The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Musing on Thunderstorms

I just came in from talking the dog for her evening walk, in this instance a stroll abbreviated by a fast-moving thunderstorm roaring in from the west. Fortunately little Maddie accomplished her mission before the rains and lightning arrived, so we hustled back home and avoided both a drenching and an electrocution. At the moment it's wet, windy and wild out there which makes one especially grateful for mankind's most advantageous invention: indoor plumbing.

Here in central Florida we're frequented by afternoon thunderstorms, especially during these summer months. This year we seem to be experiencing more than our usual share of these boomers. Indeed, Dear Diane was saying this just the other day, as we watched a seemingly endless succession of lightning bolts streak through the late afternoon sky. The wall-shaking crashes of thunder followed all too soon. It was quite a storm: lightning, thunder and torrents of rain. The only thing missing was hail. As it moved off to attack others, we agreed it was among the strongest storms we had experienced in our ten years here. 

When I was a child in suburban New York and there was the threat of a thunderstorm, I would often sit in one of the big wooden rocking chairs on our neighbor's front porch. Old Mr. Dolan, his grandson, Teddy, and I would rock away, listen to the rain pounding on the porch roof, smell the ozone, watch the lightning, and revel in the thunder crashing around us. It was all very exciting and I don't recall ever being afraid. Perhaps I should have been, but in those days, before instant TV news and YouTube and a thousand Internet sites reporting every odd event on the globe, we just didn't hear much about lightning strikes.

Then, one day, my mother told me of the time -- a few years before I was born -- a bolt of lightning zapped through the open kitchen window of our family's rural Connecticut home and melted the ceiling light fixture above her head. That sure made a believer out of her. What really changed my mind was going through Navy flight training in Pensacola, Florida. It was there that I experienced first-hand the power of these Florida thunderstorms that roll in off the Gulf. I quickly learned to avoid them when flying my trusty T-28 on those steamy summer afternoons. I also lost a friend and fellow flight student who was struck by lightning while walking along the  beach. 
A trusty Navy T-28 Trainer

Recalling that long-ago tragedy reminds me of the late great General Norman Schwarzkopf's comment:

"Unfortunately, if you've ever been in southern Georgia on the beaches in a lightning storm, if you're out there, you're in great, great danger, and you can be killed very, very quickly." 

It's pretty much the same in Florida, General. During our most recent big storm here in The Villages, one home, just a few short blocks away, suffered a lightning strike and the resultant fire caused considerable damage. Fortunately, no one was injured. 
Lightning on the Beach (not a good place to be)

And yet, despite the damage they can inflict, thunderstorms are possessed of a certain beauty. But to appreciate their beauty in its fullness, you must view them from afar. Head west into the wide, open spaces of the plains, or go to sea aboard a ship, and enjoy an unobstructed view all the way to the horizon. Watching these storms race across the landscape (or seascape) as they emit rapid-fire bolts of lightning is spellbinding, a truly amazing sight.

But to experience such storms, up close and personal, is more than humbling. They bring with them a sense of helplessness, a realization that, despite all the precautions one takes, these powerful storms are uncontrollable and largely unpredictable, striking their targets randomly. Before them, our science and technology can do little more than warn us and offer us some level of protective shelter. 
Heavenly Fireworks

From a theological perspective, thunderstorms, along with their far more destructive meteorological cousins, tornadoes and hurricanes, are simply another effect of original sin. With the fall of humanity the preternatural gifts that protected our first parents from illness and death were withdrawn and nature's laws were given free rein, leaving us open to their deadly consequences [Gen 3:16-19]. 

The present storm, raging here and now, is a reminder of our own frailty in the face of God's creation. Yes, we can send men to the moon -- well, okay, at one time we could -- but a well-placed bolt of lightning can destroy the rocket before it even lifts off the pad. God allows these spectacular displays of natural power to let us know that He remains in charge, that you and I are creatures, not the Creator. But like the pharaoh's heart in Exodus, the hearts of modern man are too often hardened by their own perceived power despite the obvious manifestation of God's omnipotence:

He gave them hail for rain, and lightning that flashed through their land [Ps 105:32]. The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; thy arrows flashed on every side. The crash of thy thunder was in the whirlwind; thy lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook [Ps 77:17-18].




Saturday, July 12, 2014

Homily: Healing Mass - Saturday, 14th Week in Ordinary Time

Healing Mass

Year 2: Saturday, 14th Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 6:1-8 • Psalm 93 • Gospel: Mt 10:24-33
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A few weeks ago, as I was making my rounds as chaplain of the day at The Villages Hospital, I entered the room of a man who happened to be one of our parishioners. Normally my wife, Diane, and I minister together as hospital chaplains, but on this particular day Diane was ill and couldn’t join me. Of course, her absence means I’ll more likely say or do something amazingly stupid.

Anyway, I recognized the man, and we talked for a while about his illness. Then I prayed with him and gave him a blessing. I could tell he was both lonely and afraid. And he wasn’t all that comfortable as I prayed for healing. Right before I left, I asked if I could add him to the prayer list of those in our parish who are ill.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t want people to know I’m sick. I’d like to keep it quiet.”

