Sunday, June 28, 2015

Getting Used To Pain

There are different types of pain:  physical and spiritual, one-time and on-going, and natural or man-made.
The pain in my shoulder began a few weeks ago.  Twist my arm in a certain way and an extremely sharp pain screams from the joint and down my arm.  At first I expected it would go away, as most pains do, but last week I had it prayed over in hopes it would not prevent my playing in a charity golf outing last Monday.  It didn’t (praise God!), but I think I shall soon visit a doctor to see if he can work some healing --- or tell me that I have to get used to this pain.
Losing a loved one brings a different sort of pain.  For some, there is continuing worry about their loved one --- are they in heaven?  For some, death of a loved one creates a pain which it seems won’t ever go away.  And for some, the death of a loved one is a death to a part of themselves, and they struggle with feeling partly dead and partly alive.  I’ve lost parents, siblings, and many friends.  Each loss was a sudden pain, no matter how much you prepare for it.  In my experience, however, I’ve come to appreciate the truth and inevitableness of death; each time is not without pain, but I think each time the pain is a little less deep, and quicker to heal.  In a way, I guess, that is getting used to the pain of death.  But that pain, which comes to everyone, I wish to no one.
I recall certain painful events in my life:  divorce, rejection, and a sudden feeling of the loss of God.  I’ve come to see physical death as “natural,” albeit a painful thing, but these other painful events are not meant to be normal, and they are a pain not meant to be gotten used to.  They are spiritual pains you never get used to.  I’ve come to see that physical death is part of God’s plan, and I’ve come to accept His plans, but these other things seem to be part of man’s plans, and they can hurt more deeply.  Perhaps in some bigger picture I cannot see, God will make good out of even these pains, but I find that physical pain or even death is easier to get used to.
This week with the unfolding of the legal events in our country, I’ve felt a pain.  These are man-made events, and I’m inclined to describe the pain I feel as similar to that of divorce:  this is not normal; this was not meant to be.  I can’t see getting used to this pain.  God created man and woman, not some amorphous beings which can choose their gender.  He blessed marriage of one man and one woman.  God defined why He created man and woman.
But now some of God’s creations, like the angels cast out of heaven, have said they will be as God, putting their own definition on His creation.  And even as God felt pain at the loss of His angels --- and later Adam and Eve --- He planned on sending His Son, to make things right in all eternity.  So I am sure God has plans to make right, with justice (and mercy, we pray), these plans of men who reject His ways.
Looking back, even Sodom had a purpose in God’s plans.  There was rejection of God and His ways; then there came suffering, but ultimately there came new life to God’s people.  And He said:  “I will always be with you.” 
I’ve come to see death, the pains of loss, as part of life.  And now perhaps like Sodom, the events of this country also are part of a bigger plan for our life which we cannot yet see.  Yes, we feel pain, and perhaps we will be made of feel even more intense pains, but I trust God will make it right.
As I write this, it is Sunday after mass.  And I look up at the large crucifix above the altar.  And I see great pain there, pain that was certainly not meant to be, and yet became necessary because of the sinful will of man.  And so that pain had great purpose, in the plan of God.
Who am I to judge?  Who am I to, like Lot, demand that God explain what is happening in our country, our culture?  Is the pain I feel over recent events something normal like death, or something to never be forgotten, like divorce?  Will the hurt go away, or get worse?  I don’t know.  I shall continue to pray for humility, and I shall continue to pray:  “Jesus, I trust in You.”
I shall continue to try and mean, in my heart, what I pray.
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Do well what depends on me, and endure well what does not.  – Maximilian Kolbe
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“Be ye all of one mind.”  (1Pt 3:8-15)  St. Peter realizes that with our weakness and frailty we cannot preserve peace if we have no compassion for the faults of others, if we do not know how to be kind to those who displease us, and if we cannot bear blame with humility.  Anyone who pretends that in achieving a life of perfect harmony with others, he need never suffer any annoyance or displeasure, and that he need never be contradicted or upset, has very little experience of the reality of life and forgets that, far from being pure spirits, we are limited by matter. 
It even happens that sometimes, without wishing it and without even the shadow of a bad intention, we work against one another.  The remedy for these inevitable failures, when the limitations of our nature are the cause of mutual distress, is that suggested by St. Augustine:  “Let more room be given to charity.”  … Let us likewise practice greater humility, in order to overcome the resentments of our self-love.  Even if someone does act against us with ill will, we should know how to forgive him.
                                    -- Divine Intimacy, P649, Fifth Sunday After Pentecost 

