Sunday, December 01, 2013
St. Augustine and his mother St. Monica, By Ary Scheffer (1846)
(First Sunday of Advent-Year A; This homily was given 30 November, 2013 at St. Mary's Church, in Carolina, R.I.; See Romans 13:11-14 and Matthew 24:37-44)
One of the most remarkable and well-known conversions in the history of the Christian faith is found in the story of St. Augustine. As a brilliant young man and accomplished philosopher, Augustine’s intellect brought him farther along than most of the men in his day, and his weakness for the sins of the flesh brought him further from God than he could have possibly imagined.
In this regard, the sorrow and bitter tears of his mother, St. Monica, are iconic. She spent entire years of her life weeping for his conversion and crying out to God, and anyone else who would listen, if only someone could convince her son how desperately he needed God. Monica believed that her son’s willful separation from God and his sinfulness, if unchecked and unchanged until death, would result in the loss of eternal life (one of the great tragedies of our culture is that there are no longer as many Monica’s who weep and lament the possibility of such things, but that is another homily for another time).
Augustine himself would later concur with the conviction of his mother when, in his autobiography, The Confessions, he expresses in great detail the human drama of being utterly lost and the divine humility that sought him out with breathtaking and undying love.
At one point in his own story of conversion Augustine relates how, although he had come full circle on an intellectual level with regard to the Christian faith and had begun to surrender his heart to God in earnest, he found himself at an impasse when it came to leaving behind the sensual pleasures that had so captivated him as a young man. Indeed, earlier he had openly admitted that he was “a slave of lust” (The Confessions, Book VI, 15.25). Late now, but not too late, he became enamored of the desire to be set free.
Augustine relates how he was held back by vivid memories and the weight of all that he was to leave behind. He could certainly imagine himself becoming fully immersed in God some time in the future, but he lamented the inability to do so presently. Overcome by emotion, he burst out of the house in which he was staying and sat down in an adjoining garden. His face wet with tears, Augustine began to pray to God, “Why not now? Why do I not put an end to my shameful conduct from this hour forward?” (The Confessions, Book VIII, 12.28).
At that very moment he began to hear the sound of a child’s voice from a nearby house. The voice was playfully singing, “Tolle, legge. Tolle, legge,” Latin for “Pick it up and read it. Pick it up and read it.” He paused and tried to think if he had ever heard of a child’s game that used those words; if there was one, he could not recall it. All the while that child’s voice continued melodiously: Tolle, legge. Tolle, legge.
It finally dawned on Augustine that, whatever game the child next door was playing, God was speaking directly to him through that voice: You, Augustine, pick it up and read it! Picking up the Sacred Scriptures that were beside him, he opened them at random and came to the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is the very same passage that we have been given this weekend in our Second Reading for the First Sunday of Advent. “Why not now?,” Augustine had asked. Suddenly St. Paul answers:
You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.
Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.
From this moment forward St. Augustine would have the strength provided by God to embrace the call of God not only of chastity but also of celibacy for the Kingdom of God. His mother, St. Monica, had prayed fervently that he would be baptized a Christian and be able to embrace a life of chastity but she never imagined that he would become a priest and finally a bishop. In a moment of grace St. Augustine had become awake and alive to all that God was calling him to.
This Advent, are we?
“You know the time,” St. Paul urges us on. “It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand” (Romans 13:11).
Advent is about waking up to the presence of God in our lives and being alert to the power of God that transforms us and, through us, transforms the world around us. Are we awake and alert for that?
Jesus Christ, in our Gospel this weekend, warns us not to be spiritually slothful, like the people in the days of Noah. They were totally occupied with marriage, eating, drinking, celebrating—all good things, no doubt—but they let themselves be distracted from the unum neccesarium, the one necessary “thing”: God.
“Therefore, stay awake! Jesus warns us. “For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” (Matthew 24:42).
When the Lord came to Bethlehem, and then to Galilee and Jerusalem, so very many people missed Him. When he comes again, the Sacred Scriptures tell us, many will be spiritually asleep. When he comes to us this Christmas, will we be awake?