“Oh, okay,” I said and left his room.

After visiting several more patients, I entered a patient’s room to find it crowded with visitors. I apologized for interrupting and said I’d return later, but the patient, a woman in her eighties, just said, “Don’t go. Come on in and join the crowd.” And so I did.

She was a Southern Baptist and her visitors included her husband, a neighbor, several members of her church, and her pastor. The conversation that followed covered the waterfront. We talked about her family, her hometown in South Carolina, her illnesses. In her words, “I’ve got so many things wrong with me, they don’t know which ones to work on. But I really can’t complain; God let me live a lot longer than I expected.”

I asked if I could pray with her, and the whole crowd joined hands. I prayed for healing and peace, that God’s will be done in her life and the lives of all present.  We prayed for her doctors, her nurses, and her husband, and thanked God for the gift of friendship. We thanked God too for the gift of discipleship, for those who listen to the Lord when He says, “I was…ill and you cared for me…”

Before leaving, I remarked that she was blessed to have so many caring for her and praying for her. “Yes,” she said, “I am blessed. And their prayers mean so much. They let me know that I am loved, that I belong.”

Before leaving home that morning, I had asked Diane to pray that I would minister to God’s people worthily and well. She must have done so, because as soon as I left that room I headed back to the room of our parishioner. I sat down next to his bed and said:
“Your Baptism made you a member of the Church, a child of God, a member of a community of the faithful, a community called to love you. Let that community know you need their prayers, because, believe me, you do.

“The prayer of the community brings healing; it brings you to repentance and brings peace of mind and soul; it brings you the joy you seek in your life, the joy promised by the God who loves you. In your illness you are lonely and afraid. But God wants you to love and be loved. He wants you joyful, not fearful.

“Don’t let pride separate you from those who love you, from those who strive to be true disciples by doing God’s will in the world, work which includes loving and praying for you. By letting them pray for you and care for you, you further God’s plan for their salvation and that of the world.”
Those words certainly didn’t come from me. No, the Holy Spirit and Diane’s prayers brought them into being. Anyway, after my little homily, he agreed to be prayed for and as I left I asked him to pray for the Baptist woman down the hall. He gave me a questioning look and I just said: “Just pray for her. Her joy will bring you healing.”

It’s hard not to think of him as I stand before this community of the faithful gathered here today.

We’re gathered in communion. We’re gathered here as the Church, gathered here in Jesus’ holy name, gathered in Christ’s Eucharistic presence; and it’s through that communion that we are graced by healing today.

And that’s today’s first healing thought: it’s through communion, communion with Jesus, communion with each other, indeed, communion with God’s created order that brings healing into our lives.

And let’s not forget, as Jesus reminds us in today’s reading from Matthew: He is “Master of the House” [Mt 10:25]. As His disciples we are joined together in communion as members of God’s household. But we are not the Master. Our redemption and our healing take place on God’s terms, not ours.

As you work to come to terms with God’s terms, you may well find yourself confronting some other, corner of your life where the need for healing is even greater. For, as Jesus told Nicodemus…
“The Spirit blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” [Jn 3:8].
We are here in Jesus’ name, and in Word and Eucharist, so God is with us. Accept His presence.

And don’t resist the Spirit. Let Him move where He wills within you. Open your heart to Him today. Follow His lead. It is through the Spirit, through Him alone, that you will receive the healing God wants for you, that you will come to know God’s will for you.

This leads to our second healing thought: the realization that in our brokenness – and believe me we are all broken in so many ways – you and I are called to be both healed and healer.

How many of us, pushing aside our own perceived needs, respond to Jesus’ call to be healer? How many of you, here today for healing, are pleading with God to heal those sitting next to you? After all, if we have come together today as a communion of faith, if we have gathered here to do our part in bringing God’s healing to His Church, then we must respond to His call to be healers.

We all need healing, brothers and sisters, every one of us. But like my hospitalized parishioner we often don’t understand the depth and breadth of the healing God desires for us. How many, as they suffer from an illness or an injury, immediately become what can only be described as irrational?

“Oh, God, why did you do this to me? How could you give me this horrible illness?”

And then immediately change their tune and say:

“Oh, yeah, and while you’re at it, God, please cure me. Heal me of this illness you gave me.”

Yes, we assign to God that which is evil and that which is good. We give him both the blame and the credit. And yet, in doing so, we place ourselves, not God, as the focus of our complaint and our plea: “Why me, Lord, why me? Heal me, Lord.”

Too often we simply want the evil of illness removed. We don’t even think of asking God to turn that which is evil in our lives into something good. At the root of all this, there is only self-centeredness and fear. In the midst of our focus on self, you and I find nothing but loneliness and despair, just like the man I visited in the hospital.

