Monthly Archives: October 2010

Staying with sinners

The readings for today were so great!  In particular, I love the gospel story about Zacchaeus.  Here is a man who is defined for us as a “tax collector.”  What does that mean? He was a Jew who has taken a position in the Roman government.  This was tantamount to treason for the Jewish people, as they resented the occupation of Palestine by the Romans.  Additionally, the position of tax collector not only required the person to collect taxes on behalf of the Roman Empire, but unofficially allowed him to use this privilege for his own financial benefit, collecting a higher percentage of taxes than required so as to allow him to keep the excess for himself.  It is easy to imagine the resentment that the Jewish people had for such a person.  Because of the financial and political benefits of such a position, Zacchaeus was an “untouchable” in both a positive and negative sense.  He was protected by the Roman government from harm, insulated from want and need by his financial success, yet at the same time completely rejected by his own people socially and probably not accepted as an equal by the Roman people either.

So this is the situation of the man Jesus encounters today in the Gospel.  Zacchaeus is not trying to meet Jesus; he merely wants to see him.  If his intention was to meet Jesus, he could have pushed through the crowd to do so or have even arranged a meeting through his connections.  Instead this wealthy man climbs a tree just to get a better glimpse.  Perhaps he did not feel worthy to be among the crowd that gathered or to meet Jesus face to face.

Yet out of all those who had gathered, Jesus sees him.   He recognizes Zacchaeus, and invites himself to his home.  What must this encounter, this “seeing” of Jesus, have been like?  I don’t think it was an insignificant thing, as the response of Zacchaeus is so dramatic.  Here is a man who has been willing for years to risk the rejection of his own people for the sake of financial gain.  He has made a life for himself outside of his community.  And yet one encounter with Jesus causes him to give ALL of it away.  It reminds me again that “being seen” by Jesus, and encounter with Him is life-changing; it requires a RESPONSE of LOVE.

But the message that God had for me today, was in the reaction of the crowd: “When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”” (Lk 19:7)  This is the only response of the crowd that is provided in the story.  Is this indeed the predominant response of all the people present?  If it is, this is pretty surprising, as it seems like they missed an amazing conversion moment!  It is not a small thing for a person to renounce their entire way of life over an act of hospitality – especially one where the person invites himself!  Yet if this indeed is the main reaction of the crowd, one should not be surprised.  It only highlights the deep-seated propensity of the human heart to judge the dignity of a person in regard to his sin rather than what he is called to be.  Who are the “tax collectors” in our culture?  Who are those on the margins in our society who can’t seem to escape the stigma of their past?  And how many times have I missed the conversion moment of that person because I am so busy looking at the scandal of a social moré being broken?

So I ask myself today, and I pose the question here to those who read it: how many times have I been accused of “staying at the house of a sinner”?  Have I risked my own “standing” in order to minister to a broken person who wants to embrace freedom?  Am I willing to confront the fears I have of being in an uncomfortable social situation in order to express solidarity with a member of the human family?

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Power and Vulnerability

I have enjoyed the daily Mass readings of this week, especially the first readings, taken from Ephesians (chapters 5 & 6).  These readings are challenging, as they speak about submission – wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters, and so on.  These are the readings that make us cringe when we hear them read aloud: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord…Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church…”(Eph 5, USCCB NAB Online Bible)  Why do we have such a response?  We have all experienced having someone in authority abusing the gift of our submission to them. 

The priest who celebrated the Mass I attended on Tuesday said, these readings are about Love, not power.  I thought this statement brought clarity to the issue.  Part of the reason we hate these readings is because we don’t want to suffer the smug sidelong glances of the husband or parent during Mass, looking to see if we are paying attention.  But in actuality, most of us wouldn’t have a problem submitting to another if we felt the precious gift that we entrusted to them would be completely respected.  The fact is, all of us desire to give ourselves to another; it is just that when that trust is undermined by selfishness or cruelty that we become resistant to giving such a gift.