Monday, June 22, 2015

You Can Stop Preaching

The minutes ticked by, as I continued to read my morning prayers.  Rising late --- did I have too much wine last night? --- I arrived late to church.  I knew the priest was ready behind me, and the woman at the piano was set to lead the opening hymn.  And as I continued to pray, I was somewhat distracted with the thought:  Why wasn’t the mass starting?  Then, as I completed the last words of the Morning Prayers, like someone had watched over my shoulder and waited until I was done, then I heard:  “And the opening hymn for today is ….”
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I rushed home after mass:  I have things to do this day; I need to shower, to shave, and to get ready.  But even before the mass began and I felt disquieted with the delay, I knew there was something different about this day, and my heart was open to hear. 
Strangely, as the mass finally began, my thoughts drifted to the night before, and the Father’s Day dinner and gifts from a most dear friend, a daughter.  And I specifically recalled the words she said at one point in the evening:  “You can stop preaching, now.”  She has said those same words to me before, too often I’m sure.  She says them when I get rolling on some topic that irritates me and, as she notices, my voice often becomes raised.  I was getting irritated, and it showed.
I was reminded of that irritation during mass and thought:  “But why am I thinking this now?”  Then the Gospel was read:
"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.       Mt 7: 1-5
The priest said that in his 43 years he is sure that he has heard that gospel at least once each year, “but I guess it must be repeated to me, so I don’t forget it.”  He mentioned how on the way to mass this morning the car in front of him was “only going 45 in the 45 limit zone.  Can’t you go a bit faster, maybe 50?”  And he noted that he was judging that person by their actions.  “I didn’t know what was going on in their mind, what worries, what sorrows, or things they ---- and perhaps even God --- really thought more important than racing to their destination.  I was judging their actions which I could see, AND their heart, which I could not --- because I had a log in my eye.”
The priest noted that introspection is a good thing, and being thankful for graces received.  Judging is not being thankful for our gifts, any gifts.  We judge too easily external events; we cannot see hearts, often, even our own.  And we need to.
This is posting number 900 on this blog.  Like many others, I don’t write this as a preaching, to you or to me.  This one is written so that something I SHOULD remember may be written down, and perhaps read again at some date.  It’s obvious that I, like the priest, often forget important lessons.
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And then the priest led us in prayer, for many people I didn’t particularly want to pray for --- because I was judging their actions.  And then we sat down and we began to sing a hymn, with words most familiar to me:
The Prayer of St. Francis
Make me a channel of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring Your love.
Where there is injury, Your pardon, Lord,
And where there’s doubt, true faith in You.
Make me a channel of Your peace.
Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, only light,
And where there’s doubt true faith in You.
Oh, Master, grant that I may never seek,
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul.
Make me a channel of Your peace.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
In giving to all men that we receive,
And in dying that we’re born to eternal life.
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And after mass was over, I began to read the daily Bible readings I had committed to, and I read the story of the Transfiguration, and the words God the Father spoke to Jesus:  “This is my beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased.  Listen to Him.”  (Mt 17:5)
And a few verses later I read the words a woman said to Jesus:  “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic” ---- as I am.
I wrote here recently of hearing words which called for the need in our world of a “radical love”, given even to those we might hate, or those who irritate us --- those we might judge. 
I think heard them again today.

Monday, June 15, 2015

See How They Love

I attended a talk by Dan Burke last night; he has written some wonderful books.  The first hour, however, he spoke of his conversion to Catholicism, a story I had not heard before.

Dan had a very abusive childhood, and at one point in his late teens he had reached a crisis point, and saw only two alternatives:  “Either I continue my life of torture and pains, or I end it.  And I sought the courage to do just that.” 

