God, Where Are You?

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Oh God!

Hi Susan. How’s it going?

I’m mad at you. Actually, I’m furious. And I’m nearly done with you.

Susan, why is that?

Well, for starters, where the hell are you?

I’m here. I’m always here. You know that.

Not feeling it. Not feeling it at all. Sorry.

Well. I am here with you. Trust me. What else?

Seriously? Are you kidding me? Have you been on vacation?

No. I am aware of what you are doing to each other.

And? Why do you allow it? What made you think humans could be trusted? What are you, a masochist?  What kind of Creator allows its own creation to destroy itself?  I’m done with you.

Don’t blame me. I don’t allow these things.

Yes you do, you always have.

There you are wrong. I don’t allow any of it. You do. The atrocities which you commit against one another and your intent to exploit the earth for personal gain, these are human choices. You raised up these human leaders, you gave them power. No, I do not allow these things. You, you are the ones who allow them to be. You always have. 

Why? Why does this have to happen?

I know why.  So do you.

What I know is that there is more good than evil in the world, and that there are a lot of people who believe they are doing your will.

But are they? I’ve been pretty clear about my will.

I know. Can’t you just do something?

I did. I am.  Do your part. I’m here.

I’m trying. It shouldn’t be this way, though.

Susan, I’ve been saying that forever…

“What I’m interested in seeing you do is:

sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once.

Your righteousness will pave your way.

The God of glory will secure your passage.

Then when you pray, God will answer.

You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,

Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

I will always show you where to go.

I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—firm muscles, strong bones.

You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry.

You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past.

You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.”[1]

Isaiah 58:6-12 (from The Message)

__________________

Readings for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, (A)

1st reading: Isaiah 58:7-10
Responsorial Psalm PS 112
2nd Reading 1 COR 2:1-5
Gospel: MT 5:13-16

Scripture note:  Compare the above translation of Isaiah 58:6-12 from The Message with Isaiah 58:7-10 from the New American Bible Revised Edition [NABRE] found on the USCCB website for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A). Both quite clearly state God’s will.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Message, it is a contemporary rendering of the books of the Bible, translated from the original languages and the New Vulgate by Eugene H. Peterson (with Deuterocanonical writings translated by William Griffin). Every chapter and verse was crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events, and the ideas of the original text in everyday language.

Why not intersperse readings from The Message with your own bible translation and enrich your prayer life, add layers to your comprehension of the Christian mission, and better actualize the meaning of Scripture into your interactions with others and with all of God’s creation? Try it, you might like it.

Click here for information on The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition

[1] Eugene H. Peterson. The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition. (Chicago. Acta Publications 2013) 1243.

What have we become?

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Yesterday I read the following statement made by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, against President Trump’s move to close our borders to immigrants, refugees, and all who seek a better life in the United States.

Statement of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R., On Wednesday’s Executive Actions on Immigration

January 27, 2017

I understand the desire for every American to be assured of safe borders and freedom from terrorism.  The federal government should continue a prudent policy aimed at protecting citizens.

I also understand and heed the call of God, who through Moses told the people of Israel: “You shall not oppress an alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9).  Jesus asks His disciples to go further, calling on us to recognize Him in the stranger: “Whatsoever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me” (Mt. 25:40).

Wednesday’s Executive Actions do not show the United States to be an open and welcoming nation.  They are the opposite of what it means to be an American.

Closing borders and building walls are not rational acts.  Mass detentions and wholesale deportation benefit no one; such inhuman policies destroy families and communities.

In fact, threatening the so-called “sanctuary cities” with the withdrawal of federal funding for vital services such as healthcare, education and transportation will not reduce immigration.  It only will harm all good people in those communities.

I am the grandson of immigrants and was raised in a multicultural neighborhood in southwest Detroit.  Throughout my life as a priest and bishop in the United States, I have lived and worked in communities that were enriched by people of many nationalities, languages and faiths.  Those communities were strong, hard-working, law-abiding, and filled with affection for this nation and its people.

Here in Newark, we are in the final steps of preparing to welcome 51 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  This is only the latest group of people whom Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese has helped to resettle during the past 40 years.  This current group of refugees has waited years for this moment and already has been cleared by the federal government.

