Saturday, November 30, 2013

Is Jesus an egomaniac?

The other day I was thinking about the martyrs. I'm not sure what it was- maybe Pope Francis talking about the persecution of Christians in the world today. Whatever it was, a thought occurred to me that I had never considered. When a martyr was dying for Christ, what was going through Christ's mind? Hmm... 

Was Christ there demanding that this person give their life for him? Was he there telling this almost-martyr, "ok, just a little more, I want you to prove to me that you love my by not giving in. Prove it to me!" Was Christ an egomaniac, going around looking for people who would give their lives for him? I certainly do not think so. On the contrary, I think that Christ would have said something more like, "I know you love me, you don't have to go through all this. I know your heart. I don't need this proof." Friends, people that love each other, do not want to see the other suffer.

So why would the martyr go through with it? I think that it has to be, quite simply, because of love. I think that the martyr loved Christ. The martyr did not want to leave any room for doubt in anyone's mind that he loved Jesus Christ. I think that the martyr tastes a freedom that few know exists. The martyr lives the zenith, the fullness, the absolute epitome of freedom! He squeezes it out to the last drop. He loves.

In the Catholic Church we celebrated last Sunday the solemnity of Christ the King. He is not an egomaniac but is entirely the opposite. He gave his life for us. He is the King who shows us how to love.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Reflection on Purity

Classes started this week and Theology has proven to be very interesting. We hope that continues. In Pentateuch class there have been some really interesting connections. Have you ever read the book of Leviticus? FYI, it is in the Old Testament and I have not read it, either.

Interestingly enough, Leviticus is the book of liturgical norms which also dealt with the purity the Israelites were to maintain and how they were to maintain it. They were a people set apart in a land given them by the Lord and they were to maintain themselves pure to be His own. It struck me that basically this whole book was for that single, simple purpose of purity before the Lord.

Things have changed since then. The Savior came and the inheritance of God's chosen ones has been made available to all people. We become His sons and daughters in Baptism and, as sons and daughters, we, too, must defend and fight to maintain our purity.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Some things seem strange, and are, but really are not

You know, sometimes people do things that seem strange, and are, but at the same time aren't.
We went to visit an elderly couple for the first time last week here in Sicily. They had never received seminarians like us but when I called she was open to meeting us. So we arrived, rang, and, as the Gospel says, the door was opened to us. The house was set back behind the gate about twenty yards and as we entered we saw Mr. and Mrs. near the house approaching us. We greeted them and immediately he positioned himself between myself and the other seminarian, took us each by the arm, and walked with us to the house. It was a first-time, unexpected, and rather uncomfortable experience, given that I just met this man. How could I have known at that moment their sufferings, their difficulties, their burdens? How could I have known about their daughter who, along with her husband and their grandkids, had totally abandoned them, moving away and cutting all communication? How could I have known the joy, in the midst of this their continual ache, that our simple visit could bring? They were so happy that, 45 minutes later as we departed, they insisted and insisted we come for lunch our next visit. In addition, they insisted that we take two bags full of fruit that they had gathered from their fields. They accompanied us to the gate, gave us five euro for a cafè along the way, and saw us off until we were out of sight.

Taking us both arm-in-arm seemed strange to me, and it was, but in the end it really wasn't.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Learning from Pope Francis, Prayer for Peace

Here in Italy, everyone is talking about how "bravo" Pope Francis is. He has many human and spiritual qualities which make him very attractive. At the end of his Angelus addresses he says, "buon pranso," or, have a good lunch! He is notably extraverted. I hope, however, that these people who "love" Pope Francis also listen attentively to what he says. His words during the vigil of prayer for peace two Saturdays ago struck me as extraordinary. I share an excerpt below.

His words can be read in their entirety here.

And at this point I ask myself: Is it possible to walk the path of peace? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace? Invoking the help of God, under the maternal gaze of the Salus Populi Romani, Queen of Peace, I say: Yes, it is possible for everyone! From every corner of the world tonight, I would like to hear us cry out: Yes, it is possible for everyone! Or even better, I would like for each one of us, from the least to the greatest, including those called to govern nations, to respond: Yes, we want it! My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross. How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the Cross if only for a moment! There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken. This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace! Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation. Look upon your brother’s sorrow – I think of the children: look upon these… look at the sorrow of your brother, stay your hand and do not add to it, rebuild the harmony that has been shattered; and all this achieved not by conflict but by encounter! May the noise of weapons cease! War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity. Let the words of Pope Paul VI resound again: “No more one against the other, no more, never! ... war never again, never again war!” (Address to the United Nations, 1965). “Peace expresses itself only in peace, a peace which is not separate from the demands of justice but which is fostered by personal sacrifice, clemency, mercy and love” (World Day of Peace Message, 1975). Brothers and Sisters, forgiveness, dialogue, reconciliation – these are the words of peace, in beloved Syria, in the Middle East, in all the world! Let us pray this evening for reconciliation and peace, let us work for reconciliation and peace, and let us all become, in every place, men and women of reconciliation and peace!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Learning to See What Matters