Do you feel isolated and abandoned in your illness and pain? This never leads to healing but only to despair. Well, then, look around you. Reach out to another in need of healing. Set aside your own needs and minister to the other, to Jesus: “I was…ill and you cared for me” [Mt 25:36]. When we break free of our self-imposed loneliness our fears too disappear.

Understand that fear is natural. Indeed, in our humanity it would be unnatural for us not to fear when our lives are threatened by illness. But listen again to what Jesus says to the disciples:
“…do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul…” [Mt 10:28]
You see, Jesus is telling us that the Christian, the true disciple, need not accept such fears. And how does Jesus explain this command not to fear the world and the evils it can bring? Simply by letting us know that “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.”

In other words, we should never fear because He promised that, ultimately, the Truth will triumph. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is He who will triumph, and as His disciples, we will join in that victory. And so, Jesus, the Lord of History, assures us that He will overcome every threat to the body, every illness, every persecution.

You see, brothers and sisters, the true disciple – like the martyrs who willingly sacrificed their bodies for the Truth – knows he is more than his body.

This takes us to our third and final healing thought: God always heals the human spirit first.

In our sinfulness we need healing of the soul, for only that can bring us eternal life. Three times in this brief passage Jesus tells the Apostles, and He tells us, not to fear. By doing so He implies that we, like that army of martyrs, must instead rejoice.

Simone Weil
I think again of the eighty-something woman in the hospital, how she rejoiced in her illnesses, how she rejoiced in the gift of life, how she rejoiced in God’s love expressed through those who prayed for her. She knew that God had healed her many times during her long life, healed her body and her spirit. But she knew, too, that whatever healing God gave her this day was the healing He meant for her to have.

Simone Weil, the brilliant, young French philosopher who escaped the Nazis, once wrote:
“Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude.” [Essay on "Love"]
Yes, two very different people – Simone Weil, born Jewish but Catholic by conviction, who died in exile in 1943 at the age of 33; and my Southern Baptist patient in The Villages Hospital – and yet they both came to know this truth about the love of God.

Let me repeat: “Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude.”

We see this displayed again and again in the Gospel -- the love expressed by those who seek healing from the Lord, a love that arises out of their saving faith.

We see it in the faith of the woman who had suffered for 12 years with hemorrhages. [Mk 5:25-34] It is her faith that initiates her healing and salvation. She touches the hem of Jesus’ garment, and does so in complete faith; healing power flows from Jesus to her; the Lord grants her salvation through her faith; she goes in peace, healed spiritually and physically; she goes a disciple.

We see it in the faith of Bartimaeus [Mk 10:46-52], the blind beggar of Jericho, who overcomes the barriers placed between him and Jesus by the disciples. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he calls out to Jesus as Messiah: “Son of David, have pity on me.” Called by Jesus, he throws off his tunic, leaps to his feet and goes to the Lord.

What does he want? To see. To see what? To see the Way, to see the Truth, to see the Life. And the first one he sees is Jesus, Jesus who tells him “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” But Bartimaeus doesn’t go his way. No, he follows Jesus on The Way. He leaves a disciple.

Brothers and sisters, will all of us gathered here today accept the way of the disciple?

Will we join together in communion to do the work of Jesus Christ?

Will we unite our prayers to bring God’s healing power to the world?

Even in the midst of our own brokenness, will we accept our call to be healers, taking Jesus to those in need?

Is there enough wonder in us to accept that God, by healing our spirits, by creating in us new hearts – that by doing this He is doing something even greater than the creation of the universe?

Yes, we have a lot of work to do today. For we are all here not just to be healed, but also to carry God’s healing power to others.

Praised be Jesus Christ…Now and forever.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

God Bless the "Dirty 100"

The self-proclaimed National Organization for Women (aka NOW) -- an organization paradoxically dedicated to eliminating its future membership by ensuring fewer and fewer baby girls are born -- has published its list of what NOW calls the "Dirty 100." The list includes100 of the plaintiffs currently suing the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services over the department's claim that Obamacare mandates birth control coverage. 

The list of plaintiffs includes a dozen Catholic dioceses and archdioceses: Atlanta, Beaumont, Biloxi, Cheyenne, Dallas, Erie, Fort Worth, Fort Wayne-South Bend, Nashville, New York, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Also listed among the 100 are the Michigan Catholic Conference, which represents the seven Catholic dioceses in the state of Michigan, and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Miami Archdiocese. Other Catholic organizations listed include: Ave Maria University, Ave Maria School of Law, Belmont Abbey College, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Franciscan University of Steubenville, Little Sisters of the Poor, Priests for Life, and the University of Notre Dame. These Catholic plaintiffs are joined on NOW's list by a number of corporations -- including the now-famous Hobby Lobby -- and many other Christian organizations. (You can view the entire list here on the NOW website.) 

It's interesting that NOW would call this list of plaintiffs "dirty." But, I suppose like most on the far left, they cannot abide the fact that anyone might simply disagree with them. Yes, those dirty Little Sisters of the Poor really are nasty folks, aren't they?

