Nothing To Fear

When I was little I was afraid of the dark, which often led to more work for my mom (as if with five children she didn’t have enough work already), because when it came to occasions for me to descend the steps into the dark and creepy basement, or ascend the flight of stairs to the dark second floor landing after we returned home late from an event or family party, or go to sleep with the monster lurking in the dark bedroom closet, I would inevitably have my fearless mother go before me to make sure it was safe. And, in her good natured way, she would descend to the bowels of the basement; or ascend to that darkened second floor; or go to the closet and tell that monster to scram; calling out to me: “See, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Today’s Solemnity of the Assumption focuses us in on the mystery of Our Lady’s death and immediate bodily assumption into that divine communion with the Most Holy Trinity through her Son. Yet this mystery is part and parcel of that even more fundamental mystery of her union with her Son, and through Him with His Body, in life and in death. She is our Mother because she is His Mother, and we are members of His Body and from the Cross He gave Our Lady to us; she is our elder Sister as well; she is that first and best disciple who has followed her Son in perfect fidelity during His earthly ministry and even to His Passion and Cross. Where our Divine Head has gone, our Mother and Sister has followed, and we fellow members of His Body are also meant to go.

Dear Friends, through grace the Lord lives His life again in us; His mysteries are our mysteries. Our Lord encountered setbacks, ridicule, misunderstanding, are we not to expect the same? Our Lord dealt with sleepless nights, danger, the anger of others, are we not to expect the same? Our Lord went to the Cross and died, are we not to expect crosses and trials in our lives? Do we not want to die so as to rest in the tomb with our Lord? Yet whether it be the simple fidelity of everyday life and the ordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves; or the frustration of setbacks and unexpected occurrences; or the trials and anguish of the crosses in our lives; or even death itself; never forget, our Mother has walked this path before us; she holds out her hand and says: “See, there is nothing to be afraid of.”

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Get Over Yourself!

Saint Thomas and Spiritual Desolation

Today’s Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle offers us the opportunity to once again dwell on John’s post-Resurrection account of the Risen Christ’s appearance to the disciples locked away in the Upper Room following their leader’s death and seeming failure. The scene is so familiar to us: Jesus enters into the room even though the doors are locked. They react with fear, but the Risen Lord only seeks to bring peace. Thomas is the one disciple not present, and when the others tell him that they have encountered the Lord he is incredulous, thus earning him the monicker, “Doubting Thomas”.

Before even contemplating the touching interaction between Christ and Thomas, we may do well to pause for a moment at the apostle’s initial doubt. Might Thomas’s stubborn refusal to believe be seen through an Ignatian lens? Perhaps.

In his First Week rules for discernment, St. Ignatius defines for us the dynamic of spiritual desolation. In the fourth rule, he tells us: “I call desolation . . . darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad and as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord” (Rule 4, as presented in The Discernment of Spirits by Fr. Timothy Gallagher).

The beloved teacher with whom the apostles have traveled countless miles, ate with, witnessed perform astounding miracles, has been brutally beaten, killed, and buried. Moreover, besides Peter, the only other apostle in John’s Gospel to verbally pledge his life for Christ (cf. Jn 11:16) has, like the rest (save John), run away and abandoned his Lord in the latter’s time of need. That this should be the cause of spiritual desolation, I don’t know what is!

The danger of desolation lies in the dynamic Ignatius points out so well when he explains that spiritual desolation brings with it that characteristic movement to “low and earthly things.” Phrased another way, we could highlight that desolation also results in that inward turning of the ego; closing in on oneself and dwelling in that artificially created world of passing, temporary fixes: food, drink, inordinate amounts of entertainment, and all those creaturely comforts, while not necessarily being wrong in and of themselves, prove fruitless in providing the lasting joy and true peace the Lord’s desires for us.

Can we see Thomas’s quick reaction of doubt a manifestation of this? In other words: “I won’t believe because I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself!” To that, Jesus returns the following week, uninhibited by the physical barriers of closed and locked doors and, on an invisible level, the closed and locked heart of Thomas, and extends His peace once again to the band of disciples, and coaxing the Doubter to open his heart to faith: Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.

In other words: “Get over yourself, Thomas.”

Before the downward spiral of desolation becomes all too active in our hearts, we may do well to recall that the Lord’s grace is readily available, even if we don’t readily feel His consoling presence with us. The response to desolation is always: “Do not be faithless, but believing.”

Saint Thomas the Apostle, pray for us.

“Follow Me”

This summer marks the tenth anniversary of my time in Tlalpan, a section of Mexico City, studying Spanish with two of my classmates as well as seminarians from the Archdiocese of St. Louis. As I look back on my life thus far, my time there remains one of the most significant. This is so not because of any natural reasons related to world travel and cultural experiences, although these realities did affect me. No, that time abroad has a fixed place in my heart for the supernatural realities that came into play. God imbued that time with His grace in a special way; and it was the presence of one man, in particular, that proved to be so consequential.

While the time in Mexico was primarily for language study, the combination of being away from home, along with ample opportunity for prayer, those weeks in Tlalpan also served as a quasi-retreat. The physical separation from home, family, and familiar surroundings, and the resulting psychological distance effected by that reality, opened up a space for God’s grace to take up residence in an area of my soul which hitherto had no vacancies. His grace was light and fire: a light because areas of my heart that dwelt in darkness were laid bare to the light of His Face; a fire because it warmed and consoled even as it destroyed. We don’t like to think of God’s grace as destructive. In our day and age we’ve grown accustomed to a “feel-good” God; therapeutic deism, as it has been described. Yet, God is not always there to make us feel good — God desires us to be good, and the latter two realities do not always coincide.

