Sunday, June 24, 2012

Are You Prophetable?

Which would you be more likely to say about yourself:  

"The Lord called me from birth..... He made of me a sharp-edged sword....You are my servant, he said to me, ... through whom I show my glory" 


"I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength..." ?

     While I hope you don't often feel the discouragement of the second quote, it is probably more familiar than the first. We tend to think that such a calling could be addressed only to prophets such as Isaiah (who wrote both quotes) or John the Baptist, whose birthday we celebrate today. We don't think of ourselves as prophets.
      But it's not just those with the big callings who are called. Each of us is called to do our part in our little corner of the world.
     I'm not eloquent or educated enough, you say. I'm not brave enough. It's counter-productive to get on a soapbox, etc., etc.
     You don't have to get on a soapbox. You don't have to eat locusts and shout out that the Kingdom is coming. Those were the callings of Frank Sheed and John the Baptist. Your calling is different. Each person has an individual calling.
     Each of us is called to give witnessbut how and to whom will naturally differ not only from person to person but even from day to day.
     Sometimes we have an opportunity to tell someone the Good News, but most people in our country—rightly or wrongly—might very well reply that they've already heard it. More often, we can share how the Lord is working in our own lives, or simply refrain from clamming up about him. 
      But there's more to it than what we say. As St. Francis put it: "Preach the Gospel at all times, and whenever necessary, use words." We are always called to be ourselves—to be faithful followers and imitators of Christ. Living out our faith is a witness in itself. Quite often we won't even know that we've had an influence on someone.
     My uncle is a perfect example of this.
     My brother was once approached by an older gentleman who heard his last name and asked if he was related to a frat brother with that last name. Sure enough, it was my uncle. The man (Bill)—forty years later—still remembered Uncle Domingo, though the latter had had to drop out of his first semester of college due to what turned out to be the beginnings of schizophrenia.
     It wasn't the symptoms of schizophrenia—if he had even seen them—that Bill remembered. It wasn't as much my uncle's intelligence, impressive athletic and artistic talents, striking good looks, or natural confidence that he recalled. It was Uncle Domingo's character that stuck with him. 
     On "hell night", they were required to perform a silly, crude, humiliating rite. My uncle refused. He didn't care what the others thought of him; he didn't care if they wouldn't let him in the fraternity as a result. He wasn't going to do something he viewed as immoral.
     This made a huge impression on Bill. He was so struck by Uncle Domingo's behavior, it made him wonder what conviction lay behind it. It got him curious about the Catholic faith. A year or two later, he became a Catholic and considered Uncle Domingo to be his godfather (though since Domingo wasn't available, Bill had asked my dad as a substitute).
     This probably would have shocked my uncle if he'd known about it. He was at that time undergoing painful and useless treatments; most of the rest of his life was spent in an institution or half-way house. The words, "I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength" would probably have resonated deeply with him.  He would never have guessed the impact he'd had on Bill's life. 
     Nor would he guess that he could continue to witness to Christ. As the years passed, he became haggard and thin; he looked like an aged Vincent van Gogh. Once a star athlete and sharp dresser, in his middle-aged years, he shuffled in his loose-fitting, tobacco-smelling clothes. Perhaps, if he had known about Bill, he'd have thought, "Well, he knew me before all this happened. No one would want me to be their godfather now."
     But he was a good godfather. I know, because he was my godfather. He may not have been able to buy me gifts or take me places, write me letters, or whatever typical godfathers might do. But I'm sure prayed for me. (And I know he still does, for when I ask for his intercession, the results are often quick and impressive!) Most of all, he gave me the gift of example. He was the most humble person I have ever met.
     His humility also affected other family and friends. Who knows who else he touched among those with whom he lived? Only the Lord, who called him to witness to Christ in a halfway house.
      No one feels adequate to God's call. (But that doesn't matter, for it is the Lord who works; we are only his instruments.) No one's life is in vain.

