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!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

G. K. Chesterton on Islam

I thought my tiny but select group of readers might find these comments by the great G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) of interest:
“…but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone.” -- from Chesterton's wonderful book, Orthodoxy, a book every human being should read. It was written 108 years ago, in 1908.
“There is in Islam a paradox which is perhaps a permanent menace. The great creed born in the desert creates a kind of ecstasy out of the very emptiness of its own land, and even, one may say, out of the emptiness of its own theology. It affirms, with no little sublimity, something that is not merely the singleness but rather the solitude of God. There is the same extreme simplification in the solitary figure of the Prophet; and yet this isolation perpetually reacts into its own opposite. A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again. There are no priests; and yet this equality can only breed a multitude of lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests. The very dogma that there is only one Mahomet produces an endless procession of Mahomets. Of these the mightiest in modern times were the man whose name was Ahmed, and whose more famous title was the Mahdi; and his more ferocious successor Abdullahi, who was generally known as the Khalifa. These great fanatics, or great creators of fanaticism, succeeded in making a militarism almost as famous and formidable as that of the Turkish Empire on whose frontiers it hovered, and in spreading a reign of terror such as can seldom be organised except by civilisation…” -- from Chesterton's brief book, really a eulogy, on Lord Kitchener (1917).
“When people talk as if the Crusades were nothing more than an aggressive raid against Islam, they seem to forget in the strangest way that Islam itself was only an aggressive raid against the old and ordered civilization in these parts. I do not say it in mere hostility to the religion of Mahomet; I am fully conscious of many values and virtues in it; but certainly it was Islam that was the invasion and Christendom that was the thing invaded." -- from Chesterton's book, The New Jerusalem (1920)
The above comments make one wonder what Chesterton would have thought of Islam today, particularly those expressions of Islam that manifest themselves as ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, et al.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Homily: Monday, 4th Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Sm 15:13-14, 30; 16:5-13; Ps 3; Mk 5:1-20
 “Legion is my name. There are many of us” [Mk 5:9].   

When I was much younger, I thought those words were among the most frightening in the Bible. There was just something very chilling about them. Part of it was the demon’s brazen declaration of who he and his gang were. Was that name, “Legion”, supposed to scare Jesus? Well it might have scared me, but it certainly didn’t scare Jesus. It was also the idea of that poor man possessed by so many demons. After all, a Roman Legion could have as many as 6,000 fighting men.

And yet, if you think about it, Satan is the father of lies and his minions follow suit. How many were there? We don’t know. And I suppose the last thing they resembled were the disciplined soldiers who made up a legion. To be disciplined is to obey and that’s one thing Satan doesn’t do.

Recall how Jesus commissioned the disciples:
“Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” [Mt 28:19-20]
Yes, “…all that I have commanded you.” In other words, through obedience to His commands the Church will remain united. Jesus calls us to unity.

But Satan…his name in Greek – diabolos (διάβολος) – means the scatterer. He doesn’t unite; he scatters. He strives to destroy community, to create dissension. He tears apart all that is good. This is exactly what he did to the Gerasene community that Jesus and the apostles visited.

This was not a Jewish community. The Gerasenes were gentiles, pagans…and Jesus encountered three types of beings during His brief stay.

The first was the man who meets Jesus on His arrival. Living among the tombs, a kind of wild-man, he was being destroyed by the demons who possessed him. But he came to Jesus didn’t he? He saw Him from a distance, ran up to Him, and fell down before Him.

Was this the act of the man himself, and not the demons who possessed him? Did he exert what little free will he still had? Driven by the Spirit, did he run to Jesus, and throw himself to the ground in a silent act of worship? Is that what happened? I’d like to think so.

But that’s when Jesus encountered the second being, the demon who spoke for them all. He, too, recognized Jesus, the “Son of the Most High God” [Mk 5:7].

He also knows that his time is up. He came face to face with the power of God Himself. “…do not torment me” [Mk 5:7], he begged. He also asked to remain among the Gerasenes. Apparently the pickin’s were good there. And he saw an opportunity to divide further, to scatter. “Send us into the swine” [Mk 5:12], he begs. And Jesus does just that. 2,000 swine, valuable livestock, run off a cliff into the water and drown.

With this Jesus encounters the third group of beings, the people of Gerasene. The swineherds, who had witnessed it all, told the locals everything that had happened. They saw the possessed man standing before them as normal as can be; indeed, more normal even than they. It was all too much for them. As Mark tells us, “…they were seized with fear” [Mk 5: 15] and begged Jesus to leave them, to go away. They saw the work of God but refused to recognize His presence among them.

