Fear has Big Eyes

4th Sunday of Lent (A)

Fear has big eyes. With just four words this Russian proverb depicts the wide-eyed countenance of intellectual, emotional and spiritual blindness. Fear garners our trust and our friendship and promises vigilance against threats; it conjures the outline of the thief, murderer, or secret agent lurking in every corner. Fear is a shallow breather, a loud talker; it fortifies walls, builds bunkers, spreads untruths like Round-up on a windy day. There’s a snake under every bed. Therefore, fear never rests. Fear suspects everyone of malevolent intentions. Fear, with its myopic goal of self-preservation, shuts out light, extinguishes hope. This kind of fear has no experience or knowledge of God.

When I created the Good Disciple blog, I designed it as a space to reflect upon the Sunday readings in the context of contemporary Christian discipleship. Now, if you take a trip in the way-back machine and read my reflections from 2015, you may notice (more…)

Give to The One Who Asks of You

7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Yesterday, while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, I overheard the tsk tsk’ing of the couple ahead of me. It was wrong, I heard them say to each other, that ‘some people’ used their government benefits to buy expensive food. They turned to me, hoping for an affirmation to their audible grumbling about low-income people who “eat like kings”

Standing in front of them was a young mom with one toddler on her hip and another child by her side. She bought two half-gallons of organic whole milk, a container of organic yogurt, and a whole chicken, and she used food stamps to pay for them.

I mumbled something about her healthy food choices.

Two weeks ago we heard the words of the prophet Isaiah, who speaking for the Lord, made it clear that it is God’s will that we share what we have with one another. That we feed the hungry—not from our surplus or with our leftovers—but from the same table we share with our families.

“If you lavish your food on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; Then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom shall become like midday;” [IS 58:10]

Lavish” and “satisfy.” To go beyond the letter of the law. And then your gloom will lift. Now that is really something.

Today, on the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A), we hear Jesus continue his teaching on doing more than the law prescribes.

“Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. [MT 5:41]

The suggestion that we go the extra mile, that we do more than what is expected,  was met with the same resistance in Jesus’ day it is today.

The kind of stinginess expressed by the couple in the grocery store shrinks and darkens our world. Indeed it is a lack of mercy which emerges from a sense of entitlement and a fear of scarcity.

Conversely, it is when we give of ourselves freely and without resentment that we experience the miracle of God’s abundance  over and over again; the light rises, we feel restored, not depleted.

Jesus told his disciples, “give to the one who asks of you.” [MT 5:42]

I recently came across the following vignette from Leontius’ Life of St. John the Almsgiver, the biography of the Saint who was a widower, a father, and later the patriarch of Alexandra (c. 560-619). It is striking for its contemporary resonance and is worthy of our prayerful contemplation.

“While there was a crowd of refugees in the city, one of the strangers, noticing John’s remarkable sympathy, determined to test the blessed man. So he put on old clothes and approached him as he was on his way to visit the sick in the hospitals (for he did this two or three times a week) and said to him, “Have mercy on me for I have been a prisoner of war.”

John said to his purse-bearer, “Give him six nomismata.”

After the man had received these he went off, changed his clothes, met John again in another street, and falling at his feet said, “Have pity on me for I am in want.” The Patriarch again said to his purse-bearer, “Give him six nomismata.”

As he went away the purse-bearer whispered in the Patriarch’s ear, “By your prayers, master, this same man has had alms from you twice over!” But the Patriarch pretended not to understand.

Soon the man came again for the third time to ask for money and the attendant, carrying the gold, nudged the Patriarch to let him know that it was the same man, whereupon the truly merciful and beloved of God said, “Give him twelve nomismata, for perchance it is my Christ and He is here to test me.”

The season of Lent is around the corner. Ash Wednesday is March 1. Traditionally, during Lent our attention is drawn to serving the poor. God’s abundance, however, is not seasonal and like the example set by St. John the Almsgiver, we are expected share it freely at all times.

