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Posted by on Aug 28, 2022

Hard to be Humble?

Hard to be Humble?

Well over forty years ago, my husband and I liked to go square dancing once a week. We were with a club of mostly older couples, though there were a few younger ones too. The caller was an older man, rather small, with plenty of grey hair – truly ancient… As is done in square dancing, he sang the words of the song, as he inserted the instructions telling us all what to do next in the dance.

A new song at that time was It’s Hard to be Humble, by Mac Davis. We all enjoyed it as our caller sang the chorus, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ‘Cause I get better looking each day …” It went on in that vein for several lines, concluding, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, But I’m doing the best that I can!”

Humility, as exemplified in the song, is a tricky thing. There’s the false humility that has a person denying their talents and strengths, because speaking of them has brought, or might bring, charges of boasting. There’s the opposite of humility, in which people consider themselves or their talents to be so much greater than those of their peers that no one can possibly measure up to their standards. Humility does not mean denying one’s gifts and talents. Nevertheless, the fellow boasting of his humility in the song does not particularly impress his listeners as being all that humble.

Part of the challenge with humility is in the multiple meanings of the word when we use it in speaking of our relationships with God and with other humans. Sirach, a Jewish teacher of wisdom around 200 – 175 BC, wrote originally in Hebrew. When it was translated into Greek, the word for humility used is one that can include courtesy, gentleness, and consideration of the feelings of others as part of its meaning. It’s not just knowing one’s own strengths and weakness, it’s also being gentle and careful with the self-image and feelings of others.

Since humility is multifaceted, Sirach presents his insights through a series of proverbs. (Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29) He points out that those who behave with humility will be more loved than those who give a lot of gifts, but do it in a way that makes the recipients feel less worthy. It’s not necessary to seek wisdom in new ways of thinking or in philosophies from other cultures and traditions. Paying attention to the ways God reaches out through the lowly and through the wonders of nature will result in more fruitful growth in humility and wisdom. This is where the humility pleasing to God is to be found, because God is present with the poor. As the Psalmist points out, God is father of orphans, defender of widows, releaser of prisoners, and the one who provides a home for the needy and those who have been driven from their land. (Ps 68) It is with the humble of the earth that the blessings and rewards of humility will be found.

St. Luke presents Jesus speaking of humility in practical terms. (Lk 14:1, 7-14) Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee, an influential man. Everyone is watching him closely to see what he will do. He, in turn, is watching the other guests, observing their efforts to select places of honor at the table. (The table was probably U-shaped, with the places of greatest honor being on the shorter side that joined the two longer sides. The places of lowest honor were at the far ends of the long sides.) As they select their places, Jesus tells them a parable – he presents a picture of a better way to behave both as guests and as hosts.

Imagine a wedding feast to which you have been invited, he tells them. Don’t make the mistake of sitting at the head of the table or other place of honor. If someone more distinguished arrives, you will be told to move to a place of less honor at the table. Do yourself a favor – select a place at the end of the table’s long sides. Then you may be the one instructed to move closer to the wedding party, to the places of honor. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Then Jesus speaks to the host (and to the rest of us). Invite the folks who are normally ignored to celebrate with you at your banquets. They can give you nothing in return, but God will repay you on their behalf, because of the kindness you have shown, the humility of your service.

In all of this, it is God who lifts up and exalts those who act with kindness and compassion, those whose lives demonstrate humility.

The kingdom of God, according to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, will be seen in “the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a) The old law was given to Moses in a terrifying manner at Mt. Sinai – with blazing fire, darkness, storms, and the blast of trumpets. The voice that spoke was terrifying and those who heard begged for it all to stop. But the new covenant is found at Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. Angels are gathered at the festivities. So are those enrolled in heaven through baptism and those whose spirits have been made perfect through the experiences that purify their very lives. All are joined and reunited with God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, whose blood “speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (whose blood shed by his brother cried out to God from the earth).

It’s not easy to be truly humble. Fortunately, we get lots of opportunities to learn humility. As we come down off our pedestals and open our hearts to hear the stories of those around us, we grow closer to our God, who lives intimately with those at the bottom of our human societies. With quiet smiles, gentle words, patient listening, and generous hearts, we meet our God in those whom we encounter on our journey through life. May we be always open to receive God’s smile in return from those whom we serve.

Find the readings for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C.

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Posted by on Aug 21, 2022

Workouts in God’s Gym

Workouts in God’s Gym

In towns and cities around the world today, we find spaces dedicated to the development of physical strength and endurance. With so much of the labor in our contemporary society being done with minimal physical exertion, people do not develop the same degree of physical strength as the majority even of children did in the past. For example, those who manually milk cows twice a day will typically have greater hand strength than those whose task it is to attach the cow to the milking machine and let the machine do the work, to say nothing of those who pick up a jug of milk at the store on the way home from work at a desk job. Those who must grind the corn to make the tortillas for their family’s meals will typically be stronger than those who may simply open a bag of corn bread mix and stir it into muffins or who buy a bag of tortillas at the grocery store.

Both men and women go to gyms and spas to work out and/or relax. There are machines to exercise specific muscles and others to promote general fitness. Pools for swimming, hot tubs and saunas for relaxing, free weights for lifting, and stationary bicycles are all features of these locations. For those who want to go a step further, there are classes and personal trainers to guide them to a higher level of performance.

For children, there are other options to develop strength and coordination. Schools have times for playing outside. Older grade children have physical education periods or games classes. There are the after-school sports as well: swimming, soccer, football, basketball, baseball, fencing, water polo, and so forth. Those not inclined to sports may sign up for dance classes or other physical activities, including riding their bikes or skating.