Yes, Satan did his work, didn’t he? He scattered. And Jesus allowed it…for now. Satan probably thought he’d won. After all, Jesus was sent away. But the scatterer failed to notice something important…because Jesus didn’t really leave, did He? At least not entirely. For His Word remained there in the person of a disciple.

Jesus sent the one he freed from Satan’s grasp to proclaim the Good News. Unlike Satan, he obeyed. Yes, this man, once possessed by a legion of demons became the first missionary to the Gentiles.

Jesus chooses the most unlikely among us to demonstrate His power and His mercy. No matter how we’ve failed in the past, no matter how sinful, how unworthy, God continues to call us. He will never stop extending His bountiful mercy. For God is love and can do nothing else.

Oh, yes, I didn’t mention one group of people who were there with Jesus during His visit to Gerasene: the apostles. And yet we hear nothing from them, do we? They say not a word. Perhaps they too were frightened by those chilling words and all that took place that day. Only later would they realize why Jesus had taken them to that dark place: to give them a taste of what they would encounter as they “make disciples of all nations.”

And how about us? Do we extend mercy to the most unlikely, the most unloved, those rejected by the world? Do we carry Jesus’ Word and His merciful love into the dark places of our world?

Or do we instead do the work of the scatterer?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Homily - Saturday, 3rd Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Sm 12:1-7a, 10-17; Ps 51; Mk 4:35-41
Have you ever been afraid for your life? Given the age of most of us here today, I suspect we’ve all had one or two life-threatening experiences. For some it may have been the diagnosis of a serious illness. For others it may have been a dangerous situation that you survived, one of those sudden near misses. During my many years as a Navy pilot I certainly had my share of the latter, and I have vivid memories of them all. I’ll share one with you this morning.

I was flying a helicopter on a very dark night in the northern Pacific, up near the Aleutian Islands. We had left Adak, an island in the Aleutians that attracted no tourists, and were returning to the ship. The seas were especially rough, with high winds and a water temperature near freezing.

We were about 15 miles from the ship when we heard a loud bang from the main transmission – that’s the huge gearbox that connects the two jet engines to the rotor system. We then started getting other, serious indications of a rapidly worsening problem. Believe me, if the main transmission freezes, the main rotor system will do the same, and that’s never a good thing. And if we ended up in the water, our chances of survival in that dark, stormy, ice-cold environment were very slim.

So we followed all the proper emergency procedures and made our way to the ship, hoping we could land before everything failed. I asked my copilot and two crewmen to pray, and the three of them – a Mormon, a Southern Baptist, and an agnostic – agreed that this was good idea.

Surprisingly, as they prayed and I tried to keep us in the air, I found myself thinking of today’s Gospel passage from Mark. It’s strange how such thoughts just pop into your mind when you least expect them..

You see, like the apostles the first thing we experienced was fear, fear in a storm over which we had no control. Wondering whether Jesus were awake or asleep, I uttered my first prayer: “Wake up, Jesus. It’s scary out here, and you’ve got some quieting words to say.”

But then, remarkably, as I prayed this most imperfect of prayers, I was overcome by a sense of complete peace – and peace always brings change. What had been a frantic plea, uttered in fear, was transformed into a prayer of praise and thanksgiving; for somehow I knew that all would be well.

As you can see by my presence here today, we made it back safely. But right after we landed on that aircraft carrier’s deck, as I began to shut down the engines, the main transmission froze. The subsequent engineering investigation couldn’t explain why it hadn’t failed instantly, why it kept working for those miraculous 10 or 15 minutes we needed to return to the ship.

After landing, the four of us – even the agnostic – joined hands and offered a brief prayer of thanksgiving. For we four had learned something that dark night. We had learned that the absence of faith is not doubt, but fear.

"Be not afraid,” Jesus tells us again and again. Recall how he rebuked the apostles in today’s passage from Mark:  “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” [Mk 4:40] With this He confirms the connection between fear and lack of faith.

But once we began to pray, once we turned to God in faith, weak as it was, our fears began to melt away. Each member of my crew later told me that God had simply pulled all the fear from their hearts. It was a time when God revealed Himself and His saving power to each one of us.

Brothers and sisters, the antidote to fear is faith, a gift freely given, but one that you and I must freely accept. Let God fill your hearts with His love; accept His gift of faith so there’s no room for any fear. Let Him calm your soul as He calms the wind and the sea. Just remember, Jesus won’t calm your soul without your consent, without your faith in His power to do so.

