Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page


Sometimes, as I prepare to write, I sit and stare at the blank page and wonder.  Why won’t the words come?  Is this writer’s block?  Or am I refusing to face something myself that I would rather ignore?  I’ve come to the conclusion that the silence is usually occasioned by my obstinacy to listen to the inner voice.  I’ve also concluded that that voice is usually the Spirit trying to get through to me.

So it was today.  I had sat to my task with great enthusiasm.  That is usually how I feel when I write.  I imagine this process as a conversation with friends who are on a similar faith journey to mine.  We’re in this together, after all, on this trek with the Lord.  When the words wouldn’t come, I paused and reflected.  That has worked in the past.  And it did today, too.

I had been reading about a great man whom I have admired and long considered to be a saint – even though he is not a Catholic.  But then I have long thought that there are non-Catholic saints that should be included in our Calendar of Saints.  I hope that isn’t heretical.  Today I had been reading about the recent publications of sermons by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  These many years after his execution in a Nazi prison camp, his sermons remain powerful and applicable to our times. He had been arrested for his participation in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler.  That was a strange undertaking for a man who had pressed for fighting oppression and violence only with kindness and Christian forgiveness.  The trespass cost him his life and resulted in his martyrdom.

One of Bonhoeffer’s themes has to do with trivializing the Gospel message.  He spoke about preachers who endeavor to entertain from the pulpit in order to ensure their popularity with their congregation.  Make them laugh or bring them up to date on sports’ trivia and you have them.  Bonhoeffer refused to do that.  His desire was to rouse a renewal of commitment to Christ’s challenging call to discipleship.  There is a lot involved in taking up your cross everyday and following Christ.  Bonhoeffer made that quite clear.  And people listened.

Here’s the quote that caused me pause: Do not believe that you know what is good or evil, or otherwise human beings will devour each other…. Who would need our love more than the one who hates?  You repudiate the poorest of the poor when you repudiate your enemy.  Think about that for a moment.  How does it make you feel?  It made me uneasy because I couldn’t help but wonder if I could do that.  Did I believe that?  No wonder in the Gospel we read about would-be disciples who in stead go away sad when the implications of discipleship are spelled out for them.

Just before the above quote, Bonhoeffer had said that most preachers fail because they have spiritualized the gospel – that is, we have lightened it up.  What he meant was that when the implications of the parables are softened and made more palatable, we trivialize the message and compromise Christ’s preaching and teaching.

What if I did that?  What if I believed the softened version of the Good News?  So you see why there was silence as I sat to this task today.  My problem had to do with forgiveness.  Can I forgive in such ultimate circumstances as Bonhoeffer describes?

I have come to believe that we don’t really know what and how we believe until we are brought low and nearly broken.  My reason for thinking that is the result of meditating on the Passion and Christ’s ultimate moment of darkness when, in spite of all that he was experiencing, he had to believe that the Father’s love endured.  Just as we could trivialize the temptations in the desert by ignoring the struggle that Jesus went through before resolving each one, so can we trivialize his agony and desperation before he leapt into the void of death hoping in the Father’s faithfulness, that he would be caught up in the Father’s arms and brought safely home.  I think that is what the parable of the Prodigal Son is all about, by the way.  But that discussion is for another time.

How many times have I prayed, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?  That’s what confronted me as I read that quote from Bonhoeffer’s sermon.  I can be very confident going before the Lord and pleading for forgiveness, confident that the Father forgives me because I pray in Jesus’ name.  But if I hear Bonhoeffer correctly and pay attention to the words in the prayer I can’t be so sure unless I am adept at forgiving even the harshest offense suffered.

When you think about it, Jesus gave us the example.  As we say, he practiced what he preached when he forgave Judas and when he forgave Peter and all the others who deserted him in his passion.  And that forgiveness came even before it was sought.  Was it easy for Jesus to forgive?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  The point is that is what he did and what we are supposed to do as disciples in imitation of him.

Bonhoeffer’s challenge and Jesus’s command to his disciples that we forgive as we are forgiven and love as we are loved gave me much to ponder and pray about.  Was it a moment of grace?  I suspect so when I realized that my tendency is to put offenses out of mind, live with the hurt, and expect to heal and go on without ever thinking about forgiving.  That’s not good enough.  If Bonhoeffer believed that oppression and violence should be fought with kindness and Christian forgiveness, what would he say about my tendency to ignore and put the other out of mind?  Who would need our love more than the one who hates?  You repudiate the poorest of the poor when you repudiate your enemy.  And I heard Jesus from the cross cry out, Father forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.

That is the frame of mind I was in as I began to write today.  I seized that moment of grace and I prayed for the ability to forgive the way I am forgiven, so that I can love the way I am loved.  It is amazing the peace that envelops when you pray: let it be.  In a moment I was able to know that I had forgiven and to know that I loved the offenders whose actions had hurt me.  I knew it because I went on to pray for them and for their peace.

