Saturday, August 31, 2013

Humility: The essential virtue that opens all possibility

A few weeks back I was in Zion National Park.  One morning my friend and I decided to hike a trail called "Angel's Landing".  It rises almost 1500 ft above the canyon floor below.  It was an ambitious hike, especially for one with 2 bad knees, a bad left ankle, and...well let's just face who is carrying the equivalent of a 7th grader, weight-wise, everywhere he goes.  Going up was interesting.  More often than not I sounded like Darth Vader having an asthma attack in an echo chamber.  But after saying to myself both internally and out loud that I would not be conquered, I forged on with my friend.
  After a myriad of switchbacks and a walk through a canyon that bred a false sense of security, we came to an even more daunting set of switchbacks that led to what is called Scout Lookout.  Scout Lookout sits at roughly 1250 ft above the canyon floor.  When I looked at the trail that led to Angel's Landing, I knew I was in over my head.  The last part was cut into rock, with all the people scattered on it looked more like a busy anthill than trail, and required what is called scrambling (more an exercise of climbing than walking). I knew in all honesty, that even though I had been able to make it so far, that given my weight, my bad joints, and a slight fear of heights, that it would not be wise to go any farther.  I knew, however, were I to lose the weight, finally do something about my knees, and get in better shape, that this hike could be a possibility.  It wasn't now.  I had to be honest about that even though it did embarrass me to admit it.  Had I tried, others might well have had the unenviable task of hauling me back down and I am sure would have possibly traumatized some.  I do not tell this tale to cast myself in a downward light.  It is the truth.  The truth, at the end of the day, is what is important and worthy of being acted upon.  One cannot see the truth until one engages in humility.

In preparing for the homily this weekend, a homily focusing on Luke 14: 1, 7-14, an instruction from Christ on humility, I came upon on article by Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio.  In it I found some very profound understandings of just what humility is.  I was caught with the line, "Humility does not mean looking down on oneself or thinking ill of oneself.  It really means not thinking of oneself very much at all."  Humility opens oneself to truth.  Where there is truth, one will also find God, the author of all truth.  St. John the Apostle reminds us time and again that the very nature of God is love; the complete self emptying of oneself for the good of the other.  Humility opens us to love because it opens us to properly respond to love God has already shown for us.

Humility naturally, beautifully, and powerfully leads us to move beyond ourselves and our own concerns.  It frees us from the preoccupation with self that shackles us with the chains of worrying about how we are perceived, the necessity to manipulate how we are thought of, the necessity to flaunt our wealth, power, or status, and all else that keep us from experiencing the true freedom of being those made in the image and likeness of God.  Dr. D'Ambrosio puts it so much better than I can:
The humble are free to forget themselves because they are secure.  They accept the fact that, as creatures, they are small, vulnerable, and not ultimately in control.  But they know there is a Creator who is great, omnipotent, and totally in control.  And they know that they’ve been made in the image and likeness of that Creator.  That makes gives them a dignity that they don’t have to earn and can never be taken away.  Though they’ve tarnished the divine likeness through sin, they know that the Creator came down from the heights of heaven to become human and fix what they couldn’t fix.
So when they mess up, the humble don’t have to cover up.  They just say “please forgive me,” give thanks for God’s mercy, and move on.  And when their creaturely limitations cause them to fail, they are not surprised.  They realize that they are not God.

All this is simply a way of saying that the humble are in touch with reality.  If the definition of insanity is being out of touch with reality, then our proud world with its “nice guys finish last” illusion is clearly insane.

Since the humble are secure, they are strong.  And since they have nothing to prove, they don’t have to flaunt their strength or use it to dominate others.  Humility leads to meekness.  And meekness is not weakness.  Rather, it is strength under control, power used to build up rather than tear down.
The humble are not threatened either by God’s greatness or the reflection of that greatness in the talents of others.  In fact, this is what naturally catches their eye and absorbs their attention – the goodness of God, wherever it may be found.

The form of prayer that extols God’s goodness is called praise.  The activity that honors God’s goodness in other people is called affirmation.  The humble take delight in praising God and affirming people.

The reason the humble take the last place of honor at the table is not because they think ill of themselves, but because they are preoccupied with honoring others.  And the reason people ask them to move higher is because they know this admirable attitude is rare.  In fact it is actually divine.  It is exactly the way the three Divine Persons relate to each other.  The Father glorifies the Son, the Son glorifies the Father, and the Spirit is so preoccupied with glorifying the Father and the Son that most of us feel we really don’t know much about Him.