So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [MT 5:48]

__________________

Readings for the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time, (A)

1st Reading: LV 19:1-2, 17-18
Responsorial Psalm:
PS 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
2nd Reading: 1 COR 3:16-23
Gospel: 
MT 5:38-48

Comic courtesy of www.agnusday.org, the Lectionary comic strip, where each week Rick and Ted discuss one of the assigned readings from the Common Lectionary.

Click here to learn more about St. John the Almsgiver.

A perfect and generous love

Friday of the Third Week of Lent (C)

My heartfelt thanks go to Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, blogger at There Will Be Bread, for inviting me to write the following reflection for her readers, and for the community of faith at St. Edward the Confessor in Clifton Park, NY.  This post and a wealth of deep spirituality and theological pondering, evidence of Fran’s  perfect and generous love, can be found here, on There will Be Bread. I encourage you to visit.

It happens every year about this time, give or take a couple of weeks. Of course, I am talking about the midpoint of Lent, but I’m also talking about the change of seasons. Lent, like spring, is a time of conversion, of reawakening, of planting new seeds, of grace-filled turnings, returnings, and reconciliations.

Around the fourth week of our Lenten practice, new spiritual growth emerges like tender buds urged on by shortened nights. We carefully push back the winter mulch and beckon the sun’s warming rays.

This morning as I walked my dog, a neighbor who I pass every day remarked: “you look happy this morning.” He was right; I know I had joy written all over my face. The birds seemed to chant, Come out! Come out! Squirrels giddily complied, springing crazily from tree to tree, dropping to the ground, and diving in and out of unraked leaves. I spied a family of eight wild turkeys jauntily making their way up a neighbor’s drive. Upon my return I searched the back of my garden for surprises, something I do every morning now. Two days ago I noticed a few snowdrops pushing through the mulch; today I saw hundreds waving their happy little heads in the breeze.

On days like this, when love fills me to the top, I recall the words of Thomas Merton:

“If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of (God’s) life that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest.” [1]

Like Merton, I am aware (or, at least, I always try to be aware) that it is God’s love that I feel when the sun warms my skin, and it is through God’s love that I hear the chirping of springtime birds, and it is God’s love that motivates and urges and surprises me year after year with the arrival of brave little flowers and tender buds.

Today’s first reading bursts with lush and verdant imagery. The Prophet Hosea’s final exhortation to the Israelites to repent and return to the Lord is given with an expectation of the Lord’s joyful response. Of course! Of course, the Lord would respond with a promise of new life!

I will be like the dew for Israel:
he shall blossom like the lily;

He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar,
and put forth his shoots.

His splendor shall be like the olive tree
and his fragrance like the Lebanon cedar.

Again they shall dwell in his shade and raise grain;

They shall blossom like the vine,
and his fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
[Hos 14:6-8]

The whole of Sacred Scripture is the story of God’s desire for our homecoming, and the paths we take in life represent our response. Every Lenten practice provides opportunities to assess and course correct so that we might continue to draw closer to accepting God’s invitation. On Ash Wednesday, we heard these words from the prophet Joel, “Return to Me with all your heart.” [Joel 2:12]. Today’s Responsorial Psalm includes an emotional expression of God’s longing for reconciliation. “If only my people would hear me, and Israel walk in my ways, I would feed them with the best of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would fill them.”

What God offers us is so abundant, so rich, so fruitful, so ridiculously good. Why is it so difficult for us to accept it? What is it that causes us to separate ourselves from the Love of God? Today’s gospel helps us answer that question.

One of the Scribes who valued Jesus’ teaching approached him, asking “Which is the first of all the commandments?” [Mk 12:28b]. While Christian awareness of the commandments is limited to ten, there are 613 commandments in the Torah, so this was an important question to ask. Jesus told the Scribe that Love is first: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” [MK 12:30-31].

Love of God and Love of neighbor. This greatest commandment is the summation of all other commandments, and as the Scribe indicated to Jesus, more than burnt offerings and sacrifices. Everything Jesus taught is an expression of this greatest commandment. Yet, the history of the world reveals our consistent inability to obey.

