Sunday, 25 September 2016

Week 26 Sunday (Year C)

Readings: Amos 6:1,4-7; Psalm 145; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

For the final ten years or so of his pontificate, John Paul II made constant use of a set of three ideas whenever he spoke about Christian life, the Church, or particular vocations within the Church. These three ideas are those of contemplation, communion and mission. He spoke of them so often and in such a way that they seemed to represent for him what we might call the Christian ‘gene’. In calling them the Christian gene what I mean is that this threefold reality will be found wherever there is Christian life. The structure of that form of life, its DNA if you like, is always contemplation, communion and mission. No matter what a person’s vocation or state in life, whether married or single, lay person, deacon, religious, priest or bishop, all through every instance of Christian life will be found some form of contemplation (prayer, thoughtfulness), some form of communion (friendship, love, being with others), and some form of mission (reaching out, witness, teaching).

The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus shows us what life is like without contemplation, without communion and without mission. It shows us the ‘anti-Christian life’, life outside the kingdom Christ came to establish. Instead of contemplation there is blindness. Instead of communion there is an unbridgeable gulf. Instead of mission there is paralysis and the death, it seems, of any hope.

The rich man did not see Lazarus until the urgency of his own situation in Hades led him to look up. Then he saw him. But when the poor man was lying at his gate, he did not see him. He presumably knew he was there, saw him physically as he passed in and out, but in any significant sense he did not ‘see’ him. He was blind to the man’s need, oblivious to the injustice of their situation. This is what riches do – Luke’s gospel has been telling us this again and again this year – riches, of whatever kind, tend to blind the one who is rich. It is not just our attitude to riches, Luke’s gospel teaches, but the simple fact of being rich that tends to coarsen people and make them insensitive.

If contemplation is the first element, communion is the second in the Christian gene, the DNA of Christian life. Again the parable shows us its opposite. There is no communication between the rich man and the poor man. There is no shared life, no communion. The most the poor man can hope for is the scraps from the rich man’s table, those pieces of bread used by the rich man and his guests to wipe their plates before throwing them on the ground for the dogs. The most the rich man can hope for is that Abraham might send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool his burning tongue. But even then the rich man does not speak directly to Lazarus. He speaks instead to Abraham.

How sad it all is. It is the sadness of being strangers to one another, of not talking to one another, of misunderstanding and betrayal. It is the difficulty of coming to trust where there seems to be no basis for trust. These difficulties are found everywhere, in families and workplaces, in religious communities and in the Church itself, but that does not take away from their sadness. Instead of common ground there are unbridgeable chasms and gulfs that cannot be crossed, situations for which, it seems, there is no solution.

But God, as revealed in Jesus, is communion. The eternal happiness of God is the knowing and loving of one another of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We have been called to share that life, the communion of mutual knowing and loving that God is. But we do not share it if we are not prepared to be in communion with one another: if we say we love God while hating our brother we are liars, Saint John tells us (1 John 4:20). We believe, though, that the unbridgeable gulfs and chasms that keep people apart and that even lead them to think of each other as enemies have been bridged by Christ. This is why we call him our Saviour and Redeemer. Saint Catherine of Siena was very fond of the image of Christ as a bridge, a pontifex, establishing communion between heaven and earth, a bridge that reaches from side to side to unite what seemed irreconcilable. The bridge, of course, is the cross of Christ, stretched across those gulfs and chasms, by which he has reconciled all things to God and enemies to one another, drawing all into one communion of love (Ephesians 2:11-22).

The third element of the Christian gene is mission. The Church as a whole, and all its individual members, live a life (or are called to be living a life) marked not only by contemplation (good seeing, prayer, thoughtfulness) and communion (shared life, friendship, love) but also by mission. Once again the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is helpful because it presents us with two people who are disempowered for different reasons. Remember, what we see in the parable is the ‘anti-Christian life’ and so there is no sense of mission here. The poor man is passive throughout, seems listless, not just when he is on earth allowing the dogs to lick his sores but in the afterlife also, as he reclines on the bosom of Abraham. The rich man is also impotent, paralysed. In this life he was blinded by his wealth, in the next he shows some concern, if only for his own brothers, but there is nothing, it seems, that he can do.