I actually thank NOW for publishing the list and reminding us of these courageous organizations and companies whom we should applaud for their strong public support of the religious freedom guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of our Constitution. And make no mistake, the issue is all about religious freedom. In the words of Miami's Archbishop Thomas Wenski:

"The administration continues to insist that the issue is about contraception; we disagree. It is about the first freedom of our Bill of Rights: the freedom of religion and respect for the rights of conscience."
I've included a video prepared by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on the subject of religious freedom and how it has been under assault in our country. Watch it...




...and pray for our nation.

God's peace.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Homily: 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)


Readings: Zec 9:9-10; Ps 145; Rom 8:9, 11-13; Mt 11:25-30

A few years ago there was a TV commercial – It was for monster.com, the find-a-job website – depicting a steady stream of kids telling us what they wanted to be when they grew up. One after another, they said such things as: I want to be underappreciated; I want to be a yes-man; I want to file papers all day… on and on they went…Of course it was a parody, all very tongue-in-cheek. It was funny because few children think that way.



I certainly didn’t. When I was a kid the last thing I wanted to be when I grew up was ordinary. I didn’t want some 9 to 5 job. I didn’t want to live an ordinary life, in some ordinary place…not at all. And I certainly didn’t expect a nice, ordinary retirement in a place like The Villages…

You see, as a child, everything around me seemed dull and predictable, all very ordinary. And I wanted an extraordinary life. I couldn’t wait to grow up. I wanted to do exciting things. I wanted adventure. I wanted to be like Steve Canyon or Terry and the Pirates. If those names mean nothing to you, ask someone who’s older. They’ll fill you in.

As it turned out, much of my life was fairly exciting and adventurous, and I was blessed to be a part of some rather extraordinary events. But even they were exceptions. Most of my life was actually pretty ordinary. I married a wonderful, and very extraordinary, woman, settled down, raised four wonderful children, and ended up doing all those normal things husbands and fathers do. As time passed, ever more quickly, I was struck by the reality that those adventures of the past, those remarkable experiences are now just memories. They can’t be re-lived. They’re gone forever. Life just evolves into the ordinary.

How many of us, to compensate for the ordinary in our lives, try all the harder to make retirement something more…to make retirement extraordinary, just like The Villages commercial. Well, folks, look around and you’ll see the answer. It doesn’t take long to realize life in a retirement community isn’t really like the commercial.

Oh, the stress of the workplace may be gone, but for many it’s simply replaced by something else. When we were younger we went to Mass on Sunday and sat in the pew, trying not to think about work and the crises we’d face on Monday morning. Today only the worries have changed. Now you worry about the tests your doctor did last Tuesday...or about your son-in-law who just lost his job…or how you rarely visit your 93-year-old mother in the nursing home...or if you can afford to help your granddaughter who didn’t get that scholarship.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way in retirement. Too many of us are left uninspired, neither healed nor reconciled, not prayerful, or even very thankful. Sunday Mass and the Eucharist become a habit. We focus more on the quality of our parking space. Oh, we pray, hoping God understands; and then find ourselves right back where we started: hoping for the extraordinary in the midst of all the ordinary.

Then we hear the words: “Come to me…”

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” [Mt 11:28-30].

Rest! It sounds so tempting, so inviting, so easy. It sounds too easy. What’s the catch, Jesus? Where’s the fine print? If there’s one thing we’ve learned it’s that nothing in this world comes easy. There’s always a price.

And yet, these words don’t go away. The idea of finding rest – of laying down our burdens, of being able to rely on another – simply won’t let us go. No, they don’t go away and they won’t let us go because these words are God’s Word. They’re Jesus Himself, the Incarnate Word of God. And the Word says, I’m not leading you to the answer, or selling you the answer, or bargaining with you about the answer. I AM the answer.

How many of us, despite a loving spouse, dear family and friends, despite successful careers, and yes, despite our profession of faith…how many feel we’re running alone in this life?

You see, brothers and sisters, God is always calling …but so many respond only when they’re weary enough, frustrated enough, wounded enough, empty enough, to hear His invitation: “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” [Mt 11:28-29]

This is an odd thing Jesus says. It doesn’t seem to make sense does it? Lay down your burdens and strap on a yoke? And this will give us peace and rest? Very odd indeed. And yet, that’s exactly how it works. Taking up the yoke of Christ lashes us to Him. In a way it aligns us; it straightens us out. It allows us to walk with Him, to work with Him, to work for Him. 

The yoke of Christ binds us intimately to Jesus, intimately to the Trinity. The yoke of Christ changes us from solitary and exhausted runners, runners searching for finish lines that aren’t there. It changes us into disciples willing to surrender all to a loving God, disciples who experience the peace of Christ because we recognize Christ in others.

And the yoke of Christ binds us to each other. How did Mother Teresa put it? “If we have no peace, it is because we’ve forgotten we belong to each other.” Did you know that? That we are bound to each other with the yoke of Christ? That we belong to each other? That the homeless, the dying, the hungry, the unborn, the disabled – they belong to you and you to them?

