Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

THE GOD WHO WELCOMES

“Do you think I am ugly?” she asked.

Her direct gaze unsettled me.  I prayed that no facial tic or change in pallor would betray me.  We had never conversed before, although I had seen her a time or two passing by on the sidewalk outside my office window.  She walked with a decided limp.  Her spine curved, giving her a “hunched back” appearance.  Scarred skin on her face had left her with a perpetual sneer.

“No,” I said.  “Not ugly.”

My heart sank with the ineptness of my reply and her penetrating stare that followed.  Our eyes locked and I felt uncomfortable.  The silence began to hang heavily in the room.  Finally I asked, “Why are you asking me this?”

Haltingly at first, and then with increasing confidence, she told her story.  New to the area, she said she had come to this city to find ease from the heat that was endemic to her native place.  She was a painter and sculptor by profession and enjoyed considerable success.  She told me that, she said, lest I be worried that she was leading up to asking for a handout.

Born with severe scoliosis, she said she could not recall a time when she did not know pain.  As a student she suffered taunts from classmates until they got to know her; after that she had successful relationships with her peers.  Of course there were no romantic relationships, no dating experiences.  There had been some warm and lasting friendships.

A teacher was the first to notice her artistic talents and urged her to study and hone her skills.  Her work became increasingly mystical as she sought to express the intense awareness she had of the God within.  Swirls and washes of color with few if any defining lines or shapes were the hallmark of her work.

She did not remember when her pray life began.  Praying was natural to her, she said, like breathing.  Perhaps praying began shortly after the scalding that scarred her face.  That was when her lip curled and the permanent sneer began.

“I forget what I look like until I catch of glimpse of my reflection in a mirror or in a storefront window as I pass by.  I may stare for a moment, but as soon as I turn away from the glass I forget and imagine myself to be beautiful.  You’d think, wouldn’t you, that after all these years I would get the picture?  But, no, I am surprised each time I see my reflected image.

“I’ve prayed that God would work a miracle and straighten my back and smooth my skin, making it fresh and pink again.  I light candles in front of statues with the same intention.  I make novenas.  Once in a while I dream and I’m able to run and dance.  I know that I’m beautiful then although I have never seen my face during a dream.”

Then she asked again, “Do you think that I am ugly?”

This time, without hesitation, I said that I did not think that she was ugly.  I think I was able to smile as I spoke and sounded confident.

“Some youngsters passed by me a moment ago as I was on my way here.  They made some crude remarks about me.  They probably thought they were out of my hearing.  At least I hope they at least thought that.  They laughed out loud as they continued on their way.  I wanted to call them back and talk to them.  I wanted to tell them that I am a person just like they are.  I have feelings and yearnings.  I want to do my part to make this a better world.  I wanted to say that I thought they wanted to do that too.  But I didn’t have the courage.  They just kept laughing and jostling each other as they moved along.

“That’s when it dawned on me where I was.  I looked up and saw your door.  I’m Catholic.  I’ve been baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

“Would it embarrass you if I worshiped in your church.  Would I be welcome to pray with your people?  Or would I make them too uncomfortable?

“One time when someone I thought was my friend made a particularly cutting remark about me I sank into a depression and I thought about killing myself.  I probably would have done it had somebody not told me that suicide was a mortal sin.  I had enough of hell here.  I didn’t want to risk it in the next life.”

She paused and opened the bag she was carrying.  She took out an album and placed it on my desk.  She opened it and slowly turned the pages as I stared in amazement at one stunning image after another of her paintings and sculptures.  I felt like a solitary guest at a lush banquet.  No wonder she was so successful.  On the last page was a list of places where she had shown her work, and a list of awards her work had received.  It was clear that she had an international reputation.

Then she closed her book and sat back in her chair.  “I need to be part of a people who will support me in my faith in a God who loves me.  I need their welcome.  If I don’t have a group to pray with, if I don’t have a people with whom I feel united as we share the Meal, I will begin to wonder if my belief In a God who loves us and makes us all in God’s image is just a result of my wishful thinking.

