Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Week 22 Tuesday (Year 2)


There are three kinds of spirit spoken about in today's readings: the spirit of a person that knows the depths of a person, the unclean spirit that troubles a person and is cast out by Jesus, the Spirit of God that knows the depths of God. We need to consider all three if we are to understand ourselves fully.

Our own spirit shows itself in many ways: memory and imagination, anxiety and desire, our capacities for knowledge, understanding and love. The human spirit is seen in literature, art, music, technology, the whole panoply of activities and interests that make us to be very extraordinary animals indeed. In poetry and music, philosophy and theology, and many other ways, the 'spirituality' of the human creature is to be seen.

Unclean spirits are realities 'in us without us', we might say, that are known through their effects. As well as obvious external difficulties and obstacles, there are many ways in which human beings are afflicted and distracted from within. We continue to surprise and disappoint ourselves. 'I do not understand my own actions', Paul says in the letter to the Romans. Mean-spirited and selfish, hard-hearted and yet profoundly vulnerable, given to addiction and led by the opinions of various publics: there are many ways in which we are disturbed by the unclean spirits. Christian tradition has identified seven or eight deadly spirits or capital vices: vainglory, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth and pride.

But there is also the Spirit of God who finally reveals us to ourselves. In the first reading Paul says that the depths of God are accessible to the Spirit of God in something like the way the depths of a human being are accessible to the human spirit, but then says that actually the depths of ourselves are only now accessible to the Spirit of God and not to our own spirit. He is speaking of a new possibility, a new spiritual life, that is not simply part and parcel of the nature with which we were first created but that comes about through a new presence of the Holy Spirit in us. If we are to understand the gifts God has given us we need the Spirit of God. If we are to plumb the depths of ourselves it can only be with the help of the same Spirit.

This relativises our natural 'spirituality', placing its conflicts and achievements in a completely new light. There is a new world of wonder and admiration to which we are called. Paul speaks of new human beings who are capable of judging the value of everything, human beings who have 'the mind of Christ'. Natural spirituality is a token or intimation of what the Spirit brings. When the Spirit, the love of God, is poured into our hearts, not only are the unclean spirits put in their place but our capacities for knowledge, understanding and love are opened up to a new and truly transcendent objective, reaching even to God, in the supreme spiritual activities of faith, hope, and love.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Week 22 Sunday (Year C)

Readings: Sirach 3:17-20, 28-29; Psalm 67; Hebrews 12:18f, 22-24; Luke 14:1, 7-14

The teaching of Jesus is not just a piece of social etiquette such as we find in parts of the wisdom literature: better to take a humbler place with the possibility of being promoted than to take a higher place with the possibility of being demoted (and the embarassment that would go with it). When he speaks about a 'wedding banquet' he is always speaking about the wedding feast in the kingdom that is coming. Who is entitled to be there? What is the basis of that entitlement? Where does the invitation come from? And how are people to be ranked at the wedding feast of the kingdom? Is anyone more important than anyone else? It seems that the answer is 'no'. In a beautiful phrase today's second reading speaks about 'the assembly of the firstborn', in another translation 'where everyone is a first-born son and a citizen of heaven'.

People are looking closely at each other. This happens at wedding banquets. People have keen eyes for each other, to see old friends and family members, but also to see who is more 'in', to see what the fashion and style is: it is very good to have been invited in the first place and yet we wonder whether others are preferred to us in some way. Who does not think about their place when they see what the seating arrangment is?

Here though we must look first at the host. Of what kind or character is the host? And who is likely to be the more important in his kingdom. In Jesus' parables, the host is often the Heavenly Father who is always gracious and generous, kind to the ungrateful and to the wicked. We are to be like this too, Jesus says, to be this kind of host to others. To be truly gracious means inviting those who are not in a position to return our generosity. You should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. These are the beneficiaries of the messianic kingdom and those who would belong to the Messiah, who wish to be 'Christian', are called to show a disinterested generosity towards the poor.

So today's readings are about humility and about grace. The humble person compares himself not with his fellow guests or even with an idea of what he thinks of himself. The humble person compares himself only with God, thereby knowing his own greatness and his own nothingness.  Jesus' teaching is a call also to generosity. Be a generous host, he says, and break through the iron rules of social propriety. Your invitation to the heavenly banquet is a matter of grace, not entitlement. If you manage to live with a comparable generosity you are already living the life of the resurrection. Those who live in true charity are already guests at the banquet, they are already citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Week 21 Saturday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Psalm 33; Matthew 25:14-30

The parable of the talents is a hard parable about a hard man. This is how the phrase 'a demanding person' is sometimes translated; he was 'a hard man'. He is a businessman, clever and prudent, looking for results, and ruthless in dealing with what would nowadays be called 'losers'. The poor man to whom one talent was given seems like a bit of a loser - it may explain why he was only given one talent in the first place. (At the same time this businessman still holds the quaint view that banks are safe places in which to deposit money!)