That the imprisoned criminal – the murderer, the rapist, the pedophile – yes, even those who commit the most evil acts – that Jesus Christ wants to save them too, and that He wants to do so through us. He wants to save Democrats and Republicans, Communists, Socialists, and Fascists. He wants to save terrorists and abortionists. He wants us all bound to each other through Him.

Do we really believe we belong to each other…to all of us? Or just to those we like, to those we tolerate? Can we accept the Gospel, without compromise? If we want God’s peace in our lives, we must. And what peace it is. It’s not the peace the world offers, the phony peace and happiness promised by politicians, or self-help gurus, or commercials. No, it’s the peace only God can give.

To receive it, we must take up the yoke of Christ. It sets us free from all the foolishness of the world, from its false pride, and allows us to accept humbly the truth of what life in this world is really all about.

But the yoke of Christ doesn’t prevent all pain. It doesn’t remove our sorrows and burdens. No, indeed, when we take up the yoke of Christ we also join Him on the Cross. But it’s a shared cross, and so, again, the yoke is easy. It teaches us these burdens of life can be shared. They can be transformed, taken up into the heart of God Himself, and returned to us as life.

“Come to me!” Jesus calls to each of us. Stop running your race to nowhere. Stop running from My voice. Turn, listen and respond. Come to me! It’s the invitation of a lifetime and it comes with a promise: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly”  [Jn 10:10].

You see, brothers and sisters, God yearns, with all the passion of a lover, to give Himself to us, to take us forever into His embrace. St. John explained this when He wrote: “Love, then, consists in this: not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us and sent His Son as a sacrifice for our sins” [1 Jn 4:10].

God wants nothing – He wants no thing – from us, except ourselves. And once we accept this…Once we come to Him with nothing but ourselves…Once we deposit all our sorrow and exhaustion and striving at His Heart’s door…Once we decide we want to be His disciple when we grow up…

Then, in exchange for our weakness, our arrogance, all our sins, He will give us the greatest gift imaginable. He will give us Himself. And there’s nothing ordinary about that.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Reflection: Talk to Secular Franciscans on Spirituality



Note: I was asked to give a talk this morning to a local fraternity of Secular Franciscans, who meet at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Summerfield, FL. It was truly an honor to speak to them. My talk follows. 
__________________

Here I am, a not very holy permanent deacon, asked to talk to you Secular Franciscans about Franciscan spirituality. Something about this just doesn’t seem right.

Indeed, my only real connection with Franciscans is the fact that I was ordained by a Capuchin, Sean O’Malley, a man of great humility. Maybe a little of his holiness rubbed off.

Oh, yes, and let’s not forget that Francis was ordained a deacon, so I suppose that’s an even more profound connection. I suspect Francis came to like being a deacon because of its meaning: to be a servant to all.

And so maybe it’s good …good for me to be here with you this morning…good for someone outside the order to talk to you about the spirituality you’ve inherited from your founder.

Sometimes, because we’re so close to the big things in our lives, we lose sight of all those little elements that make it up. Without them the big thing becomes distorted, a parody of what it’s supposed to be, and we lose sight of its original purpose. With this in mind, today I intend to focus only on the basics.

I’ve divided my talk into two parts; first on the spirituality of Francis and its scriptural roots. And because I’m involved in a number of ministries in our community, in the second part I hope to tie those basics together and share some thoughts about how to put your unique Franciscan spirituality into practice today.

Let me begin by talking a bit about Francis, nothing you don’t already know. He’s certainly one of our more misunderstood saints. Indeed, in our popular culture he’s often depicted as a kind of thirteenth-century hippie. But that’s the way of secular culture; it can do nothing else. Because it doesn’t understand faith, it can do nothing but trivialize or politicize everything.

And so we get Francis, the environmental activist, or Francis, the socialist revolutionary, or Francis, the pre-Reformation reformer who tried to turn Church with a capital “C” into church with a little “c”. Of course, Francis was none of these, and our secular culture simply ignores all that he really was.

Popular culture doesn’t give us Francis the meek. It doesn’t give us the Francis who considered every other human being to be above him. It doesn’t give us Francis the prophet, the man who understood not only his own time, but could clearly see what humanity would need for all time. It doesn’t give us Francis the beggar, Francis the lover of Lady Poverty, Francis who saw poverty as freedom – Francis, who realized everything belonged to him the moment he gave up everything. And it doesn’t give us Francis who lay prostrate at the foot of God’s throne – Francis who so loved God, who perhaps more than any other saw clearly God’s immanent presence in His creation.

Our culture has a certain respect for Francis, but that respect is counterbalanced by an even greater aversion, an unspoken disgust with anyone who could so blatantly reject all the world holds dear. And, brothers and sisters, believe me. If you take this unique spirituality of Francis, and truly absorb it into your own life, and make it a part of you, you too will be despised by many…especially today. But we already know that, don’t we?

And so where did Francis come from? Or more accurately, where did his spirituality come from?