Because I had that moment today doesn’t mean that I will never have to deal with the issue again.  In this walk of discipleship we are always works in progress.  I just know that I am another step along the way.  Maybe the next time something offends me I will not spend so much time brooding over it, nor will I ignore it or put it out of mind.  I will pray.  And as I pray I will come to forgive.  I’ll have to.  That’s the condition my prayer places on my own forgiveness.  And there will be peace again.



THE SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT: February 24, 2012


The Book of Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18

St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 3:17-4:1

The holy Gospel according to Luke 9:28b-36


I remember a night many, many years ago.  I was a young by then.  I sat in the dormer window of my bedroom and gazed into the starry heavens.  I can’t remember whether I was praying or not.  Certainly I wondered about God and Jesus.  The question of vocation churned in my mind.  What did Jesus want me to do if I followed him.  My child’s mind sought reassurance, a glimpse into the future that would make decision less risky.  My childish mind wanted to know that everything would work out, that dreams would be realized and I would be safe.

Was it naiveté to ask for a sign?  That’s what I prayed for.  Give me a sign so that I will know what you want me to do.  Hubris?  From my present vantage point it would seem so.  But that isn’t how I remember that moment.  There was too much pleading and too many tears for hubris.  Even now that moment is etched clearly and indelibly in my consciousness.  One word whispered into the night escaped my lips.  Please!  In that moment a ball of light streaked through the sky, brilliant and brief, bright and beautiful.  All I could do was gasp and wonder.  A prayer answered?  A sign granted?  These many years later, it seems so still.

Signs.  Omens.  The stuff of seers and sages to interpret.  But I have clung to that moment and returned to it in challenging times, finding in it reassurance.  Abram in this Sunday’s first reading had moments to remember that supported his faith in God and the promised multitudes that would be his descendants.  But I had no history then, only the memories of my first encounter with the Lord in the Waters.  It wasn’t long after my baptism that I sat in the window on that star-filled night.  I was a neophyte.  I was just beginning my journey one the Way.

Every Second Sunday of Lent the Gospel proclaimed is one of the accounts of the Transfiguration?  In each one, the favored trio, also early on their journey with Jesus, are invited by him to journey with him to the mountain top.  They are neophytes, too, their faith incipient.  Their journey with Jesus is unprecedented.  They can’t know that they will be going to Jerusalem with Jesus where they will watch him be rejected, condemned, suffer scourging, crucifixion and death.  All that is to come.  At this moment on the mountain top their heads swim with what seems an affirmation of their faith in Jesus, that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God who will change their history for ever.

Notice the imagery that attempts to describe the majestic moment.  Jesus radiates on shimmering garments, his face like the sun.  Moses and Elijah, the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets appear in conversation with Jesus.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  The three must have felt their “Amens” rising within them as Moses and Elijah talked to Jesus about what he would accomplish in Jerusalem.  He will lead the people out of slavery into the freedom of the people of God.  To the three everything seemed so right in a moment that they wanted to go on and on – like a fantastic dream from which they did not want to wake.  Cling to the moment.  Peter voiced it when he said to Jesus: Master it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.

Then the cloud envelops them, signifying the presence of God, just as it had on the mountain when Moses received the Law.  Now comes the New Law.  This is my chosen Son; listen to him.  Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

You will notice that the Gospel ends by declaring that the three did not understand what they had seen nor the implications of their encounter.  Consequently, they will not tell anyone else about what had happened, not at that time.  It will take from then until the Resurrection and their encounter with the Spirit before they will understand and be able to interpret the event and announce the Good News.

In the second reading, Paul voices his frustration with the Philippians, some of whom are trying to reimpose the Law as the means of salvation.  That is not what Paul had taught them.  Paul had preached that salvation comes not through obedience to the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ.  Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.

…In this way stand firm in the Lord.

Do we need this epiphany moment of Transfiguration recalled as we begin the Lenten journey?  Or is this for those among us we pray with and for who are heading for the Font to die there with Christ and experience rebirth in him?  The truth is, we all need the telling because no faith journey is without hazard.  Each of us as disciples walks with Jesus on a twisting and winding path.  Each one will face unexpected challenges to faith, moments that could elicit doubt, events that will threaten to stifle and break the believing heart.

I begin to think that the journey is one of having preconceptions stripped away.  That sure and confident incipient faith must be refined and purified to bring us to what it is that we truly believe.  It is only when everything else is gone that we will understand the Transfiguration and who this is that is the Beloved of God.  Then when we have died to everything else we will be ready for Easter.

I remember sitting with a young couple in a hospital room.  The mother sat in a rocking chair and cradled the dead infant in her arms.  She rocked and hummed a lullaby.  Her husband knelt and placed his head in her lap.  Tears streaked both their faces.  Time passed.  An hour?  A moment?  Time froze.  Then she said, Jesus knows.  Jesus cares.

What was she remembering?  An Easter past? What was the source of her hope?  Conviction about an Easter to come?

May the Spirit strengthen our faith and help us to remember!




I’ve been thinking about Lent as we begin the season this year.  It goes without saying that I’ve concluded that we need these forty days in the desert more than ever.  But how should we spend this sojourn?  As we have in the past?  Or should there be something different about the trek this year?

