Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, July 24

Last weekend I preached on the Holy Spirit and prayer, working off of the second reading from St. Paul to the Romans (The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. 8:26)

I don’t think we speak enough about, or pay enough attention to, the Holy Spirit. Of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, undoubtedly the Holy Spirit is the one that most Catholics find the most distant and remote. Part of the problem is the depiction of the Holy Spirit as a dove while the Father and Son are pictured as humans. It is easier to relate to a person than to a pigeon.

Charismatics (people filled with the Spirit who pray in glossilalia, or the gift of tongues) are of course an exception to this as they are intimately acquainted with the Holy Spirit. One of my more irreverent priest friends was fond of describing charismatics as having “swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all.”
Nonetheless, the Holy Spirit, which should be more intimate to us than our own breath, praying and indeed groaning inside us, for most Catholics is the most bewildering and distant of the Trinitarian Persons.
The great Dutch theologian, Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, proposed the theory that in the Western Church (i.e. the Latin part of the old Roman empire, not Texas), much of the role and function of the Holy Spirit was appropriated by the theological image of the Blessed Virgin/Mother Mary. Instead of the Holy Spirit as the principle of prayer, interceding for us with inexpressible groaning (Romans 8:26), Mary (in popular devotion and even theology) became the principal mediator between us and Jesus/God, and the Mediatrix of all Graces. In popular Catholic thought Mary, and not the Holy Spirit, was THE conduit to God. There was not much left for the Holy Spirit to do, having been pushed aside (theologically speaking) by God’s Mother.
I saw a wonderful pictorial description of this in a medieval church in the town of Beaune, in Burgundy, France. It was a stained-glass window depicting the Holy Trinity, the Father on the right (as you view it), the Son on the left and in between them the Blessed Mother, Mary, being crowned by the Father.  This did not strike me as theologically kosher (if I may import a Jewish term), and on studying the window further, way up at the top, in the little pointed area of the window, hard to see, there was the white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Spatially and pictorially it reflected the lack of importance and relevance, and literally “pushed to the margins” status that the Holy Spirit had sunk to in the popular theological mind. If you go online and look at medieval depictions of the Holy Trinity you will find the same diminution of the Holy Spirit.
This kind of exclusive or even excessive emphasis on the intercessory role of the Virgin Mary was corrected in the Vatican II document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, that placed Mary, not in a separate document of the Council as originally planned, but as a chapter within the document on the Church, in her rightful place as part of the Church. Since Vatican Council II, greater theological attention has been paid to the role of the Holy Spirit. You could say that the Holy Spirit is now back in theological fashion.

For Paulists, following the great devotion that our founder, Servant of God Isaac Thomas Hecker had for the indwelling Holy Spirit, we have always given special emphasis to the working of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in our own individual lives. It is nice to see the Church as a whole catching up with us. 

God bless!

Homily, July 24, 2011 Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the Spring of 14 A.D. Simeon was out plowing.  This was not unusual, since Simeon was a plowman.  That is how he made his living, if you could call it a living, working all day in the sun and rain at monotonous, back-breaking toil, his only companion an ox, and this for just enough money to live on!   And all the while the absentee landlord, a Sadducee, lives in luxury in Jerusalem, thanks to Simeon's sweat and aching muscles.
As usual Simeon was brooding on how unfair life is, on what a rotten deal he got, on how much he despised the rich, when his plow struck something.   "Oh no!  not another rock!" spit Simeon, and he uttered epithets and curses I cannot here repeat.
However, on investigation Simeon discovered it was not a rock, but a chest. Simeon opened the chest to find it full of treasure!  Roman coins and gold and jewels!  What luck!  In Palestine, with lots of wars, invasions, unrest, and no banks, things got buried for safe-keeping.  So this was Simeon's day!
Simeon buried the treasure again.  The treasure legally belonged to whoever owned the field.  Simeon has to buy the field and the treasure is his!  But where will he get the cash?  His credit cards are maxed out.  Junk bonds have not yet been invented.  He will have to sell what he has to raise the money. 
So Simeon has a yard sale.   He sells some useless items, clothes that don't fit,  unwanted gifts he received from aunts.
But he soon realizes this is not going to raise the sort of cash he needs.  He will have to sell his ox and his plow.  But Simeon is hesitant to do this because this is his livelihood!  Of course, when he is rich he won’t have to work, but....  He will also have to sell his house; but where will he live?  Of course, he can buy a new one, but,  ¿what if the treasure is fake, what if someone steals it from him?  Can he part with his car, his flat screen TV, his computer, his smart-phone?  It is difficult.  Simeon knows he needs to sell everything if he wants that field and the treasure, but it is hard for him to do; scary to take that giant risk, to let go.   So he thinks about it.
Meanwhile, the owner of the field wants to get it plowed, so he goes out and hires the man in today's Gospel to finish the job.  This man also finds the treasure, and he too  hides it again.  
Unlike Simeon, this man does not hesitate.  He sells EVERYTHING.  And the Gospel tells us, he does it out of joy!  No holding back!   His house, his furniture, his clothes, family heirlooms, things of sentimental value, his ring, his e-reader, his X-box, is I-pad,  ALL HE HAD; everything goes.  Finally he has enough to buy the field, and he buys it.  The treasure is his.  He is fabulously rich. 
And Simeon keeps plowing for the rest of his life.