“Is there room for me here?  It can be difficult for people to worship with people different from themselves.  I can accept that.  I don’t want to make your parishioners uncomfortable.  Do you think I should try coming to mass here?  Or should I go elsewhere?”

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EIGHT SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A: February 27, 2011


Isaiah 49:14-15

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Matthew 6:24-34

A recent Lotto jackpot was an amazing $270 million dollars.  A friend and I were having morning coffee when he asked me what I would do if I were to win that prize.  I laughed and said that I would have to buy a ticket before I could have a chance at winning.  He persisted and said, “Okay, so you bought a ticket and it had the lucky numbers.  What would you do with all that money?”

Remember Tevya’s fantasizing in “Fiddler on the Roof?”  “If I were a rich man….” Tevya could only come up with frivolous ways to spend his wealth including building a staircase that went nowhere just for fun.  So I daydreamed for a few moments about what I would do with sudden and newfound wealth and came to the conclusion that it would be fun to be able to do things for people who were in really desperate straits.   And I probably would clear the mortgage on my house.  But as I said, I would have to buy a ticket first.

We are at that point in The Sermon on the Mount where in Jesus asks us where our heart is?  What do we worry about?  What is really important to us?  And where does God fit into all of that?  Of course there are those who proclaim that God is a god of bounty who shows his love by showering wealth on his chosen ones.  Maybe I could accept that if I were one with wealth, but since that is not so, I am more inclined to identify with those who know a poverty that I can only imagine and believe that God loves the poor, those whose only wealth is their faith in God.

A treasured memory of mine is the time I was privileged to spend in Kenya and Uganda.  That was where I encountered genuine poverty, the kind that I was powerless to do anything about.  At that time in Kenya, only 12 percent of the men were employed and their average monthly wage was $23.  Two generations of people were dying then from HIV/AIDS.  For the first time in the country’s recorded history there were street kids.  The men tended to stand about in clusters while the women toiled and cared for the children, eking out crops from thirsty gardens and carrying home piles of thatch to would serve as fuel for fires in their cooking corners.  Imagine the embarrassment my group of friends and I felt when we were invited to dinner and were served a lavish banquet made up of three kinds of mean, plantain and lush greens.  We sat to table knowing that these same hosts felt fortunate if they were able to have a bit of meat even once a month.

It was a privilege to celebrate Eucharist with the Kenyans.  They danced and clapped their hands in the entrance procession and sang hymns with gusto that gave evidence of their joy in the Lord and their love for one another in the assembly.  Some of them had walked for a-day-and-a-half to get to the church and would have the same journey by foot back home.  They didn’t mind if the homily exceeded 10 minutes or if Mass went on for an hour-and-a-half.  Sunday Eucharist was the center of their lives.  There was no doubt that they trusted in God and knew that God would provide the essentials for them as Jesus promises in the gospel today.  They knew that was so because they had survived the past week and were willing to enter the new week with confidence, i.e., with faith.  Having buried so many of their families and friends, they remained convinced that their true treasure awaited them with God in heaven.

Recently I read an advertisement promoting the sale of some new condominiums in New York City.  The smallest on the lowest floor started at well over a million dollars.  A few of the listings had a red slash-mark through them indicating that they had already been sold.  Even in these down times there are people who can afford that kind of luxury living.  What is even more amazing is the fact that some people have more than one mansion so they don’t have to spend the entire year in one location.  That is beyond my powers of imagination.  That is probably why the wealthy tend to associate with the wealthy and to live in exclusive and gated communities.  That way they can have a fortress around their wealth and be deluded into thinking that their wealth is nothing extraordinary.  Associating with others of similar wealth keeps the poor at a distance and helps them to conclude that if only the poor worked as hard as the wealthy do, wealth could be theirs as well.

Imagine a group of Kenyans sitting near a group of the elite as Jesus speaks.  Do you think they would hear the same message?  We know from other places in the gospel that some who came to Jesus seeking to become disciples went away sad when Jesus challenged them to go and sell what they had and give to the poor before they came and followed him.  That challenge would not bother a Kenyan at all.  Hear the difference?