     John the Evangelist spoke of the darkness, and called today's saint a "witness to the Light". John the Baptist called himself "a voice crying in the wilderness". 
     That darkness, that wilderness, is still with us. We too must be a voice, a witness to the Light.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Grudging Obligation or Golden Opportunity?

Our baby was baptized today and it's Father's Day, so I'm not writing a new blog today. Instead I'm posting my article "Grudging Obligation or Golden Opportunity." (This was posted as a page here before, but it doesn't appear that many have looked at it so far.)

Those of us under 50 or so have only secondhand knowledge of what life in the Church was like before Vatican II. We’ve probably heard some things from our parents and grandparents about how different it was, and have the sense that things have lightened up quite a bit, that rules are less strict. And along those lines, many have the impression that after the Council the old Sunday Mass rule was discarded—the one that said it was a serious sin to skip Sunday Mass.( By “skipping” Mass, I mean just deciding not to go or not making the effort to go, rather than being prevented from going by something such as illness.)

So it may come as a big surprise to many Catholics to learn that this Church teaching is actually still in effect. It might not only be surprising, but, to some people, ridiculous or even objectionable. What’s the big deal?
Think of it this way: Skipping Sunday Mass is like a husband skipping date night with his wife—just standing her up. Receiving Communion at the next Mass, without having first gone to confession, is like that husband showing up two weeks later and hopping into bed with his wife—without apologizing or even explaining—and expecting her to be perfectly fine with that arrangement Holy Communion is a union more intimate than the marital bed, and yet we sometimes treat it like a mundane duty.
Most of us are aware of the Third Commandment: Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. But many don’t see why we can’t keep it holy our own way. Well, the Church says, you can, but you also need to come celebrate with the rest of us. The minimum of what God asks here is Mass. If you want to pray in a grove of trees, or meditate on the beach, or sing songs with friends, you can do those things too. Dad absolutely wants one-on-one time with you! But He has stipulated that on Sunday He wants us all gathered around the table as a family (the whole family, not just the ones we like). We may not know all the reasons; we just know He wants it, and ideally that should be enough for us.
If we really understood the Mass, we would never want to miss it. We’re like the deluded people in the parable who come up with lame if not laughable excuses to avoid going to a king’s banquet! (See Lk 14:16-24.) 
The Mass is even better than a banquet. In the first half, God is speaking to us in the readings; and in the second, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is presented once again to the Father—and we have the chance to be a part of that: to offer ourselves with Christ as He offers Himself to the Father. (Talk about riding on someone’s coattails: It’s like a toddler adding a penny to her dad’s billion-dollar donation and then being listed as a benefactor.) Plus we are spiritually transported to Bethlehem and the Last Supper, Calvary and the Upper Room on Easter, all at once. We are there, only our physical eyes are blind to this spiritual reality. 
As if that weren’t enough, Christ then offers Himself to us as food. Think what people would do if somehow, somewhere, a mere berry plucked from heaven were possible to obtain—they would travel thousands of miles and pay top dollar. Yet people sometimes deem it too much trouble to go to their local parish, where they can receive God Himself.
People would flock to eat fruit plucked from heaven, because they would assume that it would have healing properties and promote goodness. Well, that’s logical, and it is true for the even more beautiful food from heaven that the Lord does offer us in the Eucharist.
The fact is we cannot follow Him merely by our own power. We need His grace—“Apart from Me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). And with that grace we can do amazing things—“I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). But how do we get grace? Primarily through the sacraments and prayer. Grace is a gift from God, a gift we must come to Him to receive.
Numerous saints and doctors of the Church have stressed the infinite power and value of the Mass. St. John Vianney once said, “All good works cannot have the value of one Holy Mass, because they are the works of men, whereas the Holy Mass is the work of God.” Vatican II echoed this in its document on the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), calling the Mass the “font from which all her [the Church’s] power flows.” In other words, Mass is the source of grace par excellence.
But it’s not only what the Mass does for us that makes it priceless, it’s also the chance it gives us to do something for God. Vatican II described the liturgy as “a sacred action surpassing all others.” There’s no higher prayer; there’s nothing we can do that is more pleasing to God than praying the Mass.