In the Gospel the disciples marvel at Jesus as one “whom even wind and sea obey”. But even more marvelous is a disciple who, in the midst of life's crises, turns to God in faith and obedience.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Lottery Fever

According to this morning's news reports, the anticipated payoff from tomorrow's Powerball lottery drawing will approach a staggering $1.4 billion. This could and quite likely will increase as more and more people buy tickets during the final day's feeding frenzy. This payoff is a world record for lotteries and if no winning ticket is drawn the record will only be set higher.

Almost everyone I know has bought a ticket, or a fistful of tickets, in the vain hope that they will beat the astronomical odds that say otherwise. The odds of winning when one buys a single ticket are 292.2 million to 1. These odds do not change with the size of the payoff, but are based solely on the  way Powerball is structured. If, therefore, you are considering buying a ticket, the odds of your winning are about the same as pulling your name out of a gigantic hat holding the names of every American. It's estimated that you are 2,000 times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than to purchase a winning Powerball ticket. If you are a golfer, your chances of making a hole-in-one are about 20,000 times greater than winning this particular lottery. And so, if you've not been killed by a lightning bolt, or if you've never sunk a hole-in-one, I suggest you consider using your funds more constructively by buying an ice cream cone (with sprinkles, or "jimmies" as we call them in New England) or maybe one of those giant bakery cookies filled with macadamia nuts and chunks of white chocolate. Either of these will bring you more joy than the act of tearing up a losing ticket.

Of course, as you might have deduced, the person offering this advice has never actually bought a lottery ticket. Over the years I've been given a few and surprisingly have won more from these gifts than the gifts cost the givers. Despite the fact that my net "winnings" are rather modest and amount to perhaps $10, one can't deny that I have a track record of beating the odds. And yet, blessed as I am with such obvious good fortune, I have no intention of buying a Powerball ticket before tomorrow's drawing.

My reason for avoiding Powerball, or any other big-time lottery, has less to do with the ridiculous odds than with motives. The other day, as the anticipated payoff rose dramatically, I saw the results of a poll in which people were questioned about their plans should they have the winning ticket. When asked what one would do first, only a tiny minority mentioned charitable giving. The vast majority talked about buying things for themselves and their family -- cars, houses, trips, yachts, airplanes, motorhomes, etc. Several people even mentioned cosmetic surgery. In others words, their motives for playing the lottery were, quite simply, more selfish than altruistic.
300+ feet of what?

When such large amounts of money are involved greed tends to overwhelm other, more charitable motives. One sees this displayed among the super-rich who never seem to have enough. The 10,000 square-foot mansion is just too tiny, so construction soon starts on the 50,000 square-foot super home. A few years ago while on a 5-day cruise in the Western Caribbean, I spotted a yacht owned by an American industrialist. It was huge, over 300 feet long, with its own helicopter deck, and was for sale at an asking price of $125 million. I later discovered the owner was selling it because it was just too small. His other yacht is over 400 feet in length. And, yes, I know that he and others like him have all established charitable foundations which they support with their wealth. And yet that support comes from their surplus wealth and not from their need, not from their poverty. Jesus, of course, addresses this failing in an unmistakable way when He points to the widow who gives a small amount to the Temple treasury, but an amount that represented "all she had, her whole livelihood" [See Mk 12:38-44].

Interestingly, not long ago I came across a study that examined the charitable giving of the super-rich -- what it called the "myth of philanthropy." It concluded that the most wealthy actually gave far less than lower and middle income folks. It would seem that not much has changed since the time of Jesus.

Furthermore, one need only examine the record of past lottery winners to see how greed often ruled their lives leading them to squander their winnings on extravagance. As a result, many have found themselves with nothing after only a few years. When selfish gain and greed are the motives one can expect nothing good to come out of it. How did St. Paul put it?
"Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains" [1 Tim 6:9-10].
And if you don't like (or need) an ice cream cone or a cookie, why not drop a few extra bucks in the collection basket at church, or perhaps give a small donation to your local soup kitchen. Think of it as a means to experience first-hand the mercy of God. As St. Peter reminds us:
"Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins" [1 Pet 4:8].
God's peace.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Homily: December 30

Readings: 1 Jn 2:12-17 Ps 96; Lk 2:36-40

Early in Luke’s Gospel we encounter Anna and Simeon, two special, almost grandparental figures, perfect models for those of us in the winter years of our lives. They are blessed with the holiness and wisdom most of us seek but too few of us attain.

But this passage about Anna always calls to mind my Dominican eighth-grade teacher. I’m certain Sister Francis Jane looked exactly like Anna. From my perspective as a 13-year-old they were both old – very, very old. And they both saw their mission in life as one of announcing the Good News to everyone they encountered.