The Latin word for “coming” is Adventus. It is where we get the name for this season of preparation for the coming of Christ in just a few short weeks. I would suggest this weekend three particular tried-and-true ways that we can be more fully awake and alert for Jesus Christ this Advent. They come to us from the lives of the saints and have stirred the souls of Christians for centuries. They may already be a part of your daily spiritual regimen, but we can always use a reminder.
Firstly, I would suggest the Morning Offering. One of the best ways to be awake to God is by giving ourselves to God the moment we wake. A well-known Morning Offering used by many of the saints begins:
Lord Jesus Christ, I offer You all the prayers, works and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of your most Sacred Heart.
It can be that simple, but also that meaningful, for us and for God. We are saying to God that all the good we will accomplish—our prayers and works, our gifts and achievements, our virtues and victories—are being offered to Him, in faith, in advance.
Also, we are saying that all the challenges and crosses we will encounter—our sufferings, our setbacks, the contradictions that we may never have anticipated—are all being offered to Him in faith, as well. “I am awake for you today, Jesus. All day.” What a beautiful way to wake up to God each day!
Secondly, I would suggest that we take a page from St. Augustine’s book, literally! Tolle, legge! Take it up and read it! The prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture has been the staple of the saints from the inception of the Church until now. Perhaps we could begin with just a minute or two each day, taking up the Bible and slowly letting it shape and form us, speaking to God whatever comes to mind when we spend that time with Him in the Sacred Scriptures. One passage from the Letter to the Romans was able to transform St. Augustine and make him fully awake and alive in Christ. Imagine what God’s word will do in our lives this Advent!
Finally, I would recommend the Daily Examen. Not only at the beginning of the day but at the end of each day we follow the example of the saints who come before God each evening and take two minutes to review the time that has transpired since that Morning Offering.
For one minute, think of those several things for which you are grateful, or of graces that you were most open to, or moments that God touched your life in a significant way. It might be that friend you encountered at the market or the difficult errand that was accomplished without a hitch; it might be your health or your family or some other grace.
Next, we take a moment to think of those times in which we were not as awake or alert to the presence of God as we could have been. We think of those sins that have perhaps set us back or moments of weakness where we said or did something for which we are sorry. We bring our repentant hearts before God, seeking His mercy and forgiveness, which is so totally abundant and resplendent whenever we turn to Him.
These methods and practices of our Christian lives sound so simple and basic but they have the power to profoundly open our hearts to God, making us alive, alert and awake in Jesus Christ. And that is the point of Advent. Jesus Christ wants to wake us up and fill us with His life and grace, so that we can then go out and bring His presence to all those we encounter this week.
There are so many people—perhaps people we meet on a daily basis—who may never walk into the Catholic Church this Advent. Perhaps they are afraid that they are not truly loved by God or have done something in their lives that could never warrant forgiveness; perhaps they do not believe that there is anything in the Church for them or that their lives are sufficient without God or His Church; perhaps they are so busy and occupied that they cannot imagine something so remarkably awesome and super-substantial as the Eucharist being the greatest experience of their earthly existence.
Whatever the case may be, you and I may be the most radiant and real experience they will have of the presence of God this Advent. But that can only happen if we are fully awake and alive in Christ. May this Advent find us watchful and ready for the coming of Jesus Christ into our lives, and then through us, into the lives of all we encounter this Advent season.
Sunday, September 01, 2013
Fresco of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy
by Domenico di Michelino (1417–1491)
(22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on 31 August & 1 September at Holy Apostles Church in Cranston, R.I. See Sirach 3:17-29 and Luke 14: 1-14)
Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.
These are the opening lines to one of the greatest works of Italian literature ever composed, Dante Alighieri's epic poem The Divine Comedy. In a certain sense The Divine Comedy is an autobiographical poem. Written after his exile from Florence where he had been immersed in cultural and political life, it begins in media res with Dante's “mid-life crisis” and the sense of spiritual darkness that would have confronted him.
Nonetheless, The Divine Comedy could also be a biographical poem describing any one of us. We have all, at one time or another, experienced what it is like to be spiritually "in the dark." Through not truly loving God as we ought or not loving those around us; in not keeping the commandments or fulfilling the responsibilities of our state in life; in those times in our lives when perhaps we have personally fallen from grace; we know what Dante Alighieri means when he speaks of being “In dark woods, the right road lost.”
