Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent: Fire Watch

(First Sunday of Advent-Year B; This homily was given on 26 & 27 November, 2011 at St. Mary's Church in Charlestown, R.I. and St. James Chapel in Charlestown, R.I.; See Mark 13:33-37)

One of the more engaging and enigmatic Catholic figures of the last century is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Born in France toward the beginning of the twentieth century, by the time he was a young man Merton had both lived in and travelled extensively across Europe and the United States. He was a man very much immersed in the things of the world. Nonetheless, for all of his experiences and intellectual accomplishments he remained empty and unsatisfied.

Not finding what he was searching for in the midst of the world, Merton turned his gaze instead to things spiritual: religion, prayer and faith. This eventually led to his conversion to the Catholic faith and he was baptized in his early twenties.

Following baptism Merton felt called to the priesthood and eventually entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery located in Kentucky. His autobiography on this journey of faith from the midst of the world to the silence of the monastery, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold millions of copies and is considered to be one of the most influential spiritual works of modern times.

In his book, The Sign of Jonas, somewhat of a continuation of The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton writes on his experience within the Abbey of Gethsemani and offers his readers a glimpse of day-to-day monastic life. The epilogue, entitled “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” is indicative in that regard.

The fire watch was a responsibility often entrusted to a novice or perhaps a newly ordained priest in which the monk would inspect the buildings and property of the monastery after dark, insuring that all was well and that potential risks and hazards were attended to. After careful observation, with the assistance of a flashlight, the watchman would then retire with the rest of the community in relative peace and security; discretion is the better part of valor. It was fairly mundane business.

Yet for Merton the fire watch becomes something quite personal and introspective. Shining that flashlight into the kitchen and then the refectory, he recalls the experiences he has shared there with his brothers; he is a man of community who has to discern whether and how well he has loved his brothers in that place. He shines the lamp into the novitiate, where he himself was formed for the priesthood, then into the chapel where he was ordained for service and charity. Has he been faithful in these solemn duties and responsibilities? He recognizes, all too well, that this is where one comes “face to face with your monastic past and with the mystery of your vocation.” And then, suddenly, he begins to realize that all the while, as he was fulfilling his work as watchman both exteriorly and interiorly, someone else was actually watching him:

The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light: a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.

—Fr. Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas

The more Merton searched for and questioned the God of his vocation in the midst of his fire watch, the more he began to realize that God was already searching for and seeking him, asking the most intimate of questions in the deepest recesses of his soul.

People often ask me when and how I first felt called to the priesthood. It usually comes as a surprise when I tell them that it happened in Stop & Shop Supermarket! Be careful when you shop in those places! Actually, I was not shopping; I was working there, and it happened over the course of several years. Initially, I was given the opportunity to receive full-time pay and benefits, but it would require me to begin working the graveyard shift, midnight to eight o’clock in the morning.

At first it was rather exciting to be working such odd hours as a young man recently out of high school; but that quickly began to wear off. In the department I was in, I worked alone all night and when I came home I usually slept and went out infrequently at night, since I eventually had to come back home and get ready for work. I was living a very isolated life. I had no idea that it was actually isolation by design.

Many times I would ask myself, at three o’clock in the morning and when everyone I knew and cared about was home asleep, “What on earth am I doing here?” Eventually, in those long, pre-dawn hours, I began to ask that question on a much more metaphysical level: “What am I doing here? What is the purpose and meaning of my life? Might God have the answer to these questions?

It was at that time in my life that I began to sense what I would later understand as the promptings of God in the dark. As I was searching and asking questions about my life, I discovered that God was calling me into a deeper relationship with Himself, one that would eventually lead me to discern a vocation to the priesthood. In the words of Thomas Merton:

The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light: a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.

This weekend we begin again the holy season of Advent. It is, above all, a time of watching. Christ warns us in the Gospel this weekend:

Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.