They have complied with all of the stringent requirements of a vetting process that is coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security.  Catholic Charities, assisted by parishes and parishioners of the Archdiocese, will help them establish homes, jobs and new lives so that they can contribute positively to life in northern New Jersey.  When this group is settled, we hope to welcome others.

This nation has a long and rich history of welcoming those who have sought refuge because of oppression or fear of death.  The Acadians, French, Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Jews and Vietnamese are just a few of the many groups over the past 260 years whom we have welcomed and helped to find a better, safer life for themselves and their children in America.

Even when such groups were met by irrational fear, prejudice and persecution, the signature benevolence of the United States of American eventually triumphed.

That confident kindness is what has made, and will continue to make, America great.

http://www.rcan.org/statement-cardinal-joseph-w-tobin-cssr-wednesday%E2%80%99s-executive-actions-immigration

Then I read the astonishing comments from self-identified Catholics against the Cardinal, against Pope Francis, and against anyone else who objects to the Trump administration’s inhumane agenda, which frankly is directed against people of color.

These so-called Catholics will stand in their pews this weekend professing their faith in the One who dwells within the stranger. They will hear the words of the prophet Zephaniah: “seek justice, seek humility; perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger”[Zeph 2:3]. They will sing the words of the psalmist, “The Lord keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets captives free.” [Psalm 146]. They will listen to admonishment of St. Paul against Christians who boast of their righteousness [1 Cor 1:26-31], and hear Jesus’ words honoring the defenseless among us and insisting that we do the same, regardless of the consequences [Matthew 5:1-12]. They will give each other the kiss of peace, and then they will place the Eucharist in their acid mouths and return to their homes to cheer an agenda that is the antithesis of everything Jesus represents.

Some serious soul searching is called for. What have we become?

I also have to work hard to resist rising feelings of animosity against my fellow Christians who wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he knocked on their door and yet dare to use, for example, an image of the Sacred Heart or Blessed Mother or Michael the Archangel or St. Therese the Little Flower as their profile picture and proceed to spew politically motivated venom on good shepherds who speak the truth. Professed Christians who feel justified spitting on Jesus’ face with their vitriol. Jesus wept. So do I. So should you.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

MT 5:1-12

______________________________________

Readings for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

1st reading: ZEP 2:3; 3:12-13
Responsorial Psalm: PS 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
2nd Reading: 1 COR 1:26-31 
Gospel: MT 5:1-12A

What actually will make America great again?

sad-rain

I have to forgive these people? I have to pray for them?  After what they have done?  So many dark thoughts. Not Christian thoughts at all. Thoughts I normally would reject with all of my might.

Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and prayer are repeated throughout the gospels and are frequent themes on this blog. But I was in a dark place that day. Even my dog knew it. She turned away from me when I picked up her leash. Instead of an exuberant response to her favorite activity she stood still, her long tail pointed down as I snapped on her harness. The date was 11/9, the day after the presidential election, but in some ways it felt like 9/11 to me.

Like many Americans, I felt my home was now located in a strange, inhospitable land. Throughout the day I experienced some of the fear, shock, insecurity, and disorientation that haunted me and others for many months after the events on that terrible September morning 15 years ago.

About mid-day I decided to deactivate my Facebook page. Earlier I huddled with my friends online, while others gloated and thumped their virtual chests as if the presidential election was part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The words “drain the swamp” and “how’s it feel to be a loser?” and an undisguised blood lust filled my news feed, because electoral victory was not enough.

Others offered snarky shoulder-shrugging comments about “change, finally” interspersed with suggestions that poor losers should get over themselves. There is nothing quite as menacing as a vindictive winner, and this, following the most hostile, hate-filled campaign on record threatens to be the kind of contest where every citizen will be the loser.

It is my firm belief that there is a life-giving aspect to every experience, no matter how dark, but hard as I tried I was too broken up to locate it. So, before disabling my Facebook account I reached out to my friends and asked them to share their wisdom on the subject.