Life is infinitely more freeing when the preoccupation with oneself and it heavy yoke are lifted from our shoulders.  Humility frees us to love and to serve.  It frees us from earthly constraints and frees us from the deceit and machinations of the devil.  It is Satan that continually tempts us towards endless self-involvement. So self deceived is he that he spreads the deception that happiness can only be found through self gratification and being served.  This is what he himself believes.  It is an empty and pain filled spiral in that deception never brings about connection with reality.  It is only distorts and frustrates.  One cannot find joy, contentment, nor peace in self-indulgence; any joy garnered is temporary at best and below expectation usually.  It is one of the main reasons we live in such a bitterly divided and angry society.  Because God wants better for us, we should as well.  The first step to experiencing the freeing love and joy we are called to and created for, first comes through humility.

Let us pray for and strive for that humility.  Let us move beyond ourselves and seek the truth.  Let us in truth know who we are, who God is, and who we are before God.  It is humility that we are given the strength to forge ahead unencumbered by the chains of self-preoccupation. It is in humility that we no longer need the accumulation of wealth, power, pleasure and honor to define us or satiate us.  It is in humility that we are no longer shackled by the fear of other people's perceptions of us. It tells us where God's action is already present and where it needs to be deepened.  The person who is humble is the person without fear and who possesses great strength and uses said strength to build up others...and takes great joy in doing so.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

To Love and be Loved

The strongest human desire is that of being loved.  It is in the deep recesses of the human heart a burning desire to be loved, to know that someone else treasures, needs, and wants our very existence.  It might well be the impetus that drives us to do the vast majority of what we do.  While in the desert southwest, I noticed a massive concentration of the new age movement.  While talking to a friend about the experience it occurred to me that people are driven to such things because they want to feel love.  They want to feel affirmation in a world that can be very cold and callous.  They want to be told they are good people and all the struggles they go through count for something.  I believe that many who come to Church look for the same thing.  We want to feel loved.  We want to feel as if someone notices and appreciates the struggles we deal with and gives some credence to who we are.  Many leave because they don't feel that.  Many rarely practice the faith because they don't feel that.  I posit it is because we need to tweak our approach a bit.

In the Scriptures, when it comes to love there is a correct order, an order that God Himself models.  The relationship between God and ourselves never begins with "You love me" but with "I love you".  When God establishes a relationship with Israel, it is not because they first approached Him in love, but that he loved them.  Wednesday of last week was the Feast of St. Augustine.  In his memoirs, known as the Confessions of St. Augustine, he acknowledges how God loved him far before Augustine loved God.  He acknowledges how his own heart was restless seeking to be loved until he turn to love God.  It was only after Augustine sought to love rather than to be loved, that the door of God's grace was able to flow in abundance upon him.Augustine came to understand and preach that in order to feel that base desire of being loved, we first had to love.

St. John Chrysostom reminds us that love is primarily an open gift of oneself for the good of another.  Love, by its nature, is outward bound.  It flows from the self as pure gift.  Without the outward flow, the inward flow becomes blocked.  God's love is there long before our response, but our understanding and cognition of it is stymied until we allow ourselves to selflessly love.  This is why love is properly a virtue and not an emotion.  Virtues always seek the good of another, emotions always seek the good of oneself.  If we are to ever properly feel the love of God in its fullness, then we must love God first.

This greatly impacts the practice of faith.  No longer do I come to the Church primarily to receive but to give. I don't come to get something out of it as I come to Church to primarily come to give God my love, adoration, and thanksgiving.  Ironically, it is in giving that thanksgiving offering to God that I receive the fullness of His love, most clearly and powerfully shown through the Eucharist.  That love provokes us not just for an hour on the weekend, but throughout our lives and powerfully get gently transforms us.  It becomes the fulfillment of our desire to be loved.  It continually build upon itself, drawing us closer and closer into a satisfying relationship with God and consequently with His people.

All of this hinges, though, on our own personal decision of focus: Is my life about the search to love or be loved?  One side produces little fruit and the other produces abundant fruit.  One leaves us on a continual search never finding what we are looking for; the other leads us to fulfillment.  If we are to be loved, we must first love.  In love, we open ourselves to God and His will to totally love us.  Sacred Scripture reminds us to be still and know that God is God.  That stillness will never come, as I can attest to, with a preoccupation with self; it only comes with a willingness to love both God and our neighbor.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Musings from the Desert: What occupies my mind while on vacation

This week, I am on vacation out west.  I am currently in Zion National Park.  It is beyond beautiful.  I have been doing a fair bit of hiking, which leaves me the mental room to think and pray about things.  All the rush rush rush of parish life is put into suspended animation for me (not for my poor secretary who I am sure is ripping her hair right about now), so my mind starts to fill with ponderables. Since I still carry my disdain for TV with me, I read when relaxing.   In order to start preparing for the summer camps of 2014 (yes, those themes for the camp take months of prep work) and I know we are focusing on the theological virtue of hope, I downloaded Spe Salvi (Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical on hope) and Fr Larry Richards' new book "Surrender: The Life Changing Power of Doing God's Will.  It was a fortuitous download.  It has got me thinking about what it is we hope for.