The person who believes in Christ, on the other hand, and who is therefore living this life of contemplation and communion, will not be powerless. There is always something that can be done. The life Christ gives us is about action, bearing fruit, following him, going and doing likewise, taking up our own cross, keeping his commandment of love. It is not just that we decide we should do something because we have received so much. It is just that the form of life we are talking about is of itself fruit-bearing and action-producing. If it does not do that then the gene is somehow defective, the DNA is missing some of its parts. If there is contemplation and communion then there will be mission also.

Sometimes people think Christianity is a recipe for passivity in this world. Although the lives and sometimes the teaching of Christians have on occasion contributed to this view, it remains a profound misunderstanding. There is always something to be done. If the life we are living is one of contemplation and communion leading to mission there will be some fruitfulness in our lives. We can seek the truth, for example. We can pray. We can think about things: how the world would change if more time and space were given to good thinking. Was it not Pascal, the French philosopher, who remarked that half the world’s problems would be solved if only people could sit quietly in a room for an hour (or words to that effect). We can study. We can hold others in mind. We can try to know ourselves better. We can try to know and love others better.

Sometimes when we think of ‘doing something’ we think immediately of the public, social world, even the political world. God knows there is great need for a Christian presence in the public world, not just the presence of Christians but the presence of those things that characterise Christian living, once again contemplation and communion.

If Lazarus is listless and the rich man is trapped we are always full of confidence. It is a confidence based not on our own abilities. It is based on the life Christ has shared with us and it flows naturally from that life when it is healthy, a life of contemplation and communion bearing fruit in our service of Christ and of his Church.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Week 25 Friday (Year 2)

Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-11; Psalm 144; Luke 9:18-22

As so often in St Luke's gospel Jesus is at prayer before making a key decision or asking a decisive question. Here it is the familiar question, 'who do you say that I am'? Coming as it does directly from the heart of his prayer (in solitude, with the disciples) it seems that this must also have been his prayer's content. Many human beings all over the world are probably doing this right now, praying to God about their vocation: who am I? what is it you want me to do? who is it you want me to be?

In his humanity Jesus also prays about this question. The issue had arisen already in his experience of the temptations (Luke 4): in fact those temptations can be understood as pervading the whole of his public ministry, questions about who he is and what his mission is, questions he put to his disciples, having first, presumably, put them to himself and to the Father in prayer.

He seems embarrassed by the response of Peter, rebuking the disciples and commanding them to tell this to no one. 'The Christ of God' is Peter's answer but Jesus continues by speaking about 'the Son of Man who must suffer many things, be rejected, killed and be raised'. It must be that it is a matter of the right time, or, to be more precise, of the wrong time. What is the problem? He is engaged in teaching them something very delicate as he appropriates for himself the teaching he is sharing with them. What kind of Christ is he to be? When is the right time for speaking more explicitly and more publicly about the answer that is emerging? Not now, it seems, not for the moment.

Human wisdom and prudence are often seen in good timing: what to do or say can be clear, the challenge is to find the right time, the right set of circumstances, in which to say or do it. For teaching the wisdom of the cross, the hard paradoxical wisdom of the gospel, when is the time right and when are the circumstances favourable? We might say never, it will always be challenging to teach that wisdom. Or we might say 'the fulness of time' is the right time for teaching this wisdom, a kairos moment in the life of each individual, a moment of grace and understanding, when the knowledge of the cross can be received not just as reasonable and intelligible, but as desirable and infinitely wise.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Week 25 Thursday (Year 2)

Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; Psalm 90; Luke 9:7-9

At the end of some readings from the Bible it can feel very strange to say 'this is the Word of the Lord / thanks be to God'. Today's first reading is an example, the famous 'vanity of vanities' passage at the beginning of the Book of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth). What is the point? Where is it all going? Days come and go, months and years, there is nothing new under the sun, we wear ourselves out, have nothing to show for it, and in a hundred years time what difference will it have made?

The monastic tradition in Christianity has given us reflections on the seven or eight deadly sins or principal vices among which we find sloth or acedia, a kind of listlessness in which everything seems pointless and meaningless. Evagrius of Pontus is one of the monastic teachers who writes about these sins or vices which he calls 'thinkings', or 'thoughts'. Logismoi is his Greek term, we would perhaps use the term 'fantasies'. They refer to things we find insinuating themselves into our minds, mixtures of thought and feeling that distract, disturb, darken, and fragment. From different directions they take away our serenity and peacefulness. With acedia specifically we lose a sense of purpose and energy, things come to seem pointless.