I met this awesome family here in Italy. One of the kids was dating a girl in high school and she had a serious stroke at the age of 15 which left her with minimal use of her left side. It was so bad that other kids at school made fun of her to an unbearable extent and she did not finish high school. There was, however, one friend who stood by her. It was her boyfriend. He stayed with her through the whole thing and, a few more years down the road, he proposed to her and they are now married. She still has merely minimal use of her left side, but they are happily married and I found their testimony to be extremely edifying.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Something I Learned from Christopher West

There are lots of opinions about Christopher West. Reading one of his latest books, "At the Heart of the Gospel," I came across something that I really liked. Mr. West, as we know, is one of the great "popularizers" of John Paul II's Theology of the Body. He has studied and read a LOT and from personal experience I can say that he is on fire to bring this message out to the world.

At the end of the first chapter of this book Mr. West reveals what he is carrying in his heart, what motivates him, and why he is going forward despite the criticisms and difficulties that he has encountered. I found it to be enlightening an exciting. Let me just share a few of his words:

"If Christ is to become present within the secular world's understanding, that will mean walking a fine line, a place of tension, between the sacred and the secular. That will mean, in some instances, using a language with which a more pious and refined audience might take issue so that much less pious and refined audience might be reached...let us try, and when we err, let us correct those errors and try again...we must stretch ourselves; we must break out of our comfort zones; we must be courageous, bold, and daring."

Reading that, I could not help but think of the calls of Pope Francis to go out and not stay closed within the Church. He wants a Church that is dynamic, apostolic, and full of love and concern for neighbor. That is what the Pope wants. That is exactly what I read in Christopher West.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Seeing God's Goodness in Fallen Angels

Have you ever thought about the fall of the angels? It really is fascinating. To think of rebellion in Heaven, a celestial battle, St. Michael the Archangel expelling Lucifer from the heavenly host. My question is, why have there not been fantastic movies made about this!

We were praying about this, the fall of the angels, in a month-long spiritual retreat I recently completed. And it was precisely in contemplating this scene that the goodness of God struck me in a particular way. God created. Maybe it is like standing in a sandbox. There is just you and the sand. But then you start making castles and roads in the sand, pools and rivers. That is like God and creation. He animates. He gives being. What He makes is good.

But then the freedom He bestowed is abused. He, the giver of every gift, finds himself rejected, spurned, unwanted. They walked. But that is precisely where God's goodness shines so brilliantly. He let them walk. He loves and respects to such a degree that whatever choice the other makes, He responds with love. If the choice of the other is to spurn, to reject, and even to hate, He respects and loves and never obliges.

We know how the story goes. Man fell, too. God respected man's choice to sin. I am fallen as well. I have rejected God so many times. And His love is so radical that He honors my freedom and refuses to impose upon, which would be to limit, my freedom.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Feeling far from God #2

Dipping back into the Discernment of Spirits...

Rule 10 of the spiritual exercises says that when experiencing spiritual consolation you should buckle up for upcoming desolation. Ok- 1st thing: what's the difference between consolation and desolation? Well, to make it really simple, consolation is like heaven on earth and desolation is, well, the opposite. Of course, this pertains not to how things are at work, at home, in the stock market, with your favorite sports team...but to your spiritual life and your relationship with God. Sometimes we can feel like St. Peter, like we are walking on water. Then, all of a sudden, it can feel like God does not even exist, like he totally fled the scene and is nowhere to be found. What often happens is that we then live accordingly, either as if God did or did not exist. Which means how we live fluctuates like crazy. Good or bad, in light or shadows, before the Almighty or as if I am the almighty.

