Monthly Archives: January 2015

Living fully

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton.

Before he entered the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani, Thomas Merton wrote several novels, only one of which survived, interestingly called My Argument with the Gestapo.

What struck me when I read it years ago is this quote:

“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person. The better answer he has, the more of a person he is. . . . I am all the time trying to make out the answer as I go on living. I live out the answer to my two questions myself and the answer may not be complete, even when my life is ended I may go on working out the answer for a long time after my death, but at least it will be resolved, and there will be no further question, for with God’s mercy, I shall possess not only the answer but the reality that the answer was about.”

What keeps me living fully?

Sometimes I’ve thought that I could live fully if only things would work out as I hope and dream, if only the things that give me concern will go away, if only a certain person would stop bothering me, if only…

I am slowly learning that often my fears, my worries, my lack of trust in the providence of God, my concern for what people think of me are what really keep me from living fully.

Reading Thomas Merton’s journals I sometimes felt that he felt that the abbot was keeping him from living fully, because he wouldn’t let Merton move to the Carthusians of Camaldolese. But I think he finally got over that – maybe during the time of his love affair, and recognized what really kept him from living fully.

For me, this question might make a good Lenten theme. I sure need to ask it.

Courage and nonviolence

Do not throw aside your boldness…
You need patient endurance to do the will of God…
Hebrews 10: 35-36

 Today is the international day of peace and nonviolence.

On January 30, 1948, Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma (the Great-souled one), was assassinated by a fanatic.

Gandhi had led the people of India in a long nonviolent campaign for independence. He also sought an end to the caste system and the marginalization of the so-called “untouchables.” In addition, he sought reconciliation between Hindus and Moslems.

The first writings of his that I remember reading were in the collection of Thomas Merton, Gandhi on Nonviolence.

What most impressed me was Gandhi’s insistence that nonviolence demands courage. A coward cannot be a practitioner of nonviolence. It is easier for a soldier to struggle nonviolently than for a coward. A soldier knows that he (or she) must be willing to sacrifice one’s life for others.

The votary of nonviolence must be courageous and willing to struggle, willing to die. If she or he cannot, it is better to use violence than to flee, as noted int hse two quotes of Gandhi from Merton’s book:

A non-violent man or woman will and should die without retaliation, anger or malice, in self-defense or in defending the honor of his women folk. This is the highest form of bravery. If an individual or group of people are unable or unwilling to follow this great law of life, retaliation or resistance unto death is the second best though a long way off from the first. Cowardice is impotence worse than violence . The coward desires revenge but being afraid to die, he looks to others, maybe to the government of the day, to do the work of defense for him. A coward is less than a man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women.

It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent.

Nonviolence is a weapon of those without power – but it is not weakness.

Many think of nonviolence as passivity; probably for this reason, Gandhi called his method Satygraha – the force, the strength, of truth.

In Brazil, the method has been called firmeza permanente – permanent firmness.

In many ways this phrase mirrors what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews advocates:

Do not throw aside your boldness …
You need patient endurance/steadfastness to do the will of God.

May we learn boldness and endurance to live as followers of Christ and be true instruments of peace.

Our mission

We must consider
how to rouse one another
to love and good works.
Hebrews 10:24

 These words from the letter to the Hebrews strike me today as a description of the essence of our mission as followers of Jesus.

How can we rouse each other to love?

How can we rouse each other to good works?

First of all, it’s not how I can rouse others to love and good works. It’s a community endeavor – how can we do it. We need each other to encourage and rouse each other.

My experience is that I am roused to love in my ministry with people here.

That doesn’t mean that it’s easy and that the people are always loving and easy to love. But I am continued called to rouse myself to love.

I also find myself roused – incited – to good works by the care and concern that people give me. A few nights ago two kids brought me plantains, after I had been a little brusque with them. A few weeks ago, a neighbor, Jesús, dropped by with patastes (a vegetable like a hard squash). Gloria has offered to wash my blankets, since they are hard to wash by hand for inexperienced people like me.

The challenge to rouse each other to love and good works is a challenge not only to offer encouragement to others but also to be willing to receive it.

We are in this together.

Perhaps that’s why the next verse in Hebrews is

We should not stay away from our assembly…

The poor Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas was born into a family of the lower nobility. But his family had plans for him. Sent to school at Monte Cassino with the Benedictines, they probably hoped he would become an abbot and maybe even a bishop.

But God had other plans for Thomas.

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

At the University of Naples he ran across the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, a mendicant order that saw voluntary poverty as part of their way of living out their vocation.

Dominic, the founder of the order, had come to this position when he was trying to convert the Albigensians in southern France. Many of those who tried to convert them came with their finery and fancy wagons. Dominic saw that the Albigensian leaders lived simply and poorly. And so Dominic saw the value of poverty.