Now if a young woman had the chance to meet her favorite celebrity, wouldn’t she try to make the best impression she could? If she were almost ready to go, and her mother stopped her and said she reeked of body odor, wouldn’t she do something about it? And if she knew the celebrity’s best friend, wouldn’t she listen to what that friend said? For instance, if she found out that the celebrity loathed peach-scented cologne, would she wear it anyway? I don't think so. 
       We need to act this way when approaching the Eucharist. Could there be anyone more admirable or more exciting to meet than God Himself? Yet do we give any thought to how we appear to Him? Many of us are so used to the idea of His unconditional love that we no longer try to please Him, but take Him for granted.

Part of our problem is that, being fallen creatures, we begin with only a limited sense of the offensiveness of sin; then our own sins shrink this sense further. A poor sense of smell coupled with familiarity make us unaware of our own soul’s odor. We don’t realize how putrid sin is to the Lord. Our venial sins are probably more offensive to Him than body odor to us—they’re more like excrement to Him. And our mortal sins are like skunk spray. We can’t get rid of that stench on our own; for serious sin, we need the special cleansing of confession.

Ironically, we do know His best friend on earth: not only that, she is also our own Mother, the Church. We could have the “inside scoop” on what is pleasing to the Number One V.I.P. in the Universe, but we refuse to listen to her. Too often we treat her as a nosy busybody, when actually she is an immortal queen, ancient yet ever-young, full of beauty and wisdom. No one on earth knows better than she what pleases Christ, having been His confidante for two thousand years. So if she says we need the bath of confession, let’s take it. And if she says the King of the Universe wants us at His banquet every Sunday, let’s not miss it for the world.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Blood Brother

     "We each prick a thumb and then we put our thumbs together and mix the bloodthat makes us 'blood-sisters'," I told my childhood friend. 
     Blood is thicker than water, they say. We wanted to prove our loyalty to each other, to deepen our bond, to be more than just friends. 
     We thought it was a great idea.
     (My mom thought otherwise. She was, well, horrified when she heard about it and started talking about blood diseases and other sundry pleasantries.)
     The idea of blood brotherhood is cross-cultural: there are legends and rituals among such diverse peoples as Norsemen and Native Americans and Chinese. Why does this idea have such widespread appeal?
     For the same reason it appealed to two nine-year-old suburban girls. Everyone knows you're supposed to be loyal to your own family. So how do you express a deep friendship, how do you express that your loyalty to a friend is like that of a brother—a bond that is lifelong and unbreakable? Family members are said to be related "by blood" (people didn't know about genes back then), so from that I suppose arose the idea of mixingsharingyour blood with that friend who is like a brother.

      When I was little, one of the torments my older brother and sister devised was to try to convince me that I was adopted and therefore not a true member of the family. (The fact that I'm not and yet they treated a "real" sister in such a way just goes to prove that not being adopted doesn't protect you!) Of course, I now know that if I had been adopted it wouldn't have changed anything: my parents have always loved me dearly, and I know they'd have loved me just as much. Adopted children have just as much chancesometimes moreof being cherished than biological children. 
    But we live in a fallen world, and thus we're all a little insecure.
    At a retreat some time ago, it dawned on me how thoroughly the Lord recognizes the longings of the human heart. (Shouldn't really be a surprise... He made our hearts after all.) So not only did the Son come down to earth to save us, not only did He become one of us to save us, but He even went so far as to make us His adopted brothers and sisters, calling the Father: "My Father and your Father". We are the adopted children of Godhow incredible is that!
     But He also knows the insecurity that lies behind our longing to be "blood brothers". So He undertook a much greater ritual, not the mere prick of a needle to his thumb, but nails right through His hands and feet. Not a mere drop of blood, but shedding pints and pints of His Blood, some say to its last drop.
     And what about our part? He does call us to carry our cross and follow Him. But most of us won't have to shed our blood for Him, and He knows none of us could without His help anyway.
     Instead, He found another way for us to achieve an even more deeply unifying sharing of His blood than by rubbing thumbs together: He gave us His own Blood to drink and Body to eat in the Eucharist. 
     There is no greater union possible on this earth.