We take for granted that these activities will not necessarily be easy or non-tiring, especially if there is a coach involved, who will challenge participants to move past their normal comfort level and increase their strength.

With this need for physical activity and training in mind, the words of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews take on a different sense than if they are taken at face value. (Heb 12:5-7,11-13) At face value, it sounds as if the Lord is a hard task master, quick to punish harshly: “… those whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”

Part of the challenge we face in understanding this teaching is our tendency to use the word discipline to refer to punishment. I think this is an unwise practice, though it is very widespread. People are much less likely to object to disciplining a child than to punishing the child. It’s generally the same action, but discipline sounds more positive, less harsh, so we use that term.

In this reading, the word translated as discipline is also used to mean “training,” “correction,” and “guidance.” We are the children of the Lord, sisters and brothers of Jesus, who passed through a time of tremendous trial and suffering on his return journey to the Father. We too are called to learn how to be God’s children, following the model of Jesus. The Father treats us as a loving parent would, guiding and correcting our actions, so we learn better how to make right choices and live as channels of divine love in the world. In many ways, it’s like the work of a personal trainer or coach, helping us keep going and developing increased strength at each step along the way.

Now does this mean God gets mad and punishes us, as we human parents all too often do with our own children? No. God does not punish us or strike out in anger against us. God is love. All God has to offer is love and, as a result of that, the freedom to respond in love or not. When we choose not to respond in love to the people and events we encounter, we experience the consequences of our decisions. God does not jump in and put up shields to stop the response of those we have harmed or failed to help. They are also children of God, loved equally and equally free to respond with love or not. We experience the consequences of our behavior. With any luck at all, we learn better ways to respond.

Like any parent, sometimes I think God chuckles at our insistence on doing things our own way and sometimes God cries because we have hurt others or have ourselves been hurt because of our own actions. But through it all, God is there, like a good parent, coach, or trainer, helping us to meet the challenges we face and grow stronger in love and wisdom. God encourages us to hold on and keep trying. Every time we goof up and make a mess of things, God is there to provide the strength needed to try again and again.

Does God only care about a few human beings, or only those from certain cultures or genetic lines, or religions? Once again, the answer is a resounding “NO!” Isaiah speaks again and again of the fact that the God of Israel is truly Lord of all peoples on earth. (Is 66:18-21) In symbolic language, Isaiah describes the gathering of peoples from all the known world, led by witnesses of the Lord’s glory, who proclaim that glory among the nations. Peoples from all the nations will travel to the Lord’s holy mountain, Jerusalem, as an offering to the Lord. As the Israelites carried their offerings to the temple in clean, purified vessels, the animals who carry the travelers are like purified vessels. All come as offering to the Lord and they become God’s family in all senses of the word. Some will even be selected to serve as priests and Levites (assistants to the priests in the temple), roles historically limited to direct descendants of Aaron and Levi.

The circle of those who train in God’s gym or grow as God’s children increases to include all peoples of the world.

“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” How exclusive is the Kingdom? How hard will it be to be saved? Is there hope for us? St. Luke tells us Jesus addressed this question from someone he met on the way to Jerusalem. (Lk 13:22-30) “Strive to enter through the narrow gate…” Jesus replies to the questioner. It’s not easy to be a child of God. It takes practice and persistence to learn God’s ways. Like athletes in a race, it takes conscious effort and endurance to get successfully to the end of the race. Simply calling oneself a friend of Jesus is not enough. Those who reach and enter through the narrow gate will be those who act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God (as we hear elsewhere from the prophet Micah 6:8). Those who enter will come from all the nations of the earth. Those with the least glory and honor in the eyes of the world, as measured by wealth and status, will be found in numbers among those entering through the narrow gate.

The journey to God’s kingdom is not easy. It is not limited to only a few. Indeed, all are welcome. But it is not guaranteed that all will be ready to enter the gate. There is much to learn as we go through life. Many lessons we must learn. Sometimes we learn easily. Sometimes we’re more hard-headed and it takes longer.

Today let us rejoice that God is a patient parent, a loving coach, who helps us grow to be true children of love – children whose lives are such that the life of God can pour through to others in our world. In those areas we find difficult, may we receive the grace to open our eyes and see the better way God has for us to open to love and share it. When we get discouraged, may we hear the Lord speaking to us through the voices of family, friends, and companions on the way. Then may we again take heart as we move forward step by step. When our hearts freeze and refuse to love, may we experience the gentle touch of the Lord’s hand, warming our heart so we can again embrace each other and our loving, divine parent: our God.

Welcome to God’s Gym. Enjoy your workout!

Find the readings for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C

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Posted by on Mar 2, 2022

A Clean Heart Create for Me

A Clean Heart Create for Me

The holy season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This is a time of preparation and growth. In just six and a half weeks, we’ll arrive at Easter. In the northern hemisphere, Spring is fast upon us. Here on California’s Central Coast, it is in full swing. Trees and flowers are blooming. Birds are getting ready to fly north. Butterflies bring flashes of color to the landscape. Citrus trees are heavy with ripening fruit. And while we don’t have the cold, cold weather seen in so much of the world during Winter, the longer and somewhat warmer days are awakening itchy fingers, ready to plant the warmer season flowers and vegetables. It is a time for growth and renewal.

The readings for this day speak of renewal, of God’s mercy, of recognition of our failings, and of ways to till the gardens of our hearts, making them fertile soil for receiving the gifts our Father has for each of us.

The prophet Joel (2:12-18) spoke at a time of swarms of locusts and a great drought that caused crop failure and famine in the land. This was seen as a time of loss of divine favor due to the sin of the people of Israel. But through Joel’s words, God calls the people back – to conversion through prayer and fasting. The reading concludes with the observation that the Lord took pity of his people, stirred to concern for his land.