Our fundamental problem and its resolution are one and the same: God’s gift of free will. We have taken the gift but have lost touch with the giver. God urges us to love, yet we use our freedom to ignore God’s will. Again, words of Merton speak to me:

“If these seeds would take root in my liberty, and if (God’s) will would grow from my freedom, I would become the love that (God) is, and my harvest would be (God’s) glory and my own joy.” [2]

If my every action is a reflection of my love for God, my response to God’s love will infuse my thoughts and words, my relationships, and the work of my hands. I will become love.

This kind of love means I will use my freedom and hold nothing back; I am to love completely, perfectly, generously, and without pause because the love of God inspires me to do so.

Come out! Come out!

The readings for today can be found here. 

_____________________________________

With just a little over two weeks to go before the Triduum, let’s also express our love of God and neighbor with prayer. Let us pray for those individuals whose Christian journey has just begun; for the elect who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil; for the hungry, the lost, the lonely, the hurt, the disillusioned; for the homecoming of all of our brothers and sisters who have been distanced from our faith communities. And let us love God and neighbor by praying most fervently for those to whom our love seems the most difficult to give.

_____________________________________

[1] Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. Reprint edition. New Directions, New York. 2007. p 16-17

[2] Merton, New Seeds. p 17

Night Skies, Mountaintops, Prayer, Transfiguration, and all the Theophanies Therein

2nd Sunday of Lent (C)

There are pivotal moments, for those who are attentive to them, when God’s presence is indisputable. For many, simply being in a natural setting is enough to attune the senses to a greater awareness of God, and God’s desire for us. Awe opens our hearts to listening and transformation. Prayer takes us there. The readings for the Second week of Lent speak to two of these moments.

First, for those unfamiliar with the word Theophany, it refers to those times in the bible, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures when God makes Godself unmistakably present to human beings, and this divine manifestation leads to callings, covenants, commands, and missions. Modern day people do not experience Theophanies in the same way Scripture tells us Abram, or Moses, or Elijah did. In fact, we get really nervous around people who claim that God literally speaks to them. But, we do experience moments of God’s presence and grace during prayer, in human relationships, and our interactions with nature. Many times these experiences simply affirm our faith, others are transformative and steer us toward making difficult changes or decisions.

The story of Abram’s deepening trust and growing relationship with God leads to a covenant between God and all of Abram’s descendants. Standing in awe beneath the canopy of stars, the elderly and childless Abram puts his trust in God’s promise to bless him with descendants greater in number than the uncountable stars overhead. This remarkable relationship between Abram and God is sealed with a ceremonial pact, like that between friends. God instructs Abram to bring a variety of animals and birds to the ceremony, but the symbolism recedes against the do-or-die oath to which both Abram and God agreed.

Abram’s star-gazing reminds me of the summer of my sixteenth year when I spent a week with my best friend and her family at their lake house on Sodus Bay, NY. We sunbathed, boy-watched, and sailed, but the nights were the best by far. On more than one occasion we ignored the closed gates of the public beach, spread our blankets on the still warm sand and lay beneath the stars, our conversations revolving at first around the things 16 year old girls talk about, but later taking a philosophical turn.

Light pollution did not exist in those days; the grand homes along the shore were discretely illuminated, unlike the runway lighting that seems to be used today. The beach was dark, optimal for star gazing. As our eyes adjusted we entered the vastness of space. My sight went beyond the sprinkling of the brightest stars, recognizable constellations and occasional meteor shower, through the gossamer folds of the Milky Way, going farther, visually dissecting the darkness in search of the most distant galaxies. More than I could fathom, far more than even young eyes could take in, the light of countless stars surpassed the darkness. Space, my view of infinity and all that was known and yet to be known was radiant, diaphanous, yet somehow opaque. It was like a prayer. It was a prayer. My God! My small, young life lay like a single grain of sand beneath the vastness of the universe and the history of the world. Uncountable. Uncounted, except by my creator, whose illusive existence was gradually concretizing for me. Theophany? Probably not. Grace? Absolutely.

What about Peter, James and John, who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop? Is Luke’s gospel account the story of Jesus’ definitive prayer experience, or the disciples’ comprehension of Jesus’ true identity? Was Jesus the only one who was transfigured?

