Category Archives: Uncategorized

Superheroes and the Good

I recently watched “The Amazing Spider-Man.” This prompted me to think about the host of superhero and good-evil fantasy movies that have been made in recent decades. It seems that these superhero movies (rather than religion) are now the public forum for a cultural dialogue on what it means to be truly good, to seek to serve truth and goodness in our world. For me, it is a sign of hope that humanity hasn’t given up on the desire for these foundational principles. These movies struggle with what it means to be “evil” and most illustrate that what makes a person evil is disordered motives or false assumptions – serving an illusory good or incomplete truth. NO person seeks evil; every person wants to believe that what they seek is good. Most of these movies make the case that persons are not inherently good or evil but choose either path through the decisions they make. This reminded me of JPII’s “drama of the human person” – that this world is the stage on which our own final end will be determined. Will we seek to serve the good and the true? Or will we serve the illusory ideal, that which is convenient, popular or economical? Seeking the truth and good is often not sensible or economical, and mostly unpopular. It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes:

“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”

– St. Maximilian Kolbe in the last issue of The Knight before he was arrested by the Nazis

Every day we wake, we enter the arena and the drama unfolds through the choices we make. But the battle, rather than being solely outside the self, is primarily within. The person we become is slowly determined. We cannot be satisfied with just good intentions or a partial understanding of truth. It is apathy and misguided optimism about a partial good that yielded the destructive ideologies of the 20th century. I see these same mistakes being made today in the full-tilt cultural shift occurring in America. Many want to be superheroes, and believe they are achieving this through the embrace of partial goodness. But anything less than good is not good at all.

The importance of grasping the full implications of human decision is why it is so important to ground oneself in tradition (which means the body of thinking passed down through the generations) when making decisions of such great import. No one person possesses full knowledge of the truth. But through the body of knowledge refined over time by the mistakes and successes of human experience, we can have a fuller sense of what the outcome of specific decisions will be. Tradition also supplies the tools that help one “do battle” within the soul – exposing the weaknesses and patterns within that allow one to be satisfied with partial truth.

Yet how can the value of tradition be discovered by a culture hell-bent on progress – even when that progress is attained at the expense of humanity itself through the gradual diminishment of human experience? The very good we seek to promote is being lost gradually by embracing partial truths about the good. We continue to ignore the truth about the human person – what actually BUILDS UP humanity: the common good, community relationships, respecting the dignity of the human person with the foundational respect for human life. I fear for a society that seeks to be the “super hero,” seeks to do the good without really weighing their decisions about the good against the gold standard of tradition. What they will eventually find is that what they thought was gold crumble in their hands, being left only with ash.

I am the Handmaid of the Lord

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High and the Lord God will give him the throne of David His father, and He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be to me according to your word. ” Then the angel departed from her.”

 Luke 1:30-33; 38

 The following is a reflection I wrote on Mary during my time in the Novitiate in 2001.  I include it here today on the occasion of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.  May all of us grow in our love for Jesus’ mother during this Advent season as we strive to unite ourselves with a little of the anticipation and HOPE she perhaps felt as she prepared to welcome her Son into our world!

Mary, Handmaid of God

            This simple title, “handmaid of the Lord,” is, as far as we know, the only title Mary ever gave herself while she walked the earth. I have heard this passage repeatedly in readings of Scripture, but only recently has this title actually entered into my heart to grow.

            I have never really had a devotion to the Mother of God, and I have always wondered about it.  What was I doing wrong?  I’m still not sure, but it has only been recently – this postulant year in fact, that I have started to yearn to pray to Jesus’ mother, to know her and to emulate her.  What a blessing!

            In particular, I feel very drawn to meditate on the full and total “YES” that pervades her life and resounds in the hearts of Christians to our present day.  “YES!  I will do what God wants!”  And we see how this YES must deepen and grow through every stage of her Son’s life.  As He is smuggled into Egypt as a baby; as He is found in the temple; as He grows to maturity; and then in His public ministry which ended in His crucifixion and death.  Mary was challenged again and again to deepen that YES, to “ponder these things in her heart,” to pray about them and meet the challenge to surrender to God until it consumed her entire life.

            Often when I pray in the chapel, I meditate on the statue we have of our Blessed Mother, and at the same time a picture of Michelangelo’s Pieta.  These two works show Mary at very different stages of her YES to God, but comfort me and give me hope.