Psalm 51 calls on God to be merciful, to wash away our offenses, cleanse us of our guilt, and put a new spirit within us. “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” The joy of salvation and a willing spirit come as gifts from God. And we pray, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Praise and thanksgiving grow in the soil of a newly renewed heart.

St. Paul, in a second letter to the people of Corinth (2 Cor 5:20-6:2), begs them to be reconciled with God, for the sake of Christ. Christ gave himself so that humans could become the “righteousness of God.” But what is God’s righteousness? God is merciful and gracious. God is slow to anger, rich in kindness, relenting in punishment. These are characteristics of God, revealed by Joel in our first reading. This is the call of the followers, the sisters and brothers of Jesus. To be images of the God who loves and forgives. Again, something that can only grow from within the heart of each person. It doesn’t really come naturally to us.

Finally, Jesus gives us very specific instructions (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18). Summed up briefly: Don’t perform righteous deeds where people can see them! Be discreet in your life of faith. Give of what you have, but do it quietly, secretly. Pray quietly, by yourself. Wash your face, wear your regular clothes. Don’t do anything to draw attention and praise to yourself for your good deeds.

Why not be open and even brazen about doing these good deeds? Shouldn’t we be good examples to others? Because God is hidden and can only really be approached through the heart. God is love. God reaches quietly out to the heart of each and every person. It is only in the garden of the heart, just as it was in the Garden of Eden, that we meet and walk freely with our God. And when we are consistently meeting and walking with our God, there will be a certain something that is attractive about us, something that draws others to walk with God themselves.

“A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”

Pope Francis has some suggestions for us this year. More challenging than giving up chocolate or TV or desserts, perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly worth considering. What fertilizer does my inner garden need? What weeds need to be removed? What flowers and fruits will grow from my heart this year.

Welcome to Lent – the season of growth and renewal as we prepare for the great mystery of redemption.

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Posted by on Jun 15, 2021

A Mustard Seed Story

A Mustard Seed Story

Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed in the gospel of Mark always brings a smile to my face.

When I was a girl, my mother always made dill pickles. She used the same recipe her mother, grandmother, sisters, and brothers used. But each family’s pickles tasted a bit different.

No one knew why that should be until one of my aunts, who was a home economics teacher, decided to experiment with the ingredients. She made pickles one day using the same batch of cucumbers and dill from the garden, and the same brine. Then she put identical amounts of all but one ingredient into the jars. Each jar had one ingredient in a larger amount than the other jars did. Several months later, when the cucumbers had matured into dill pickles, she tasted them. The key to the spiciness of her pickles in comparison with those of all the rest of the family turned out to be the amount of mustard seed she put in the jars. She used a heaping measure of the seed. Others used a level one.

The mustard seed we all use(d) for pickles is a relatively large seed. It’s far from being “the smallest of all the seeds on the earth” as is the seed described by Jesus in St. Mark’s gospel. However, these mustard seeds were the only ones I had ever seen.

When I began teaching fifth and sixth grade religious education classes, I included this parable among the ones I shared with the children. I brought some of the seeds with me to class and asked them to glue them into their books on the page on which they had written a bit of the parable and drawn a picture of a tree with birds in it. I always cautioned them not to eat any of the seeds. Invariably, one of the boys would taste one anyway. He would then need to race from the room to get a drink of water! They asked why I had given them something so spicy and I would remind them that I had told them not to taste them.

Still, I wondered about the description of these seeds as being the smallest on earth. I knew that lettuce seeds and snapdragon flower seeds were much smaller.

Then I met Paul. Paul was from India and came to live with us for a while. He introduced me to South Asian foods, including curries, chapattis, and other delights. One of the ingredients he used was mustard seed. This was a tiny brown seed, not much bigger than the period at the end of a sentence. It was not the big yellowish one we used for pickles. It gave a lovely richly spicy flavor to the food, though it was subtle when used appropriately in the recipes.

When I met this variety of mustard, I began to understand the parable of the mustard seed. A tiny little seed could indeed make a big difference in the flavor of a food. It could grow into a much larger plant as well. Birds and other animals could thrive in its shelter.

Was the mustard seed of which Jesus spoke really the same as these mustard seeds used in cooking? Maybe not. There is a plant known as a mustard tree that grows in the Middle East. It has yellow flowers and tiny seeds. It’s more of a shrub than a tree, but it can grow to be up to 20 feet tall

Whether or not the seeds we identify as mustard seeds for cooking are the same ones Jesus mentioned is really not the important thing. What matters is that very small things can grow into much larger ones and have an effect far greater than their size.

The kingdom of God is truly like the mustard seed. It appears in very small and unobtrusive ways. No one would think twice about it or about the prospect that it could be important in any way. Yet as the poor receive food, clothing, shelter, opportunities, respect, health care, and other necessities of life, as justice (the right order of things) is restored, the kingdom begins to blossom and grow. God works with tiny things to bring about great wonders. A shoot from a tree can grow into a massive new tree high upon a mountain. A tiny seed can grow to be a beautiful flower or a tall tree sheltering birds and other creatures. And the harvest of justice marks the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

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Posted by on Aug 4, 2020

What is God up to that is New?

What is God up to that is New?

By Dcn Ed Callahan

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(Matt 4:17)

As we, the people of God, attempt to navigate these strange times, we may be left with a feeling that nothing is or will be the same again. This Covid-19 event is having such far-reaching effects in our daily lives. We are wearing masks and keeping social distancing. People are suffering because their businesses are changed or closed altogether. We can’t go to the cinema or the theater; sporting events are altered or canceled. Gatherings are discouraged. Even our worship services are altered or even closed! It leaves us wondering how we are to be Church!