Jesus went to the mountain to pray; he needed to discern the timing of his final mission. Should he leave Galilee when there was still so much more to do, or should he face the inevitable, prepare his disciples for his departure, and start his death march to Jerusalem? Did Jesus’ decision include turning to his knowledge of the Law and Prophets? The appearance of Moses and Elijah with him on the mountain tells us so.

Both Moses and Elijah experienced theophanies on mountaintops, in fact the same mountain: Mt. Horeb. God spoke to Moses from within thick cloud [Exodus 19:9]; Elijah heard the Lord’s voice in a whisper [1 Kings 19:8-13]. Both men received instructions from God as to what they were to do.

And “while he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” The result of Jesus’ intense prayer was visible clarity.

Peter, James and John, asleep as usual, woke up just in time to witness Jesus’ glory. Groggy but still able to comprehend the magnitude of what was happening Peter tried to make the moment last. But a cloud descended on the mountain, enveloping everyone, Jesus, Moses, Elijah and the terrified Peter, James and John. And God spoke “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

While not in the same league as The Transfiguration of Jesus, there is always something sacred about our literal mountain top experiences. There are certain things that can be seen and understood from the top that cannot be grasped from below.

My husband and I have completed many challenging day hikes in New York State, Vermont, California, and Utah, to name a few locations. And I have had a few of what I might call moments of clarity upon reaching the summits. One memorable example occurred on a perfectly clear summer day at the top of Black Mountain, a modest peak amidst the mighty Adirondacks, but a perfect climb for a young family like ours. If you are familiar with this hike you will recall the moment when at the highest point the trail opens near a fire tower to the north, with a spectacular view of all of Lake George and surrounding mountains up to the southernmost part of Lake Champlain. I remember standing at the summit with my family, my heart pounding, my eyes flooding with tears, a great lump forming in my throat, and the only words I could form were ones of gratitude for the abundant glory of creation and my ability to experience it with my husband and daughters.

God speaks. God is present.

Life is Eucharist and Eucharist is life!

christ-dancing_heimo-christian-haikala2

A guest post written by Fr. Joel Fortier. 

When we connect to each other in love we connect into a larger reality we call God…Christ, the ground of our being, our common ground, our God connection in the Spirit. It is The divine Presence, the mystery of Christ in us, and the Presence in which we live and move and have our being, which is within and without us! Through Christ, in the Spirit, all glory and honor be to you almighty God, Father/Mother of all life.

That is the direction of all life, assimilation into Christ, into God.

When we live in love we live in God, and God in us. It is the human connection; in fact, it is what it means to be human, to share Divine life, to live in the Spirit. Spirit and matter are one. It just keeps changing forms. Change is inevitable. It happens whether we like it or not.

So we must learn to live with it, to unite ourselves to the will and purpose of God, which is always to live in love, to die to our smaller selves in order to rise and discover our true, larger self that we are part of, in God.

When I live in love I live in God, and God in me.

The fulfillment of our lives is in coming to recognize, discover, and embrace our true and larger self. It is a matter of ultimately coming to God; of welcoming God, allowing ourselves to be caught up in the breath and love of God for us and all creation; to go with God in the Spirit, to be in the flow and river of divine love and mercy which is always creating, guiding, and directing the universe in a symphony of unending dying and rising, of coming to new forms of living and loving, always moving out of ourselves into a larger reality.

What a wonderful adventure life is! The call of discipleship, our vocation in life, is to go with it! To follow Christ, to go where he has gone, into the heart of God!

It is the loves of my life that have helped me realize this. I am eternally grateful to God for the people and opportunities God has brought into my life. They are the means and sacraments to me of Christ’s presence in my life; the joy of my life.

Life and Eucharist is a matter of sharing, it is in the sharing, in the breaking of the bread of the Eucharistic, and the bread of our lives, that we come to know, experience, and recognize Christ…and so give thanks. “Were not our hearts glowing within us!”

Life is a banquet!

Life is lived always in relationship or it isn’t lived at all! Life is intensely personal, but it is never private. It is always a shared experience, a sharing first of what God has given us, God’s own life. God has loved us into being! And we reflect the image of God in which we were created when we share, when we live in love.