We all know that Lent is supposed to be a period of fasting, praying, and alms giving.  I certainly won’t argue against that, but I wonder if, in the context of our praying, we ought to emphasize listening.

There is no denying that there has been a dearth of good news lately regarding the Church.  The stories regarding sexual abuse of children, and the cover-up and consequent enabling of the dysfunction, continue.  The numbers of people no longer participating in Sunday mass accelerates.  Some have ceased because of the scandals.  Others are leaving for other faith communities because the mass isn’t reaching them anymore.  If that is pursued, it becomes clear that the preaching is arid and people are no longer feeling in challenge to full, active and conscious participation in the Liturgy.  Many who were raised in and committed to the spirit of Vatican Council II wonder why their current experience makes them wonder if the Council ever really happened.  They feel like King Arthur sitting around the chards of the Round Table remembering that once there was a Camelot.

I was a student during the Second Vatican Council and can remember the excitement, the enthusiasm and the anticipation engendered as every day we prayed for the Spirit to influence the Council Fathers.  Of course no one could have imagined what changes were possible since we had been taught and only experienced the timelessness and perpetuity of the Church, to say nothing of the worldwide sameness of the mass.  But I also remember a professor telling us that he didn’t want to be a pessimist but he thought that there would be initial days of excitement and renewal following the Council’s declarations.  Then a ways down the road there would be an age of reversal and retrenchment, attempts to reinstate the pre-Vatican II days.  A century from the Council’s closing, the Church of Vatican II would emerge.  Well, we’re almost half way through that period and he seems to have been prophetic.

I share those thoughts, not to join in the pessimism of these days but the encourage any who might be struggling to stay in the trenches, so to speak.  That’s why we need Lent this year and need to focus on listening in prayer as we make our way.  And we need to find people of similar mind to journey and pray with and so support each other in faith.

If we have a historical sense, we know that the Church has been through dark and scandalous days before, periods that make what is happening today seem inconsequential in comparison.  Think of the days of the Inquisition.  Think of the papal sins in those years of papal power, when popes and bishops were equivalent to earthly monarchs.  With power and wealth come corruption and a distancing from the Gospel.  In those dark days there was little in the official church that evidenced Jesus ministry and preaching, his service to the poor and his invitation to recognize the universality and unconditionally of God’s love.

There were horror stories that continue to scandalize to this day.  But the Church survived.  How?  The people and some of the clergy resurrected the practices of our ancestors in the faith.  The people gathered in small groups, in homes, pondered the Scriptures and celebrated Eucharist.  As in periods of persecution so in these times the Church as the people of God flourished.  So will it happen today.

That brings me back to the starting point.  We need to emphasize listening prayer alone and with others during this Lenten period.  These forty days of prayer fasting and alms giving reflect the forty days Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his public life, the forty days that culminated in the great temptations, the struggle with the devil.  During that confrontation, Jesus clarified his mission knowing that his purpose was to do the Father’s will and proclaim salvation to the poor.  He may have been hungry and exhausted as he emerged from the desert experience, but he was also renewed.  So will we be if we do what Jesus did.

Last Wednesday you were marked with the ashes and were challenged to turn away from sin and believe the Good News.  That admonition is not meant to be depressing or negative, but a joyful reason to hope.  As you enter the desert invite the Lord to journey with you.  Remember the hymn?  Be with me Lord when I am in trouble.  Be with me Lord, I pray.  Live that him and be conscious of the Lord’s presence.  If you open your heart and listen, you will heard the Lord speak to you to strengthen your faith and encourage you to celebrate and witness to what it means to be one with Jesus.

It seems to me that the most important awakening that could happen during this Lent would be to the reality of the Priesthood of the Baptized.  The Second Vatican Council defined the Church as the People of God.  You are part of that people.  The Church teaches that in Baptism you died to sin, were united with Christ, and rose to live his life.  Focus on your identity with Christ as you make the journey this year.  Be strengthened in the exercise of your Baptismal Priesthood.  That is expressed through your full, active, and conscious participation in the Eucharistic Liturgy.  It is also expressed in your service to the poor.  If as you are praying you feel the urge to begin again, or to continue in the venture, that is the Spirit that Christ poured out on the Church when he promised to be with the Church through all of time.  Believe that.

And find others who feel the same urging.  The forming of small faith communities imitates the actions of our ancestors in the faith who realized that this journey on the Way was not meant to be solitary.  They needed community to be strengthened against persecution.  They needed each other to stand in opposition to corruption.  There were two on their way to Emaus when they encountered the Stranger.  The gathering filled the Upper Room when the Spirit and fire descended on the infant church.  The Eucharist only happens when there are at least two or three gathered in Christ’s name.  Believe that.

This is a desert journey that you have begun.  If you are feeling discouraged in your faith for whatever reason, recognize that you are entering this retreat with Jesus to struggle strengthened by his presence to shrug off what oppresses you to emerge renewed and refreshed, reborn in faith as Easter dawns.