Working on Rest

Homily, Ascension A

Most of us don’t usually think of rest and relaxation as hard work. It should be easy for us to unwind, to put aside our frantic thoughts and worries, to put up our feet and fall asleep, but anyone who has tried to really go on vacation and leave behind all the emails and phone calls, all the distractions and anxieties of life, we realize just how difficult rest can be. Technology is not always helpful. If we’re not careful, we can end up just filling our lives with noise and images, moving from one distraction to another and never really finding authentic rest. Now I don’t drive very often, but I was very disappointed to see that at lots of gas stations, they’ve been putting up screens and ads at the pump, so now you can’t even fill up your car and clean your windows in peace. These might be modern problems, but God always knew that we would need to make rest a priority in order to really find it. He reveals as one of the Ten Commandments, and as the Israelites understood, one of the most important of the Ten, the obligation to keep holy the Sabbath day, the day of rest, which for Christians would be moved to the Lord’s Day, Sunday.

Today, we rejoice that Jesus has entered once and for all into the heavenly rest and eternal glory of God Himself. As the Son of God, He once came down from the heights to become Man, to become like us in all things except sin, even to the point of death on the Cross. So now He has taken our human nature back with Him to the heights of heaven, to sit at God’s right hand and to prepare a place for those who follow Him in obedience.

Now we shouldn’t think of this heavenly rest as something dull and boring or as the absence of activity. As I mentioned before, authentic rest can actually be fairly challenging, one of the many paradoxes of Christianity. We have to work hard at resting. The prophet Isaiah says, “They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.” So heaven will definitely not be boring. Heaven is activity and adventure that brings constant renewal and strengthening. Heaven is the fullness of life and communion with God, entering ever deeper into the knowledge and mystery of God’s own life and existence, and of all that He has done in creation. Even today, the saints are not static in heaven, but we even assign them as patrons of different areas or concerns that we have. St. Anthony is always busy looking for things that we’ve misplaced. St. Jude is always working on seemingly hopeless causes. St. Thérèse of Lisieux once said, “I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth.” Those who turn to the Little Flower in prayer find powerful help. And Our Blessed Mother Mary exercises a mother’s concern over all the events of our lives.

One of my favorite explanations of what prayer is comes from St. Augustine. He talks about prayer as being an exercise of desire. Exercise. Work. The gifts that God has for us are so great and so glorious, that in order for us to have the capacity to receive them, we need to be stretched, we need to grow, and prayer, and the commitment to prayer, is what stretches us. That as we persevere through dryness and through distractions to spend time in the presence of God, our desire for God’s gifts grows, and so does our capacity to receive His blessings. So how strong are you, spiritually? Just like in our physical life, without exercise, we can become rather wimpy. How often do we really think about heaven? How often do we exercise our desire for the life of heaven? How much of a priority do we give to authentic rest and prayer? In the Old Testament, those who violated the Sabbath suffered death, and today, those who are negligent in keeping God’s command to attend Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation suffer the spiritual death of mortal sin. How seriously do we take our spiritual health? How hard are we willing to work, to get to Mass on Sundays and holy days?

Heaven is a continual growth in the knowledge of God Himself. Do we devote any time and energy on a regular basis into really learning our faith and the reasons for faith to prepare ourselves for the life of heaven? At the end of our lives, I truly believe that God will give us what we want. But if we go throughout our lives without much of a commitment or desire for prayer, if we can’t be bothered to really spend any time alone with God during this life, what makes us think we’re going to suddenly want to spend an eternity with Him in heaven at the end of our lives? The time to prepare ourselves for heaven is now, and for the rest of our short life on earth. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

The Commandments of Love

Homily, Eastertide Sunday 6A

Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and, “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” There’s a lot of talk these days about love. That we just need to love one another, to come together, to accept one another, but I often wonder what it is we actually mean by the word ‘love.’ Because to me, a lot of what I hear in the wider culture about ‘love’ sounds much more like mere tolerance or even indifference. Do whatever you like. It doesn’t matter. As long as it makes you feel happy. Be whoever you want to be, whatever you want to be, even if that’s something different than the reality of who God made you to be.

A good Catholic definition of love is to will the good of another, to desire what’s best for them. But how do we know what’s actually good for them, not just what’s pleasing to them for the moment, not just what they happen to want, but what they genuinely need? Love, to actually be love, needs to be grounded in the truth, grounded in the reality of who we are and who God made us to be, and the genuine good that God has designed for us. And as Jesus tells us in the Gospel, love needs to be grounded in the commandments, the commandments that God reveals for our salvation, the Way of Life that Christ entrusted to us. Anyone who sees rules and commandments as obstacles to love is not really talking about love, but merely tolerance or even indifference. Jesus reveals that the commandments are the necessary foundation for genuine love.