For Dante this moment of darkness is suddenly pierced by a vision of light as he looks off into the distance and sees the mountain of God shining in the sun. It is a glimpse of heaven, divine light, which reignites the hope deep within his heart and reorients his journey to nothing less than the dwelling place of God.
In our second reading for this weekend the author of the Letter to the Hebrews describes that same mountain for us. He writes:
You have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…
—Hebrews 12: 22-24
Our hearts, too, are aflame with hope and anticipation as that heavenly vision is set before us. This is our destination, the end for which we have been created! Set your heart on that place, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews seems to communicate to us.
But back to our story… Dante, upon approaching that mountain, begins to make his ascent only to be confronted by three ferocious beasts that block his passage: the leopard, the lion and the she-wolf. These represent three of the great enemies of the spiritual life:
The leopard—sleek and attractive, beautiful to behold but potentially deadly—represents sensuality. She is a formidable foe for Dante.
Next he encounters the lion, head held high, roaring at Dante as he approaches. He represents pride, arrogance and self-importance. As a very gifted artist and a politically powerful man in his own right, this particular vice would no doubt have been a challenge for the Florentine poet.
Finally Dante is confronted by the she-wolf, which is a symbol for avarice or greed, that ravenous and insatiable hunger for more and more possessions, the accumulation of riches and material goods that can never truly satisfy the soul.
Unable to withstand these powerful enemies Dante is forced back down the mountain in discouragement as he realizes he does not possess the strength to ascend to the dwelling place of God. His hope has been shattered. But it is precisely here, in his discouragement and disappointment, that he will meet Virgil, the great poet from the ancient world, who will show him still another way:
“A different path from this one would be best
For you to find your way from this feral place.”
And so the poet Virgil leads Dante not upward immediately to the mountaintop but instead downward, all the way down into the depths of the Inferno. To reach the top of God’s mountain Dante will first have to humble himself and enter the lowest place of all. It is here in the abyss of Hell itself that Dante will come face to face with the brutal reality of sin and its consequences. It is a sight that will make him sick to his stomach for he will come to understand that this is the place which he has deserved; here are some of the same sins that have taken him off the path of God so many times. But that is not to be Dante’s fate (nor ours, please God).
Dante is drawn out of that infernal abode and into the Purgatorio, the place of great purgation where souls who have likewise been marred by sin are nonetheless being purified and made ready for eternal bliss. These did not hold and cling to sin as their final aspiration but instead desired God and longed for Him.
Having been purified of all selfishness and attachments Dante will finally enter into the Paradiso, our heavenly homeland, where he will now share forever in the beatific vision. He has made it to the top of that great mountain, but to get there he first needed to walk the path of humility. To reach the heights of heaven he needed to begin by taking the lowest place of all.
In our Gospel for this weekend Jesus Christ invites us, as well, to walk that path of humility and to take the lowest place. He says:
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor…Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place.
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet…Now whenever Christ uses the phrase “wedding banquet,” He is speaking about heaven and eternal life. In the Book of Revelation we hear of the great "wedding banquet" or "marriage supper" of the Lamb. Jesus Christ is that Lamb of God who gives His own body and blood as food for His bride, the Church. He will feed us with Himself and we will be united to Him forever. This is the wedding banquet that He is referring to in the Gospel of St. Luke this weekend. This parable about taking the lowest place and not seeking positions of honor is about so much more than table manors. This is not some general lesson on the virtue of humility. Jesus Christ is taking about nothing less than our eternal salvation.
Are we responding to that invitation with a humble and contrite heart (see Psalm 51:17, Daniel 15:16)? Are we walking the path of humility and able to acknowledge that we would not have a seat at the table at all if not for God’s mercy and forgiveness in our lives? Perhaps a closer examination of our own lives based upon Dante’s three great enemies could serve as our guide in this coming week.
Sensuality. How are we responding to this challenge, particularly in an age where the sensual pleasures of life are held in such high esteem? For the last week and a half we have heard so very much about Miley Cyrus. It seems that every TV and radio talk show and entertainment outlet has something to say about her provocative performance on the Video Music Awards. Yet sadly the day will come very soon when the world around us will forget all about Miley Cyrus. Sic transit gloria mundi.