How are we to receive this parable? Hearing it in English can send us very quickly in a certain direction because the term 'talent' has come to refer to personal gifts and abilities. The obvious homily then becomes 'use your talents, use the gifts God has given you'. Or else. (Or else what?) But this is not the original meaning of the term 'talent'. Like the word 'pound', it referred originally to a weight, of silver or gold, that served as a unit of currency: money in other words.

What weighs like silver and gold for the Bible and for the Christian tradition? God's word, we are told, is like silver from the furnace, seven times refined. And love is described as a weight by both Augustine ('amor meus pondus meum') and Aquinas ('amor est pondus animae'). God's wisdom and love, given to human beings, are like weights, or inclinations. They bring with them a certain gravity or tendency. It seems we are to think firstly, then, of God's gifts, not of our own. Given to human beings, these gifts, of wisdom and love, bring with them a certain inclination or tendency. They carry a certain weight and pull us in a certain direction. The nature of these gifts is that they be handed on and shared around. They are to bear fruit and not be buried in the ground. The businessman in the parable 'entrusted' the talents to his servants and God entrusts His gifts to us.

The servant who is described as not just lazy but also wicked does not do his job which is to make money for his master. He is over-cautious and fearful, and simply returns what he has been given. There has been no development, no initiative, no fruit. In the sense in which we are receiving the parable, the wicked and lazy servant has failed to understand the nature of a gift from God. The gifts of wisdom and love are 'liquid' and flowing, they spread out and are generative. They are diffusive of themselves by nature, giving and sharing, developing and living, growing and bearing fruit. If what we have received of wisdom and love is not being shared and developed, then we have not truly received these divine gifts at all. It is not possible to be on the receiving end of these divine gifts and remain sterile. God's glory (another term that comes from 'weight') is always fertile, always creative, always radiating.

A risk-taking Master is served well only by risk-taking servants. There is truth, then, in the popular reception of this parable: use your talents to the best of your ability. But it refers not in the first place to the gift of playing the piano or of drawing pictures. (At the same time all such 'talents' can be made to serve the glory of God.) It refers firstly to gifts that are properly divine, wisdom and love, the currency in which our relationship with God is established. They incline us towards the service which pleases God. All we have to do is follow the direction in which wisdom nudges us, follow the inclination which love places in us. In any case, as Paul reminds us in the first reading, for all that we have and are we must be grateful to God, boasting only in him who is the source of all wisdom, the source of all love.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Week 21 Sunday (Year C)

Readings: Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 116 (117); Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30

There are some initial puzzles in today's gospel reading.

'I do not know where you come from', Jesus reports the master of the house saying to those knocking to get it. But a few lines later 'where you come from' does not seem to matter since people will come from east and west, north and south, to recline at table in the kingdom of God.

So too the door which at first is narrow, is then shut. But Jesus has already taught his disciples that to the one who knocks the door will always be opened. In John's gospel he even says 'I am the door' and that entry is through him.

'The first will be last and the last first' is a familiar challenge to our ordinary logic: what would put an end to this reversal, what is the criterion for priority in the kingdom of God?

How could anybody ever know where they are in this 'geography of salvation'?

The truth is that we do not know where we are as regards salvation. We are talking here about our own salvation since it is really the only one we need worry about. Our obligation to love others obliges us also, obviously, to hope for their salvation. This is the first reversal effected by Jesus in today's gospel: 'what about others?' is the question put to him. 'What about yourself?', is the question with which he replies. We have a 'sure hope' about our salvation, of course, but it is essential that we not presume that this is 'knowledge' about our salvation. Having a hope keeps our minds fixed always on the one in whom our hope is placed. Thinking we know means we can stop considering the one in whom our hope is placed.

What we do know is that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. This is clear and there is no doubt about it. He is opening a way, travelling a path before us. He is following a course and becoming the leader who will take us to our salvation. Jesus is 'the first who will be last and the last who will be first'. Jesus enters into the knot of these reversals and unties that knot through his experience of suffering and death, of resurrection and glorification.

The greatest of all reversals, and the key to all the others, will be the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb. Now the narrow, even closed, way is opened. There are many strategies by which we continue to strive not to need salvation. Our pride leads us to think that we can still do enough or understand enough to get ourselves to where we want to be. But it is not possible without him: otherwise we will have no need of a saviour.