Metanoia

The verse in the header was mentioned in a book I’m reading by Richard Rohr. He reminds us that the word frequently translated as repent, convert, or reform is the Greek word metanoia, which quite literally means “to change your mind.” Rohr notes, “It is not a moralistic or even churchy word at all; it is a clear strategy for enlightenment for the world. Once you accept change as a central program for yourself you tend to continue growing throughout all of your life.”

Rohr teaches us that our egos make us resistant to change and self-examination – we are comfortable with our institutions and conscious assent to the ‘right beliefs’ about God and about ourselves and our ‘rightness.’ We are content with our religious group and how we worship. This is our unchanging touchstone in our life. But now we must remember that Jesus himself was all about change.

Sometimes we are loath to change our outlook. We are not open to change in ourselves or our church life. But Jesus, speaking to Nicodemus, says, “The wind 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; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

How is the wind blowing in our lives today?

Right now we should be discerning the workings of God in the world. Our question may be, What is God doing now that is new? How do I participate in God’s work? This would be more mature spiritually than stomping our foot that things are just not the same.

Each Christian has the opportunity and the duty to work with the Spirit as it seeks to transform the face of the earth. How are we living our faith? Are we doing any of the Corporal Works of Mercy? Just one person will do for each of us. Are we doing the Spiritual Works of Mercy for another person? Reaching out to one person will do.

We will get back to our worship, but when we return to our spot in the pews are we changed? Have we allowed the Spirit to change us? Have we participated, accomplishing our little part of transforming the whole world? Have we died to ourselves and set our ego aside?

God will never be diverted from his mission to Humankind. He is Love, Mercy, and Justice and against Him and his people nothing will triumph.

So, What is God up to that is new?

Image: Detail from Giovanni Guida’s 2020 painting, “God Fights the Corona Virus”

 

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Posted by on Jul 23, 2020

The Wheat and the Weeds

The Wheat and the Weeds

By Dcn Patrick Conway

Each spring my wife and I like to get a couple of bags of California wildflower seeds and plant them in our yard. It’s exciting to see the sprouts coming up out of the ground, and there’s the anticipation of wondering what kind of flowers will be revealed.

We’ve learned, however, that the seeds we’ve put in the ground aren’t the only things that will grow in our flower beds. There are other seeds in the soil, as well as some that travel by air and take root. And the precious water that we put on the seeds that we want to grow also causes the unwanted ones to grow.

The problem is, when the flowers and the weeds are coming up out of the ground, we can’t tell the difference between the two. We’re not botanists! So we have to wait until everything is full-grown before we know the difference between the flowers and the weeds. And even then we may not be able to pull up the weeds, because their roots are intertwined with the flowers’ roots. And we’ve also learned that some flowers are late bloomers. We’ll think for sure that they’re weeds until suddenly, beautiful flowers appear. Good thing we didn’t pull them up!

Jesus uses these truths from nature in his parable of the wheat and weeds to teach us essential lessons about the spiritual life, or “the kingdom of heaven” as he calls it. And since this is one of the rare times when he explains the meaning of the parable to his disciples, like he did with the parable of the sower and the seed, we need to pay close attention to his explanation.

Jesus tells us that there are good people and evil people in the world. The good people are the ones who allow the good seed of God’s word to grow in them and to bear the flowers and fruit of loving and compassionate actions. The evil people are the ones who allow the bad seed of the devil, lies and suggestions to do evil, to grow in them and bear the thorns and poisonous fruits of destruction and death.

That is Jesus’s explanation of why and how there are good people and evil people in the world, a simple and straightforward statement. And since it comes directly from Jesus, we have to take it as truth, because he never lies to us.

Just one problem …

The problem is that historically as well as today, when Christians hear this, we often, if not usually, use it to justify our attacks on those whom we believe to be evil. It’s quite an ugly history, and sometimes it has taken the form of imprisonment, torture, and death, other times verbal condemnation and ostracization.

Anthropologists and others have studied this phenomenon, which some call the “scape-goating” mechanism in societies, in which the so-called righteous ones project their own inner evil on some group who are different and not as powerful, and they say, “These people are the problem! Let’s get rid of them! They’re all bad.”

We’ve seen that tragic story play out time and time again in various places around the world, including in our own country today, and always with destructive and deadly results.

And the irony of this is that the so-called righteous ones end up being the real evil ones, because they are not nurturing the seeds of God which cause us to bear the fruit of love for all people. Instead they nurture the divisive, destructive, and deadly seeds of the devil. Jesus comments on this in chapter 7 of Matthew’s gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’” He’s talking to those who call him “Lord,” in other words, Christians. We always think that we’re the good people, but Jesus tells us that when we act like that, we are in fact the evil ones.

Our self-righteous Christian crusades against the so-called evil ones, whether they be military crusades or crusades of moral indignation, always end up making the world a worse place, not a better one.

And this always happen when we don’t listen to the commandment that is in the parable. We hear the explanation that there are good people and evil people in the world, but we miss the central commandment. And the commandment from Jesus is: “Don’t go around trying to attack and eliminate all those whom you believe to be the evil people in the world. You’ll end up destroying everyone, and you’ll end up being the evil people yourselves. I have a plan for getting rid of evil people, and my way is through love and conversion. For I desire not the death of the sinner, but that he live in my love and mercy forever.”

The commandment to us is simply to leave judgment and condemnation to God. We’re not competent in this area, in case you haven’t noticed. We’re not spiritual botanists who can tell a good plant from a weed. And you never know when a weed is going to turn out to be a beautiful flower.