St. Ignatius says in this rule that when I am experiencing spiritual consolation- i.e. when I believe in God and it feels good and I am happy and loving rather than sinning- I should not just sit back and enjoy. Yes, enjoy it, but without the "sitting back" part. I ought to be preparing myself mentally, aware of the fact that this spiritual high is not going to last forever. On the contrary, a spiritual low is coming. For sure. And there will be a high again after that, but in the meantime I need to get ready for the time of trial. What does that mean? It means that even when it feels like hell on earth, I will live as though God exists and I will strive to love him. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Will we know each other in Heaven?

"The Fulfillment of All Desire" is the title of a great book on the spiritual life authored by Ralph Martin. Have you ever wondered about heaven and, particularly, about whether or not we will know each other there? For example, your spouse, your best friend, your parents or siblings, your mother-in-law...St. Catherine of Siena was a mystic in the 1300's and is a doctor of the Church. She actually touches on this theme in her work "The Dialogue," which is a conversation between her and God the Father.

In 1 Samuel 18 the future king David has a beautiful and profound friendship with Jonathan, the son of Saul. It says that Jonathan loved David as he loved himself. This endures even when his father out of jealousy ends up seeking David's life. It is a beautiful example of friendship in the Bible. St. Catherine says in her work, and this is cited by Ralph Martin in his, that not only will we know and recognize each other in Heaven, but our friendship will be even deeper and more intimate. Those healthy friendships we have in the Lord will only reach new heights.

So look forward to heaven! And let's strive to live friendships now in anticipation of how they will be there.

Friday, August 2, 2013

There is that interesting Bible passage where Abraham asks God not to destroy the city if there are 40 righteous people in it, then 30, then 20...and he gets down to 5 righteous people. Well, needless to say the city gets destroyed, but have you thought about why God wanted that to happen?

I remember when I was a kid my mom would bring me shopping. Me? Well I was obsessed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles- loved the cartoon (early 90's, right?) and needed as many of the action figures as possible. There were all different kinds- the one where the shell opened for storage, the one with the automatic karate chop... Well, I knew that if the shopping was at Target, there would be a chance to get more action figures! The thing was, if I didn't bring it up on the shopping trip, it would not happen because we all know that buying ninja turtles will not be on mom's shopping list. Bottom line: I had to ask.

So I was talking to a recently ordained priest about that passage of the bible and he asked me the very question: why do you think God did that? God already knew what was about to happen. Fr. John told me that God must have wanted to let Abraham know that he needs to be proactive. It reminded  me of something I read in In the School of the Holy Spirit by Fr. Jacques Philippe. He emphasizes how we must ask God to inspire and guide us- we shouldn't just expect it to happen. Ok everybody- lesson learned! Let's start praying.

Monday, July 29, 2013

What would it be like to follow God? Well, why not start with this question: how does it look from here? I think that for many of us, follow the Lord means crawling into a tight, dark little space. The thing is, once we get in there we realize that it was merely a doorway to a much more spacious and even brighter reality than we had been in before.

It reminds me of Congo, the movie based on the book by Michael Crichton, where these people find this underwater tunnel that leads to an undiscovered part of the jungle where there gorillas. Ok, following God isn't like that, but we do find unexpected things once we finally work up the courage to get in there! It is kind of like what St. Therese of Lisieux says about when she saw the Alps. She offers a really stupendous description of what they look like and her whole experience and wonder in seeing them. But, she reflects, afterwards she did not want to see them again. Why? Because it only deepened her desire for Heaven.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Here's some food for thought. St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, said that Christians should be more ready to justify than to condemn. He lets that bomb drop just like that, in about as many words. I needed about ten seconds to recover before I could read on. Hopefully I am alone in that reaction and you are wondering what I mean...

We talk about things like politics and religion, in general, with strong opinions and, many times, with little information to back ourselves up. It reminded of the movie Fair Game. Sean Penn plays a character that gets pretty hot when other people pass judgments about politics really having no idea about what is going on behind the scenes, behind the media reports. His outbursts were pretty entertaining. It was an interesting movie and based on a true story. The point is, people were pointing out "obvious" mistakes of others and basically dragging them through the mud over it. What did St. Ignatius say?

We Christians should be more ready to justify than to condemn.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Feeling far from God?

So here's a little something something from the 8th rule of St. Ignatius for the discernment of spirits...

Sometimes it feels like we are far from God, or God is far from me. I don't think that I have done anything wrong yet it feels like God has jumped ship, fled the scene, hung me out to dry. What happens? The thoughts start to come...this is going to last forever...there is no end in sight...I can't stand this- why is this happening?...I am going to watch a movie, listen to music, go...anywhere! Whatever it takes (besides prayer, of course) to feel better and get through this.

