Sunday, July 16, 2017

Summer Reading List

(Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on July 15 & July 16, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I., and July 16, 2017 at Immaculate Conception Church in Cranston, R.I.; See  Matthew 13:1-23 and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2705-2708)

We are still in the beginning of the summer season and perhaps you have had the chance to check out some of the many different summer reading lists that are available online.  From, to the New York Times and Oprah, there are so many lists, and a seemingly infinite number of books to choose from.  

This weekend I would like to suggest the reading list recommended by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  There really is one, in fact!  The Catechism lists several “titles” that we could consider this summer (see CCC, #2705).  More than simply reading these works, however, the Catechism states that we should meditate on them.  We should bring what we read into prayer and meditation before God, trying to understand what He is saying to us.  Pertinent to our Gospel this weekend, the Catechism explains, “Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly, lest they come to resemble the three first kinds of soil in the parable of the sower” (CCC, #2707).

Therefore, before looking at the Catechism’s “reading list,” we could take a few moments to look at what the Church teaches about Christian meditation.  To meditate is to pray in a way that actively seeks God.  It is to cultivate the soil of our hearts, to use an image form the parable of the sower, in a way that allows us to hear Him more clearly.  As the Catechism puts it: “The mind seeks to understand the why and the how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking” (CCC, #2705).  When we meditate, we consider the deeper questions of the heart: “Why did God create me?  Why am I here?  What is the purpose or meaning of my life?”  More importantly, we examine, “How can I know and respond to what God is asking of me?”

The Catechism goes on to express what every person of prayer knows from experience: “The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain” (CCC, #2705).  Prayer is challenging!  Meditation does not come easily for any one of us.  The greatest of the saints, from the mystics to the scholars, teach us this important truth.  The two necessary requirements, in fact, are time and sacrifice.  We have to be willing to spend quality time alone with God, and we have to be willing to sacrifice even good things in order to grow in Christian prayer (remember Martha and her sister Mary, and that Mary chose “the better part”). 

How much time, though, and how much sacrifice?  Are five minutes at the beginning or the end of each day enough?  One of the excellent teachers of prayer in our own time is the French priest, Fr. Jacques Philippe.  Fr Jacques, in his book “Time for God,” writes that “Five minutes are not enough for God.  Five minutes are what we give someone when we want to get rid of him or her.”  God is not an insurance salesman or pesky telemarketer!  Fr. Jacques suggests that fifteen minutes are the minimum that we should spend each day in prayer with God, and that we should be open to the possibility of an hour or more.  He cautions against being too ambitious in this regard, lest we should become discouraged, but all of us can take fifteen minutes a day to seek God and try to understand what He is saying to us.

Now, with that said, we move on to our Summer Reading List!  The first “book” on the list should not surprise any of us: “The Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels” (CCC, #2705).  So often our thoughts can be filled with doubt when we walk by sight and not by faith.  We may wonder: Has God forgotten me?  Is there a meaning or plan for my life?  Does God really forgive the things I have done?  What will happen to me and those that I love at the end of this life?  

But when we take the time to meditate on the Gospels and the awesome, beautiful life of Jesus Christ, our faith reminds us of the promises of God.  We recall that God so wanted to be among us that He was born into a human family.  Could that same God forget us?  Not a chance!  We meditate on the cross and all that Christ endured, and there is no question about the forgiveness of sins; He died for us and for our salvation.  Jesus Christ rose from the dead and promised eternal life for us and all the baptized, that we would rise with Him.  Spending time meditating on these awesome truths each day will transform our lives and flood our soul with faith.  

Secondly, the Catechism recommends that we “read” the book of sacred iconography.  Perhaps more prevalent in the East than in this area of the world, icons can help us to encounter God in a new and living way.  To pray the rosary before an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to spend some time meditating before an icon of Christ or one of the saints, allows us to enter more deeply into the life of prayer.  Icons are referred to as “windows to heaven.”  When you look through a window, you can see the person on the other side; but that also implies that the person on the other side of the window can see you!  When we meditate on the mysteries of Christ, or the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the virtues of the saints, before a sacred icon, the God of heaven gazes into our soul and helps us to grow in our spiritual lives.

Next on our list: spiritual books from the liturgy, from the Fathers of the Church and from the lives of the saints, along with all the great works of spirituality.  There are so many classic works out there.   Think about St. Augustine, who went from a very sinful life to become one of the greatest saints and theologians of all time.  How did that happen?  Read “The Confessions” of St. Augustine and find out!  Explore, “The Interior Castle,” with St. Teresa of Avila for the tour of a lifetime.   Some of the greatest saints in the Church have found the path to sanctity through spiritual reading and meditation: St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.  How about you?

The “great book of creation” also tops the list, as we look upon all the beauty that God created.  We “read” that book when we encounter an early, summer sunrise, or when we visit Narragansett Beach in the cool of the afternoon.  We do not simply gaze at these marvels.  No, we go one step further, and spend some time in meditation, seeking to understand what God is saying to us.  The One who is Beauty itself, in all of these created realities, is already seeking us and drawing us ever more deeply into a life-giving relationship with Himself.  

When we take the time to meditate—at least fifteen minutes each day, seeking God—the Catechism goes on to say that we begin to open up one of the greatest adventure stories of all:

To meditate on what we read helps us to make it our own by confronting it within ourselves.  Here, another book is opened: the book of life.  We pass from thoughts to reality.
—CCC, #2706

We meditate on the humility of Christ and His gentleness towards those around Him, and we become more humble.  We meditate on the patience of Christ on the cross, and His great mercy towards sinners (that would be you and me), and we become more patient, more merciful.  Our thoughts and meditations help to cultivate the soil of our hearts that, in the parable of the sower, bears tremendous fruit.  