And besides, the truth is that we ourselves have both wheat and weeds growing in the garden of our soul. If we are honest and humble, the Holy Spirit reveals to us both our goodness that God has planted in us, but also our sinfulness, planted by the enemy of our souls.

So what are we to do?

This is our work, the work of tending our own inner gardens, directed by the Holy Spirit, who gives us the courage and grace to change the things about ourselves that we can change, the humble peace that surpasses all understanding as we live with our faults and weaknesses, and the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we just have to put up with – in ourselves.

This is essential if we are to be true followers of Jesus and children of God – that we learn to love sinners, because that’s what Jesus does, that’s what God does – and the main sinner that we have to learn to love is ourselves.

One saint put it this way: We should be very patient and humble in putting up with the faults of others. After all, they have to put up with us.

If we don’t learn to love the sinner who is us, then we will never learn to love the sinners who are around us, which means that we will never learn to love anyone, because everyone is a sinner. And we will continue to think that we’re better than everyone else and to persecute those whom we believe to be the evil ones. Then we end up being the evil ones ourselves.

Let’s not do that. Let us follow the path of true Christianity and ask the Holy Spirit to show us ourselves as God sees us, “a mixture strange of good and ill” as the hymn says, to be merciful and patient with the sinner that we are, and to be merciful and patient with everyone else.

The great Saint Teresa of Avila, whom the Church calls a doctor of the soul, says this: “If we can endure with patience the suffering of being displeasing to ourselves, we will indeed be a pleasing place of refuge to our Lord.”

As we receive him in Holy and Loving Communion, may he and all sinners find in our humble hearts a pleasing place of refuge.

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Posted by on Jan 13, 2019

Success or Significance?

Success or Significance?

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the Christmas season.  Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan signaled the formal beginning of His mission.

For today’s gospel scene we see the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in visible form.  For the evangelist Luke, contrary to the three other evangelists, the baptism of Jesus is not important in itself, for he does not even describe it.  He is more concerned with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus.  And after this initial scene, Luke will be at pains to mention the Holy Spirit as often as possible in connection with the ministry of Jesus.  Seventeen times in his gospel he will mention the Holy Spirit in connection with Jesus.  This is Luke’s way of telling us that Jesus was inspired (inspirited) in all his actions, empowered with his heavenly Father’s energy, enabled always to act as a beloved Son fulfilling a beloved Father’s wishes. And so, it is not a mere coincidence that, with the appearance of the Holy Spirit in this baptism scene, the son-ship of Jesus is emphasized, “You are my beloved Son.”  Essentially, Jesus is a Son in his innermost being.  And the Holy Spirit is the burning fire of love which unites him to his heavenly Father.  For him to receive the spirit is to experience his son-ship at a new depth.  It is the Holy Spirit that leads Jesus to accomplish his mission and made the Father say, “with you I am well pleased.”

I remember two years ago, I was on a vacation back home in the Philippines.  After celebrating Mass at my home parish, one of my friends from high school came up to me for a small chat.  He grew up in a poor family but worked his way to success with sheer talent and perseverance.  He is a self-made man.  He heads four businesses today that are making good money.  “There’s nothing more I can ask for, Father. God is good.  He has given me everything that I need and more,” he shared with me.  But after a short pause he added, “except that I never knew if my father was proud of what I have accomplished.”  His relationship with his father has been strained since after college.  After that conversation, it hit me.  The human heart is not made for success.  It is made for significance.

Success is a matter of doing.  Significance is a matter of being.  And since we are not human doings but human beings, it makes sense that our heart yearns for something more than just success.  It yearns for significance — the significance of meaningful relationships, mission, and yes, affirmation.  Success does not always lead to significance, but significance always leads to a deep sense of success.  Like the voice from the heavens that affirmed Jesus in His baptism, every human heart longs to hear the words, “in you I am well pleased.”

Isn’t it a wonder that, according to studies, almost eighty percent of substance abusers are successful people, and almost fifty-five percent of these successful people end up committing suicide?  Without meaning to pass judgment, could it be that significance was missing on top of their successes?

The Baptism of the Lord reminds us not only about Jesus’ mission, but our very own mission to make a difference, to be a significance in the lives of others by showing them what really matters in our Christian lives.  So that like Jesus, the Father would say to all of us, “In you I am well pleased.”

Fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Scrovegni Chapel – 1303

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Posted by on Jun 14, 2018

More on the Examen

More on the Examen

Ignatian Spirituality.com offers more information about the Examen.

“The Daily Examen is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.”

Prayer of the Examen is characteristic of Ignatian spirituality and is included in the Spiritual Exercises. Members of the Society of Jesus pray this prayer at least twice daily, at noon and at the end of the day.

Steps in praying the Examen include:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.

 

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Posted by on Jun 14, 2018

Fun Resources for Learning Serious Psychology

Fun Resources for Learning Serious Psychology

 

Disney Pixar and Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Development

Discerning God’s Will – God’s dream for us requires an in-depth knowledge of how people grow and develop. In particular, if we are going to understand ourselves, which is our first step in responding to God’s grace, we need to know where we are in our development. We also need to see what went right and what went wrong in our own growth and development.

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith Formation

Our faith also has stages of development based on our human development. Many adults can reject their faith because they don’t realize that their faith formation is still that of a small child. On the other hand, there are many people who are religious churchgoers that are still clinging to a childhood faith for a variety of reasons that are not healthy.

 

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Posted by on Jun 14, 2018

Resolving to do Better – Looking Forward – Examen: Fifth Point

Resolving to do Better – Looking Forward – Examen: Fifth Point

This seems like the easy part. I simply tell myself that I will do better next time. That’s okay as far as it goes, but how will I change? How can I change?