I find myself thinking a lot about this right now, as this is a great deal of what I am struggling with personally in my situation.  I feel that I embraced religious life with a lot of idealism, wanting to give absolutely everything to Christ through the institution of religious life and my specific community.  But as the “hard knocks of life” became more real and paralyzing each day I began to resent the submission that was demanded of me rather than give it freely.

The reality is, Love requires vulnerability.   The word vulnerable comes from a Latin word, vulnera, which means “to expose oneself to wounding.”  In a relationship of Love, the persons involved respect the vulnerability of the other in the relationship – be this a relationship of friendship, of religious obedience, or the most intimate relationship of marriage.  If they do not, if they instead choose to use their position to wound the other, that is when fear, resentment, and a desire to protect oneself enter in.

Unfortunately in our world of sin, people seem to more often resort to power rather than to love.  This is why there are so many movements dedicated to protecting human rights, specific groups of people, minorities, and children and so on.  Those who are vulnerable are often wounded, again and again.  But does that justify not trusting?  Not being vulnerable?  To protect oneself in fear and anger is concomitant with saying that I have given up on the ideal of Love.  Is that really the answer?  It is certainly not the answer Christ gave.  But it also doesn’t mean that if you make yourself vulnerable to the other that you do not value your dignity.  I guess this is the essential question for me:  How did Jesus continually make Himself vulnerable in order to LOVE, yet at the same time always safeguard His dignity as a person?  I have a feeling if I understood how He balanced this I would be able to give myself in submission more freely rather than having to “fight for my rights”.

Why I Love B16

On the way to Great Britain in September for a papal visit, Pope Benedict XVI was asked how to make the Church “more credible and attractive to all.”  The following is his response – and what a surprising answer!  At least, to those who might think the Catholic Church exists to gain power and prestige.  But not at all surprising from B16.   What an apropos message for our culture.  The Holy Spirit has truly blessed us with another timely leader.  What do you think?

The Holy Father: “One might say that a church which seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for itself, does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power. The Church is at the service of Another; it does not serve itself, seeking to be a strong body, but it strives to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths, the great powers of love and of reconciliation that appeared in this figure and that come always from the presence of Jesus Christ. In this sense, the Church does not seek to be attractive, but rather to make herself transparent for Jesus Christ. And in the measure in which the Church is not for herself, as a strong and powerful body in the world, that wishes to have power, but simply is herself the voice of Another, she becomes truly transparent to the great figure of Jesus Christ and the great truths that he has brought to humanity, the power of love; it is then when the Church is heard and accepted. She should not consider herself, but assist in considering the Other, and should herself see and speak of the Other and for the Other.”  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2010/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20100916_interv-regno-unito_en.html

To Be With Jesus

Yesterday I began a reflection on the story of the elder son in Luke 15.  Today I finish this reflection.

The other lesson this portion of the story imparts to me is what the goal of a life in Christ is.  This message comes through in the actions of the father.  How does the father respond to his resentful elder son?  First, his father seeks him out and pleads with him.  He does not return evil for evil in regard to his hurting son.  He listens to the concerns of his son and does not disagree.  But for the father, the concerns of the son miss the point: the Christian life is not about rewards, about success.  It is about membership in a family; it is about a relationship of LOVE where one is fully accepted as they are, with nothing to prove.  How does the father make this point?  By the words he speaks: My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. (Lk 15:31)

I cannot tell you how profound these words of Scripture became for me in the last year.  I must admit, I am a DOER.  I wanted to do all sorts of things for God, to further the kingdom, to make the Church attractive or popular (or at least acceptable) to our culture.  And yes, like the elder son I have been frustrated.  “Look God, at all I have tried to accomplish for you.  And what have I received in return?”  But what God has given me is even more precious: a profound understanding of the TRUTH THAT I AM LOVED.  I am not sure I can articulate in words what I feel so strongly in my soul.  I understand that the treasure, the “pearl of great price,” the justice that I seek is already within me.  It is the truth that I am already with Him, and that I am loved.  The point of my life is not to work to build up an earthly kingdom, or look for suffering, or to follow multitudinous rules but to treasure this truth within me and help others to discover it too.  God does not intend evil for us, call us to punish us, or trap us; people do this; those who are uncertain of their own dignity harm others.  Jesus didn’t come for the purpose of being punished or being rejected.  But it was clear that this would happen because of the great rejection of the truth about the human person.  Jesus came to remind us and reveal again this truth, this MERCY: WE ARE LOVED, and that which we seek WE HAVE ALREADY BEEN GIVEN.  And when suffering comes, I know the truth about myself and can respond knowing that I am already with Him.