The idea of forgiveness worked its way into my thoughts and later, umbrella in one hand, dog leash in the other I worked my way up the street and began my silent rant. Forgive? Forgive who? Doesn’t forgiveness first require someone asking for it? Does forgiveness even come into this conversation? And who should be forgiven? Forgive us Lord, for we know not what we do.

fall-sadnessI picked up the pace, walking faster and more fiercely than I ever had, slogging angrily through piles of leaves littering the sidewalk—unraked fiery gold and persimmon leaves, their wet fragrance rising towards me. I walked along streets shiny with rain and reflected red maples, my poor dog moving as fast as she could behind me. I was surrounded by the colors and scents of fall’s glory. Look up, look up. I saw it all and I didn’t care.

I was angry with God. I was angry with the church and the 51% of Catholics who from my point of view voted against the full teachings of Jesus Christ. I blamed the Bishops for their inconsistent teaching on Catholic social justice issues and their failure to demonstrate God’s mercy in this Jubilee year of Mercy. I blamed those who willfully ignore the words and example of pope Francis whose eyes are trained, as ours should be, on the Lord.

Pray for them.

I stormed past the grand home of a wealthy neighbor and whipped the bag of still warm dog poop at the political sign taunting me from their lawn. Maybe they will need to learn how to mow their own damn grass and clean their own damn house and take care of their own children after their help is deported.

Sigh. Oh Susan.

Oh God. 

Remember, I never claimed to be The Good Disciple. I only strive to be.

The heaviness in my chest slowed my gait, and the sky opened with my tears which stung as a reminder of their source—the perception that The United States’ slow but steady progress towards a more inclusive and just society had just been halted.

I didn’t want to pray for these people, but I did go back and retrieve the bag of dog poop from their lawn. And as I stood up to continue walking home in the receding daylight and porch lights began their timed announcement of the days end, I became aware of the silence. No cars, no planes, no dogs barking, just the patter of the rain, my dog’s nails tapping on the pavement, and my sniffing. I offered a prayer for healing and asked for forgiveness. We are all mourning our country in some way. Forgive us Father; we know not what we do.

What is life-giving about this experience and other similar situations throughout the world? Dear readers, it emerges from the fact that this cuts us so deeply. We mourn our broken union. But our progress towards a more inclusive and just society has not been halted, we just have to work harder at it. We need to insist on being community with one another, to console and listen and work to build bridges across our painful divides.

The life-giving element—what actually will make America great again— is our collective agreement to act on behalf of one another because we are human beings. We know what to do.

This is the wisdom of my friends who responded from both sides of the debate.

 “The America that we know and the rights of every community of Americans will remain sacrosanct. The darkness will lift – the weight of this enormous shock will lift and our faith will sustain us.”

“Activists will be born today.”

“But life-giving for me is the truth that God will use this experience to strengthen the resolve of those who stand for true social justice, across the board, from womb to tomb. Love always wins. Love always wins. Love always, always wins.”

“Love, reason, and compassion are the antidotes to the hatred of the campaign. We have to continue working for the common good.”

“People who normally would be passive will now be activists for justice. We need to be vigilant now more than ever.”

“Let’s reflect (St.) Paul’s words, “where abounds sin, over abounds grace” Rom 5:20… let’s be positive … and get involved, and claim “our” country back, with kindness, love, charity, mercy, all those Christian virtues that tell who we are!”

“Feeling despair does not help and does not change anything. Instead, continue to raise the important issues – whether that is through getting involved in politics or volunteering with an organization.”

What is your response?

#SoBlessed #TheWrongPrayer #HaveMercyOnMeASinner

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Late one night last week when driving home from a local restaurant with my husband I noticed a push cart near the corner of the street where we live. It was the type of cart that many apartment dwellers use to do their shopping. This cart appeared to be loaded to the top with laundry bags. I craned my neck as we turned the corner; in the shadow of the street light I made out the shape of woman standing beside the cart.

I live in what might be called urban suburbia; our town, an incorporated city, is situated just 8 miles west of Times Square. Like city-dwellers we can set our clocks by the screech of city buses stopping for passengers; we barely take notice of wailing emergency vehicles and find comfort in the train whistles. We can walk a short distance to the deli, cafes and restaurants, boutiques, houses of worship, the theater, even the grocery store. Some city folk might not agree with the “urban” descriptor, but I know better, having lived in suburbia most of my life: this is city life.

My part of town is a poster child for how successful mixed housing works. Our neighbors live in flats over stores, apartment buildings and townhomes. Turn-of-the-century mansions, pre-war homes both grand and modest nestle together on narrow lots on the same block. We are a blend of socio-economic-religious diversity and it is beautiful thing to behold.