It is a delusion to think that it is easy to be Jesus’ disciple.  Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said in effect that he loved Christ; it was Christians he couldn’t stand.  Could that have been because, knowing Christ’s basic teachings, he had so little experience of Christians who practiced Christianity, who took it seriously enough that it governed how they treated other people?

So, is Jesus saying that wealth is evil and the rich cannot enter heaven?  An adage has often been misquoted down through the centuries.  You’ve heard it, haven’t you?  “Money is the root of all evil.”  Actually, what Paul wrote to Timothy was: “The LOVE of money is the root of all evil.”  What occasioned Paul’s remark was the fact that some in Timothy’s community were lusting after money and had given up the practice of the faith in the pursuit of money.  Paul was concerned for Timothy that he might succumb to the same temptations.  He knew well wealth’s seductive powers and its powers to corrupt.

Each of us must hear Jesus and then decide how we will respond.  Dare we ask ourselves what we treasure?  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be,” Jesus said.  What do we hold in highest value?  To what do we cling?  If it is things, even the poor can fall victim here.  They can clutch to the little they have and be oblivious to the needs of the other poor around them.

I remember a friend who practiced tithing.  For much of his adult life he was of comfortable means.  His tithes were considerable.  His pastors felt blessed to have him as a parishioner.  Then his fortunes changed.  In a moment no longer could he be described as wealthy.  Some would have said he was poor.  But, in his new poverty, he continued to tithe.  That was always the first calculation he made on payday as he sat with his bills.  And he told me that he took a deep gulp the first time in the new regime when he wrote his tithing check from his reduced income.  “You know what?” he said.  “When I tithe, there always seems to be more than I had before I tithed.  Strange, isn’t it?”

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  That is Jesus’ way of asking us what is most important in our lives.  We will only seek the kingdom of God, that is, desire to have God reign in our lives, if there is a holy longing.  We must come to recognize that emptiness that only God can fill.  If we live in constant noise, every appetite satiated, and if we are inundated with things, we just might not notice the emptiness.  We are supposed to have a hunger as we approach the Eucharistic Table.  There is a reason why we present ourselves empty-handed.

In the final years of his life, Frank Sinatra reconciled with the Church and his marriage to Barbara Marx was convalidated, or blessed.  Considerable outrage was voiced by some of the faithful through letters to the editors of Catholic publications including the one I edited for a time.  It was clear that many hadn’t heard what Paul tells us in today’s Second Reading:  “Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts.” How could a man with Mr. Sinatra’s history be welcomed back by the Catholic Church?  What some will never learn is that a person’s history is between that one and God.

There is a lot about each one of us that no one else knows.  We are a community of sinners, or so we profess each time we enter into Liturgy.  When people from outside our numbers think of us Catholics, do they think we are a people who believe in the grace of repentance?  Do they think of us as a people who never tire of welcoming back those who have wandered elsewhere?  Do they think that among our primary messages is: “All are welcome here because God loves all people?”  We do believe in forgiveness, don’t we, forgiveness for others in addition to that for our own sins?  In any event, I remember being told by someone who knew Frank Sinatra, that he was a very generous man.  When he was moved by a story of desperation, he would contact the person in need and contribute substantially to ease the situation with the condition that no one would ever know the source of the money.  How many people thanked God for the blessing that Sinatra was in their lives?

So we sit on the Mountain and listen and are immersed in the words that flow over us from the one who is seated and teaches with authority.  Dare we listen?  Dare we change and become disciples?

Sincerely,

Didymus

A GUN IN HIS HAND

Some encounters you never forget.  The moment is printed indelibly in your consciousness.  That Sunday afternoon proved to be one of those moments for me with a meeting I will never forget.

My Sunday responsibilities were nearly finished.  All I had to do was to clear messages on my voice mail and I would be able to leave the office for the remainder of the day.  The doorbell rang.  In a tug-of-war moment I thought about ignoring the summoning claxon.  Who had a right to expect that I would be in the rectory at that time on a Sunday afternoon?  Alas, my pastoral conscience won and I opened the door.