The sun plays an important role in all this. Ecclesiastes speaks of human toil and effort under the sun. The sun rises and sets as day unendingly follows day. Is there anything new under the sun? Acedia was also called 'the noonday devil', noon being the time when the sun is at its highest and hottest, the time of day when this problem is most acute. But Evagrius says the problems start at 10.00am and goes on until 2.00pm! The monk looks out his window, wondering whether the sun is moving at all. When will it be 3.00pm? Perhaps there was food, or a break, at 3.00pm. Or perhaps it was just that the heat of the sun has eased by then.

Anybody who has lived through a Roman summer will have some idea of the effect of intense heat day after day. There is a story of a Scottish Cardinal who claimed that it was impossible to commit a sin when the scirocco was blowing in Rome, the hot wind from the Sahara, on the grounds that nobody could think straight in such conditions.

So what is the solution to acedia? It is not clear that the spiritual masters who wrote about it - Evagrius, Cassian, Gregory the Great, Isidore, Aquinas - have any easy solution. Perhaps it is enough good news to know that this human experience is recognised and acknowledged in the Bible and in Christian traditions of spirituality. Whatever its roots - physical, emotional, intellectual - it seems to be a universal and perennial human experience.

One solution is to bring ourselves, again and again, into our present reality and to remind ourselves that the life of the Spirit is flowing in us for the 'here and now', with these actual people, and through these actual responsibilities. Acedia will tell us that we would be happier if things were different (so we re-arrange the furniture in the room), or if we knew more (so we buy yet another book on the spiritual life), or if we lived with different people (so we think about living in another community or perhaps we should have married a different person), or if we lived at a different time (so we fantasise about living in other countries at other times). But our faith is incarnational, about here and now, and these people, and these responsibilities which are mine today. We are to find meaning - and a meaning deeper than all our imaginings - in the experiences that are ours today: this is what faith assures us. Sometimes we 'feel' this re-assurance, have a lively sense of it, but often we don't, in which case we keep going, placing our trust in the One in whom we believed and continuing to serve Him as best we can.

It is good to know that this experience is recognised and acknowledged in the Bible, in the liturgy of the Church and in our traditions of spirituality. Thomas Aquinas adds a thought of his own about acedia: it is called the noon-day devil, he says, because the mid-point of any work is a difficult moment. It is as if every important human undertaking will encounter a moment of 'mid-life crisis'. Is it too late to turn back? The end is not yet in sight. Was it a mistake to begin in the first place? Like Peter walking on the water we need to keep our eyes on the One who is calling us, the End of our journey. Whether we are afflicted by doubt or oppressed by acedia, keep looking to him, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the sun of justice who assigns us our daily tasks in the service of his kingdom.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Week 25 Sunday (Year C)

Readings: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

It is one of the strangest of the parables. Jesus recommends the shrewdness of a dishonest steward. You must at least be as prudent as this man was, quick as he was, alert and attentive to what is happening. People put their cleverness and gifts at the service of shady deals. You must try to use your cleverness and gifts in the pursuit of things that have eternal value.

There is often 'honour among thieves', as the old saying has it. It can be taken to mean that there is some minimal integrity in everybody. It may be a loyalty to people involved in the same kind of wickedness but at least it is loyalty, an experience of friendship. It may be the acceptance of certain limits to unethical behaviour and a determination that those limits not be crossed even while persisting in that behaviour. We can take the parable to be saying 'find the bit of integrity there is in you, find the place where you have some kind of wisdom and prudence, find where you are committed to some truth no matter how banal or ordinary'. You can begin with that integrity, prudence, or truth, and you can build something more substantial on that foundation. If there is a basis for trust and confidence, even if for the moment it is supporting things that are not good, then there is at least the possibility that you will find your way to being entrusted with genuine riches.

Another strange statement is this one: 'if you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?' It seems like it is the wrong way round. Surely it is more logical to say 'if you are not trustworthy with what is yours, who will give you what belongs to another'. It invites us to think about how we are alienated from ourselves in the ways in which we treat other people, their interests and their goods. Alienation is an important term in Marx's analysis of social and economic realities. Augustine had used the term long before to talk about the spiritual disorientation and loss that comes with any sin, not just the structural ones Marx was interested in.

We are in exile from ourselves, seeking to find ourselves in the things that belong to others, but realising that we are not fully trustworthy with those. Inevitably, it seems, we end up using others for our pleasure, to serve our interests, to strengthen the false persona we try to present to the world. How are we to get back to ourselves, to the base of integrity on which something can be built? How, like the prodigal son last week, are we to 'come to our senses'? How are we to find ourselves again so as to focus our energies, our prudence, our action, our devotion, on things that are worthwhile?