I would assume most people who say they believe in God would say they want to go to heaven.  Two questions come to mind: 1) Why? and 2) Do they appreciate what it takes to get there.  Given that my pretty little noggin is not pre-occupied with new buildings, budgets, classes, vocation work, pastoral ministry and such at this moment in time, I have let this swirl around in my bonnet for awhile. So here we go:

Why do we want to go to heaven?  I am sure it beats the alternative.  But why do we want to go?  I guess what we picture heaven as being comes into play.  I like hiking.  I have done quite a bit of it this week.  Maybe heaven is full of incredible hiking trails with awesome vistas..I could have  all eternity to hike unencumbered by other concerns.  Maybe it is full of fishing, knitting, or whatever my favorite activity is.  Maybe it will be being surrounded by my loved ones.  Notice a trend?  It is all about me.  What I like.  What I want.  Entrance into such a realm is dependent upon whatever  terms I set.  If it is nothing more than being a 'good' person by whatever standard I set and truth be told, usually it is a low standard for myself and high standard for others.  You'll notice that I have not once brought up God.  God, in this definition of heaven is nothing more than a co-tenant of heaven...the guy in the penthouse you never see except in the elevator.  He is nothing more than someone else that happens to be there as opposed to the King of Heaven and the Lord Creator of all things visible and invisible. Here is where the party ends.

Heaven isn't a reward for not being a total tool of a human being where I get to further indulge whatever earthly desires I have.  It is what is was created to be...a place of complete union with God...a place where the relationship we wanted with God, a relationship set on His terms, comes to its ultimate existence. We become totally united with Him who created us for the specific purpose of such eternal union.  Our time here is an answer to God:  Do I wish that eternal union and am I willing to show that through my own actions, words. priorities, attitudes, and foci?  The hinge lies in our ability to respond through grace to the call to love God and love one another.  The only true response to God's love is God's utter selflessness by which we serve, we surrender, we place others first in all things.  We can either choose such love and become saints in heaven or reject such love for selfish desire and choose hell.  As Fr. Richards says in his aforementioned book ever so bluntly, "We have one of two choices: we can become saints or go to hell."  Heaven is not a virtual playground for self-indulgence.  It is not a realm where I get to dictate whatever I want and call it heaven.  What it is is so far beyond our comprehension, that our paltry flights of fancy and whimsical longings cannot come close to what it is.  But one must love God and neighbor, as the Scriptures so often remind us is we can even think that heaven be a possibility. 

So, do we appreciate what it takes to get there?  Christ tells us that the path to heaven is a winding narrow path.  It is not easy.  To use an analogy: Today I hiked a trail that rose 1250 feet in altitude from the trailhead over the course of 2 and half miles.  I am seriously overweight and have two not so good knees and a bad left ankle.  It was quite the endeavor to make it to the top.  Over and over again I said to myself (and sometimes out loud) that I will not be conquered.  I would not let the weight of years of poor decisions about my health keep me from making it to the top.  But to get there I had to use a body that I did not provide for myself.  I had to walk a path I had not created.  I didn't get to determine the steepness, widths, cutbacks, and altitude of the trail.  I had to walk the one that laid before me.  Fortunately I had a friend with me and a 2 liter water bladder and liter camelbak to give me the hydration I needed to stay on the trail. Now, the vista was worth every bit of the struggle. 

By the same token, I must follow the path to heaven as the path has been laid out.  Every step requires a death to self and an embracing of love.  I cannot let the weight of sin so weigh me down as to prevent forward motion. As I walk the path, I have to trust that the builder of that path knew what He was doing when the path was created.  He provides nourishment for me to keep making those steps through His grace and especially the grace given through the Sacraments. Why a 'good' Catholic can think for a second that heaven is within reach when they can't be bothered with the sacramental life of the Church makes about as much sense as me hiking the Angels' Landing Trail 
(yes, that was really the name of the trail) without hydration.  We have the Communion of the Saints and the Grace of God to accompany us on this journey.  We must act and believe that we will not be conquered by sin and by selfish desire.  It is not an easy journey, but again what lays at the top is so far beyond out wildest dreams. 

Heaven is not a place of perpetual self-indulgence...that would be hell...being stuck for eternity with that which even in this own life could only momentarily satisfy at the cost of being eternally separated from that which can eternally satisfy.  To have that, and hence heaven, means taking the narrow difficult path and living a resounding yes to God's love by showing that love ourselves.  That will reflect in how we treat others.That will show itself in the time and energy we give to God.  I have often said that I find it odd that those who say they want an eternity with God in heaven cannot be bothered to spend a hour with Him of Sunday (usually with some lame excuse how they don't need Church to have God...usually a divine candy machine who dutifully dumps out goodies in response to whatever requests I have) or a half hour a day doing something to use His grace to build up the relationship we are called to have with Him.  God is not a happenstance co-tenant of heaven; he won't just happen to be there to indulge your passions:  heaven is result of a relationship desired with Him.  Too often we agree with Billy Joel's loathsome lyric "I would much rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, the sinners are much more fun." It is all about me having fun...not having fun and being other centered is hellish and fun and self-indulgence are heaven.  Sorry, Mr Joel, like so many in this world it is time to drop the mirror, there, Narcissus, and get over yourself.  Heaven is where there is eternal joy and hell eternal regret.  Take the narrow winding path.  It will be worth it.