—Mark 13:33

Christ calls us to be watchful for His coming, to be alert to His advent, and it is no coincidence that this is the darkest time of the year. Now is the season where the days are much shorter and the nights grow longer; now is the time when the darkness of worldly distractions can lull us into a spiritual sleep, tempting us to embrace a Christmas without Christ and mirth separated from the One who made us. Perhaps even our own cares and concerns—whether they be financial difficulties, personal or family health issues, fears or anxieties about the past, present or future—can allow the darkness to creep into our lives. It is precisely in these times that we need to be watchful and alert to the presence of Christ who is always nearer than we would ever dare to hope.

May we discover, in our watchfulness this Advent Season, that even our very best efforts to search for and discover God can barely hold a candle to the vigilance and loving watchfulness He initiates when it comes to our spiritual lives. In our fire watch this Advent, may we discover more completely God, who draws us ever more deeply not into the heart of darkness, but into the heart of Jesus Christ, His Son, who comes to us in the midst of the darkness and illumines our souls with His heavenly light.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

(Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary-Year A; This homily was given on 21 November, 2011 at the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence, Providence, R.I.; See Luke 21:1-4)

It should come as no surprise that the world we live in is becoming increasingly more secular. That is the reality not just in Europe but also here in the United States. The culture in which we are being formed is one that has become more and more alienated from, at times even hostile toward, the things of God. What we value most as Catholics—faith, sacrifice, obedience to the teachings of the Church which have not constrained but set free and guided the souls of millions of faithful men and women for centuries—these things are increasingly questioned and even discounted.

This creates a challenge for us who are called to proclaim and announce the message of the Gospel to the world. What does it mean to announce this message of faith and eternal life in a context where materialism and the values of this world only hold sway? Even within the Church, we encounter the difficulty of announcing the Good News to those who have also been affected by the culture in which we live. Catechesis, the explanation of our faith and the teachings of the Church, are done sometimes only with difficulty and the challenges are many.

We can ask ourselves, “How could I ever expect to be an effective minister of the Gospel or a fruitful priest in the face of so many challenges?” Perhaps Fr. Robert Barron or Archbishop Dolan could make a difference, but what about me? What do I have to offer to the world or to the Church facing such adversity and so many obstacles to faith and the truth of the Gospel?

This morning we are reminded—by St. Luke and in this Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary—that when we give what we have to God, He "by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think" (Ephesians 3:20).

The old woman in the Gospel of St. Luke places a meager offering into the treasury, just two small coins. It would have been thoroughly inadequate and insufficient to put even a dent into the amount necessary for sustaining the day-to-day maintenance of the temple. Yet it is more than sufficient to gain the attention of the eternal Son of God. Christ takes notice, his interest is instantly piqued, and he points her out to His disciples as the exemplar of what it means to give oneself entirely to God. That passing moment becomes immortalized in the Gospel; the story of this woman and her two small coins will continue to be told until the end of time. We give God what we have and He accomplishes great and awesome things.

Such is the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her parents Anne and Joachim bring her to the temple and present her before the Lord. A young girl, especially in the cultural climate of the day, would have been insignificant indeed in comparison with the great religious and political conflicts that were legion at that time in occupied Palestine. She was not a man who could someday become king, or have great influence on the political scene. Yet that young girl would be the gateway through which the Redeemer of the world would come. Upon her “Fiat,” her simple, humble, “Yes,” to God rests the hope of salvation and the redemption of all mankind. She was all that Anne and Joachim had, and they gave her to the Lord. The rest is salvation history.

What is God asking of you today? What is the offering you are asked to make as you continue your formation for the priesthood of Jesus Christ? The world in which we live does not always value a vocation to the priesthood. Your offering may seem insignificant and insufficient to meet the needs of what the world is searching for. But that offering, made to God in sincere faith and trust in Him, has the power to bear tremendous fruit in the Church and in the world. Today we make that offering to God. Joined to His sacrifice and His offering at this altar, we surrender to Him what we have, and we trust in faith that He will continue to accomplish beautiful and awesome things in us.