Thomas’s decision to join the Dominicans did not make his family happy – but after being imprisoned by his brothers for a year, they let him join the Dominicans.

Thomas proceeded to become one of the most learned scholars of his age. But in this he did not forget the value of poverty.

Thomas defended the voluntary poverty of the mendicant (begging) orders and in fact he wrote of the poverty of Christ:

Christ chose to have parents who were poor but perfect in virtue, lest anyone should glory in his noble lineage and the riches of his parents. He lived a life of poverty to teach others to spurn riches. He lived an ordinary life having no high position to recall others from an inordinate greed for honors. He endured labor, hunger, thirst and bodily scourging, lest those who are intent on bodily pleasures and delights draw back from the good of virtue because of the rigors of such a life.

The poor Christ was his inspiration.

How can we live as followers of the poor Christ in our daily lives?

Liberation of Auchwitz

“Only the person who cries out for the Jews
may sing Gregorian chant.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Seventy years ago today the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated.

An era ended – an era of mass extermination of Jews, the handicapped, homosexuals, and others.

The failure of many, including the Church, to stand up against Hitler struck me deeply in the early sixties, when I was in high school.

I continue to look at those who did speak up and who paid the price, especially people like the Austrian peasant Franz Jägerstätter as well as Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose.

The stories of people who hid Jews and others touches me deeply, especially the story of André and Magda Trocmé and the village of Le Chambon in France.

The failure to speak out awakened me to the need to be a witness against all injustice.

The witness of those who did stand up for the Jews inspires me to do just that.

Stir into flame

Stir into flame the gift of God
2 Timothy 1: 6

 It’s a cold, rainy, foggy morning here in Plan Grande. Last night I was cold even with two blankets, not helped by stomach and intestinal problems that continue this morning.


I don’t feel like doing anything but have to go into Santa Rosa, even though that will mean muddy roads (and putting the car into four wheel drive and getting muddy in the process.)


So when I read today’s first reading, I was reminded by the need to ask God to keep the flame going.

About ten years ago, during a hard time in my work, I felt as if the flame was going out. The passage from Isaiah 42: 3 deeply touched me:

A bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.

So I sought out a spiritual director and with her help God rekindled the spark in me.

My move to the countryside herein Honduras has rekindled the spark in me and, even though the cold and rain of January can be difficult and the occasional intestinal problems can wreak havoc on the body, the quiet of this place and the chance to be more involved in the lives of people sparks something within me.

In the midst of dark days, may God stir into flame that spark of God’s love that is at the center of our being.

Detachment, living in the now, and following the call

This morning I work up about 4 am and heard people talking near my house. I thought it was rather strange but went back to sleep since I had planned to sleep in this morning.

I finally got up at about 6:15 and noted the presence of a good number of people at the corner by the school. I saw my neighbor Juan and asked him why. He told me to come over.

I went over and discovered that his mother, in her early seventies, had died yesterday. I found out later that she had been in the hospital for a week. Last night they held a vigil in the home, as is the custom here.

I went and prayed at the coffin in the main room of the house and greeted those gathered in the kitchen and outside – many of the Doña Victoria’s children.

When I returned to my house, I grabbed a coffee and prayed my morning prayer.

Today’s second reading – 1 Corinthians 7; 29-31 – is not an easy reading. “The time (ό καιρός) is running out… the world in its present form is passing away.” Those who are weeping should live as if not weeping, those laughing as though not laughing – and so on.

But a sentence in Daily Gospel 2015 opened my heart:

…our time is too short and we need to use it well. Our life is valuable and we cannot just spoil or ignore the call of God.

Reflecting a little more I began to see this passage of Paul as a call to detachment – or, as St. Ignatius Loyola puts it, indifference. In the Spiritual Exercises, 23, he writes:

…it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things … in such a way that, for our part, we not seek health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one, and so on in all other matters, wanting and choosing only that which leads more to the end for which we are created.

Detachment from all things can open us to respond to the call of God at any moment, even at the moment of our deaths. Indeed, I’d suggest that detachment can free us to die.

This afternoon Padre German will come to celebrate Mass for Doña Victoria who followed the Lord in her daily life, often participating in a base community in her house.

Am I detached enough to let God call me where I don’t expect and eventually call me home?

The citation from St. Ignatius is taken from the translation of George Ganss, S.J., as found in Dean Brackley’s The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, a book that I highly recommend.