Scripture scholars tell us that the point of the parables we hear in the Gospel today is not so much that the Kingdom of God is like the treasure or like the really valuable pearl - not the object - but rather the action: God's reign, God's rule in our life is like the case of a man who finds a treasure in a field and sells everything to get it; or like the case of a merchant who finds a really valuable pearl, sells everything he has, and gets it.
This, says Jesus, is what God's reign is like.  It is a risk everything, go for broke, all-or-nothing kind of affair.  God's rule in our life is NOT a warm, fuzzy, comfortable, safe, measured and reasonable kind of thing; but rather a gutsy, risky, passionate, bungee-jumping, roller-coaster ride.
The reign of God is like the case of an investor who learns of a new technological break-through.  He sells everything - stocks, bonds, cashes in his CD's, empties his retirement account, cashes in his life insurance, and puts everything into netwidget, the newest hot technology item.  And makes a fortune.  It is a gutsy move.
God's reign is not safe.  It is not prudent.  It is not cautious.  God's reign is a risky, passionate, total investment.  God is a jealous god, who never settles for half-hearted measures and partial compromises.  God loves us with wild, passionate abandon.  God loves us so much he gave us His all, His own Beloved Son, holding nothing back.  That is what the reign of God is like, and that is the kind of response God calls us to.  God does not want only our worship, or our sacrifices, or our obedience.  God yearns for our very selves: our hearts, minds and souls. 
In the first reading we hear Solomon asking for wisdom.  True wisdom, God's wisdom, does not mean always playing it safe.  True wisdom is knowing how to risk everything on the treasure, on the really valuable pearl, on God's will in my life. 
Simeon was a fool, because he did not know how to risk lesser things on what was really most valuable. 
We are called to risk in relationship - going beyond isolation to community with others and union with God.  We are called to risk on vocation - following God's will for my life in service to others, wherever that may lead.  And we are called to risk on living - as children of God in a world of violence and despair and fear that does not know God.
The reign of God is not for sissies or the faint-hearted.  The reign of God is a risk.  The Kingdom of God demands a TOTAL, RADICAL RESPONSE, risking all we have and all that we are.            But it is worth it.  Buy the field.        AMEN.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Homily, July 17, 2011 Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today let us talk about prayer.   Here is one thing we can agree on: very few of us are satisfied with our prayer life.  If you are totally satisfied with the quality and the quantity of your prayer, then I apologize because this homily has nothing for you.  However, most of us, when it comes to communication with the Divine, feel inept, bumbling, woefully inadequate, and those are the ones who are trying to pray! 
            For many prayer consists of a list of petitions and requests, (Please heal aunt Eulalie, help cousin Tim find a job, please end the drought, etc, etc.) and occasionally some bargaining:  “I promise I will stop punching my sister if you help me past this test” kind of thing.  But we know instinctively that this sort of shopping list approach to prayer is inadequate, because it leaves us unsatisfied.  Imagine how God must feel about it.
            There are some people that are gifted with a great ability to pray, who have a facility at communicating with God, who are open and free and wonderfully conversant with God.  There is a story about an old man – a rather poor and uneducated man - who spent many hours in church talking with God.  And the pastor would see him sitting there after Mass, slightly moving his lips, apparently in serene contemplation.  And it intrigued the pastor how someone so uneducated and so unsophisticated could be so deeply in communication with God.  Finally, after a long while, the priest approached the man and said, “Excuse me, but I often see you sitting here praying.  What is it you say to God in all this time?”  And the old man explained, “Well, I say to God that I am a poor man, uneducated and simple, that I don’t know how to make the words of a beautiful prayer.  So I tell God, I will give you the letters and You form the words, and then I say A, B, C, D, …” 
            Most of us stumble and bumble when we attempt to pray.  But the Good News today is that we have help.  St. Paul, in our second reading today to the Romans, tells us: “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;  for we do not know how to pray as we ought,”  Even St. Paul, it seems, needed help in his prayer.  But we have that help in the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Now the Holy Spirit is the love that is breathed, or “spirated” (as in respiration) between the Father and the Son.  So this Love that binds and unites the Father and the Son together in the Trinity has been poured out in our hearts so that we too may enter into the intimacy of that Trinitarian relationship. 
             Inadequate as we are to love and to pray as God does, we are assisted by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 
            St. Paul tells us:  “the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings ….”  The NRSV renders this more felicitously as “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  This language is evocative of a very deep, very intimate, communication.  This is a union with God that fills every part of our being, that unites us in every part with the fullness of Life.  It is, of course, what we all long for, it is the super-abundant satisfaction of all our longings and desires.  That is the goal of prayer: union with God.
            The Holy Spirit is our teacher and guide and help in prayer.  What we need to do is get out of the way of the Holy Spirit at work in us.  What gets in the way is our ego, fear, laziness, and sin.  We want to pray for what we want, not what the Spirit within us wants to pray for.  We may want to pray for a pay raise, or to win the Lottery, but the Spirit within us wants to pray that we be more generous in sharing the resources we already have with the poor.  Or we may want to pray for a calm and easy life, free of troubles and conflicts, when the Spirit within wants to pray for courage to speak the Truth, especially when it is difficult and costly to do so.  So we need to get ourselves out of the way. 
            St. Paul says:  And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because he (the Holy Spirit) intercedes for the holy ones (that’s us!) according to God’s will.”  According to God’s will, not according to mine.  There is the rub.
            God wants to be in communication with you.  God has gifted you with the Holy Spirit so that you can truly - and even freely - do that.  In “sighs too deep for words” the Holy Spirit groans within you calling out to God. 
            Trust the gift of the Holy Spirit within you.   Listen.  And if you don’t know what else to say, say “A, B, C, D …”    God bless.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, July 17