But one thing is certain, the world has shown no sign whatsoever of forgetting its focus on sensuality. The images on television and in the movies are increasing daily, not to mention what is taking place on the Internet. Media can be a tremendous gift and a medium through which the Gospel message and so many good things can be transmitted. Nonetheless the dramatic increase of pornography on the Internet, year in and year out, has destroyed the spiritual lives of countless individuals and ruined so many families. How are we responding to this crisis in our time? Do we even acknowledge that it is a crisis? Are we praying for those who have become addicted to these images and are we seeking purity in our own personal lives each day?
Pride. How often do we find ourselves face to face with this ferocious beast? Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and perhaps one of the most difficult to distinguish in a culture that places such a high degree of emphasis on the self. How many times have we demanded “first place” in our friendships, our relationships and in the workplace? Jesus Christ in the Gospel this weekend tells us NOT to do that! He says that we should “go and take the lowest place.” The great sage Ben Sirach, in our First Reading for this weekend says, “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God” (Sirach 3:18). Are we walking in that path of humility and seeking the favor of God?
Greed. How are we responding to that ravenous and insatiable beast that would have eventually been the downfall of our Florentine friend Dante? Do we find ourselves consumed by consumerism or possessed by our own possessions? There is nothing wrong with having material possessions and wealth, but if we find ourselves constantly hungry for more then we risk losing sight of the path that God has chosen for us, the way that ends not here, but leads instead through this world to eternal life with Him.
Like Dante we are called to take account of the struggles we face and the failures we encounter on our way home to God. Are we able this week to do that with humility and an openness to the mercy and grace necessary to draw ever closer to the living God? If so, then perhaps we will hear the voice of Christ in the Gospel speaking to us: My friend, move up to a higher position (Luke 14:10). My friend, my Beloved, move closer to me even now… and in eternal life.
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Flannery O'Connor: 1925-1964
What is grace? What do we think of when we hear that word? People will sometimes say things like, “By the grace of God I got through that difficulty,” or “Time with family is my saving grace,” or “It was nice of him to grace us with his presence.”
St. Paul will say to the Ephesians, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). If grace is that essential for our very salvation and is something that we encounter on a regular basis, then how vital we understand it and know how to assimilate it in our lives.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains grace as “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call and to become children of God, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (CCC, #1996). Grace is an awesome and remarkable reality.
There are several senses in which the Catechism speaks about grace. Firstly, there is the grace that is a “participation in the life of God” (CCC #1997). Think about that for a moment. It is not merely the case that the grace we receive in Baptism places us in a special relationship with God (it certainly does that). Nor is it only the case that, by the grace we receive at Baptism, we have access to this remarkable life of faith (although we most assuredly do). In the grace we receive at Baptism we participate in the very LIFE of God!
The life and love that created the entire world we live in…from nothing…we participate in that life. The life that redeemed the entire world through self-emptying love; we share in that very life. The life that has the power to raise Jesus Christ from the dead, and promises to raise again each and every one of us who believes. We participate and share in that life! Grace is an amazing reality indeed!
The Catechism goes on to speak also about actual grace and sacramental grace (CCC, #2003), specific moments in our everyday lives in which the power of God is at work to help us “respond to his call and to become children of God.” Maybe it will be a moment of temptation in which we know from experience we have failed in the past; God suddenly provides for us a means and a way to be faithful. Certainly when we receive our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist we are given grace to live fully in Him and to conform ourselves more completely to His plan for our lives. When we make a good, integral confession and seek the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we receive the grace of forgiveness and the strength necessary to avoid the sins that cause us sorrow and pain.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux would go on to say that “All is grace.” Every hot meal we have on the table, every good relationship that God has brought into our lives, the beauty that we experience on a daily basis; these gifts from God are sent to help us grow closer to Him and to each other. Our lives are so very filled with grace.
One of the greatest American Catholic authors of all time is a woman named Flannery O’Connor. Born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, she died far too young at the age of 39 from the devastating disease of lupus. O'Connor once said that all of her stories were about grace. Now, if you have never read Flannery O’Connor before, you might be thinking, “How nice. I should like to buy one of her books and read these nice stories.” Be forewarned! All of Flannery O’Connor’s stories deal with difficult themes and challenging characters. Her stories look unflinchingly at such things as racism, discrimination, hatred and anger. O’Connor’s characters are often arrogant, self-righteous, narrow minded and even violent.