It’s all about hope.

Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ is known to Los Angeles gang members as “Father G” or simply “G”.  Fr. Boyle sees all their problems as arising from a “lethal absence of hope”. His response is to provide them with hope and jobs in Homeboy Industries. Terry Gross’s NPR interview with Fr. Boyle tells the story of how empathy renews and restores hope.

In his most recent book Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, Fr. Boyle tells the story of what miracles empathy can work since it confers hope.

 

In God’s Presence, Conquering Addiction through Dance is the title of Elizabeth Delancy’s dissertation. It is a study of how black women have surmounted addiction by moving in God’s presence. Although, it is a little technical, it documents how this works. Resolving to do better is the key dynamic of reconciliation. It is the celebration of a brighter future. It is the combination of hope and optimism.

Hope conveys a certain practicality of steps that can be taken to move forward through crisis. Optimism is more expressive of a personality style. It expresses itself in positive emotions and actions. Hope and optimism are key foundations for our internal dialog, the messages we consciously hear and repeat within ourselves.  Sacramentality in dance, movement, writing, gesturing, and conversing is fundamental to the reunion of friends, the healing of relationships, and our life in God.

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Posted by on Jun 13, 2018

Asking for Pardon / Getting Rid of Shame – Examen: Fourth Point

Asking for Pardon / Getting Rid of Shame – Examen: Fourth Point

According to Brené Brown

Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.

One of the key challenges in even looking at our behavior and our relationships is not guilt, but shame. Our thoughts and feelings can run off the rails and we think, “I did something bad. That means that I am bad.” Guilt becomes confused with shame. That’s why shame is such a big part of addiction, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and bullying. According to Brene Brown, shame for women is, “Do it all. Do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat.” For men, shame is, “Do not be perceived of as weak.”

Shaming is something we see often with pets. When a dog misbehaves we are tempted to say, “Bad dog!” We don’t say,” You chewed my slipper. You did something wrong, but you are a good dog.”  However, that can be very confusing and threatening for the dog. According to animal behavior specialists, it is much clearer if we say, “No chew!” when the dog is chewing a slipper. “Good dog” should be an ongoing message that is conveyed by the way we handle the dog.

Invalidating or shaming others is a fundamentally evil act, since it contravenes God’s view of us and all creation as fundamentally good. For someone to take on the view that they are bad is to identify with evil, to identify with non-being. Some people can reject the notion that they are bad but respond by defining the people who are shaming them as fundamentally bad. Through this fundamental rejection of a person, we make them something completely apart from us. They are the other. This unfortunate behavior in ourselves and other primates makes it possible for us to destroy members of our own species and even our own families. David Eagleman explains in an episode of The Brain how genocide occurs when we turn off our empathy.

Asking for God’s pardon is an acknowledgement that we have not lived up to what we actually are. Yes, we have done something wrong, and we feel bad about what we have done, but we know that we are loved and good because God sees all that he has made and says that it is good.

The important thing in this step is not to get overwhelmed. Pick one area that you would like to work on in consultation with your spiritual director and reflect on it over time – or not.

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Posted by on Jun 13, 2018

Asking for Clarity about my Sins and Feelings – Examen: Third Point

Asking for Clarity about my Sins and Feelings – Examen: Third Point

Pia Mellody, in her post on “Honesty and Accountability in Relationships,” underscores the core dynamic of human relationships that is also the core dynamic for our relationship with God.

If I am honest and accountable, I will keep my word and commitments, accepting responsibility for my behavior without trying to justify it based on another’s behavior. It is, of course, appropriate to confront the other’s behavior and to own our feelings about that behavior. It is very different to say, “When I witnessed this behavior, I had this feeling,” than to say, “Your behavior caused me to feel this or caused me to behave in this manner.” Inappropriate behavior is inappropriate. If my boundary system and self-discipline are so poor that I rage, demean, call names, etc., it is my responsibility to protect you from me. My emotional reaction to you or to a situation does not lessen my responsibility to be appropriate. Blaming and whining are close relatives. It is manipulation if I try to affect the outcome by blaming others or by trying to evoke pity so that I am not held accountable and consequences disappear.

Mellody provides a good check list for personal integrity and healthy relationships. Very often it is easy to look at various “failings.” I was rude. I was impatient. I had too many doughnuts. Yet, what is it that gets in the way of my being the person God made me to be? What keeps me from being whole, happy, and healthy?

Most of the time we focus on our individual actions or failures to act. However, the question is really about the nature of my relationship with myself, others, and God. A few of us can behave “perfectly” in terms of our manners and speech. But what is in our hearts?

Sometimes we focus on the notion of sacrificing our self for others. After all, didn’t Jesus do that? Aren’t we supposed to do that?  As the Divine Word Made Flesh, Jesus has his being in the healthiest of all relationships – pure relation. Jesus gives of himself by having compassion and empathy and serving others because of their own inherent dignity. He set limits and boundaries. Jesus took time for Himself. Jesus did not try to impress or control others. He was at peace within Himself and had close friends.

If we look carefully, we find that our unhappiness has to do with our relationships. Some types of dysfunctional relationships are called codependence. Mellody describes five symptoms of codepedence. They are signs of these unhealthy ways of relating to other people that keep us from realizing God’s Dream for Us.  These types of dysfunction can be very minor in ourselves and our relationships. However, most of our problems in life are all about relationship.