And that is the kind of stuff that I think about and pray about whilst on vacation. :)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Why We Need Miracles

Last Sunday, a horrible accident happened on Missouri Route 19, near Center Mo.  It is a stretch of road I have traveled many times.  A young lady was trapped in her car and there was great difficulty in extracting her.  She had been hit by a man who chose, allegedly, to get behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated.  As she laid pinned to her steering wheel, she asked those trying to rescue her to pray aloud with her.  I would bet this is not something they hear often.  From nowhere a priest shows up, anoints the young lady with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, assures everyone to be calm and then seemingly disappears in to the ether.  No one knows who he is.  He does not match the description of any nearby priests, all of whom would have been at Mass in their respective parishes that morning.  Was he a priest on vacation?  Was he an order priest on his way to a parish?  Who knows?  Was he an angel, as some speculate?  Who knows?  What matters is that God heard the young lady's prayers and intervened.

In reading the comments sections of the various postings of this story, there were many who wanted to rally around this as a miracle.  There were also those who scoffed at such a notion.  The anti-Catholic haters made their appearance as did the militant atheists. The objection I saw over and over again is why did this accident even take place?  If God loved this young lady so much why did he allow her to get in an accident?  The whole thing was just dumb luck in their eyes.  For many more, it is a moment of grace.  We need those.

We need them because the world is unfair and capricious.  The reason the young lady was in the accident was because a young man thought it fine to get behind the wheel of a car intoxicated.  Because of his poor use of free will, other people ended up paying a dire price.  This is nothing new.  This doesn't make this young man a special kind of evil. It just points out how the stupidity of our own actions bear directly on others.  No choice happens in a vacuum.  It is why Catholics are called to be in battle with sin; it hurts others as well as ourselves.  The victims of these events are often collateral damage of human selfishness.  This young lady also made a choice.  She chose to turn to God in her distress and ask those helping her to do so as well.  He answered.

The odds of a priest being on that road on Sunday morning are overwhelmingly small.  Yet he is there.  Most priests do keep their oils in their cars for just such an emergency.  It would not be irregular for a priest to do what this priest did.  It is part of our call.  I have had to do this myself.  It is also part of our calling to bring calm in the Lord; to settle down moments of panic.  It is refreshing to see a positive story about a priest doing what we do everyday in some form or another.  Even if it were an angelic intervention, how interesting is it that it comes in the form of a priest offering the Anointing of the Sick?  This would be something for anti-Catholic Christians to ponder.

The Christian faithful needs these miracles and moments of grace.  The world is growing more and more isolating and violent everyday.  Our news is an endless repetition of savagery, inhumanity, callousness, and greed.  Bloodshed and violence are heaped onto our plates everyday.  Fear of our government and economy grow as we watch our freedoms and resources ebb away little by little.  It instills a sense of helplessness and ultimately doubt in God's care for us.  Moments such as this event have a way of reminding us that God does care, does intervene, and does reach out to those who trust in Him.  He carries us in our troubles, agonies, and problems that are a part of this life.

The non-believer, however, has no choice but to scoff, mock, and dismiss.  As their only hope is in this world  and the short lifetime we are given here, the sense of hopelessness only sets in deeper as they see the same things we do.  They either ignore it through total self-consumption or rage against religion because it doesn't protect them from the free choice of others nor does it give them all they want, in the quantity they want, and it isolates them from any divine compassion.  They need there to be no miracles and no divine power.  If such things do exists, they know that all of their reality is built on sand and that they are blowing the one chance they  have at happiness.  This is why so many are so angry.  Life with no God is an angry and desolate place; an exercise in futility that no amount of money, power, honor, or pleasure can satiate.  It is something I want no part of. Furthermore, it is not reality.

Over the course of the priesthood I have been called to, I have seen so many things that can only be qualified as miracles, as moments of grace by which God makes know his care for me and for those around me.  They remind me not only of His goodness, but the goodness I am called to live in conjunction with others.  It is the regulator when I am ready to do something knowingly sinful, knowing that others will be hurt by my exercise of free will.  Miracles are necessary to remind us that God is watching and He does respond.  They remind us to stay on course and not let the evil we see so regularly bog us down into depression, doubt, and hopelessness.