Saint Agnes the Virgin

Do not act the harlot!
1 Corinthians 6: 13

Last Sunday’s second reading (1 Corinthians 6: 13-20) began with a very strong statement in the Spanish translation I heard:

El cuerpo no es para fornicar, sino para server al Señor…
The body is not for fornication but for serving the Lord…

The version used in the US was a little less strong:

The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord…

Yet the verb translated as fornication or immorality comes from the Greek word for harlot and so a more pointed translation might be

The body is not for prostitution, for harlotry, but for the Lord.

This reading came to mind this morning as I read the entry on Saint Agnes in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflection on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.

Today is the feast of the youthful virgin and martyr Agnes. According to the early accounts, she was a twelve year old who refused offers of marriage because she had consecrated her virginity to Christ.

She was accused as a Christian by her suitors. She refused to deny Christ and was at first sentenced to a house of prostitution where no one dared touch her. The infuriated magistrate then had her beheaded.

The story of Saint Agnes has been read as a call for virginity and some have seen it as a denigration of the body and sexuality. But I think Robert Ellsberg’s commentary offers an alternative and even more challenging interpretation of her life:

In the story of Agnes … the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to define her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality. According to the view shared by her “suitors” and the state, if she would not be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. Failing these options, she might as well be dead. Agnes did no choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. The God she worshipped sets an altogether different value on her body, her identity, and her human worth. Espoused to God, she was beyond the power of any man to “have his way with her.” “Virgin” in this case is another way of saying Free Woman.

May this example of Agnes help us all remember that, as St. Paul put it, “you are not your own” and that we are called to “glorify God in your body.”

That’s real chastity!



Son though He was,
He learned obedience
through what He suffered.
Hebrews 5: 8

 I sometimes cringe when I hear people here in Honduras speak of the need to be obedient. It often seems as if they are speaking about a submission to church authority – usually the priest or the bishop. Disobedience often comes across as the worst sin.

I cringe partly because of my first world US emphasis on the individual and the liberty of the conscience of the person, even though I often rant against individualism.

I also cringe because appeal to obedience seems to undercut critical thinking. The appeal to hierarchical authority in whatever realm (politics, church, academia, economics) is not, for me, a good argument.

But most of all I cringe because I feel that it is a way to keep people in their place.

But in today’s first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (5: 1- 10), we hear that Christ learned obedience through what he suffered.

What does obedience really mean?

In both Greek (ὑπακούω) and Latin (obedientia), the root of the word translated as obedience is the word that means “hear.” In one sense, the word obedience has something to do with hearing, listening, paying attention.

I checked several Greek dictionaries. One gave a series of meanings; the last one was “to open (the door).” Another (Strong’s) noted that the first meaning of the word is “to hear under (as a subordinate), i.e. to listen attentively.”

Jesus learned to listen attentively as a subordinate, from the underside.

I know that this primarily means that Jesus listens attentively  to the Father and that His will is one with the Father.

But I can’t help but think of another possible interpretation (which may just be reading into the text.)

Jesus, sharing in the suffering of the peoples of this world, listens from the underside, from the position of one who is inferior, who is commanded.

Jesus came among us as a poor man and knows the situation of the poor. He can help us read the world from their perspective, from the underside, from the perspective of the poor.

And then, maybe, we can begin to listen authentically and attentively to God.

Hanging out with Jesus

In today’s Gospel (John 1: 35-42), John the Baptist points out Jesus to two of his disciples. They follow after Jesus who, at some point, turns around, sees them, and asks them, “What are you looking for?” They respond with a question, “Where are you staying?” Jesus responds, “Come and see.” They go where he is staying and stay with him.

I don’t think that these two disciples aren’t looking for a doctrine, a series of teachings. They are looking for someone to hang out with who will make sense of life, who will respond to their dreams and hopes. They are looking for that personal connection – in community – with a person who is full of Life and Love.

They hang out with Jesus and then Andrew invites his brother Simon to join them. Hanging out with Jesus has led Andrew to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, God’s anointed one and he has to share it.

Where are you hanging out, Jesus? Where do I encounter you?

Am I open to following behind you and then spending time with you?

For me, an important part of hanging out with Jesus is setting aside time in the morning for prayer and quiet – praying some psalms and meditating on the daily readings.

But I also think that spending time with the people around me, especially the poor, may be another way to hang out with Jesus.

I don’t think my mission is merely a question of doing things for the poor. Rather, first of all it’s being with them, with those I encounter every day.

It’s not without significance that here I occasionally encounter people named Jesús – both men and women. Last week, Jesús stopped by my house to give me six patastes, a vegetable that abounds here (like zucchini in the US). We talked a bit and he left.

I don’t think I was aware as I could have been of how in this encounter I had a chance to hang out with Jesus – not only in times of prayer, but also in times of visiting with others.

“Come and see,” Jesus told the two disciples.

I’m here, but do I always see? And do I let myself hang out with Jesus and Jesús?