 

Wait a minute! Shouldn’t I be examining my conscience keeping the Ten Commandments and the Laws of the Church? That’s the big difference between going through a checklist of failings and offenses and understanding how I hang onto sin and misery that are the causes of these “listed” sins. I can focus on bad acts or good things left undone. The only problem with that approach is that I am not working on a healthy relationship with God and people in my life.

If we don’t pay attention to the health of our relationship with God and with others, we can become bitter, resentful, holier-than-thou, or worse. We can become self-satisfied and cut ourselves off from love and happiness. This is what Hell is. In the fire of our pain and hurt which we keep receiving and inflicting, all kinds of problems and addictions are rooted. Tragically, we often do this to our children and perpetuate the cycle. How holy, and righteous am I if I observe all the details of the religious law outwardly but all of my relationships are suffering, and I am cold and alone in my self-satisfaction? I am rejecting Christ.

St. Ignatius talks about temptation in the “guise of good.” In other words, people who are living fairly good lives can be tempted to do things that look good. St. Ignatius always advised moderation and encouraged people to take a closer look at their motivations and the effect of their outcomes. It may look like we are doing something good for someone, but are we really? Dysfunctional behavior can be motivated by the best of conscious intentions, but something else can be at work.

In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Shawn M. Burn lists six signs of dysfunctional or codependent behavior:

  1. Have an excessive and unhealthy tendency to rescue and take responsibility for other people.
  2. Derive a sense of purpose and boost your self-esteem through extreme self-sacrifice to satisfy the needs of others.
  3. Choose to enter and stay in lengthy high-cost caregiving and rescuing relationships, despite the costs to you or others.
  4. Regularly try to engineer the change of troubled, addicted, or under-functioning people whose problems are far bigger than your abilities to fix them.
  5. Seem to attract low-functioning people looking for someone to take care of them so they can avoid adult responsibility or consequences or attract people in perpetual crisis unwilling to change their lives.
  6. Have a pattern of engaging in well-intentioned but ultimately unproductive, unhealthy helping behaviors, such as enabling. (This means helping people by making it easier or possible for them to engage in harmful behaviors such as helping an alcoholic get liquor.)
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Posted by on Jun 13, 2018

Be Grateful – Examen, Second Point

Be Grateful – Examen, Second Point

Being grateful and spreading the message is the 12th step of recovery. If we look at recovery from addiction in its many forms – drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or work – it seems like starting with gratitude is starting at the end and not the beginning. To the extent that the 12 steps are an ongoing process jumping on the recovery wheel at Step 12 not only represents a transformation but also occasions a deeper one. Gratitude connects us with God directly because we can see beyond the world of “want and need” to the riches around us and in our souls. You can’t be grateful without feeling good to some degree about yourself and your sobriety.

Gratitude is the acceptance and return of love’s expression as complete self-giving. Hip Hop is often a style of dancing that can be foreign and off-putting for older generations and yet it is the common world language of youth culture today. “Clean Love” speaks to the dynamic of Love / Gratitude and Gratitude / Love.

It is easy in some ways, to think of the Examen as something for people who already have things figured out. We can think that the Examen is for people without any problems. They always make good choices and it is merely a question of discerning a better choice. Once we have really entered the presence of God, there can only be gratitude. If there isn’t, there is something between us and God. Clearly, that is why the regular sequence of the 12 steps is necessary. For St. Ignatius Loyola, the key problem or sin is ingratitude toward God. “Godspell” the 70’s musical reflects a take on Love / Gratitude and Gratitude / Love that reflects a divine naivete and fearless authenticity.

Since gratitude is a positive socio-emotional-physical experience, it can heal those deep wounds and injuries from early in our lives that pain us into various methods of non-feeling expressed in addiction. It is important to be grateful for ourselves and our talents. Having appropriate self-esteem is to acknowledge that God gave us certain gifts and talents. This is acknowledging the truth and it can help us to affirm other people in their gifts and talents.

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Posted by on Jun 11, 2018

Finding God’s Dream for Us

Finding God’s Dream for Us

The expanded treatment of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Examen that follows is meant to show the richness of this format of prayer for incorporating spiritual / psychological learning and insights for closer union with God through a genuine repentance of our sins and freedom from shame, so that we can “praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord.” For St. Ignatius, that is what life is all about: life to the full for the Glory of God.

Given our linear style of thinking in the West, it can be easy to look at the Examen of St. Ignatius as a set of check boxes. However, it is an ongoing dynamic spiral that moves us closer to perfect freedom and love or moves us away into the realm of shame and darkness.

God has a dream for each of us. As we journey through each day of our lives, we move towards or away from that dream. We move freely into  God’s life and dream for us or we move away from God

How can we move freely and fully into God’s life every day? How do we know if we are on track or headed in the right direction? Once again Jesus has shown us the way and even explicitly told us to pray and to listen attentively with our heart, soul, and mind. Becoming aware of God’s activity in our lives, intuitively and consciously, is the act of theological reflection. According to Donald D. St. Louis, the Examen of St. Ignatius Loyola can be a method for theological reflection on one’s ministry. It can also be a method of reflection on one’s daily life that can help us focus on the Way of Jesus, the path of our calling that is God’s Dream for Us.

St. Ignatius shows the way in the five points of the Examen.

The Examen can take on many forms while following this general pattern.  Theologian Susan Mahan presents her own adaptation in Seeking God – Decision Making and the Ignatian Examen.

“Taking time each day to practice centering in God for the direction of our day and our lives is necessary. There are many ways to do this: journaling, walking a labyrinth, and having a spiritual counseling session are ways to think and pray through where I am in my life, where I feel drawn, and what God sees in me that I might benefit from.  Another way to have an experience of being counseled by God is the Ignatian Examen.