As Christ teaches us in this wonderful parable, the sower scatters the seed everywhere: in the places that it will bear fruit and even in the places where the ground is infertile.  God is constantly speaking to us, communicating His love to us, revealing His word to those who are able to hear it.  In one of her reflections on prayer, the great mystic, St. Catherine of Siena, describes God’s word to us as a fountain; that spring is bubbling over with fresh, life-giving water.  In the city where she lived, there was a large fountain in the middle of the busy market square.  During the day, hundreds of people would be walking about that square, contracting business or shouting to one another.  One could see the fountain, but certainly there was no possibility of hearing it.  

But to go there at night, long after all the people had retired to their homes, one could not only see the fountain glistening in the moonlight; one could also hear the water bubbling up from that fountain.  The water could be heard cascading onto the tiles below.  God’s word is very much like that.  We have to be very still and prayerfully quiet, in order to hear it.  “Whoever has ears,” Jesus announces this weekend, “ought to hear” (Matthew 13:9).  

If we listen well, taking time each day to seek God in meditation, we place ourselves near the God who is the source and fulfillment of all our desire.  We allow Him to cultivate the soil of our hearts and make them receptive to His life-giving word and the treasures of the spiritual life.  If we are willing to do that, then we will discover the mystery Christ speaks about in this weekend’s Gospel, that we, too, can bear tremendous fruit for God, “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:23).

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Humility of Faith

"The Door of Humility"
The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

(Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on July 9, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I., and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Woonsocket, R.I.; See  Matthew 11:25-30)

One of the most ancient churches in the Christian world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  It was built over the place where Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was born.  That church has been invaded, destroyed, rebuilt and reestablished, over and over again, across the centuries.  It is a testimony to the power of perseverance and to the tenacity of the Christian faith. 
The main entrance to the Church of the Nativity was built as a massive portal, with the arch of the gate reaching some twelve feet high.  Invaders and marauders would sometimes drive horses in through that vast doorway, or drive horse-drawn carriages out of it, loaded with the church’s treasures!  In order to defend against that sacrilege, the entrance was eventually walled up with brick and mortar.   Having sealed off the main portal, a small doorway was chiseled out, standing a mere four feet high and two feet wide.  There is no chance of getting a horse through that entrance!  In order for pilgrims to enter into the place where Jesus Christ was born, they have to literally kneel down and shift their bodies through the doorway.  Fittingly, it is called the “Door of Humility.”

Our readings for this Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, as well as the “collect,” or opening prayer for this morning’s liturgy, are focused on that beautiful virtue of humility.  I would offer three small points (pun intended) for our reflection this weekend.

First and foremost, we discover in the Sacred Scriptures and in this morning’s Mass that God is humble.  God, who created everything we see and everyone gathered in this place; who is so far beyond anything that we could possibly think or imagine; God who is all powerful and who “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16), chose to be born as a little child in Bethlehem.  The God who created the universe was content to be cradled in the arms of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  

More than that, when that child grew to be a man, He chose to redeem us not by force or by physical strength, but in weakness and humiliation.  Jesus Christ allowed Himself to be handed over to sinful men, to be unjustly treated; to be beaten and spat upon.  He suffered crucifixion before a jeering crowd in order to set us free from the slavery of sin.   As we heard this morning, in the opening prayer for the Mass:

“O God, who in the abasement of your Son, have raised up a fallen world, fill your faithful with holy joy, for on those you have rescued from slavery to sin you bestow eternal gladness.”

God’s humility redeems and renews our fallen humanity.  Following upon this great mystery, we recognize a remarkable reality in the Sacred Scriptures this morning.  It is in that same humility that God calls us into a deep and abiding relationship with Himself.  God does not coerce us into following Him.  He does not make demands or violate our freedom.  With gentleness and humility, He approaches us and asks: 

Are you tired?  Are you worn out?  
Are you lonely and afraid?  
Come to me!

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. 
—Matthew 11: 28-29

What an amazing and overwhelming invitation!  God wants you and I to share in a relationship of love with Him.  He wants to cooperate with us in a shared life of grace and fruitfulness.  We, for our part, are completely free to receive or reject so wonderful an offer.  

Which brings us to the third and final point for our reflection this morning.  There can be only one true response to so great a gift as this relationship with God: humble faith.

Humble faith believes and accepts God’s offer on His terms, not on our own.  We cannot say to God, “I will believe in You and follow Jesus Christ IF You do this, or IF you grant me that.”  Humble faith does not say, “I have most of the important things in my life covered for now, but I would like to keep you here in the background, just in case I need to bring you out for the big stuff.”  

Faith means acknowledging that we do not have all the answers, but that God does.  It means that we are willing to trust in God and in His mercy, knowing that He can—and will—take care of us.   He can—and will—provide us with exactly what we need in all of the challenges we face in daily life.  Pope Francis, in his first Encyclical Letter, Lumen Fidei, The Light of Faith, explains:

Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it.
—Lumen Fidei, #57

Placing our faith in Jesus Christ will not make our lives easy, nor will it answer all of the questions, doubts and fears that we face.  Nonetheless, making that commitment to live the Christian life will light the path before us and help us to be radically transformed within.  We can, with the grace of God, discover the freshness of faith and the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  Who among us would not greatly desire more of those fruits in our lives?

In conclusion, our readings for this weekend remind us that we do not need to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visit the Church of the Nativity to enter through the Door of Humility.  That door is wide open, and we can enter it right here this morning, as we kneel before our Eucharistic Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.  We come before Him here, and in the quiet places of our daily lives, and seek Him in that humility that He models so beautifully for us.  And when we do, we rediscover the God who wants nothing else from us than to give us His mercy, His love, His grace and His peace.