How did Luke put it?
“…she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Yes, Anna was telling everyone who came to the Temple to prepare themselves for the gift of redemption. What wonderful news! And it was the same message we eighth-graders received daily from Sister Francis Jane.

“Be prepared,” she’d say, “You and I don’t know when the Lord will summon us into His Holy Presence.” And so, for Sister Francis Jane, readiness just made good spiritual sense.

Over the years I’ve taken a lot of courses in spirituality, but despite all the deep theological insights I learned in those courses, I found myself ignoring most of them and going back to Sister’s four basic rules – rules she repeated again and again as we made our way through eighth grade en route to high school.

Her first rule was to pray.

That’s right, pray – pray every day. “Talk to the Lord,” she’d say. Nothing complicated about it. If you don’t have a prayer life, you can’t be Jesus’ friend. After all, what kind of person never speaks to his friend?

Her second rule was to watch.

Now she didn’t mean spending your time looking for the Second Coming. Too many people today seem to think the end is near every time there’s an earthquake, a flood, a war, or a rumor of war. In the words of the good Sister, “If you stand around looking at the sky watching for Jesus, you just might get hit by a truck – and then you’ll meet Him a bit prematurely.”

Yeah, she was a pretty funny. But what she meant was something a little more subtle. “Keep your eyes open,” she’d tell us. “Watch what’s going on in the world around you. Watch for opportunities to bring Jesus to others. Watch for the good things, and praise God for them. And watch out for the bad things, and then wait...and you’ll be amazed how God will use you to bring good out of the bad.”

“Don’t hide from the world,” she’d say, waving that bony finger at us. “God made the world. It’s good. It’s people who’ve made it bad. And you can’t change it if you hide from it.”

Her third rule of readiness was to avoid sin.

Too many people, she said, make friends with the devil, who dresses up sin trying to make the ugly attractive. I would hope as Catholic Christians we’d all want to be in a state of grace, a state of friendship with the Lord, so He will greet us as a friend when we meet. For this, the good sister said, we should be willing to sacrifice everything.

Her fourth and final rule of readiness was to use everything in our lives to fulfill our calling to serve.

By this she meant that parents should be good parents. Children should be good children. Brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren, priests and nuns, deacons and bishops, doctors, lawyers, flight attendants, plumbers, salespeople, soldiers, carpenters… whatever we do in life, we should do it to the best of our ability.

But it also means we must be good Christians, that our work in the world is important only to the extent that it supports and furthers God’s work. Our preparation for eternity, then, must include using this world’s goods and pleasures for the glory of God and for the good of others. After all, what good is it to achieve great things in this world if they don’t help us achieve the salvation God wants for us in the next? We are all called to serve.

That, in a nutshell, is the late Sister Francis Jane’s program of spiritual direction.

Now, being always ready to encounter Jesus isn’t as easy as it might sound, especially in today’s world, a world that seems to place so many superfluous demands on us. In the days to come there will be a lot of talk about turning over new leaves and making resolutions for the new year — talk of diets, and exercise, and volunteer work, and watching less television…all good things.

But maybe you and I can do something a bit more meaningful. Why don’t we get ready for the Lord and start living each day as if it’s our last. Put away the old person with sin and weakness and live in a new spirit of grace and gratitude.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Vegetative State? Not!

Here's a news story you probably won't read in the mainstream media; although, surprisingly, NPR did cover it. It tells of a young man diagnosed by his doctors to be in a vegetative state and sent home to await death. He remained in this state, cared for by his parents, for 12 years but then gradually returned to normalcy. What's most interesting is that during most of these 12 years, although he could not move, respond in any way, or even make eye contact, he was completely aware of everything that went on around him. Read the full story here: Life Site News

This young man, Martin Pistorius, has written what has become a best-selling book -- a great read: Ghost Boy

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Homily: 1st Sunday of Advent - Year C

Readings: Jer 33:14-16; 1Th 3:12-4:2; Lk 21:25-28,34-36

Some years ago – actually 14 years ago, in December 2001 – two men I knew well died very suddenly within a few days of each other. Both of these men were in what we would call the "prime of life." One was 40, the other 56. Both were family men, husbands and fathers of three children. Both were seemingly fit and healthy. Both were, by every measure, very successful businessmen. And both probably thought they had 20 or 30 years of productive life ahead of them.