But I’ve never seen a person who was obviously experiencing homelessness standing on the corner of my street.

We pulled into our driveway, got out of the car, opened the door to our house and went inside. I thought to myself, “What should I do, what is the appropriate thing to do?” Then, as I contemplated walking outside perhaps to talk to the woman I lost my nerve. I have poor night vision and thought I might be mistaken. Maybe I didn’t see what I thought I saw; and how would I handle the awkward moment when I offered a sandwich to a neighbor who was simply waiting for the bus? #SoManyExcuses.

Early the next morning I looked outside to see the woman and her cart still there, only this time someone was talking with her. I stepped back in the house to grab something to bring her, but when I returned she was gone.

That same day I read a New York Times op-ed written by David Brooks, a journalist I respect greatly. The article, entitled, “The Power of a Dinner Table” concerned some friends of Brooks who host Thursday night dinners for some of their son’s classmates—kids who don’t have enough to eat. As Brooks reveals, this family’s loving and generous hospitality fills more than hungry stomachs. The table guests, he says, “have endured the ordeals of modern poverty: homelessness, hunger, abuse, sexual assault. Almost all have seen death firsthand.” Brooks writes from his place at the table, where for the past two years he has joined the couple and their guests at these dinners. #MakeRoom

And then I read the readings for this weekend, the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The text from Sirach assures us that God hears our cries, judges fairly and without favoritism, and in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus directs a parable to those who believe themselves to be #SoBlessed.

Jesus is so clever. He knows his listeners. If they don’t recognize themselves in the Pharisee whose prayer is to thank God he is not like the despised one who stands off in the distance beating his heart and asking for mercy, they will take the higher, even more hypocritical seat of judgement that looks down on everyone. Thanks be to God we are not like that Pharisee or the toll collector! Suddenly this parable is about the prayer of three people, and we don’t get the irony. And so it goes. Who then will judge us?

To judge another is about as natural a human behavior as can be had. We compare our progress against one another in nearly every capacity of life. Taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, stingy, generous, educated, ignorant, poor, rich, too rich, greedy, lucky, unlucky, lazy, persistent, worthy, unworthy, good Catholic, bad Catholic, true Christian, false Christian, sinner, and saint.

Honestly, is there anything that we don’t judge? To be fair, constructive comparisons and judgments often help us set goals to better ourselves. And that’s a healthy approach. But, when we judge in order to pat ourselves on the back or puff up our own sense of superiority that’s a whole different ballgame. That’s not prayer. That’s self-exaltation.  And that’s not Godly.

Oh Lord, I am glad I am a respectable citizen, and a churchgoer, I thank you that I am not like those who look down on the poor and the needy. Don’t forget that dollar I dropped in a cup last week. #TheWrongPrayer

I did not judge or look down on the woman standing on the corner of my street with what I presume was everything she owned. I did not count my blessings or mumble something lame like “there but for the grace of God go I.” But my sin was what I did not do, and that was to delay showing her the mercy that God was urging me to show her. And then it was too late. #NeverAgain #HaveMercyOnMeASinner

Help Wanted: Prayer warrior. No need to apply. Start today.

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Has there been a time when the need for prayer has been more urgent? Actually, yes, there have been worse times than this, and for millions of people living around the world, what many of us might call the “worst of times” is nothing compared to their “every-damn-day times.” And that, I believe, is a very good starting point for reflecting on the readings for the 29th Sunday of ordinary time, year C.

From the first reading to the last we witness endurance in prayer, patience, and action. There’s Moses, whose unceasing prayer empowered the Israelites to defeat their enemy [EX 17:8-13]; the psalmist expresses confidence in God’s constant care and protection [PS 121]; Timothy receives instruction to lead his community with persistence and patience [2 Tim 3:14-4:2], and we learn from the parable of the persistent widow and the dishonest judge that justice is served to those who persevere [LK 18:1-8].

In the past week I have read and reread and researched and notated and meditated on these passages. And every day, like many of you, I have read articles online and in print, one after the other, and in the evening my husband and I watch news hours that report on the glut of injustice and the growing anxiety of our world’s citizens. There is a sense of helplessness arising that threatens to turn to violence at any moment.