Devil alert! The enemy of my soul is present when those are the thoughts that I am thinking, repeating, believing...hook, line, and sinker. In rule 8 of his rules of discernment, St. Ignatius says that we should think positively. God does not abandon us but does allow for moments of trial. I should think that God is about to end this spell of desolation and trial. He is about to draw near once more. The previous lights and graces that I enjoyed are soon to return!

The other option is thinking negatively. Thinking that this period of spiritual darkness will last forever is what can make the time of difficulty actually unbearable. I remember a powerful seen in Lincoln when the president is speaking with his wife, Mary. She is imploring him not to let their son enter the army because she does not want to endure again that pain and suffering that she continued to carry after the loss of their first son. President Lincoln speaks strongly to her of his own suffering, of the grief that has overwhelmed him almost to the point of being unable to carry out his duties. He concludes by telling his wife that she alone will determine whether or not the agony will indeed be unendurable.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:26:
"Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?"

Monday, July 15, 2013

What's Worth Giving it All?

I love basketball. I also love Kevin Garnett. I grew up in Minnesota and KG, to this day, was the most franchise player the Timberwolves ever had. Kevin Love is making a case, but he is not there yet. I remember in one interview Garnett said that it could even be night time but as long as you have a ball, a hoop, and a light, you can keep on playing and playing. I loved that in high school. There are people out there who find something they love and give it everything they've got.

We recently saw the movie Snitch here in the seminary. There was an undercover cop in the movie played by Barry Pepper whom you may recognize from his roles in Saving Private Ryan or the new True Grit. As an undercover cop he has crazy hours- actually, he doesn't really have hours. He is another example of someone totally dedicated, like 100%, to what he is doing, so much so that he does not have a family and does not even consider the possibility since it would not mesh with his lifestyle.

This also reminded me of Russell Crowe's character in American Gangster. He tried to live the life and have the family but, sadly, it did not work out. It got me thinking...

There are some vocations/lifestyles, like being a spouse and parent or like the examples above, which are so consuming, demanding, and fulfilling that they require giving everything. You know, I think that the priesthood fits into that category. A great example of that is Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ (click for wikipedia). Check out his book He Leadeth Me if you want to be blown away.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Are you a beast of the field? No!

I am reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens. The book is worth reading for the literature itself apart from the story: "The clear cold sunshine glances into the brittle woods, and approvingly beholds the sharp wind scattering the leaves and drying the moss. It glides over the park after the moving shadows of the clouds, and chases them, and never catches them, all day. It looks in at the windows, and touches the ancestral portraits with bars and patches of brightness, never contemplated by the painters. Athwart the picture of my Lady, over the great chimney-piece, it throws a broad bend-sinister of light that strikes down crookedly into the hearth, and seems to rend it."

I am enjoying it at least. A little ways into the book a character is introduced by the last name of Chadband. He is quite entertaining. As a preacher, Chadband has a singular way of speaking replete with rhetorical questions. I will put as example a "conversation" (monologue) he has with a young man. "My young friend," says Chadband, "it is because you know nothing that you are to us a gem and a jewel. For what are you, my young friend? Are you a beast of the field? No. A bird of the air? No. A fish of the sea or river? No. You are a human boy, my young friend. A human boy. O glorious to be a human boy! And why glorious, my young friend? Because you are capable of receiving the lessons of wisdom, because you are capable of profiting by this discourse which I now deliver  for your good, because you are not a stick, or a staff, or a stock, or a stone, or a post, or a pillar..." On and on he goes...

His marveling at what it is to be human made me reflect on what it is to be a child of God by baptism. In St. Peter's basilica in Rome there is a big red circle of porphyry in the floor just inside the main door on which Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It used to be more towards center of the basilica but is now in the back parallel to the baptismal font. Is there a message here? Maybe that it is of greater value to be a child of God than to have whatever earthly power.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Religious Life and Joe Christian

We had our monthly spiritual retreat a few days ago and one thought really hit me. So often we see great saints like St. Francis of Assisi. They're intimidating, aren't they? I mean, I really do not think that I would be capable of living out my faith like he did. If Christianity means that, well, maybe Christianity is not exactly, entirely for me.

Ever felt like that? Well, the good news is that no, you and I are not called to live like that. God does not expect us to dive into thorn bushes, live half-naked out in the cold, or do nothing for our daily sustenance save daily begging for "daily bread." But...He does expect us live like that.