“You’re going to talk to me,” he said as he forced his way into the entry.  A stranger in his 50s had a teenage boy in tow with one arm and a gun pointed at me in his other hand.  “We’re going to talk,” he said.

I hid my panic in the face of this violent intrusion.  I’ve never understood how I react to crises.  To say that I hid my panic would imply a conscious decision to mask feelings, when in fact I automatically go into overdrive in crisis moments.  Reflecting back after a crisis has passed, I always think that everything has transpired in slow motion.  And if the happening was serious enough, when it is over, then I will tremble and even feel the lightheadedness antecedent to fainting.  During, my visage viewed from the outside seems serene.  I can’t explain why that is, only that that is the way I always react.  That was true even when I was a youngster.

Strange the fantasies that will play out on the inside.  Here I was alone in confrontation with a man and his gun.  I was alone.  I found myself imagining the headlines over the story in the morning paper a day or two hence announcing that early Monday morning in a rectory a priest had been found shot to death.  With no witnesses, there probably wouldn’t be any suspects.  My murder would probably go unsolved.  At least I would expect that my funeral would be a major event.  The bishop might even be present.

Those were my thoughts as I led the way to the nearest parlor and took my seat behind my desk as I mustered up every nuance of authority that I could.  The man and his charge followed and took the two chairs facing me.

In that interminable second or two before the man spoke I examined my conscience and remembered St. Thomas More’s words as he thought about the possibility of his being beheaded: “This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.”  I know I am not the stuff of which heroes are made, either.

“You’ve got to talk to him,” the man said.  “He’s my son.  He’s 16 and very foolish.”

What followed was the tale told from a frustrated father’s point of view.  Feeling increasingly helpless as his son made one decision after another of which the father disapproved, he needed help to get his son to see the error of the son’s ways.  The father thought surely his son would listen to a priest.  I thought it was curious that neither father nor son had any association with the parish, as far as I knew, nor were they Catholic.

As the father went on cataloguing his grievances, the boy sat, arms crossed defiantly across his chest, and stared over my head and out the window behind me.  Then the father began to shift his tone and talk about all the hopes he had had for his son.  He spoke of the first time he held the boy as a newborn infant.  He had named his firstborn after himself and had promised that life would be different for the son from the way it had been for his dad.

Disadvantage upon disadvantage had kept at bay all the dreams he had ever conjured.  The Viet Nam war had taken his youth and shattered his illusions about the beauty of life and the nearness of God.  He found it difficult to trust anyone and that finally wrecked his marriage to the boy’s mother.  As a youth he had dreamed of college and of being a professional something that would bring in a handsome living and enable him to secure all those things money buys, all those things that were never part of his impoverished childhood.  A day laborer in a machine shop wasn’t quite the realization of those dreams.

He had battled with booze and several years prior to this time had hit the bottom.  Now four years and eight months into sobriety all he wanted was for his son to avoid the mistakes his dad had made and to make something of himself.  Untended tears streamed down his face and dripped from his chin.  “I love my son,” he said.  “He’s only with me during the summer months.  You’ve got to tell him.  Make him understand that I love him.  That’s all I want, for him to have things different from what I had.”

“You’ve told him already.  Forcing him to do what you want won’t help him find his way.  You have to love him to let him make his own choices and allow him to accept the consequences of those choices.  Then let him know that you are always his father and will always love him.  Regardless.”

That’s neater than it was.  Cleaner and crisper.  Actually, we talked for more than two hours.  At no time did the son speak.  Exhausted finally, the father stood up and looked at his son.  The son stood and looked his father in the eyes for a long moment and then left the office.  The father followed.

Through the open door I watched the two as they walked side by side, silently, not touching.  As they reached the bottom step, the father raised his arm as if to put it around his son’s shoulder.  He hesitated before contact, thought better of it, put his hands in his pockets and followed his son up the street.

I went back to my office and stared at the gun resting on the desktop.  I let my shoulders sag as I leaned on the desk and I shuddered.