Very briefly, sit quietly and think of or imagine things you are truly grateful for. They can be big or small: Clean sheets, good food, your dog, ways you have been loved, accomplishments, a family member or friend, your house or job etc.  Tell God what you are grateful for. See, if God has given you things you are grateful for: a rescue in life, money you needed, safety, a trip you took.  Then think of the things in yourself or your life which you have chosen that have harmed you, undermined your wellbeing, or side-tracked you.  These can also be big or small: being resentful, feeling superior, or not being willing to do something new that you need to do. Ask God to help you with these fears or hurts that have held you away from Him. Lastly, ask God how you can spend the next part of your day or life doing what is best.  You will get answers. You can surrender to what is best and see how much more peace-filled you are. I do this every day, sometimes more than once. I act on what I hear, and I am much more at peace”

The core of the Examen is discernment, which is all about growing in awareness and freedom. Susan Mahan provides a succinct over-view into the spiritual psychology of discernment.

The desire to be closer to God requires letting God tell me what would please him.  That sounds very old fashioned and odd.  But, there’s no way around it.  Knowing God is knowing what is best — best for me and best for the world.  I cannot eat sugar and refined carbohydrates and feel good.  I just can’t.  I love that stuff!!  Knowing God and growing in holiness means that I would like to know which actions in my life would help me to be happy.  Discernment is the skill with which I can learn to evaluate what is the best choice at any juncture in my road every day, all day long.  There are certain feelings and thoughts that characterize good decisions and others which characterize poor decisions.

The End is the Beginning

Certainly, St. Ignatius never intended for the Examen to be a long exercise – perhaps 10 or 15 minutes. It was part of his view of being a contemplative in action. We see and experience God all around us every day in everything. The Examen, in my view, was meant to reinforce a fundamental behavior and mindset that action for the Kingdom of Heaven is contemplation. Clearly, prayer and contemplation are prominent in the Spiritual Exercises.

As we move through our daily lives, the Examen offers a quick opportunity to check our direction through the day’s activities. It should not take a long time. It is simply a tool, like a road map, to help us stay on the road, on the Way of Jesus to God’s dream for us.

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Posted by on Jun 11, 2018

Psychology, Spirituality, and the Glory of God

Psychology, Spirituality, and the Glory of God

Spirituality

Spirituality is often seen as something separated from the everyday. It is something for the life beyond according to many. Holiness is sometimes seen as something not related to the physical. It is above the emotions and promises a respite from the messiness of daily life. From the earliest years of Christianity, we have a very different view.

We enter the mystery of God by following the grace and example of Jesus. In one of the earliest songs we have from the Christian community to whom St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, the way of Jesus is complete self-giving in freedom.

Although He existed in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:6-8)

St Irenaeus writes around the year 185 that the human person fully alive is the glory of God. As we grow and develop in our new life in Christ, we become like unto God through the mystery of God’s death and resurrection. We become “divine-ized” or more properly “divinized.” Like Jesus, we become truly human and truly divine in the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. The divinity of Christ raises humanity to its highest manifestation in the Word Made Flesh.

Many times, there can be an apparent tension between “human fulfillment” and complete self-giving in freedom. There can be the mistaken notion that we are supposed to be miserable in this world and happy in the next. The more we “deny” ourselves, the holier we become. St. Irenaeus and the early followers of Jesus saw it differently. Our complete human integration in happiness is God’s dream for us. This doesn’t mean that life is without striving, suffering, and confusion. It does mean that being true to the person God intended us to be from all eternity is our purpose. Being “real” or authentic, being the person that we really are at our core, can cause serious problems if we deny it. On the other hand, being true to our calling, to be who we are, can cause serious problems as it did for Jesus.

There are also the negative forces of people not following God’s love and inflicting their pain and hurt on newborns and small children. Despite their best intentions, their hurts and wounds, whether they are parents, grandparents, or caregivers, “infect” the most vulnerable little ones and even strong adults. This is what we call original sin. It helps us to explain or come to terms with a world that is messed up, relationships that are toxic, and why things seem to never work out.

Our baptism is God’s way of pulling us out of this mess through His death and resurrection and placing us squarely in the triune God, that is, the relation of love itself. The Three Persons welcome us to their eternal dance of the Speaker / Creator, the Word / Redeemer, and the Spirit of Infinite, Unconditional Love – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are blessed and anointed in Confirmation in the Trinity and enter into that ever-present joy of Thanksgiving called the Eucharist when we attend Mass and share in the banquet that celebrates and renews all creation.

Psychology

So, what has psychology got to do with it? All we need to do is to believe, obey the commandments, and say our prayers. Right? Shrinks are for people who are sick and messed up. I don’t need a padded cell! Then again, maybe each of us has built our own custom padded cell to keep away the hurt and pain we suffer.

St Augustine in his study

Often we think of psychology as something secular. Actually, the study of the soul, psychology is a key part of western philosophy from Greek times to the present. St. Augustine (354 – 430) is considered to be one of the great psychologists of the west. His autobiography, The Confessions shows a depth of insight into the conflicts within his own personality. St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) was also known for his spiritual psychology as seen in his Spiritual Exercises. Freud and other 20th century secular psychologists talked about the way we use religion, saying that it is an illusion. Carl Jung and Erick Erickson took psychology in a more spiritual direction. Catholic philosophers and theologians in the 20th century, such as Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner, used many of these insights to give us a deeper insight into the study of the soul. There is an entire area of study in Catholic and secular philosophy that focuses on how we perceive things.

Common Ground

Contemporary psychology – both secular and spiritual – provides a framework for pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. These powerful tools can bring physical and mental wellness through profound spiritual insights and healing: “the glory of God is man fully alive.”

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