Recently in my travels I picked up and read an old classic (from 1957) The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade. In this book the author looks at the world outlook and basic mindset of religious man as compared to modern, “secular” man. Eliade describes the function and logic of sacred space and sacred time. I found it interesting.

We, of course, are BOTH religious and modern, so in some sense we inhabit both worlds. We go back and forth with amazing agility.

My understanding of sacred space is that all space is sacred.  All space comes from the hand of God and God is present in all of space. There is nowhere that you can go where God is not.  Anne Lammot, an author I enjoy, has a funny and touching chapter in her book Travelling Mercies about finding God in the ladies room. All space is charged with the presence of God.
So why do we think of some spaces, churches for example, as sacred in a way that the grocery store or the parking lot are not? It is not because God is more present in the church than outside it, but that we humans find it harder to see, hear and sense God’s presence there. Being busy humans we forget that all space is sacred. In Church the high ceilings, the colored windows, the statues of saints, the candles, the smell of incense and the crucifix remind us this space is sacred; not (I would argue) to distinguish it from all other spaces but to remind us of the sacredness of all space. The space in the church has been set aside (or to use more religious language, “consecrated”) to evoke, remind, impress upon us the sacred nature of all space. Some spaces, like churches, breathtaking natural scenes, cemeteries and places where great tragedies occurred (like battlefields or the Twin Towers site in NYC) are better at evoking the sacred for us than other places (garbage dumps for example).
One sacred place with which all of us are familiar (pun intended) is our home. Every home is a sacred place. Every Christian home is indeed a church, the “domestic church,” and so is a sacred place. The home may not be fancy (the first home of the Holy Family was a stable, and God’s Love was more preeminently present there than any mansion!), but if Christ is present there in the hearts of the member(s) of the family, then it is truly a domestic church. While the domestic church does not need to be a McMansion, it does need those symbols that help remind us that this is indeed a sacred place. So I hope that in your home you have several of these symbols and that you pay attention to them. As a boy I had a plastic holy water font in my room that would glow in the dark. A very good symbol (and one I hope you have in your home) is the crucifix or a cross, which reminds us of our Christian identity. A Bible that is displayed on a coffee table or in a cabinet is another great symbol reminding us of the Word of God dwelling in our hearts. Pictures or icons of Saints (St. Paul of course!) remind us of our call to live in holiness. Passages from Scripture in needlepoint or other versions can be reminders of that to which we are called. I remember when I was in Turkey, in the homes we were fortunate to visit, every Moslem home had beautiful calligraphy of the Quran in Arabic, which is much the same idea. Also, small statues of Our Lady, the Sacred Heart of Jesus or one of the Saints, can remind us we too are called to be a holy people.