When I ask myself questions like this, I always turn to Holy Scripture. And there, in the Book of the Prophet Zephaniah, we encounter the anawim, a Hebrew word meaning “those who are bowed down.”

The anawim are a people humble and lowly who find their blessedness in God. They are the “remnant” of those who have survived the judgment of the Lord in his “day of wrath”, the Dies Irae. These humble believers eagerly welcome God, ready to do his will. Their hope is in him alone. With his double-edged prophecy of doom for the godless and salvation for the humble and lowly, Zephaniah inaugurated the growth of the spirituality of the anawim.

It’s also the spirituality of Francis. In his prophecy, Zephaniah instructs: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth, who have observed His law; seek justice, seek humility…” [Zeph 2:3]

And so we see far more than a hint of Franciscan spirituality present in the Old Testament. We see its very foundation. But as the Church Fathers like to remind us, everything in the Old Testament prefigures something or someone in the New Testament.

And it’s in Jesus that we encounter the ultimate anawim. The “Servant-Son of Yahweh” is “meek and humble of heart” (cf. Mt 11:29).

Let me read Luke’s version of the Beatitudes [Lk 6:17,20-26]:


"Jesus raising his eyes toward his disciples said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.  Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.  But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you  who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.”


Somewhat different from Matthew’s, a slightly edited version perhaps, but Luke didn’t miss any of the important stuff. And did you notice how, in Luke’s version, Jesus contrasts blessing and woe? Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated and despised. And woe to the rich, the satisfied, those who know no grief, those held in the world’s esteem.

Interesting isn’t it? None of the things we strive for in this world, the important things – wealth, happiness, satisfaction, fame – none of these things will help us in the end. God doesn’t care about the size of our investment portfolio; indeed, the larger it is the more we are at risk.

I don’t know about you, but these words of the Lord are always bouncing around inside my head…Always making me a little nervous…Always challenging me to question how much I really need…Always turning my head toward others and away from myself…

I was walking toward the front entrance of Wynn Dixie in Wildwood the other morning when I saw something interesting. A woman, leaving the store carrying several bags, suddenly stopped and approached a younger woman – maybe she was 20 -- who was standing there crying. You could tell they didn’t know each other, but the older woman felt compelled to offer comfort. She put her bags down on the ground and spoke to this young stranger quietly a hand touching the other’s shoulder. It was truly a moment of beatitude; by encountering the girl she was encountering Jesus who said, “I was a stranger, and you made me welcome.”

I began to approach them, but the older woman glanced up at me, smiled and shook her head ever so slightly, as if to say, “It’s OK, this is all she needs right now.” When I came out of the store 10 minutes later, both were gone.

Do you see now what the Beatitudes are all about? They’re, quite simply, a call to action, a command by Jesus to carry His love to all whom we encounter…no exceptions, no exclusions. We humans love to tint everything with shades of gray, but not Jesus. No, He lays it out very simply for us in black and white. We have two paths, one that follows Him, and another that turns away from Him. That’s it. And just like the traveler in Robert Frost’s poem, "The Road Not Taken," we’d do well to take the road less traveled.

It’s the road of the Beatitudes, through which Jesus dedicates His Sermon on the Mount to the anawim: the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for justice’s sake.  All are blessed by the Lord.

Yes, Jesus is our example. He is the ideal to which we strive to conform our lives. He is the one, as St. Paul reminds us, who humbled Himself, becoming a slave, accepting death on a Cross [Phil 2:6-11]. But there’s another precursor to Francis in the New Testament – one who spoke of Jesus using that marvelous paradox that surely puzzled those who heard him: “The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me because He existed before me” [Jn 1:15].

And it’s in the Gospel, indeed in all four Gospels, where we encounter a spirituality not unlike that of Francis. It’s there we encounter John the Baptist. John, in his poverty of body and spirit, owning nothing but God’s love and God's Word, didn’t hesitate to declare his rule of life, the very purpose of his being, to all who would listen:

As prophet, he shouts to all creation: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord” [Jn 1:23].

As precursor, as son of Zechariah the priest of the Lord God, John turns to his disciples, and pointing to Jesus sends them on the way of truth: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” [Jn 1:29].

And as servant, as deacon, he reminds us all: “He must increase; I must decrease” [Jn 3:30].

Do you see the spirituality of Francis prefigured in John, in the prophet’s deep poverty, especially his spiritual poverty, a poverty that diminishes John in the presence of God? This is how Jesus can say, paradoxically but without contradiction: “among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” [Lk 7:28].

These are just some of the roots of Franciscan spirituality…although I’m pretty sure Francis would reject those words: Franciscan spirituality. He wouldn’t want his name attached to it; he would lay no claim to it. For Francis, his spirituality was simply, as Catherine Doherty called it, “The Gospel Without Compromise.” Like John, Francis wanted always to decrease.

Back in the 70s for a few years I taught at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Instead of attending Sunday Mass in the large cathedral-like chapel on the academy’s grounds, Diane and I used to go to Mass in a tiny chapel at the Naval Station just across the Severn River. One of its plusses was the daycare run by the Protestants during our Mass when they were having their adult Sunday school. It was sort of a symbiotic relationship between Catholics and Protestants.

