Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Splendor of Autumn

Outside my window a miracle of this world unfolds with barely a nod or notice from most as they go about their busy lives.  It is called the change of seasons.

Oh, we can describe how this happens scientifically, but the essence of these changes, the beauty, the meaning, and the simple glory they represent cannot be stated in scientific terms.

We live in a world of change.  Some of it is painfully slow like the drifting of the continental plates.  Some moves a little swifter such as the progress of the glaciers down the mountains.  And some change, like the ageing process of man, is swift, indeed, in comparison to these.

However, there is something different about the change of the seasons, something unique that can make even the most hardened observer sit up and take notice.  We human beings crave consistency.  When our lives are ordered we tend to be more settled and content.  And I believe that is one of the purposes of the changing seasons.

Of all the seasons, the most glorious, in my opinion, is Autumn.  As the days grow shorter the winds begin to subtly change direction.  Instead of the choking heat and humidity we associate with summer, drier, cooler breezes bring welcome relief.  Rains appear more frequently and the dry land that summer brought now converts into a soft layer of earth now quietly waiting for the next growing season.

The real stars of this season are the multi-colored trees that tower above us.  All throughout the summer, they have spread their canopies of deep green shielding us from the brutality of the summer sun.  Now, in Fall, as the growing season slows and nears it's end, these natural umbrellas delight us with their final days and weeks by displaying God's colorful world spectacularly.

Brilliant reds, bright golds, vivid oranges, and even deep russets dot the landscape.  They delight the eye, reminding us that the world is much more than a resource to be mined and profited from.  When is the last time you took a walk just to take a walk?  Do you remember what it is to be among nature as she bids us farewell for a few months, serenading us as it were, with colors that even the most talented of artists cannot duplicate?

If it has been a long time since you have hiked through the glory of Autumn, perhaps it is time to do so.  And when you do, remember that what you are seeing is not the natural, scientifically explainable conversion of the earth from one season to another.  No, what you are seeing, what you are witnessing, what you are a part of is the reflection of the magnificent glory of God, the Creator, reminding us that all of His creation is beautiful.  And because all of us are His creation, we can certainly conclude that we are, in God's eyes, the most beautiful thing of His creation.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

29th Sunday In Ordinary Time--God, An Unjust Judge? (Lk. 18:1-8)

This parable presents an interesting problem.  It is the story of an unjust judge, a man who is politically corrupt, a man who is out only for himself with little or no consideration for others except for what they might be able to do for him.  He is a man with considerable power and wields it unmercifully.

A poor widow, left alone in society to fend for herself, had some legal problem with an unnamed person.  She petitions the judge to give her relief but the judge, because this woman means nothing to her and has no possibility whatsoever of bringing anything of value to him, ignores her in hopes that she would soon disappear.  He was wrong!

Time and again, the widow appears before the judge, pleading her case with the same passion and enthusiasm as ever.  Time and again, the judge rejects her pleas for help.  But the woman does not give up.  Her persistence is beyond anything the judge has ever encountered.  Finally, after an extended period of time, the judge begins to weary of her constant petitions.  He begins to fear for his personal safety. 

The judge, in a moment of complete honesty and self-revelation, declares, “While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.”  (Lk. 18:4-5)

I believe that this parable is easily misunderstood.  On the surface, Jesus seems to be saying that if we but persist in our prayer, God will finally relent and grant our wish.  But this cannot be true since it is impossible for man to negotiate anything with God.  We cannot persuade God to do anything. 

Prayer must never be seen as something like requesting time off from our jobs for a vacation.  On our jobs we decide when we would like to take time off, place the request before our boss, and wait to see if the time off will be approved.  While this may be a fine process for the workplace, it does not work that way with God. 

However, our Lord’s parable is less about prayer than it is about the nature of God.  Who among us would consider that God is an unjust God?  Would any of us ever even utter such a thing even if we did feel this way?  Probably not because in man’s heart of hearts, resides the knowledge that God is the ultimate just judge.  He is justice in and of itself. 