And yet in a flash, or perhaps more accurately, in the single beat of a human heart, both of these men were gone from us. For their families and friends, coping with such sudden loss, dealing with the grief and emptiness, was extremely difficult. Just as difficult were the questions they asked then, and have continued to ask since – questions to which there are no easy answers.

But against this uncertainty as to how and when we will die, is the absolute certainty that all of us will die. We humans are a strange lot. We accept the fact of death in general terms, because the evidence is irrefutable. But when it comes down to specifics, to ourselves or to someone close to us, we act as if God has somehow double-crossed us.

We tend to have a similar attitude about the end of the world. And yet, for my two friends, the end of their world arrived when they experienced their own personal second coming of Jesus. Oh, yes, as Catholic Christians we believe that Jesus will come again at the end of time. We just don't want it to happen on our watch. And maybe, if we don't think or talk about it, it won't. But that's exactly what we're asked to do during this season of Advent: to think and talk about it.

Today too many of us view Advent in one-dimensional terms. We see Advent simply as a prelude to Christmas, a sort of ecclesiastical version of the Christmas shopping season. Advent then becomes a warm and fuzzy time to turn our thoughts back to that first Christmas in Bethlehem, to the manger, to the bright star in the night sky, to Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, to shepherds and angels and wise men, to the ox, the donkey and the lamb, to the little drummer boy.

Now I suppose that’s all a part of Advent, but quite frankly, it’s really only a small part. Lost amidst all this Christmas nostalgia, is the very fact of what we are called to celebrate. For Christmas isn't just the celebration of Jesus' birth. Rather, it's our commemoration of a defining moment in history: the manifestation of the incarnate Son of God to the world. Christmas is the celebration of an almost inconceivable act of love by the Father. It’s our loving God injecting Himself into human history in the most personal and direct way possible.

I will save you from yourselves by sending you my own Son, who will take on your nature, your flesh. He will live among you, teaching you about Me and how I expect you to live, to love, and to worship. And He will sacrifice Himself for you and for your sins.

Advent, then, is a time to ask ourselves whether we are prepared for the Son of God’s arrival into our lives. This is the Advent preached by John the Baptist: “…one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals” [Lk 3:16].

As Jeremiah prophesied in today's first reading:
"In those days, in that time, I will raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land" [Jer 33:15].
This is what we celebrate during Advent as we look forward to Christmas: the beginning of the divine drama of the Incarnation, this wondrous manifestation of God's love through the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But that's not all we celebrate. We also look to the end of the drama. For the Church calls us not only to turn to the past, to Jesus' first coming, but also to the future, to the end of human history, to the second coming of Jesus. Unlike His first coming, which came quietly, almost secretly, His second coming will be quite an event.

In today's Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect.
"…signs in the sun, the moon and the stars."
"…nations in disarray."
"…roaring of the seas and waves."
"…the powers in the heavens will be shaken."
[Lk 21:25}
Yes, God will manifest His power as creator of the universe, and humanity will come to understand what the word "almighty" really means. So much so that Jesus tells us "people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world" [Lk 21:26].

Now on the face of it, this doesn't sound like something to look forward to. But Jesus tells us, wait a minute…as Christians you have nothing to fear.
"…when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand" [Lk 21:28].
And it won't be easy, for "that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth" [Lk 21:35].

When will it happen? Today? Tomorrow? Next year? 100 or 1,000 years from now? We don't know; and those who throughout history, and even today, claim they do are false prophets. And because we don't know, Jesus instructs us:
"Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man" [Lk 21:36].
And so, during this season of Advent we are called to prepare ourselves, to act as if the end is near…for it might well be. And for some of us, like my two friends, it is.

"Be vigilant," Jesus says. Be watchful. That's what Advent is all about.

St. Bernard speaks of three comings of Jesus: One in flesh and weakness; one in glory and majesty; but another, a hidden coming, in which Christ comes into our lives through the working of the Holy Spirit and manifests His love through us. How better to prepare for His second coming than to be alert with God's love, to be alive with Christ's light.

What else can we do?

We can recognize Jesus when He comes to us through the others who touch our lives. We can see Jesus Christ in all others, so they will see Jesus in us. Like Mary, we can be “God-bearers” who take Jesus Christ, God’s Eternal Word, into the world. What a wonderful way to celebrate this coming of God's love into our hearts.

Listen again to the words of St. Paul in today's second reading:
"May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…so as to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His holy ones" [1 Th 3:12-13]
How do we celebrate God's love? By loving. That's the point of Paul's prayer.

And what a prayer!

And what a world Christ would return to if everybody loved with His love. If Christ's light, emanating from the love of the Father, was truly the light of our lives.