How we live our lives is, of course, vastly more important than what we hang on the walls or put on the knickknack shelves,  but these items help remind us all-too-forgetful humans that our home is indeed a sacred space and hopefully call us to act and treat each other accordingly.

God bless!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, July 10

Today – July 10 – marks a year since I arrived here in Austin, Texas to serve as  (to luxuriate as? to occupy space as? to pontificate as?) Pastor of St. Austin’s Parish. It was 56 degrees as I boarded the plane in San Francisco a year ago, and 96 when I deplaned in Austin.  It was a warm welcome in more ways than one!
Actually, I want to thank all of you for welcoming me so heartily and fully. I have always felt fully accepted and appreciated here. Thank you. A special thanks to the Parish Staff and the Paulists living here in Austin. They have all been most helpful in the transition. I am especially appreciative of the good work Fr. John Hurley accomplished before I came in order to present me with a balanced budget.

There have been some transitions in this year: notably Karen Ranus moving on from the Staff to a very responsible position at St. Louise House, the arrival of Pat Macy as our new Social Justice Coordinator, and especially the declining health of Fr. Bob Scott which precipitated his move to his home state of New Jersey.  He is sorely missed.

We have had some accomplishments this year:  a new liturgical environment committee that has already made quite an impact (e.g. the Easter decorations); a great beginning for a men’s spirituality group; a shift of focus on the Property Committee recognizing that our Master Plan is sometime off in the future and so we need to be more serious about the upkeep and maintenance of the building stock we currently have; shorter Staff and Parish Pastoral Council Meetings; and of course a change in parking on the blacktop on weekends.
It has taken me some time to figure out what my role is here other than to say Mass and hear Confessions. The parish was running so well when I arrived that it was not clear precisely what I could contribute. 

However, with time I am becoming clearer about my role. I believe it will involve consistently and cogently articulating a vision of the proper role of the laity: to not necessarily become more active in St. Austin’s Parish (as much as we DO need your help to make this place function), but rather to be more proactive in living a Catholic Christian life in your family, neighborhood, school, marketplace, work, community and society in general. Your real Catholic life is not what you do in church, but what you do in the world.  While this may not sound like a major shift of emphasis, I believe it is crucial. We will see.

For this coming year I hope to finally make it to Stubbs, Salt Lick and County Line, none of which I have yet had the opportunity to sample. As a new resident of Austin I believe it is incumbent upon me to do so!
I continue to count on your support, advice, cooperation and especially your prayers; and I look forward to working and worshipping with all of you for several years to come. 

God bless!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, July 3


This week we celebrate the birth of our nation on the 4th of July. This is an opportune time to reflect on the virtue of Patriotism and the corresponding vice of Nationalism.

Patriotism is the virtue which embodies a healthy and realistic love of country. The true patriot yearns for the United States of America to be the best country it can, to live up to the noble and inspiring sentiments that gave it birth: the freedom of all people to seek life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The patriot is grieved when our country, either in its internal affairs or in its foreign policy, fails to live up to these ideals but rather plays the games of power politics and shrewd self-interest. The patriot works to better America, not hesitating to criticize the government, but always out of concern, never out of scorn or derision. The patriot wants America to take its rightful place in the community of nations, contributing to the betterment of all humanity by the shining light of the example of a free and responsible people.

Nationalism on the other hand, is the vice that seeks to make America first in wealth and power at the expense of others, that believes in the slogan, “My Country, right or wrong,” that argues that if you are not with me you are against me. Nationalism is an unhealthy pride that derides others because it sees them as a threat. It tolerates no criticism of the United States because it has too weak a grasp of the transcendent principals that are the foundation of the country. All it can grasp are power and advantage. Nationalism separates and divides people and is prone to violence. Not all who wave the flag and wear lapel flag pins are patriots; some are unrepentant nationalists.
I firmly believe that the best defense against the vice of nationalism is not some kind of sophomoric, critical anti-Americanism, but rather a healthy patriotism. The more we cherish and develop our patriotism, the less likely we are to slip into the quagmire of nationalism. A proper love of our country is by far the best defense against the hubris and pride of nationalism.

So on this Independence Day weekend, I encourage you to exercise your Patriotism. Bring it out and wear it proudly.  Give it a run around the block. Remember and reflect on the noble words of the Declaration of Independence that enshrine the principals on which this country is founded and re-commit yourself to working for them. Happy 4th of July! 

God bless!