If God is the ultimate just judge, then why do we approach Him in prayer as though we believe Him to be unjust?  What do I mean by this?  Well, stop and think about it for the moment.  Often, when we go to God in prayer, isn't it true that we try to figure out how to best approach Him?  Don’t we try to determine how to sound the best for a favorable answer?  And isn’t it also true that we do this when we think that the judge can somehow be persuaded by our approach.  In other words, when we think the judge is unjust, we try to fashion our petition in such a way to gain a favor from the magistrate. 

Because God is the just judge that He is, can we not approach Him with boldness without reservation?  Why must we search for just the right words when He already knows what we are coming to Him for?  Why should we, His ultimate creation, bother with formalities?  He knows us more intimately than we even know ourselves.  Why not be bold in our prayer?  Why not go to Him with the expectation that our prayer will be answered for all prayers are answered.  They may not be answered in the way that we want or envision, but they are answered.

Pope Francis recently spoke about this boldness in prayer.  He said, “Prayer that is not courageous is not a real prayer.  For the Lord says: ‘Everyone who asks, receives: and the one who seeks, finds: and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”  (cf Lk. 11:5-13)

How bold are we, really, in our prayer?  How do we approach the Just Judge?  How often do we just think of praying instead of actually praying?  And when we do pray, do we really approach God with a bold humility?

Sometimes, this may be due to a lack of knowing just how to pray.  Again, the Pope is helpful in this.  “Do we get ourselves involved in prayer?  Do we know how to knock at the heart of God?” 

Knocking at the heart of God is a bold act, indeed.  Yet, God Himself, yearns for this kind of communication!  We never approach God in prayer without God first approaching us. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts this beautifully.  “The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there Christ comes to meet every human being.  It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink.  Jesus thirsts.”  Yes, Jesus thirsts for communication with us, yet, because He loves us, He will never force us into anything including those things which are best for us. 

The Catechism continues.  “His asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us.  Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours.  God thirsts that we may thirst for Him.”  (CCC 2561)

If we keep in mind that God is the ultimate Just Judge, we can approach Him with the boldness suggested by Pope Francis.  It is a boldness founded in the Creator’s desire for deep, intimate communication with us.  We thirst for Him and He thirsts for us even more than we could ever yearn for Him.

So, no, God is not an unjust God!  We simply need to truly understand that He thirsts for us and beckons us into intimate communication with Him.  Be bold, be forward, be certain that the Just Judge will welcome us with open arms and we will find the ultimate joy in that moment.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Faith...Not Certainty

All of us believe, I think, that we know what faith is. Many of us will recite the definition of faith from the Letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews. "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Heb 11: 1) By its very nature, faith is a mysterious, mystical element of our lives that we all depend upon whether or not we acknowledge its presence.

However, faith is not certainty. We can be certain of very few things in life and faith does not bequeath certainty in any way shape or form. Faith, rather, is the foundation of the spiritual life. It gives us both hope and direction. But it is not certainty. Faith does not fail as long as we hold onto it and trust in its ability to transform and reform us.

When life becomes confusing and chaotic, certainty often fails. When our beliefs or philosophies are shaken to the core, we usually lose all certainty. We feel lost and alone and find it difficult to return to the path we were on when life's little surprises knocked us off course, a path lined with certainty about our life. Only faith gives us reason to go on. If we have faith, true faith based upon a mature understanding of Who God is and His role in our lives, then it gives us reason to go on. It is through faith that we are given to understand that despite the darkness we may find ourselves in at the present, there is hope.

Faith cannot always be defined. It defies definition any way. And, yet, it guides us through our days. Even though we may be going through a period of uncertainty brought on by one of many life crises we may encounter, faith will see us through it all with hope. And this hope is not the hope of someone wanting to hit the lottery. It is grounded in reality. Hope, as defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is "the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit." (CCC, Article 7, Section II, The Theological Virtues)

Hope, therefore, is not of our will but that borne of our faith in God. It is not some pie in the sky wish we have for our mortal existence, but based in the reality of God in our lives. We are incapable of having faith without the guidance of the Holy Spirit and His prompting toward hope. We choose to respond or ignore this prompting, but we do not originate the communication. In essence, we respond to God on a very intimate level.