Like a drum keeping time the words, wisdom, wisdom, beat with the pulse in my ears. I place my hand over my heart and feel, kindness, kindness. Even the cycle of my breath drives me to repeat the Tonglen, the prayer found in Tibetan Buddhism: I inhale the pain of the world, I exhale compassion.

I hear the widow’s cry for justice, I am using both my love of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus Christ to do my part in the world, I am assured of my creator’s protection along this obstacle strewn path on which we all travel, and I am trying mightily like Moses to keep my hands lifted in prayer.

But like some of you, I grow weary.

This holy path, our sacred journey, our wilderness wandering leads us past scenes of oppression that we are duty-bound to correct. Most recently our attention is given to the rejection of vile attitudes, lewd comments, and physical assault that demean and damage women. We reject this with the same fervor that we reject racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, antisemitism, and all prejudicial ideologies that derive energy from hatred. We do so because human oppression is an insult to the divine image in which we are created; we do so because when we actively correct wrongs perpetrated against one another we reflect the life-giving nature of God.

Pray. Pray harder. Pray for wisdom, guidance, stamina, courage, and patience.

As long as Moses held up his hands in prayer, the Israelites were successful in fending off their enemy. The widow’s persistence resulted in her attainment of what was rightfully hers. And Jesus assured his disciples that not only will God respond to the prayers of the chosen ones, God will do so without delay.

But our prayers are not answered without delay; at least they don’t seem to be. Maybe in God’s time they are, but we humans have been waiting a long time for justice to be served here on earth. How much longer must we persevere, Lord?

And that’s the thing. Both of these readings raise theological difficulties. Why must we ask God repeatedly for help, why can’t God just fix what is wrong? After all, all things are possible, we are told. What kind of God requires unrelenting requests for help?

The cry of the psalmist is our own, “I lift up my eyes toward the mountains; whence shall help come to me?” [PS 121]

In response to a recent story posted online about the harrowing plight of refuge children displaced by incessant bombing in Aleppo many readers commented that they were sending prayers to the affected children. Within seconds someone said, “Save your breath. Prayer is useless.” Similar comments expressing contempt both for prayer and for those who believe in God soon followed.

Prayer doesn’t work that way; God is not a magician and we are not babies who hold out our hands and pout until we get what we want. Frankly, to suggest that God doesn’t exist because the messes humans create are not magically cleaned up by God is a sign of immature faith and stunted spiritual development.

The answer to prayer is not its immediate fulfillment but more of a clarification of what we are seeking, and a strengthening of our resolve to take action. Jack Shea writes, “God suffuses the hearts of those who pray with justice, and then with empowered hearts they bring this justice into the affairs of earth.”[1]

Prayer guides our growth into full humanness and spiritual maturity and gives us the courage and the strength to bring about a more just world. Prayer is life-giving!

Whatever form our prayer takes, let’s attend to the action God’s response compels us to take. Let’s keep our arms raised at all times and enlist the help of one another lest we grow weary with the effort.

“Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. [2 Tim 3:14-15]  

______________________________________

[1] John Shea. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: The Relentless Widow. Year C edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. 2006. Page 291

Doubt: Faith’s Dependable (but not victorious) Companion

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Every week an abundantly rich reflection on the coming Sunday’s readings arrives in my inbox from the faculty of Catholic Theological Union (CTU).

As an alumnus of CTU I appreciate the opportunity to read the words of my professors with whom I spent many years studying and whose wisdom continues to pervade my theology. As I read, I hear their voices and recall their scholarly encouragement (and the readings, and papers, and lectures, of course). Just as often the reflection comes from a professor or faculty member with whom I never studied. This week was one of those times.

This writer’s words touched me so deeply I requested his permission to post it here for the readers of The Good Disciple. The author is Fr. Mark Francis, CSV, the president CTU. His writing hit home with me, I explained, because even while I am one who studies and writes about the meaning of discipleship, and who strives to embrace the body of Christ in all I do, I find the more deeply I wade into the waters of faith the louder my doubts become, clamoring for my attention. Clearly, crises of faith are to be expected, for why would doubts arise if our faith was not challenging us to rise above them?