At home, as I was growing up, how did I know that my parents actually loved me and really cared about me? Did they tell me, “Do whatever you want?” No. More often, they would say, “Do your homework. Do the dishes. Do your chores. Clean your room. Get off your lazy butt, and be the person that we know you can be.” They gave me direction. They gave me motivation. They wanted me to learn, to grow, to develop as a person. To learn from my mistakes, take responsibility for my actions, and reach my full potential. They wanted me to follow Jesus and the Church that He established with His own authority. Now I always knew that my parents would love me no matter what, but I also knew that they loved me enough to want what was best for me, to challenge and discipline me to really strive for the true good, even if it meant that they wouldn’t be my favorite people at the time.

God really loves us. He doesn’t just tolerate us or shrug His shoulders at whatever we do. He wants what’s best for us. He gives us His commandments and the teachings of the Church not to restrict our freedom, but to free us from the lies of the world around us, to free us from our slavery to sin and pleasure, to steer us clear of the pitfalls and dead ends that so many ways of the world lead to. God has revealed what makes for true and lasting happiness. Why do we still hesitate to just give it a try, all of it, for once? All the rules and commandments of the Church, why not actually try them out and see what happens? Or have we even bothered to learn what those commandments are, and the reasons behind them?

The Church as God’s instrument of salvation and the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth who speaks through her, are not out of touch with reality. It’s those who are too much influenced by the lies and relativism of the world and culture around us that are really out of touch. The Church is not insensitive to what people might want, but she is much more concerned about what we actually need. Why do we continue to rebel against God, our loving Father, and against our loving Mother, the Church? Why are we still unwilling to see the wisdom behind the discipline of our supernatural parents? Jesus says to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” How much do we really love God and His Church, or do we merely tolerate them?

Holy Spirit, come confirm us…

Bulletin Letter, Eastertide Sunday 6A

Friday of this week, we begin praying the original novena, inspired by the nine days—after the Lord’s Ascension into heaven—that Mary and the disciples were gathered in prayer, awaiting the promised gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As our parish is dedicated in a special way to the Holy Spirit, we should all unite in prayer during these days, that God would renew the grace of our Baptism and Confirmation, that He would bring about a new Pentecost in the Church today, that we might carry His Gospel out into the world to everyone we meet.

A while back, to help me memorize the seven gifts and twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit, I composed a prayer that I would recite each day before reading Sacred Scripture. As the Holy Spirit inspired the sacred authors to write, we need to ask Him to help us read and understand what He inspired. This is my prayer, that I now say nearly every day:

Eternal Father, Creator and Ruler of all,/ send forth Your Holy Spirit into our hearts, we beg You,/ to enkindle in us the fire of Your divine Love./ Send forth the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,/ of counsel and of fortitude,/ of knowledge and of piety/ and of the fear of the Lord./ And may the Holy Spirit bring forth in our lives/ His fruits of charity, joy, peace, patience,/ kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness,/ faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity./ 

And may Mary, the Mother of God, St. Joseph,/ and all the saints and angels intercede for us,/ that like Mary, we may ponder on these words of Scripture in our hearts,/ and contemplate the face of Christ, her Son, the one Word of God Incarnate,/ and follow Christ more faithfully in thought, word, and deed in our daily lives. Amen.

I usually follow this up by singing the first two verses of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, which I will translate here: Come, Creator Spirit,/ visit these minds of Yours,/ and fill with grace from on high/ the hearts which You created./ You, who are called Advocate,/ Gift of God Most High,/ living Fountain, Fire, Charity,/ and spiritual Anointing.

If you don’t yet have a strong and living devotion to the Holy Spirit, please spend these days and the days following Pentecost in prayer to Him. Ask Blessed Mary, the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, to teach you how to welcome the Spirit’s direction, guiding us into all truth. Whether you use the prayers that I have given or a more formal novena (one may be found at www.ewtn.com/devotionals/pentecost/seven.htm), let’s make this a sacred time of prayer and renewal, retreating with Mary and the disciples into the upper room, waiting with longing for the Fire from heaven.

Come, Holy Spirit.

A Different, More Abundant Life

Homily, Eastertide Sunday 4A

I’ve been convinced for a very long time that anyone who really strives to follow Christ the Good Shepherd will end up living very differently from the rest of the world. That as Catholics, we are meant to live differently, to have different values, to see things differently from how the world sees them. The earliest Christians and martyrs definitely felt called to live differently from the rest of the world. In our first reading, St. Peter, on the day of Pentecost, calls upon the crowds: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Repent and be baptized, every one of you.” 

As I was growing up, it was clear to me that my parents had very different values than the world around us. It was clear to me from every reaction that I would get from classmates or others when I would tell them that I was the youngest of nine children in my family. And if you’d ask my parents why they had so many kids, using contraception never entered their minds. For one thing, contraception within marriage is gravely sinful, but even beyond that, I think, for my parents, it was more about their deep trust in God, that God would provide if they were willing to work. And because of their trust in God, they were willing to accept any and all that God would entrust to them.