The statue of Mary we have in the chapel appears to be a portrayal of a new mother, holding her son up for all to see.  But at the same time her hands hold Him close to her, in a protective embrace, and she keeps Him within the warmth of her mantle, which looks very much like a cocoon.  The way she holds Him reminds me that she experienced what most new mothers do – she was intimately united to her son, loved Him intensely, would sacrifice everything for Him, and she wanted Him to be safe and well cared for.  At the same time, Mary was surrendered to God’s will.  She knew this son of hers was also the Son of God, and that He was “destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted” (Luke 2:34) and that as a handmaid, “a sword will pierce [her] own heart too.” (Luke 2:35) 

There was a deepening of the YES that she first spoke at the Annunciation.  An ever deepening surrender to the will of God enabled her to watch her son die; hold His body in her arms; suffer the deep unspeakable pain that any mother would have witnessing the humiliation and public death of her son; and at the same time to be at peace with God.  She had to grow into God’s will for her, continuing to “ponder these things in her heart,” in order to surrender in obedience as a handmaid to His will.

I too, want to do what God wants; at least I say I do.  But when opportunities arise where I am asked to give much of myself, I start to balk.  Why does this happen?  Why can I not give all, or why must I complain and be so reluctant in giving? 

But I have hope in grace.  Mary strengthens me in this hope.  I know it will be painful.  I know I can not do it on my own.  But, in the deepening of this YES, this assent and surrender in free will to be a handmaid of the Lord, I have hope that God will carry me through and allow me to become what He has created me to be.

Finding Meaning in Advent

Advent is my favorite time of the entire liturgical year!  I love the anticipation and HOPE that the readings at Mass convey, and the emphasis on preparing for Christ’s coming.  We are to prepare for His coming in three ways during this season:  reflecting on Christ’s entrance into human history through His Incarnation as a baby, His second coming at the end of time, and we prepare to receive Him more intentionally when He comes to us in the Eucharist and in our encounters with the human person.  Mother Teresa once said, “In the Eucharist I see Christ in the appearance of the bread; in the slums, I see Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor.  The Eucharist and the poor are but one love for me.”

I have been reflecting on how I should best prepare for His coming during this Advent season, and I am once again brought face to face with the stark change that has occurred in my attitude toward life.  Much of my desire to be “serious Catholic” in the past was motivated by a very “black and white” approach to the world.  I have been amused when talking with friends recently by some of the things they say I told them in the past about holiness and the meaning of life.  I was very certain of how holiness is achieved and felt my mission as a religious was very clear.   But PRAISE GOD for the hard knocks of life!  I, like Paul, have been “knocked off my horse” and from my clear mission to consider again what it really means to belong to God. As a person who tends to be focused on accomplishment, I wanted to follow God in a way that was socially acceptable and clear in purpose.  Of course it should follow the dictates of common sense and clearly reflect God’s approval!  But what if that’s not GOD’S plan? I continue to struggle with discouragement over “losing my mission.”  All I was going to “accomplish for God” now seems to have been just an illusion.  I wanted my life to be important, to have MEANING.

I am starting to realize that God is much less concerned with me being successful at doing anything “for Him” than He is interested in helping me to KNOW HIM.  And that the MEANING that I wanted to give to my life is not so much my work, but His.  My motto is the Scripture from the Prodigal son story: “You are with Me always, and everything I have is yours.”  (Luke 15:31)  THIS is what I am to live: to KNOW that I am with Him, and that what I seek, I already possess in this relationship with the Father.  I am starting to learn that “finding God’s will” is not necessarily the hard job that I have made it.  In fact, I think His will is pretty simple: LOVE.  That’s it.  He wants us to know we are loved, and to help every person we meet to  know they are VALUED and LOVED!!!  Perhaps God intends for me to recognize and appreciate the meaning He has imbedded in the very smallest things, the places that seem insignificant.  Rather than accomplishing a plan and giving meaning through my work, perhaps I have been placed here on earth to recognize meaning, appreciate it, and see the extravagant love God manifests in the littlest things.  That is beauty too, and perhaps is the real source of happiness: “to soak up meaning” rather than to create it myself.  This is my HOPE for this Advent.

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?

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”.

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…)