Our task is to strive to follow him along the narrow way which he has taken. Our task is also to trust in the promises he has made and the help of which he assures us. We are to trust that he now knows where we come from, because he has visited our place and tasted its reality. We are to hope for but not presume on our salvation, as if we could be with him without the help of his grace, as if we could enter the kingdom without the price he paid for our redemption.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Week 20 Wednesday (Year 2)

Readings: Ezekiel 34:1-11; Ps 22; Matthew 20:1-16

‘It’s not fair, he’s got a bigger slice than I have.’‘It’s not fair, she’s got more!’ ‘It’s not fair, I wanted the blue one!’

Cries of childhood echo in my head. The parable of the workers in the vineyard (today's gospel reading) tells of a group of workers some of whom have worked all day, others for part of the day, and a few for just an hour. At the end of the day the owner pays each of them the same amount. The ones who worked all day feel, naturally, that ‘it’s not fair’. The owner of the vineyard was quite just in giving them what had been agreed at the beginning of the day. But still, there’s something about it ....

Most of us, I imagine, will feel that the ones who worked all day have a point. The ones who came later were actually paid more per hour of work. How galling for the first group to hear the owner pointing out that he was being perfectly fair, knowing that, strictly speaking, he was but at the same time feeling hard done by.

It is very difficult to combine the ideas of justice and mercy. As we understand and experience them they seem to be incompatible. How can you be completely just while showing mercy (because mercy sounds to us like ‘letting someone off’, ‘agreeing to overlook something’ or even ‘letting someone get away with something’). How can you show mercy and still be strictly just (because not to insist on one’s rights, or not to insist on what we are owed sounds like a decision to forego justice).

The same problem comes up in the story of the prodigal son where the older brother feels that the younger one is getting away with murder, having a great old time in another country, wasting his inheritance, and then coming home to be received like a long lost crown prince instead of the irresponsible wastrel that he was. Matthew’s parable of the workers in the vineyard deals with the same issues as Luke’s parable of the prodigal son.

What issues? Well, in the context in which Jesus first told these stories, the main issue was the reaction of the Pharisees and others to the fact that he was welcoming sinners and eating with them. The Pharisees are the ones who have laboured all day in the Lord’s vineyard, the sinners are the ones wandering in when the day is nearly over. Or the Jews are the ones who have laboured all day — God’s people from centuries back — while the pagans are the ones wandering in late in the day. This was the import of Jesus’ preaching, linked especially with his frequent assertion that he had come not for the healthy but for the sick.

So a first question is whether we think of ourselves as sick or healthy. In relation to God, do we regard ourselves as belonging with the righteous who have been working hard all these years or do we feel that we belong with sinners who are today given the re-assuring message that ‘it’s never too late’?

A second question is how we regard other people, especially those whom we might think of as having wandered away from God, and from the ways of goodness. What if they return, even at the very end? Is it a cause of rejoicing for us, a joy we share with them, or do we feel a bit peeved that they’ve got away with so much, and feel like crying out to God that ‘it’s not fair’?

Part of envy is the feeling of exclusion from what another person is enjoying. But the gifts of God are not like other kinds of gifts. As children we knew very well that the more the cake and chocolate was divided the less there was for each one. With God’s gifts — grace, compassion, love, mercy — the more they are divided the more they increase because each one who truly receives these gifts of God and appreciates their meaning becomes in their turn a source of grace, compassion, love, and mercy in the world.

We cannot get our minds and hearts around God’s ways so as to contain or comprehend them. ‘God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts not our thoughts’, says Isaiah. Many scripture readings remind us that God is not like us. Our standards of fairness and reasonable dealing are turned on their heads the more we enter into the world of God, contemplate the mystery of his love, and try to live according to his spirit. ‘The last will be first, and the first, last.’ Only love can teach us the truth of this paradox.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady -- 15 August

Readings: Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; 1 Corinthians 15:20-27; Luke 1:39-56

In the summer of 1270 our brother Thomas Aquinas took advantage of the summer break to attend to a few jobs that had come in during the academic year. One was a request from a friend of his, James of Tonengo, a canon at the cathedral of Vercelli. James’s problem was that the canons of the cathedral could not agree about who the next bishop should be. They were deadlocked. Not only that, they could not appeal to the Pope because there was no Pope! Clement IV died in November 1268 and his successor, Gregory X, was not elected until September 1271, an inter-regnum of almost three years, the longest in the history of the papacy. The cardinals, meeting at Viterbo, were also deadlocked. This was so unsettling for everybody that the civil authorities eventually locked them in, took the roof off the place in which they were meeting (to expose them to the sun and the rain), and finally starved them until they came to a decision. (It was in fact Gregory X who established the conclave more or less as we know it in order to prevent such a thing happening again.)

