Church. She loved Greek philosophy but found ancient Roman society repulsive. She was very critical of Judaism, even though she was born of non-practicing Jewish parents. She died in England, though she longed to be parachuted into France to help. She died probably because she refused to eat more than the rations that the French were living on under Nazi occupation.

But I still find her appealing. I first read The Need for Roots in the early 1970s and should read it again to see if it still speaks to me. Her notion of prayer as “attention” is very appealing.

But she was also a woman who sought to be on the side of the marginalized. As she wrote:

“Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.”

Which side am I on?

All brothers and sisters

Do not let yourselves be called Master,
because you have only one Master,
and all of you are brothers and sisters.
Matthew 23: 8

 One thing that struck me when I began living here in Honduras is how people are often addressed by their titles: Doctor Manuel, Profesor Marcos, Abogada (lawyer) María, Ingeniero (engineer) Martín. If you’ve got a university degree (or a teaching degree), flaunt it – and make sure people know it.

I know part of my discomfort is due to the informality and façade of equality which is prevalent in the United States. But there is something more.

Titles separate us from others, make us appear better and more important than others. Titles are sometimes terms of honor for people who have taken the effort to pursue higher studies. But, at least in Honduras, they can also be seen as indications of not just inequality in a society but classism – in which the “lower” classes are treated as less important and less worthy of respect.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus told his followers not to be called “masters” or “teachers.” We often read this as an admonition to avoid making ourselves like God – a call to humility.

But I think this is also a critique of all classism, all discrimination against the “lower” classes, a call to radical equality.

For Jesus does not just call us to avoid being called masters but he reminds us that we are brothers and sisters.

We are all equal and our dignity comes from being daughters and sons of God, not from a degree we obtain.

And so I am proud of the name given me by kinds in the Suchitoto, El Salvador, countryside in 1992 – Hermano Juancito, Brother Jack.

That name is a constant call to remember that I am a brother to all and I need to treat all as sisters and brothers, serving them, in them.

What if we all started remembering that we are sisters and brothers and try to break down the barriers of class, race, nation, religion?

A good politician

Many people, especially here in Honduras, say politics is dirty. Even though politics is seen by the church as a way to promote the common good, many still see politics as unredeemable.

This is understandable when when we see so many corrupt politicians who only seek their own good or who have narrow visions that demonize opponents and refuse to seek the good of the poor.

And so when we see a good politician we are in awe – and sometimes canonize them before their deaths.

But there are good politicians who have a heart set on the good of the community and who are willing to commit their lives to justice for the poor.

One of those, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, was shot and killed on August 21, 1983, as he got off a plane in Manila.

He had been imprisoned in the 1970s by the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. After seven years in prison he was released for medical care in the US after a heart attack but was forbidden to return to his native land.

He however decided to return. When the plane landed, soldiers entered took Benigno out of the cabin and shot him.

Three years later a nonviolent movement, spearheaded by the church, including Cardinal Sin and the base communities, overthrew Marcos.

In his testimony to a US House of Representatives committee barely two months before his death, Aquino explained his nonviolence:

“One can fight hatred with greater hatred, but [former Filipino president Ramón] Magsaysay proved that it is more effective to fight hatred with greater Christian love. . . .

“I have decided to pursue my freedom struggle through the path of nonviolence, fully cognizant that this may be the longer and the more arduous road. If I have made the wrong decision, only I, and maybe my family, will suffer. . . .But by taking the road of revolution, how many lives, other than mine, will have to be sacrificed?…

“I refuse to believe that it is necessary for a nation to build its foundations on the bones of its young. . . . Filipinos are still killing each other in ever increasing numbers. This blood-letting must cease. This madness must cease.

“I think it can be stopped if all Filipinos can get together as true brothers and sisters and search for a healing solution in a genuine spirit of give and take. We must transcend our petty selves, forget our hurts and bitterness, cast aside thoughts of revenge, and let sanity, reason, and, above all, love of country prevail during our gravest hour.”

Would that we had more politicians with such a vision, with such faith in God, and such a willingness to give himself for the common good.

The danger of charity

Marx said that religion was the opium of the people.
But I also know that charity can be the opium of the rich.
St. Alberto Hurtado, S.J.

St. Albert Hurtado was a twentieth century Chilean Jesuit who was an apostle of the poor.

Born poor, he entered the Jesuits and soon became known for his care of the poor, involving his university students in working with the poor. He founded centers for the poor, El Hogar de Cristo, where poor children, and later adults, were sheltered and also trained in various skills.