     "You are what you eat." This isn't merely a health motto—it seems it was also the motive for cannibalism. Fr. Jean de Brébeufa seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaryunderwent horrific tortures with such courage that his Iroquois persecutors ate his heart to gain his courage. 
     I don't know if Fr. Brébeuf's virtues had any chemical correspondents in his blood that could have passed to those who tried to steal his heart, but I'm sure they couldn't gain those spiritual gifts that way. 
     When we partake of the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist, it is not cannibalism because He is alive and gives us His whole self. And it is a gift that, if we are open, will impart to us His Heart, His grace, and the characteristics of Him whom we consume. And it is a gift that unifies us with Him and truly makes us His blood brothers.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mary Poppins Lacks Spirit

It's challenging to “get” certain spiritual concepts—like the Trinity—but that's where Mary Poppins can help.
     Yes, Mary Poppins—the movie.
     There's a scene early on in her new room at the Banks' house. As she's looking in the mirror and putting on her hat, she (naturally) starts singing. Then her image in the mirror begins to move on its own and sing with her, harmonizing and complementing her song. Then the image goes off into a high, flamboyant aria. The real Mary Poppins snorts, “Cheeky!” and stomps off.
     You can see immediately how this relates to the Trinity, can't you?
     ...Okay, let me elaborate.
     The Son is the perfect image of the Father, like the reflection in the mirror is an exact image of Mary Poppins. Mary—being magic—gives her image the ability to think and move independently. The Son too is not merely an unthinking reflection but another Person, begotten by the Father.
      Okay, so what about the Holy Spirit? There's only two persons in this analogy.
      Well—as usual—the Spirit is felt rather than seen here. But to be more precise—in Mary Poppins' case, the “spirit” is not felt, or at least is felt to be missing. Conspicuous by its absence.
      The Spirit of the Trinity is much more evident. The Son is not cheeky; instead, He does “whatever [He] see[s] [His] Father doing”. Unlike the magical mirror image—who didn't care about the wishes of her source, but wanted to show off and glorify herself—Jesus thinks and wills like His Father: they have the same “spirit”.
      This part of the Trinity isn't really as foreign as we might think at first; the idea is part of our language. When students love their school and cheer for their team, what do they show? School spirit. When a group has the same passion and works together, what do they have? One spirit.
      We are made in the image of God, how does that fit in? Well, we can apply this analogy to ourselves too, remembering though that's not as apropos. Jesus is the “only-begotten Son of the Father”, after all. He's a perfect image, a life-size image, with all the powers of His Father. Let's just say we're “mini-images”.
      But we too are free to do as we like, and called to freely do whatever our Father does. We don't see the Father though, as Jesus did. So we must imitate the Son. And that's only right for another reason: we have been baptized into Christ; we are His Body. That's how we get to heaven, not on our own merits, but by being one with Christ.
      That's where the phrase “WWJD?” comes in handy. But it can't merely be an occasional nice thought. Christ's life must be replicated in mine. I must crucify my self-will and die to myself to live in Him.
      But He doesn't leave us orphan, but promised at His Ascension to be with us always. How He does so is reflected in this cluster of feasts: next week's, Corpus Christi, reminds us that in the Eucharist, He is physically with us—and when we receive, in us. And last week's feast of Pentecost celebrates the fulfillment of His promise to send us His Spirit. 
     It's up to us not to cut ourselves off from Him, but to stay connected to Him, as close as a member of His body: to do as we see Him doing, so that we might share one Spirit with Him.

P.S. If you'd like to read more theological movie analogies, try this book by my friend and the master at it, Jim Hogan: Reel Parables: Life Lessons from Popular Films. You can check out his website at