You might be asking yourself by now, “What in the world does that have to do with grace?” To answer that question we must look at the full quote from Flannery herself:
“All of my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”
Grace, if received well and assimilated into the life of the believer, would have the power to change and transform our lives and make them truly beautiful. What O’Connor is communicating is that grace, when rejected and refused, makes us—to use her own word—“grotesque.” We become something God never intended us to be. When we read one of O’Connor’s stories we watch a character and are horrified to see the way she despises and looks down on others; or we watch a man who is on a collision course for destruction and is doing nothing to avoid it. We are so moved within at the “grotesque” nature of grace’s rejection that we determine never to put ourselves in the same situation.
If we look at the Scriptures that we are given for this weekend we can see similar stories from the Old Testament and also in the New. In the First Reading, the Prophet Jeremiah finds himself stuck in the mud, literally. He is a man who has received the grace of God, and the message of God for His people; it is not a very positive message. If you go back just a few verses from the passage we are given this weekend in Jeremiah 38, the message entrusted to the prophet for the people of Israel could be summarized thus: You have sinned and failed to keep the commandments of God. Therefore God has determined to give you to the Babylonians. If you humble yourselves, however, and surrender yourselves to them, although you will be carried away captive He will save you and you will live (see Jeremiah 38:1-3).
Their reaction? The princes of the people approach the king and say:
“Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.”
The king looks the other way and allows them to throw Jeremiah in the cistern, where he would have starved to death if Ebed-melech the Cushite had not rescued him by the end of that reading. This is a very ugly scene! They have rejected the grace and salvation God has offered them. Instead of embracing Jeremiah with gratitude they brutalize him, to their own detriment. Historically, it did not end well for the Israelites in that city. Grace rejected is a grotesque reality indeed.
Similarly, in the Gospel we hear Jesus’ astounding message:
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.
How are we to understand this, and from the “Prince of Peace”? What Christ is talking about is the nature of the Gospel message and the grace that God offers to each of us in His self-emptying love.
At the heart of the Gospel proclamation, God essentially reveals that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are all in desperate need of forgiveness and God’s mercy. And yet that is precisely what God has come to bring us in the person of Jesus Christ. He comes to suffer and die on the cross in self-emptying love in order to grant us a forgiveness we do not deserve, to make us God’s own adopted children, and bring us into eternal life with God.
Some hear that message and are overwhelmed with gratitude and filled with love. A tremendous sense of joy enters our hearts when we realize, despite all our failings and sins, how we are truly loved and embraced by God. Our hearts are set on fire with this message of God’s mercy and love. As Christ proclaims so powerfully in the Gospel this weekend: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12:49). We are moved from deep within to go out and spread that message to all we meet: family, friends, strangers, enemies, all. We want everyone to know about the forgiveness now available to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
But not everyone receives that message. Some, in fact, are quite offended by it. Forgiveness? Me? For what! I am fine just the way I am! Like the princes in the reading this weekend in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah or the characters in a Flannery O’Connor story, they reject implicitly that there could be anything at all in their lives in need of correction. Why should they need to receive “favor, the free underserved help that God gives”?
Their rejection of the grace God offers becomes, instead, resentment toward those who are trying to share this same message of salvation. Called by God to become something truly beautiful, they become something God never intends or desires. We are left, then, with what Christ describes in the Gospel:
From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
It is not the way Christ wants it, but simply and sadly the way He finds it; grace that has now been replaced by the “grotesque.”
Here in the Eucharist and throughout this coming week, grace will enter into our lives and draw us into a deeper relationship with God. Here and everywhere throughout these coming days we encounter “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call and to become children of God, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (CCC, #1996). As God makes known to us His unconditional love and mercy, He will also reveal to us places where we need correction, places we need to grow in our love for God and others, areas we need to be less self-righteous, more humble, more forgiving.
How might we surrender more completely to that work of grace in our lives and in our souls so that we can become truly beautiful, transformed by the merciful love of God, to be the men and women God has always meant us to be?