Religious life, and, by the way, St. Francis was a religious, is meant to be a sign of realities that all Christians are called to live. Religious may live aspects of the Christian faith in a more radical way but that does not mean that what they live is for religious alone. On the contrary, religious are living realities that all Christians are called to live.

For example, religious are to live detachment from ALL CREATURES. What does that mean? Well, it means detachment from phones, cars, houses, video games, movies, sports, etc...but creatures extends to everything that is not God- i.e. family and friends, too. Before you get all worked up about possible misinterpretations / ramifications of what that means, I will translate. All that means is that God has the first place in my life and takes priority over everything else. Religious are to live detached from everything with their hearts set on God above all else.

Does that sound good? Well, guess what? That applies to all Christians, too. Religious may just live it in a more radical way.

St. Francis and St. Clare

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Healthy Dose of Humility

The other day we watched a soccer game here at the seminary. First of all, it is always a big event because we only watch a handful of sporting events every year. It was Brazil vs. Italy and we have a good number of Brazilians here. They ended up winning the game 4-2.

I was talking with another brother after the game and was reflecting that I found myself pulling for Italy simply because of the perceived cockiness/over-confidence I perceived in some of the Brazilians, both in the audience and that we saw among the fans. I said, "you know, they just seem too cocky." The brother (a fellow American) responded, "yeah they're kind of like us!"

It hit me. Yeah, in the Olympics, we generaly expect to win everything and I probably transmit that same over-confidence when the United States is involved in something. That brother's ability to zoom out and see himself in a bigger context I found to be quite admirable. It made me think that there is always room to grow in humility.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Am I afraid of God?

God as Father. What does that mean to you? So often I equate following God with leaving behind so many things that I love- music, movies, sports, friendships with people I love... I know that if I decide to follow him all the way I am definitely going to pay for it. I've heard of the dark knight of the soul, yeah, and I know that saints suffered a lot. I am not exactly chomping at the bit, you know, to have a life like that.

Do you remember what Jesus said? "What father would give his son a scorpion when he asks for an egg? or a stone when he asks for a fish?" I asked my dad if we could go fishing, never "for a fish." And when I did so he never brought me to, like, the barber shop. When I was a bambino I hated going to the barber. Actually, that hasn't changed much. The point is, we often accept and believe the craziest ideas of what God must be like as a father. "He is going to send me the dark knight! I know it!" Ok- first thing: relax. Father's love their children and want to take them to baseball games, buy them gifts, watch movies with them, go fishing...they want to be happy together! Why would God be any different?

Fathers also want the best for their children which means, on occasion, correcting, steering, guiding- setting on a path for fuller, happier development even though it may mean a small cost initially. God wants us to be happy. That's the bottom line. God is a good father. And that's how we should think of him.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Don't drift!

Rule of discernment #1

In this rule St. Ignatius talks about what happens when I am drifting in my relationship with God. What happens? As can happen in any relationship, there is a lack of delicacy, negligence of details, little interest. So what does the devil do? Well, he is, of course, ecstatic that I am not growing in holiness. So he says, "you're doing great," while the Holy Spirit says, "wake up!"

The devil wants to be a catalyst in aiding our growing further from the Lord. Pretty obvious, right? So what does he do? St. Ignatius says in the rule that "the enemy is ordinarily accustomed to propose apparent pleasures to them, leading them to imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins." He is trying to attract us to that which leads us away from God. This could be something as simple as something I like which prevents me from getting to Sunday Mass.

In this stage of the game, says St. Ignatius, the "good spirit uses a contrary method, stinging and biting their consciences through their rational power of moral judgment." We have all experienced that, right? It's so easy, too, to try reasoning my way out of it. But something has to change and so the Holy Spirit employs this methodology.

But this all changes when I change direction.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Spiritual Football

Have you ever wondered whether or not something you wanted to do is coming from God? I am currently reading a book by Fr. Timothy Gallagher, OMV called "The Discernment of Spirits." He discusses the rules of discernment of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits

One of the first ideas that grabbed my attention was this: I need to identify what's happening in my relationship with God. In this regard I can have one of two fundamental directions: towards God or away from God. Is our relationship developing positively or are we drifting apart? Confronting this question is fundamental because both the Holy Spirit and the devil apply different strategies depending on me and my life. It's like in football: when the quarterback gets to the line of scrimmage, he may have to change the play based on the look that the defense is giving him. Similarly, there are two "teams" battling for our hearts and they apply their strategies depending on how I am living.