James’s question to Thomas was this: given the circumstances, would it be acceptable for the canons of Vercelli to choose a new bishop by casting lots, i.e. by tossing a coin, using cards, or in some other way. They could not agree and there was no Pope to whom they could appeal. Would it not in fact leave more room for the Holy Spirit to show his hand if they were to cast lots? Thomas wrote a short work in reply, called De sortibus (‘On casting lots’), in which he says that it would not only be unacceptable to choose spiritual leaders in this way, it would be an insult to the Holy Spirit. Why an insult to the Holy Spirit? Because, Thomas says, the Spirit has been poured into the Church and if something is to happen now by divine inspiration it must happen through human thinking and decision-making. Thomas notes that Matthias was chosen to replace Judas by casting lots but this was before the day of Pentecost when the Spirit was given to the Church. Now – it bears repeating – if something is to happen among us by divine inspiration it must happen through what Thomas calls concordia, the consensus reached through human beings talking, thinking and voting.

Why talk about such a thing on the feast of the Assumption of Mary? It is because Mary teaches us so much about grace and the way it works in the human being. The Spirit is given to us and the gift of grace is established within us not in order to replace human conversation and thinking and decision-making but in order to enable them to happen and to happen better. The first creation requires only God’s word – ‘let there be light’, and so it was. The new creation requires also the word of the human creature – ‘let what you have said be done to me’. Mary’s fiat is her vote, her voice sounding. Creation waits expectantly for her response to the proposal put to her by Gabriel.

The gift of the Spirit does not replace our humanity but enables it, heals it and strengthens it, allowing our thinking and our speaking and our action to reach beyond what would be possible for them without God’s grace. God’s will works in and through Mary’s will just as, and even more so, it works in and through the human will of Jesus. ‘Father, let this cup pass me by’, he prays in Gethsemane, ‘yet not what I will but what you will’ (Mark 14:36).

Paul speaks thus in the second reading: ‘the resurrection of the dead has come through a human being’. Later in the same chapter he writes ‘thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor 15:57). It is God’s victory, given to us. It is the work of God because it is a new creation, but God does not work it without us. Elsewhere Paul speaks of the ‘Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Rom 8: 16) – the divine Spirit and the created spirit collaborate, work together, in this new life, the life of the new creation. It is not that the Holy Spirit says to us ‘push over and let me do it’ but that the Spirit says ‘let me enable you to do it, let me establish and strengthen in you the gifts of wisdom, courage and love that will make it possible for you to do it’.

Mary’s immediate instinct on the departure of the angel is to go and visit Elisabeth. Immediately she sets out. This teaches us something further about grace, that it always carries with it a call and a mission. To receive a gift from God does not mean simply to be loved but to become a lover. Thomas Aquinas speaks beautifully about this elsewhere in his writings. The only thing God can give is God and God is love. So the gift of God is always the gift of love. But truly to receive it means not just that I am loved but that I am made to be a lover. So Mary, conceiving the Word, immediately sets out to the one who is in need, and carries the Word to her.

Mary and Elisabeth are then preachers of the gospel to each other. It is striking that the language Luke uses in his account of the visitation anticipates the language he will use in the Acts of the Apostles to speak about the preaching of the gospel: there are words spoken and heard (‘Elisabeth shouted with a great shout’, ‘when the sound of your greeting reached my ear’), there is the response within when the news of the Word is received (‘the babe leaped in her womb’), there is the Spirit enabling the reception of the Word (‘Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit’), there is faith (‘blessed is she who believed’) and joy (‘the babe leaped with joy’). This is how it is when the gospel is preached and heard.

I remember well a comment of Albert Nolan’s when he spoke in Dublin many years ago. The Cabra sisters invited him, as I remember, and the friars were invited to attend also. He spoke of the heart, lips and hands, saying that Christian compassion must reach from the heart to the lips and on to action. It is not enough just to feel for others who suffer but to speak up for them and to do something about their situation. It is not enough just to do something but that action be supported by truthful speaking and loving compassion. So with Mary, she is disposed in her heart to receive the word of the angel and so conceives the Word Incarnate. She is enabled by the Spirit to speak what has happened (‘my soul magnifies the Lord’). And she takes action, going immediately to help the one who is in need and to bring the message of the gospel to her.

As we celebrate this great feast of Mary’s participation in the new creation won by her Son, and as we recall the wisdom of our brother Thomas Aquinas, we pray that we will come to understand better the gifts we have received, to be gracious and compassionate companions, speaking what is true and doing what is good.