Anyway, our priest was a Capuchin friar who ran what I think was a house of formation in a huge, waterfront mansion just down the road. Some millionaire had left it to the Capuchins in his will, and they used it even though they were seriously embarrassed to own such a place.

That reminds me of a joke the friar told me one Sunday morning: “There are three things the pope doesn’t know about the Church. How many orders of nuns there are. What the Jesuits are going to do next. And how much money the Franciscans have.” 

Anyhow, I used to pick up the good friar every Sunday morning and drive him to the chapel. And every week we’d have some wonderful conversations.

One Sunday morning as I was trying to impress him by waxing eloquently about St. Francis and his importance to the Church, my friar friend, interrupted and said, “Francis was not at all important.”

Naturally, I asked what he meant.

“Francis,” he replied, “considered himself the least important person on earth. His life was devoted to one thing: living the Gospel and attracting others to do the same. He succeeded. He didn’t want us to think of him at all. He wanted us to turn always to the Gospel.

“We are the Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin. It’s only others who call us Franciscans.”

So endeth the conversation.

Yes, just like John the Baptist, Francis wanted only to decrease. And when you look into his life, this becomes very evident. Indeed, Francis once refused to sleep in a particular cell in one of the order’s early houses because one of the brothers had called it, “Francis’ cell.” The idea that anyone thought it was his truly troubled him. I suspect he’d feel much the same about the phrase, Franciscan spirituality.

And so, rather than calling it Franciscan spirituality, perhaps we could better call it a Gospel spirituality, a spirituality of poverty, prophecy, and service. I think Francis would approve of this.

Let me now try to take this Gospel spirituality, the true spirituality of your order, and bring it to life with a couple of examples.

About ten years ago, after my wife and I had been volunteering at the Wildwood Soup Kitchen for a while, I was asked to join the newly formed board of directors. The soup kitchen is located at the First Presbyterian Church of Wildwood, and during one of those early board meetings we decided we could best define our guiding vision simply by proclaiming the words of Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.”

It just seemed to say it all. Sometimes, though, I think we need to reread, to reabsorb, that entire passage. Interestingly, it’s the only place in Scripture where the last judgment is described in any detail. I’m going to read it to you. Now it’s about 15 or 16 verses, so it’s not real brief. But we should never tire of hearing God’s word, so bear with me.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.  [Mt 25:31-46]

Did you notice how we’ll be judged? Or maybe I should say: Did you notice on what our judgment will focus? Francis certainly did. Indeed, his entire ministry was all about seeing the divine in the human: seeing Christ in others, and being Christ for others.

For a number of years, I was president of the board of directors at the soup kitchen until, finally, I refused to continue in that position. Since then I left the board and simply work as the Thursday Captain in support of my wife, Diane, who’s the Thursday cook -- all been a part of my own decreasing.

Thinking about the soup kitchen the other day I was reminded of what the Fathers of Vatican II said about the role of the laity in the Church.

In the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity they urged the laity to broaden and intensify their mission as Catholic Christians. In their words:

“…the unmistakable work being done today by the Holy Spirit in making the laity ever more conscious of their own responsibility and encouraging them to serve Christ and the Church in all circumstances.”

In all circumstances…that covers a lot of territory. And later in this same decree, the Council Fathers instruct us more completely when they say:

Wherever there are people in need of food and drink, clothing, housing, medicine, employment, education…or are afflicted with serious distress or illness or suffer exile or imprisonment, there Christian charity should seek them out and find them, console them… and help them... It is altogether necessary that one should consider in one’s neighbor the image of God in which he has been created, and also Christ the Lord to whom is really offered whatever is given to the needy person.

And that’s one of the Holy Spirit’s jobs: to instill in us the awareness of whom we help when we help the poor. Quite simply, we are helping Jesus Christ. Can you accept this? Most people can’t, you know. Oh, they say they do, but their words and actions say otherwise.

Years ago, as a deacon on Cape Cod, I assisted in a ministry to the homeless. Many churches offered their facilities as temporary shelters to those you could not find a bed in any of the permanent shelters. We’d pick them up, take them to the designated church hall, feed them, provide them with a bed to sleep on, show a movie, and cook breakfast in the morning.

One evening, working as one of the chaperones, I was locking the doors of the building before lights-out and one of the homeless men, an interesting fellow named Roland, asked me what I was doing.

Without thinking, I replied, “Just locking up, Roland. Have to keep the riff-raff out.”

Roland just laughed and said, “Uh, deacon, don’t you know, we are the riff-raff.”

Now Roland‘s a funny guy, always good for a laugh, but there’s an element of truth in this, isn’t there? To many people, the homeless, the poor, the unemployed, the illegal immigrants – all those extremely inconvenient people – really are riff-raff.