So my hope is that the message of Luke 15:31 will take deeper root in my heart, but also that this message of “just being with Him” can be shared with others.  If you have the chance, listen to David Crowder’s song “How He Loves Us” today. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzfPHnoT0-0)  Just take the time today to delight in the reality that you have been called to relationship, membership in a divine family, with a Father who loves you unconditionally!!

The Elder Son

The Elder Son in Rembrandt's "The Prodigal Son"

One of my favorite parables of Jesus has always been that of the prodigal son.  But as time passes I find myself more often drawn to identification with the elder son rather than the younger.  I am sure it is due to my own transition from being a “wayward soul” to taking the Gospel message more seriously.  But even more than it being due to a change in perspective, I think (hope) it is also a due to a deepening in my response to Him.  Here is the story:

“Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing.  He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’  He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’  He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.  But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'” (Lk 15:25-32, USCCB Online Bible)

In the past when I heard this story, I was always indignant for the elder son.  It always seemed to me like he gets the “short end of the stick.” But is that really the full story?  Eventually I realized that my outrage stemmed more from my misunderstanding of the truth about the Christian life than the unfairness of the situation. 

Let’s look again at the behavior of the elder son:  he hears a party, becomes suspicious and refuses to go in; he asks a servant for information rather than seeking out his father; he speaks angrily about his relationship with his father, how he feels he has been treated, and what he thinks of his brother.  This is not a happy man.  And yet, wouldn’t most of us feel justified in acting just as he did if we were in his shoes?

I think I only started understanding the problem of the elder son upon hearing a story told by Fr. Henri Nouwen, spiritual author and Harvard professor.  He once told the story of spending an afternoon with a large family, with children ages 5 to 18.  The entire family was raking leaves that day.  At the end of the task, the father gave each child a gift for helping with the task.  Fr. Nouwen noticed that the 5 year old, who spent most of his time jumping in the leaf piles, got the same gift that the 18 year old did!  He asked the teenager, “Doesn’t it make you angry that your little brother got the same reward for helping that you did – when you obviously did a lot more work?”  The response of the atypical teenager was, “No.  He’s my brother.  I love him.  I want him to have good things too.”  It is this story that helped me to realize that the problem of the elder brother (and my problem) is not that there is anything untrue about the situations he has experienced, but that he does not see the person before him as his brother.  When we begin to realize that we are all part of God’s family, the other person ceases to be a threat and instead becomes someone for whom we desire good things for too… (to be continued tomorrow…)

Finding God in the Darkness

Van Gogh's "Starry Night Over the Rhone," 1888

I had the opportunity to see this work at a special exhibit of post-impressionist art in San Francisco.   This was probably the most famous work in the exhibit.  Van Gogh painted this “Starry Night” a year before the more famous one perhaps some of us are familiar with (see it at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VanGogh-starry_night.jpg).    The exhibition information said that Van Gogh felt that in the silence of a starry night, one could hear “the voice of God.”  It also said that the couple in the picture expresses Van Gogh’s “profound faith in love.”  This work gave me pause to think about what Van Gogh’s insight might have been.  In some ways I too feel the presence of God more profoundly in the darkness, the “not knowing.”  I am no longer sure of “God’s Will” and what God wants, what “His Plan” is.  Perhaps my past certainty was based more on my black and white interpretation of God than the truth.  But what I DO know here is that I am just to BE with Him, and that He DOES LOVE ME, even in failure – because it is NOT about DOING or SUCCESS!   But this truth will be hard for a Doer like me to remember…  To read more about this painting, go to http://www.vangoghgallery.com/painting/starryindex.html.