Besides the unjust dealings referred to in the passage from Amos and in the gospel reading, there is another exchange referred to in today's readings. This is the price paid by Christ Jesus when he gave himself as a ransom for all (second reading). This is the one who is most himself, fully integrated, fully at home. From that base of his own identity and integrity as the Son of the Father he can act for the salvation of the whole world. God wants everybody to be saved, we are told today, and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Everybody knows some truth and from there the road to Truth can open up, the Truth that there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Jesus the Christ.

We easily get lost in compromises, mediocrity, betrayals and confusions. The unjust steward is alert and watchful, a man of vision and creativity. We are called to be like that, except that we place those gifts and virtues at the service of the kingdom. There is always some point at which we can begin, some honour we show, some truth we know, some love we share. Let us make friends with those things and see our heart's desire blossom into something of eternal value.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Week 24 Saturday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Corinthians 15:35-37, 42-49; Psalm 56; Luke 8:4-15

Some parts of the west of Ireland have become overrun with gunnera tinctoria. It is called either Chilean rhubarb or giant rhubarb and has spread like wildfire in places, forcing out the indigenous shrubs and bushes. It produces seed pods by the thousand which explains of course why it has been able to spread so quickly. It has also, it seems, found lots of favourable soil in which to flourish.

Nature is not mean when it comes to seeds. Flowers and animals produce them by the thousands, even by the millions, with extravagance and what might seem like recklessness. There is a profound desire somewhere that nature should continue, that what is alive should increase and multiply and fill the earth

The first meaning of the famous parable of the sower is simply this then: as in nature, so in the dissemination of the Word of God. It is freely available, shared extravagantly and recklessly, cast upon the earth here, there and everywhere, preached to people everywhere, public, free, available.

Often the interpretation Jesus gives is taken to refer to different kinds of people but it might be more true to understand it to refer to four different moments in anybody's reception of the Word. All hear the Word, nobody is deaf to it, not even those represented by the stones. At different times and in different circumstances we who have heard the Word relate to it as if we were stones, or thorn bushes, or pathways, or good soil.

There are obviously also two different meanings of the term 'life' and two different terms are used in the gospels. One is the kind of life (zoe) God wants for His creatures, the life he gives to all things by his spirit,  the life he wants his human creatures to have in all its fulness. And there is another kind of life (bios) whose cares and riches and pleasures prove too much of a distraction for us and take us away from our service of the Word of God.

The call of Jesus to us is to allow the Word find its way to our life in its deepest sense so that we are not just existing but living, so that we are not just living biologically as if we were only animals, but are living spiritually also, living the life not just of the first Adam but of the last Adam, a life that takes us beyond what we can imagine might be possible for us.

The different moments of our relationship with the Word of Life require different kinds of pruning. There are struggles to be engaged, things to be learned, insights to be painfully gained. So it must be, for all living things, they must learn to live in their environment. If we are to live in the environment that is called the kingdom of God then it can only be by receiving his Spirit which prepares the ground of our hearts, making them to be good and honest places where fruit is brought forth in patience.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Our Lady of Sorrows - 15 September

Readings:1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Psalm 118; John 19:25-27 / Luke 2:33-35

To link suffering with sin seems to come very naturally to human beings. Many of the great texts of the Old Testament struggle with it - Job above all, but many of the psalms as well. It comes through again and again in the New Testament: 'is it because he sinned or because his parents sinned that this man was born blind?' A cousin of mine dying from cancer said to me shortly before her death 'I must have done something very bad to have ended up like this'. Deep down we continue to make this link: if I am suffering it is because I have sinned.

The Church in its theology has not always resisted the temptation either, to think that if we are to understand suffering we must talk in the first place about sin. So the suffering and death of Jesus has been understood in relation to sin - a sacrifice to take sins away, a redemption, a price paid. The Father's righteous anger must be calmed, the damage to His justice must be undone, the balance must be restored. And so the Church's teachers have ended up in strange places, asking strange questions, pursuing a strange logic: is the death of the Son something owed to the Devil? or to the Father? why is it exactly that Christ had to die? Did Christ have to suffer and die to take away the sins of the world?