Life is Eucharist and Eucharist is Life! Life is an adventure into the heart of God! Our love has infinite divine dimensions!

Let us go with Christ into the Heart of God. Through Christ, in the Spirit, all glory and honor be to you Almighty God! Amen.

___________________________________

Born in 1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”

The Journey Begins with Prayer: The Baptism of the Lord

 The Baptism of the Lord (C)

It might seem like the most obvious thing in the world to say, but, Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus is found praying with and for others, as well as seeking a quiet place to pray by himself.  He prayed before meals, before and after healings and other miracles, he prayed prayers of thanksgiving and prayed for the faith of his disciples. Jesus prayed when he had decisions to make, and taught his followers how to pray. Jesus prayed on the way to the cross, and moments before he died, Jesus breathed his final prayer.

The first prayer of Jesus’ public ministry occurred immediately after his baptism.

 “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  

—Luke 3:21-22

I wonder what Jesus was praying about, was it a prayer of thanksgiving? Discernment? Guidance?

Many people admit they don’t know how to pray on their own; they say they don’t know what to say; it feels awkward, or they aren’t sure if they are speaking to God the right way, or if they are being heard. I remember one friend who told me she doesn’t know when to “sign off” so she just sort of, ends it. Thanks! Love ya!

The variations of prayer are endless. Plus, other than the Lord’s Prayer given to us by Jesus himself, there is no one right way to pray. The best form of prayer is the one that draws us closer to God. Prayers can be contemplative or centering, a meditation or a chant, a favorite prayer said before bed or upon waking, spoken before meals, or with others during a liturgy or prayer group, to name only a few. The best prayer for me occurs when I share my hopes, fears, gratitude, or anguish with God while doing everyday tasks like cooking and gardening. Regardless of how we pray, if we open ourselves to it, we might sense a holy stillness that expresses God’s presence and love for us.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism beckons us to place ourselves in the crowd of the newly baptized and witness the moment Jesus’ earthly ministry began: with prayer. I wonder what Jesus felt when the sky opened, and the Holy Spirit filled him, and he heard God’s voice.

We can do more than wonder. Have you ever felt God’s presence in times of prayer? Perhaps you have experienced the stillness pulsing in your ears, keeping time with the chant of your heart, “beloved, beloved, beloved.” Maybe you felt the heaviness of the world dropping away, along with your words. Or a sense of well-being, unlike anything ever experienced that blankets you in lightness, and it is just you and God, and nothing else matters.

If we could remain in this state, we would. Because in that moment, which might last only a second or two, God’s delight is evident, and the Holy Spirit of God fills us, like it did Jesus. But, like Jesus, we can’t remain—we can always come back to prayer—but, for now, we must act.

Imagine hearing the words “You are my beloved (son, daughter); with you I am well pleased.” How would you respond?

Christians are baptized as infants, as children and adolescents, and as adults, as in the case of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). Regardless of the age of the person receiving the sacrament baptism is a forward moving, future-oriented event. It’s not “done and over.” It’s not the first sacramental stamp on a passport to heaven. Baptism is a fiat, a yes, a birth. What comes next is life.

Do we remember to pray for the newly baptized after the day has passed? Prayers of gratitude, discernment and spiritual guidance for ourselves and others are needed, because, with baptism, we begin our lifelong journey as disciples.

With today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we bid the Christmas season adieu. Tomorrow begins Ordinary time, a new cycle of discernment, faith formation, and spiritual growth. Let’s begin by reflecting upon Jesus’ baptism, and our baptism, and pray for guidance in the coming year, and let’s strive not only to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus but to act upon it.

“Lord Jesus, we end our Christmas season by celebrating our rebirth in baptism. We enjoy what prophets and kings longed to see. Help us during this New Year to grow more conformed to you in our thoughts, desires, words and actions. Enable us through the Scriptures as well as through the sacraments of your food and forgiveness to grow to full maturity as your disciples.” 

—Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P.,
Prayer for the Sunday after the Epiphany,
The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings can be found here. .