Then Dan told of two turning points in his life.

The first occurred when, as a teen, he worked in a pizza store, and the week it was his turn to clean the public restrooms --- “more fun in my life,” Dan quipped --- and then a young co-worker said to him: “That’s all right; I’ll do it for you.”  And he did, and he did each time Dan’s turn came around.  Dan thought the man was nuts – “or a homosexual, making a play for me.”  But evidentially Dan found out that the reason for his kindness was “because I’m a Christian, and this is what we do for others.” 

“Yeh,” Dan said; “He was nuts.”

But it made Dan think of all those people who said God mattered in their lives, and so he began a search for God and truth, a long one, which took him through many religions and cults – some of which preyed on the pains he felt.  He eventually reached Christianity and the Southern Baptists, where among other things he learned how stupid Catholics were.  Later he discovered Evangelical Christians had a better view of Jesus, and eventually he joined Chuck Dobson and Focus on the Family for 15 years.  While working there he learned to enjoy ribbing the only Catholic on the staff.  He liked to spend time thinking up insults and put downs, telling her how stupid she and her religion were.  “It was great fun, and she never sniped back, which made it even better” -- until the second critical turning point in Dan’s life.

There came a day when the Catholic woman chose to leave Focus on the Family, and there was an office retirement party for her.  “I didn’t pay much attention to the gathering, but at one point someone came to me and said I was wanted at the party.  I went to the gathering, and was asked to sit on one of 5 stools at the front.  Then the woman, laughing, told those gathered how I and 4 others had often laughed at her crazy religious beliefs. 

And then she became very serious as she said:  ‘I want to thank you for that.  It made me look deep into my religion and to Jesus for comfort and answers … and I found them.’”

“And then she washed my feet.”

Dan didn’t become a Catholic until years after that incident, but he never forgot it.  “The world is a dark place now; there is even dissention within the Catholic Church.  Everyone thinks they know the answer to everything.  And Christians are laughed at --- and killed.  These days, mere words won’t convert anyone.  If we want to evangelize in this world, we need to remember the actions of Jesus and the woman who washed my feet.  Radical love: that is what will turn hearts and minds in this world.  The question is:  Can we humble ourselves THAT much, to love that much?”

The room was silent.

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Earlier yesterday, a discussion group turned to the story of St. Francis and the wolf which was killing the residents of the town of Gubbio.  Francis eventually brokered peace between the wolf and the town, and we discussed the lessons to be learned from the story.  Certainly there was a trust in God, and there was humility, but a key point of the story --- often not discussed --- was the need for both parties in the dispute to change.  The wolf was right in his behavior, as were the people; and each was confident of their needs and their justice in fulfilling them.  But with trust in God, humility, and conceding to the need to change so that they might live together, they found peace.

Peace came through a radical love: a giving up of self.

Dan Burke saw that radical love in the woman washing his feet, and he was open to change.

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At mass this morning we said “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.”  Lamb of God:  a love unto death.  Was there ever a more radical love?  His death brought justice to the Father.  It brought mercy to us sinners.  It was a most striking, humble love.  Roman historians, in speaking about Christians, wrote of the most strange and radical thing that they noticed about them:  “See how they love one another?”

The Gospel today was again on Matthew, chapter 5 (v38):  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil.”

Do not resist?  Can there be a more radical response to evil, a more striking one?  Dan Burke’s response to evil, in his youth, was to run away and contemplate suicide, but he learned a better response was as shown in Jesus’ washing of feet: a radical love, in response to hate.

“But what about justice?” the priest said after reading this Gospel this morning.  “What must be sought,” he explained, “is merciful justice.  We must pray for merciful justice in this world.  We must live with merciful justice.  Jesus died, for us, in merciful justice.”

That is how we must love, and evangelize, and hope to change this world.

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The hymn sung at the consecration today was:  I have decided to follow Jesus.

… What a radical thing to say.   