He also sought to spread the message of Catholic Social Teaching, even starting a periodical and writing several books.

He died on August 18, 1952 of pancreatic cancer.

For St. Albert it was not enough to care for the poor, though charity is essential:

Christ stumbles through our streets in the person of so many poor who are hungry, thrown out of their miserable lodgings because of sickness or destitution. Christ has no home! And we who have the good fortune to have one and have food to satisfy our hunger, what are we doing about it?

One should also seek to make the changes on society that will bring about greater justice.

This morning, I thought about St. Albert’s quote that charity might become the opium of the rich, as I read the Gospel of the rich young man in Matthew 19: 16-22.

If you want to be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor – and then come and follow me.

That quotation of Jesus is a continual challenge to me and all of us who are rich – in comparison to two-thirds of the world. Am I willing to let go of what I have?

But thinking of the teaching and example of St. Albert Hurtado, I see not a way out of the dilemma, but a way to start responding to the dilemma of riches and the inadequacy of charity.

Be present to the poor and struggle for justice.

Share what you have with the poor and challenge the structures that keep them poor.

Give away as much as you can – trust in the loving providence of God and live in solidarity with the poor.

Above all, follow Jesus.


The paradox of Mary’s nothingness

…[Mary’s] highest privilege is her poverty
and her greatest glory is that she is most hidden,
and the source of all her power is that she is as nothing
in the presence of Christ, of God.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Today we Catholics celebrate the Assumption of Mary into heaven. Among the Orthodox, this is the feast of the Dormition of the Virgin.

The Dormition Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

The Dormition, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

The Gospel, the account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, closes with Mary’s Canticle, the Magnificat.

Mary is the Lord’s handmaid, God’s lowly servant. But she connects that status with the grand revolutionary vision of a God

who scatters the proud-hearted
who casts the mighty from the thrones
and raises up the lowly,
who fills the starving with good things
and sends the rich away empty.

How can one whose “chief glory is in her nothingness,” according to Thomas Merton, be connected with such an upside-down vision of the world?

That’s the paradox.

Nothingness puts oneself at the service of a radical transformation.

God uses the poor and weak of the world to confound the strong.

Just because we are lowly doesn’t meant that our vision should be limited.

Our lowliness can open us to the wide vision of God and put us at the service of God’s Reign.

That lowliness recognizes our limitations but give us hope that our limitedness can help God transform ourselves and the world.

The earth’s shadow and the crescent moon

I missed commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Flannery O’Connor on August 3.

Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories are not always the easiest pieces to read and understand, as she often portrays the presence of grace and sin with what, to my prejudiced eye, are bizarre characters. But her works are worthy of study.

Many years ago a friend (I think it was Jim Forest) introduced me to her collection of letters, The Habit of Being, letter which give us a privileged look into the spiritual and intellectual life of this extraordinary woman. They are well worth a read, not once, but several times.

Last year some prayers she wrote early in her life – when she was in Iowa City – were published as A Prayer Journal.

lunar eclipse

lunar eclipse

I began reading the book this afternoon while waiting for a doctor’s appointment. I could not get past these two paragraphs on page 3:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

Help me push myself aside!

Papal reconciliation

If your brother sins against you,
go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.
Matthew 18:15

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the holiness of two opponents – Pope Pontian and anti-pope Hippolytus. According to tradition, both died, reconciled, as martyrs, exiled on the island of Sardinia.

Hippolytus was somewhat of a rigorist; he opposed the popes who reconciled those who abjured their faith in the face of persecution and he proposed that the validity of sacraments depended on the holiness of those who administered them. He also seems to have been a bit haughty, opposing the earlier election of Callistus as bishop of Rome, since Callistus was a former slave and cemetary keeper.

But, exiled to Sardinia, these two opponents died, probably as a result of harsh treatment they had received before they got there and the harsh conditions of the Sardinian salt mines.

In the witness of their blood for Christ, they were reconciled.

As John Shea writes, as excerpted today in Give Us This Day,

Heaven’s agenda is for two disciples on earth, previously alienated, to come together in agreement. This is how heaven comes to earth. If the two involved pray for that, the heavenly power of the Father’s love will energize them in order to bring it about.

This is what seems to have happened between Pontian and Hippolytus. It can happen even today, in a church which at times seems pulled apart into factions.

What it needs is honesty and prayer and, above all, a commitment to witness to what is essential – the Love of God.

Let us pray today for all divisions – in the church, in the world, in families – so that the Love of God and our witness of love for all may open the way for reconciliation.