The great good news, and the new way of thinking to which Jesus invites us to be converted, is that when we think of suffering, we must talk now in the first place about love. Not about sin, about love. He engages untiringly with the forces of evil - suffering, demons, moral failure, spiritual blindness. He could have cured all this with a click of his fingers. In some cases he did cure people from a distance, without ever laying eyes on them. He did not need to die in order to heal people and free them from the consequences of sin.

He came to reveal to us the mystery of the Father's love and because he was - and is - the presence of love in a sinful world he suffered and was put to death. It is about sin in the second place but about love in the first place. This is what happens to love in a sinful world. He could have remained outside our world and done the work that was needed. But he entered into our world, sent by the Father who loved the world so much, so that the divine love would penetrate to the heart of our world and heal and save it from there. And this is what happens to love in our world: it is rejected, ignored, taken for granted. It is an opening to suffering because love makes us sensitive to the pain of the ones who are loved.

Mary above all has this sensitivity because she is a woman of such great love. She is 'full of grace' and so completely sensitive to the divine love. First believer, first disciple of her Son, she is also the first to ponder the mystery of the divine love revealed in Him. She stands closest to him in the moment of his suffering and death when his love for the Father and for humankind is most powerfully revealed and established. At the heart of our sinful world. Not in a perfect world, a tidied up world, a world well organized. But in the mess we create, the world as it is because of our fears, our selfishness, our indifference.

As we ponder the suffering and death of Christ let us think firstly then of love, and take heart that God has dwelt among us, has come to live and love at the heart of our world, taking its suffering on himself, immersing himself in it, so that from there he might transform it into a new creation, the kingdom of eternal love.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Exaltation of the Holy Cross - 14 September

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 78; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

Herbert McCabe OP once wondered why we have this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on 14th September when, as he put it, 'we already have a perfectly good feast of the cross on Good Friday'. One reason may be that the realities we celebrate in the great Easter liturgies are so powerful and central to our faith that we have to return to them at other times of the year, to have another think about them.

The feast of Corpus Christi, for example, is another chance to meditate on the events of Holy Thursday. The feast of Christ the King is another chance to celebrate Christ's return to the Father in the Ascension and his enthronement in heavenly glory. Easter itself happens every Sunday, every day even, whenever we celebrate Mass.

Today's feast of the exaltation of the Cross allows us to meditate again on the wise foolishness and vulnerable powerof God that we see in the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Part of the deal with capital punishment was (and is) that it happened publicly so that as many people as possible could see it being carried out. It happened very often on a gallows or a platform, high above the heads of the crowd. As many people as possible could then see what happened to those who broke the law - they were hanged, beheaded, shot, stoned, garroted, crucified, or whatever. People were lifted up, exalted we might say, so that their death could be more easily seen.

Because the cross of Christ has such a secure place among religious symbols it does not seem strange, weird, scandalous or shocking any more. We can forget that the cross was one of these platforms of torture and death. We can forget that the crucifix shows a dying human being fixed to wooden beams.

St Paul very quickly pointed out that the language of the cross is illogical and paradoxical, a sign of God's foolish wisdom and vulnerable power. It is a madness, Paul says, and an obstacle that some people cannot get over. But to those who have been called it is the power and wisdom of God.

We venerate the wood of the cross - exalt it and lift it up - because it was instrumental in the salvation of the world. Of course it is not a piece of wood as such that redeems the world but the love in Christ's heart. But the physical cross was the platform on which the great drama of the Divine Love was exposed, lifted up and shown to all who cared to look. More than a platform, this tree of death has become the tree of life for us. Through the death for love of the One who died on this tree, death itself has been defeated.

In a tiny way we experience something of this power of the crucified Christ in our experiences of love. Love always means opening up to the suffering of the one who is loved, sharing it with him or her, and so becoming vulnerable to suffering and pain that is not our own. It is a kind of exposure, it means taking some kind of risk, we leave ourselves open to rejection, perhaps to accusations of not really understanding, to being hurt in one way or another.

But this is the glory of love, this strength to be vulnerable on behalf of others. It is the strength of the Lamb of God whose blood seeping into the wood of the cross became the seed of new life for the world. It is the power and the wisdom of God that look like weakness and foolishness to us.

The cross of Jesus Christ rises above the mess humans continue to make of their world. Today's feast invites us to look to the cross and pray: Ave crux, spes unica (Hail O Cross, our only hope).

This reflection was first published in the newsletter of St Dominic's Priory, London, on 14 September 2003