Fr. Mark opens his reflection with remarks about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who will be canonized today, and delves into what it means to remain despite “the impossibility of faith.” She and all of the saintly doubters who came before her should give us reason to reach higher, to continue to move beyond the messy feelings that our doubts stir in us.

By Fr. Mark Francis, CSV

This Sunday Mother Teresa will be canonized and very few doubt her holiness. But in light of this canonization I think it is important to note that for many years this saint experienced a real crisis of faith. In a collection of her letters Mother Teresa: Be My Light, compiled by her spiritual director, we read that after founding the Missionaries of Charity, she had doubts about the existence of God, about the soul and therefore the promises of Jesus – and heaven. This revelation has been received in a variety of ways. In an extensive article in Newsweek published by the late journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens, he criticized her as being an over-promoted religious celebrity. He also contended that Mother Teresa’s doubts made complete sense because the Catholic faith is based on asking people to believe “impossible things.”

While I was never a great fan of Mr. Hitchens – who seems to have become somewhat of an over promoted anti-religious celebrity himself – (his book God is not Great was a scathing screed against any kind of religious faith), I think he may be on to something. The Catholic faith does ask us to believe impossible things – or at least things that are impossible from a certain point of view. The fact that Mother Teresa doubted God’s existence may rattle some people, but anyone who has a mature faith has experienced similar moments of doubt and despair – when God’s presence just seems absent. St. John of the Cross described it as the “dark night of the soul,” Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, XVI, in his book Introduction to Christianity speaks of all of us being constantly inhabited by both faith and doubt. Flannery O’Connor, the great American Catholic writer, criticized glib ideas regarding what the faith is all about. She wrote, “most people believe that faith is a big electric blanket, when it is of course the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”

Our readings today seem to underscore the “impossibility” of faith. Jesus speaks about discipleship – following him. This involves three very hard, if not impossible, things to do: prefer Jesus to one’s family, carry your cross, and renounce your possessions. How unreasonable. How impossible. Once again the Gospel turns the world-common sense – on its head.  This is not normal behavior especially in the Middle East of Jesus’ day when one’s family was the only real support one had. To prefer Jesus to them (to hate family is the Semitism used) would leave you completely exposed and vulnerable – and you would be forced to depend not on them – but on God. The same is true of renouncing possessions…security and comfort all go out the window.

And then there is the case presented in our second reading. Paul’s letter to Philemon over the slave Onesimus also reveals this same “turn the world on its head” attitude. To appreciate what’s going here is that Onesimus is with Paul not because he is a runaway slave, but availing himself of a stipulation in Roman law called amicus magistri (friend of the master).  He has felt himself mistreated by Philemon, and has gone to Paul who is in prison in order to intercede for him. While with Paul, Onesimus becomes a Christian. And now Paul is asking Philemon to do the impossible – accept Onesimus back not as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord. How unrealistic, how impossible.

So, Mr. Hitchens appears to have been correct. We are called upon to believe and to act on the impossible things we believe. That God will somehow provide for us. That we are all equally loved and cherished by God as brothers and sisters in Christ. That a little nun, who after starting a work in the slums of Calcutta, and after struggling with faith all her life, is being canonized and that her work with the poor has grown to almost 5,000 sisters in 14 countries. How impossible all of this sounds. But that’s the point. Mother Teresa, despite her tests of faith, took up the cross and was faithful – and was able to accomplish the impossible.

We are called to do these same impossible things in our own way, in our own time, despite doubt and despite a lack of clarity: to take up our cross out of love…in order to bring the presence of Jesus into our world.

Mark Francis, CSV
President, CTU

_______________________________________

Published September 4, 2016. © Copyright 2016 Catholic Theological Union. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

“Catholic Theological Union is a Roman Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry serving both vowed religious and lay women and men. The mission of Catholic Theological Union is to prepare effective leaders for the Church, ready to witness to Christ’s good news of justice, love, and peace.” —Catholic Theological Union Mission Statement

My relationship with Catholic Theological Union continues to be a source of intellectual, theological and spiritual inspiration, and for that I am grateful. To learn more about degree programs offered at CTU, visit www.ctu.edu.

Image: Mother Teresa at age 77, 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner praying during dedication ceremonies at her 400th world wide mission to care for the poor.