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Good Sheep

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …
I fear no evil; for you are with me.  Psalm 23
A few days ago I completed a novel about a shepherd and then heard the next day’s Gospel tell the story of the Good Shepherd, and I contemplated how God challenges us to be goods shepherds, as he was.
I recently picked up some spiritual reading from my pile of “to-read” books, and found myself holding a book of the New Testament and Psalms --- I’ve given away many copies of this book and thought:  Well, it would be a good thing for ME to read this, as a commitment to daily Scripture reading (which I am not too good about), and so I began a leisurely reading plan:  1 NT chapter, 1 Psalm a day, to be read as part of my morning prayers.
I chuckled to myself in church yesterday as I read Matthew 5 before mass.  The part about the beatitudes and how to live your life had been a recent Gospel.  I had just read up to verse 20 of the chapter 5, when the beginning of mass interrupted me.  And a short while later I heard the Gospel read:  Mt 5:17-20, which I had read mere minutes before.
And I thought: “Okay, Lord, what is your point today?”  None of these types of coincidences surprise me much anymore --- and yet, they make me feel, I don’t know, loved?  (Or at least noticed enough to be chastised, in love, every now and again.)  And so I considered today’s readings and recent events in my life:
All of Matthew Chapter 5 describes rules we should follow and attitudes we should have, to lead a good life.  The Psalm 5 I read this day spoke of trusting in God for deliverance from enemies.  And after meditating on these things, I thought:  following the rules and trusting, these are things sheep do.
If you are like me, someone used to making decisions and having a confidence that what I don’t know I WILL find out, the concept of being a sheep doesn’t set too easy.  I am not a good follower, especially if I think someone is leading me in the wrong direction.  I speak up; I argue my position:  Prove me wrong!  But then I read MT 5:22 which says:  “Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.  Liable to judgment??  This is a serious matter, this having an “I know the way” attitude, and becoming angry when I don’t get my way.  As is its opposite:  “Things are not going my way, and I can’t stop them.  Woe is me!  The sky is falling!”
Jesus, I trust in You --- those words are the essence of Psalm 5; but in difficult times when we are not in control, those are hard words to say and mean.  They are the words said by The Good Sheep to the Good Shepherd.
I thought on recent events going on in my life and those of people in my life.  For some, close friends or relatives are dying.  For some, their lives seem not in their control --- I’ll meet with the Caregiver’s Support Group tonight and hear many of those types of stories.  Last night a friend called lamenting a huge change which was about to be announced in her workplace:  companies were making decisions to improve profits, and jobs and lives will be impacted --- and there is a fear of the unknown future.  I’ve lived through those times, and have known her fear.
As much as we are called and challenged to use the talents God gave us, to be Good Shepherds, to be all He made us to be, --- yet I think He challenges us even more when in times of danger He asks us to be Good Sheep.  Everything will not always be in control in our lives.  There will be challenges; there will be sorrows; there will be fears of the unknown.  In just this week, I’ve seen it all around me, in so many friends and people I know.
My natural inclination is always to take charge:  to analyze the data, the situation, to consider pros and cons, risks and opportunities, and to lay out positive paths to acceptable solutions to a problem --- to trust in my talents.  But these Gospels and readings say:  No.  My first reaction should not be to take charge, but rather to pray:  ‘You are in charge, Lord.  I trust in You.”  And then wait, to perceive HIS will, not mine.
It is a hard thing, to wait on the Lord, to trust.  In the movies when we hear someone counsel to a victim:  “Don’t worry; everything is going to be all right,” we think:  You don’t know that, and we anxiously await the outcome of the movie.
The thing is, God DOES know the end of the movie of our life.  While we watch a movie, despite all disasters we see, we do expect that the good guys will win in the end.  God KNOWS they will.  And He told us so.
That’s the challenge of being a Good Sheep, trusting the Good Shepherd.  I think I want to be a father figure to people, but He tells us to be as little children.
Oh, and what of this morning’s Scripture reading?  Well, I read the next chapter in Matthew and found these words to be a little familiar also:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious.  Mt 6:25
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For those in my neighborhood, if you see Fr John Riccardo today, you might give him a polite “Happy Birthday.”  He turns 50 today; he is a great blessing for all of us.