One volunteer from my parish, often joined me in the morning and helped me make breakfast for the homeless men. One morning as we were cooking a batch of pancakes he said, “You know, sometimes you just want to grab them and shake some sense into them. I mean, they’re so lazy. Why can’t they just go out and get a job? All we’re really doing is helping them stay unemployed and homeless.”

Now tell me that’s not a common attitude. You can’t, because most people probably feel the same way. And from a human perspective, a worldly perspective, they and my friend are absolutely right! If all those folks had jobs, and if they coupled that with an ounce or two of ambition, and if they avoided all those destructive and addictive behaviors that lead to so many problems, to so many broken families and personal devastation…

Yes, if, if, if…

If they did all these things, the world would be a brighter, sunnier place. More people would be working, the economy would be stronger, taxes would be lower, GDP would skyrocket along with the stock market…heck, the price of gasoline would probably go down too. Yes, from a human perspective, my friend was right.

But, brothers and sisters, God challenges us to view our world and its problems from a very different perspective…from His perspective. Yes, God’s ways are not man’s ways.

To my knowledge, Jesus never told anyone to get a job. In fact, He told a number of them, His closest friends, to quit their jobs. He fed the hungry, as many as 5,000 at a time, but He never checked a single 1099 or W-2 before handing out the food. He healed the sick all over Galilee and Judea, but never asked for proof of health insurance, and never told anyone to get back to work now that they were once again physically whole. Yes, God’s ways are different from man’s ways.

We see this manifested in God’s mercy and justice as well. The prodigal son who blows his inheritance on prostitutes and is treated like a king by his father; or the hired men who worked for an hour but were paid as much as those who worked all day.

What kind of justice is that? Certainly not ours. No, it’s God’s justice, the justice of forgiveness. It’s the hound of heaven justice that pursues each of us until our last breath.

And that’s where we as Christians come in. You see, Jesus asks us to do the humanly impossible.  He asks us take on His ways, to accept the Gospel without compromise, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, befriend the lonely…and He asks us to do all these things with absolutely no qualifications.

Our job is to help the least of His brethren any way we can. And it’s through our meager work that Jesus works His miracles, something He never tires of doing; for God’s way is the way of miracles.

Let’s take a moment to turn back to the Gospel and read the story of the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind man of Jericho.

They came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging. On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me.” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take courage; get up, he is calling you.” He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. Jesus said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.” Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way. [Mk 10:46-52]

"You have nothing to fear from him!  Get up!  He is calling you!"
 

Blind, unable to earn a living, Bartimaeus spent his days sitting by the road, calling out, asking for alms. You can almost hear him: “Have pity.  Have pity.  A coin for a poor blind man.” A small thing to ask, but on this day he mustered up the courage to ask for more. Rebuffed and scolded, he cowered, worried they might shove him aside or even beat him for his impudence.  How dare a beggar speak to the great teacher, the holy man who would be king.

There’s such a thing as a healthy fear of the Lord, a fear born of awareness that God is Other, that we are not God, we are God’s creation. Even though our faith assures us that we will someday be united with God in glory and fullness, God will always be Other. And so, though our relationship with God is meant to be personal, childlike and affectionate, it should never be casual. God is God is God.

And yet God, in his goodness, desires to enter into conversation and relationship with us.  He calls us, and He sends us His Son. It is His voice, and only His voice, heard in our poverty, that leads us to true and lasting wealth. This strange paradox of a God who is so beyond our reach and yet who reaches out to touch us can be a real stumbling block, and causes many to reject Christianity.

Indeed, this is the biggest difference between Christianity and Islam. For Islam makes God a distant law-giver, one who can be reached only by a perfect following of his laws. Other religions solve the paradox by dissolving the distinction between created and creator. All are one and salvation is achieved in realizing this essential oneness. In the end neither approach satisfies.

Our God is a God who always takes the first step, who reveals Himself to us, who calls out to us. He is a God who loves so much He became one of us in the flesh. What else could He possibly do to convince us that He wants a relationship with us, that a relationship with Him is even possible? 

And yet we hesitate to answer his call. Even when we do find the faith to call out, like blind Bartimaeus, others interfere and try to lead us back into fear and blindness: “How dare you presume that God would be personally interested in you!”

Knowing how difficult it is to hear His voice, to believe He is calling, God gives a second call to those who have already responded.  He calls us to draw close to those in darkness, to encourage them in their fears, and to make it definite that "Yes, brother Batimaeus, God is calling you too."

How many blind Bartimaeuses are there today, wanting to find God, but hindered by voices telling them it's impossible.

How many sit alone, along life’s roadside, hoping that God might one day pass by?

How many are waiting for someone to take them by the hand, to deliver them into God's presence where they will find healing, purpose, and life?

So I’ll leave you with one thought. Can you really and truly say you see Jesus Christ in every person you help?

If you do, you’ll treat them as you would treat Jesus.

If you don’t, quite simply, you’ll treat them as riff-raff.

Just remember that Francis, as he walked the pathways and roads through the hills and villages of Umbria, never passed by another leaving him unloved.