I can’t even begin to describe how abundant a life God has given to my parents because they really choose to follow the Good Shepherd, or how abundant a life God has given to me and to my siblings through their generosity. My parents never felt the need to pay for everything for us, to pay for our college. Far more important to them was to educate us on how to work, how to save, how to stand on our own two feet, how to earn scholarships by really studying and understanding, by applying ourselves to whatever we chose to do. I can’t thank my parents enough for all the lessons they taught me, of what’s really important in life. That all that world has to offer in this life is just so boring, so overrated, and as St. Paul puts it, all that the world offers is as so much garbage when compared with the surpassing riches of Jesus Christ.

So where do our values come from? Do we really allow Jesus the Good Shepherd to lead and direct us to greener pastures, or do we hope that He’ll just come and stay with us where we already are? Do our values and way of life come from Jesus and His unchanging Truth, or do we look more to the Republican or Democratic party, to the culture of death and convenience around us? Jesus is calling each one of us to follow Him, not to stay where we are, but to move, to repent, to really follow Him to greener pastures and a far more abundant life. To live differently and to value things differently than the world around us. 

I’ve grown very tired of so-called religion that doesn’t really challenge us to live differently, religion that seems only to reassure ourselves of God’s love and mercy, and that we’re all going to end up in heaven anyway. What’s the point? If hell is not a real possibility for me, then what significance do any of my choices really have, if God is just going to force Himself on me in the end? And if we’re already good enough for heaven, what am I still striving for? The truth is that God’s Mercy is meant to change and transform us. If you can ignore all the passages of the Gospel where Jesus heals and forgives someone and then says to them, “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore,” if you can ignore what Jesus says about the narrow gate and the fires of Gehenna, if you can ignore all that and many other passages of Scripture, you might have some sort of peace, until you die, but I think many of us could be in for a very rude awakening when we stand before God, away from all those people we tried to impress during this life. 

Listen again to the invitation of our Good Shepherd: Come, follow me. Leave behind what the world offers you, with all its false peace and complacency. Follow Jesus to live differently, to live a more abundant life in this world and in the life to come. 

Paralyzed by Choice

Bulletin Letter, Eastertide Sunday 4A

Have you ever been sent to the supermarket to pick up some cereal only to find 40 different kinds when you get there? And then how do you choose, how do you commit yourself to just one cereal and risk missing out on all those others? Psychologists and economists have suggested that people tend to really like the idea of having lots of options, but when it’s actually time to decide, being faced with too many options can have a paralyzing effect. Now I’ve never had much interest or use for generational theories, but as I understand it, this reluctance to commit and the fear of missing out are supposedly very typical among millennials.

I remember as I was growing up, being told that I could be anything I wanted to be, anything I put my mind to. To some extent, I actually believed that, but the same problem of having too many options can set in. If all roads lie open to me, if I can be whatever I want to make of myself, then how will I ever be able to decide? And when I do decide, it’s easy enough to see that no matter how much I want to be a stockbroker, or famous singer, or athlete, or astronaut, or anything else, if there aren’t any job openings or people willing to pay me for whatever it is I want to do, I can’t actually be whatever I set my mind to.

Having a sense of vocation is very different. God made me very unique, and He has also called me to some definite work, to cooperate with some small part of His plan for history and the world. He has gifted me and prepares and equips me specifically for this task. There are countless things about me that I never chose, but God is able to make use of me and all that He has given me to build up His kingdom. The choice becomes clear: having a sense of destiny, being part of God’s bigger plan is much more fulfilling than trying to be a self-made man.

In discussions about millennials and what would attract them to the Church, I often think of what attracted me and continues to sustain my faith. It was not the music or lack of music. It was not because of feeling welcome or unwelcome. It was not from getting involved with liturgical functions or parish events. It was always because I saw the Catholic Church as something different, something sacred, something to which God Himself had called me. If the Catholic Church is just one option among many, one among thousands of other denominations, if it looks as if there’s nothing that sets her apart, how is anyone to actually decide and commit? If I see the Catholic Church stooping to the level of competition with any start-up church down the street, what is attractive about that? And trying to remake the Church in our own image only leads to losing that sense of vocation and destiny.

You see, I’m not at all worried about the next generation of the Catholic Church. I have faith in God, and the truth is convincing in itself. What worries me is that so many in the current generation of Catholics do not seem to realize and reflect what a unique blessing the Catholic Church really is, the one true Church that has maintained unity, identity, and continuity with the one Church founded by Jesus Himself some two thousand years ago, the one Church destined by God to continue to the end of the ages. The lack of trust among Catholics in the wisdom of the Church’s laws and teachings is far more disturbing to me. And until we actually love all of what is ours, how do we expect to attract anybody else to it?

The humble conviction of one actual millennial.