What is “Merciful Love”?

During my time in the convent, I spent a lot of time pondering the term “Merciful Love.”  It is for the mission of “Making Christ’s Merciful Love Visible through our service,” that the community was started.   There are many actions that could be defined as “merciful acts,” but what does the essence of MERCY consist of?

In the Novitiate I read a book by Hannah Hurnard called Hinds’ Feet in High Places.  This book is an allegory of the spiritual life.  If you haven’t had the chance to read this book, consider it!  It is enjoyable to read, and might be spiritually beneficial.  Without giving away the story, at one point the heroine of the story has the opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of Mercy, and it is defined as “bearing the cost.”  What does it mean to “bear the cost?”  It is to accept the cost of loving a person who perhaps is hard to love, or who has purposely hurt you, or has thoughtlessly harmed you by their actions.  It is to forgive without exacting justice in return. 

This explanation of mercy resonates with me, yet I have also heard it misused.  Just recently I had a conversation with a sister in my community about the meaning of merciful love.  Essentially, her understanding of Merciful Love is to ceaselessly “put up” with the bad behavior of other people.   I reject this definition because it smacks of enabling (AA terminology) – that is, letting oneself be the doormat that everyone can wipe their feet on.

This distortion, rather than negating this explanation of Merciful Love, I think, is just an incomplete way of seeing it.  Jesus never advocated being a doormat – and those that understand the rabbinic style of preaching know that Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek,” is not proof of that!  Jesus is merely exaggerating to make a point.  Jesus never allowed people to rob Him of His dignity – not even in the midst of the Passion.  His dignity was preserved to the very end.

So what then, is Mercy?  I think the “missing piece” in this view of Mercy is that to “bear the cost” does not JUST mean to “put up” with bad behavior, but to respond to the sinful act with an act of love, as stated by Benedict XVI in the quote above on the Sacred Heart: “He burns and transforms evil in suffering, in the fire of his suffering love.”  It is not enough, and is NOT RIGHT to allow evil to occur and allow it to go unanswered.  Mercy asks for more than this.  We are to transform the hurt and pain of a sinful action into something good.  This is what is promised in the Scripture, “all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) 

So then how I interpret Merciful Love is indeed to bear the cost of sin in the world, but further to return good to those who have hurt us in the hope that their sinful acts will be minimized.  What good can be offered to a person in such a situation?  It is the good of limiting the sin that is committed by them in regard to me.  Jesus was a model of such Mercy.  The good, the love He often offered to those who sinned against Him was to tell them the TRUTH.  And what is the truth?  That they have a profound dignity and that this dignity should be reflected in their actions.  Think of Christ’s treatment of the Pharisees.  These were the religious elite of the time.  Out of Merciful LOVE Jesus attempted to help them to understand their hypocrisy – and He expressed this sometimes in very stark terms.  Christ’s treatment of “sinners” and tax collectors is just as surprising and compelling.  There is no excessive moralizing; instead Christ offers forgiveness and the simple request to “go and sin no more.”  Think even of His words to Judas at His betrayal: “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Lk 22:48)  Never did Jesus advocate self-punishment or abusive treatment.  Not only does such behavior contradict reason, but it violates the gift of our dignity as persons created in the image of God.  So to allow oneself to be mistreated out of “mercy” is in fact sinful, as it indicates that the dignity you have as a child of God is not respected by the person sinning against you, or by you.

To be merciful, to love, then, is not to be a doormat!  It is to call all persons to an awareness of the profound dignity of every person, and to act in such a way as to reveal that dignity to all!  And often, those who need to know their dignity the most are those who are often the source of most of our pain.  So let us not be pacified with just putting up with bad behavior!  Let us practice TRUE Mercy, TRUE Love for those we encounter.  And perhaps we can transform some of the evil in this world into LOVE.