Rock Steady? 

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

I once asked a friend whose existence exudes God’s mercy if he ever doubted—if he just once thought, even for a second, “this is just crazy.” He looked me in the eye, shrugged his shoulders and stunned me with the words, “never.” I believe him. His life attests to his confidence that it is God who guides our steps and who raises us to the fullness of life, to the highest and sweetest note. His life, while not always easy, exudes joy and love, and the “peaceful fruit of righteousness.” [Heb 12:11].

Unlike my friend, many people struggle with faith. More foundational than the myriad issues with institutional religion, the idea of a God, a greater power, a single, intelligent, ineffable, infinite and benevolent being who desires to be in relationship with the world is hard to grasp. And for Christians, the belief that God became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, to gather the nations as a shepherd gathers his flock, just simply defies logic.

Doubters claim they don’t have faith. Christians are told that faith is a gift of the Spirit [1 Cor 12:9, Hebrews 11:1-40]; some receive it, and others do not. It doesn’t seem fair, does it? We bandy around the language of “the gift of faith” and “giftedness” if was like mathematical skill or Olympic athleticism or artistry. No doubt, those are gifts and abilities some are born with. Likewise, some people just seem to have faith. Were they born with it?

And what about suffering? The question regularly wends its way through the forest of doubt. What kind of benevolent creator allows what it has created to destroy itself? Volumes have been written on the topic of Theodicy, which is the “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence given the existence of evil,” but that is a subject for another day.

Is my faith rock steady? Mostly, but its makeup is more characteristic of the sedimentary variety of rock than igneous; it is sandstone, not granite. My faith is an aggregate of minerals and sediments, fossils and particulates layered and compacted by gravity and the movement of my lifetime. I think I’m in good company because if trust, belief, and reliance in the intangible were anything other than this we’d have one slim book in the Bible and there’d be a lot of tremendously bored theologians.

There are times when I find myself drifting from my faith, times when I might even say “this is just crazy” before my life experience tells me, “no, it is not.” These times of doubt come when I grow distant from my prayer life—times when I slide into the dualistic mind that is the core of much of Richard Rohr’s writing.

Many years ago, when I participated in a three-year diocesan ecclesial ministry program one of my classmates told me she prayed continuously throughout the day, and in fact was in the midst of prayer at that very moment. Her focus, she said, was like a gravel path leading to “the narrow gate.”  I was incredulous. How did this gainfully employed mother of three get anything done if she was praying all the time?  And what did she mean by gravel? In the dozen or so years since then, I have sought, with limited success, the kind of prayer-filled mindfulness of which my friend spoke. Like anything else, it’s a practice, and I am easily distracted, my path is now strewn with gravel.

It’s like when I began my Master’s degree. I wanted to study theology to deepen my understanding of the God of history and the God of today and to make sense of what God means to me in my life in my family and in my faith community, and the world. But there were times when the study became the ends not the means. My striving to master the material did not always lead me to pray, “Am I doing your will?” or “Are WE doing your will?”

At different times in my studies, I become cynical and discouraged, not about the existence of God, but about how inconsistently we interpret our experience of God, and how poorly we follow God’s will. All the scriptures (read Isaiah from the start to finish, with a good commentary, of course, and see the similarities to our contemporary global crisis), and all the church history (change in the church is like trying to use plastic spoons to push an aircraft carrier out to sea), and all the theology—it seems like the more we study it the less we agree. Sometimes it seems that we take three steps forward and four steps back.

We often take a sledgehammer to faith. It is hard to “endure our trials” [Hebrews 12:7]. “This is just crazy” becomes “This is just stupid.” People think they know more, believe they have the power and think their strength comes from their own abilities.

One of the most inspiring highlights of the 2016 Olympic Games was the example given by so many Christian athletes who openly shared that it was their faith in God that helped them prevail. Footage of athletes praying before and after events, on their own or in groups, proliferated. Through these visual and verbal expressions of prayer, each athlete was like a sign of God’s glory being proclaimed among the nations.

These athletes know better than most what it takes to reach a goal; they know that success is not easy, even for the strong and the gifted, but their faith is the evidence of their striving. Believers and doubters alike can learn a lot about faith and striving from their example.

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” [Luke 13:24].