So, while there is very little certainty in this life, there is still one definite certainty. And that certainty is the love of God for each and every one of us as we make our way through the maze of life. We can be certain that if we but have faith in God, hope will be His gift to us!

Gossip: Cowardice Is Criminal

As a society we seem to be awash with everyone privy to everyone else's business.  And most of what passes for truth is out and out fiction.  All of us have been victimized by this behavior at one time or another in our lives.  Most of the time the gossip is private but now, in this age of information, much of it becomes public.  And while sometimes what we learn about the other person actually has some foundation in the truth, most of those stories are complete lies.  Our attitude about this behavior seems to be sheer indifference.  We ask ourselves what possible difference could a little harmless gossip make and, besides, it is so much fun. Yet, this so called fun is capable of producing great harm and pain to those who are it's target.

In his early morning homily at Mass on September 13, Pope Francis addressed this topic.  The Pontiff in his normal straightforward manner, condemned this activity.  He said that those who engage in gossip, judging and criticizing others, "are hypocrites because they don't have the strength , the courage to look at their own defects."  He used strong language in regards to those who would seek to smear another through gossip and innuendo by calling them criminal.  Putting it in further perspective the Pontiff also noted that such behavior destroyed rather than exalted the image of God present in others.  

In addition, the Pope used even stronger language indicating the kind of people these truly are.  Every time we "judge our brothers and sisters in our heart, and worse, when we talk about it with others, we are killer Christians," imitating Cain who committed "the first homicide in history."

The Pope also pointed out that there is no such thing as innocent gossip.  He even equated the telling of false stories to violence.  "If one of us gossips, certainly he is a persecutor, someone violent."  

Gossip is an assassination of the soul.  It robs he victim of dignity and integrity.  It strips them of their pride and reputation.  In some extreme cases, it even drives some to suicide.  We have all heard of the stories of those individuals who had gossip spread about them through such social media as FaceBook who, as a result of the malicious rumors and talk, took their own lives.  Granted, that these are extreme cases, but in a very real sense, every victim of gossip has their very souls attacked.

Gossip has been a bane of the human existence for as long as humanity has been around.  We are social beings by nature and, as such, are prone to engage in social communication.  When friends get together, for instance, one of the first things brought up in conversation may likely be "have you heard what so and so did?"  Often, after that, the feeding frenzy is on.  The stories take a life of their own on with little tidbits being added here and there by each teller of the tale.

The Apostle St. James warned about the power of the tongue and pointed out that "the tongue is a little member (of the body) and boasts of great things.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!"  (James 3: 5)    He saw the tongue as a remarkable instrument, one filled with constructive potential and destructive capabilities.  "With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing."  (James 3: 9-10)

One of the most ironic things in the world of Christianity is how Christians can sit week after week in their services, praising God and proclaiming themselves to be followers of Christ inspired by he Holy Spirit, and not ten minutes after church meet someone in the parking lot and immediately begin gossiping about the priest or pastor.  Where have they been for the last hour or so?  Where is their Christianity?  Did they leave it in the pews?  Or is that Christianity just another trivial part of their week, something which they can scratch off of their to-do lists and move on to more important things.

The Pope did not end his discussion here.  He went on to offer solutions to the insidiousness of gossip.  Instead of gossiping about others, Pope Francis suggested that we pray for others who may be gossiping about us.  He even suggested that "if it's necessary, speak to the person who can solve the problem.  Don't tell everybody else about it."  To some, this notion is a foreign concept.  Many would either like to keep silent and allow the story to continue to roll merrily along or refuse to talk to the other out of either false sense of superiority or fear for being confronted with the truth.

In addition, in a recent article published in Jesuit magazines throughout the world, the Pope offered this thought.

"I have a dogmatic certainty.  God is in every person's life.  God is in everyone's life. . .Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it has been destroyed by vices, drugs, or anything else, God is in this person's life.  You can, you must try to seek God in every human life."

Maybe, just maybe, rather than resorting to gossip, those who feel compelled to spread false, malicious rumors about others should take the Holy Father's advice and look for God in every life.  He is there and they just might be surprised to find that God is, indeed, in everyone's life.