What was churned up as the Divine Sower tilled the soil of my heart and scattered the seeds of His divine life? Through the lens of today’s gospel from Matthew, one thing in particular stands out: attachment and the need to allow God to free me of those things which held me back from giving myself wholly over to Him.

The gospel passage of the Sacred Liturgy today finds us with Jesus as He crosses to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Thereupon, two men following this new and intriguing rabbi, present the Lord with their desire to be His disciples. The first, a scribe, tells Him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus’ answer, while enigmatic, betrays a certain doubt on His part of the full sincerity of the scribe: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” The second, while desirous of discipleship, asks Jesus to allow him to bury his father before joining Him. This, to be sure, is a reasonable request. Besides, is not the need to honor one’s parents even in the Law itself? For a first century Jew, and person of goodwill of our time, equally, the desire to bury one’s parents is held as a solemn duty. And yet, Jesus’ reply stuns us: “Follow me. And let the dead bury their dead.” What are we to make of this? In His characteristic style, Jesus cuts to the very heart of the matter: the call to discipleship is a radical one, cutting across all relationships and affiliations: whether they be familial, social, or political. To be Jesus’ disciple means to put Him first and to view all things in light of that most primary and fundamental of relationships.

This truth started to become a concrete reality for me during those weeks in Mexico. Although there was a priest in charge of this particular language program, once a week he brought in another priest of his religious order (who ministered elsewhere in the area) to hear confessions, should any of the seminarians desired to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There are some people whose holiness can be felt before they even say a word, and this man exuded a sanctity that was readily apparent. He was a very kind and seemingly prayerful man, so his presence brought peace, but it also made me squirm, it made me uncomfortable. Here he was, thirty years in Mexico, a very far way from his native Ireland. While in hindsight, I imagine he must have had at least a few opportunities to travel home and visit family, at the time I wasn’t so sure. All the same, whether he had chances to go home or not, he was a man utterly given over to the Lord and the Gospel. The thought began to take hold in my heart: could I do the same? In response to that question, all I saw inside of me was over attachment; attachment to family, to friends, to my own familiar surroundings and cultural milieu, and to earthly realities that, when viewed in the light of eternity, were of no significant consequence. This holy priest had spent most of his adult life in Mexico, speaking a language that was not his own, eating food that he had not grown up with, interacting with people who were not blood-relations, and living in an environment that was quite different to his native land. Moreover, he would probably spend the remainder of his life there as well, and here I was, barely able to spend seven weeks!

In hindsight, whether the Lord was calling me to the radical abandon of a missionary is not necessarily the point. What was and continues to be at stake is the need to live that life of abandon and radical detachment which the Gospel beckons me to live — maybe not within the context of missionary work, but nonetheless, in the concrete, everyday circumstances of my vocation and state in life. This call to radical discipleship applies not only to the priest, not only to the nun or religious sister, but to all; it’s a common vocation that is lived out in the celibate state of a priest or nun, in the vows of a monk, and in the vows of holy marriage and the mutual consecration of husband and wife.

As you look at your own life and its concrete, everyday circumstances, where does the Gospel challenge you to radical discipleship? Where does the Gospel challenge you to the necessary detachment from things that inhibit your freedom to serve the Lord without reserve?

Follow me.

The Bible and The Sacraments

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What are the sacraments? Can all the sacraments find their origin in Sacred Scripture? What is the relationship between Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition? Find the answers to these questions and more with this catechetical video series produced by the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

Thursday Afternoons at 2 PM and Thursday Evenings at 7 PM starting July 5. Open to adults, young adults, and teens.

Pat O’Keefe Room, St. Michael’s Parish Center.

For more information, contact Fr. Tom: frtpquinn@gmail.com.

With Eyes Firmly Fixed

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With Thanksgiving next week, and the days and weeks that follow, leading up to Christmas Day itself, and with many radio stations across the country switching to 24/7 Christmas music, the season is soon approaching for crowded malls, frustrating attempts at untangling strings of lights that weren’t tangled when you stowed them back in January, and too many slices of pumpkin pie (or if you’re not too keen on pumpkin pie, your sister’s chocolate pecan pie!).

And while I certainly intend in no way to diminish the liturgical season of Advent, whose ripe spiritual fruits often go unpicked, the coming weeks can be a beautiful time as family and friends gather, give thanks to God for all His blessings, and celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord. They can also bring about sadness as we take note of loved ones who no longer join us around the table. In either case, the coming weeks can often evoke that feeling of nostalgia, that curious sentimental desire to return either in thought or in reality to a former time in one’s life, to one’s homeland, or to a former set of circumstances that are no longer in place; we can often yearn greatly for the happiness of a former time and place, especially if the current realities of our life are unfavorable. The truth of it, as we know, is that we cannot go back. Yet, in the tension that nostalgia can elicit, God extends an invitation; the Lord always meets us in the tension.

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus schools His disciples on the urgent and unexpected nature (to those who are not vigilant) of His Second Coming: As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man; they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage up to the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Similarly, as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building; on the day when Lot left Sodom, fire and brimstone rained from the sky to destroy them all.

Just as the judgment of the Lord entered into the world amidst the normal everyday routines of the people of Noah’s and Lot’s day, so will the fullness of the Kingdom of God at the consummation of time. As the Lord warns, we know neither the day nor the hour, not only of His general coming at the end of the world but also on a more personal level at the moment of our deaths: and so we must live with hearts full of the knowledge that no one lives as his own master, and no one dies as his own master. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7-8).

In particular, Jesus calls us to remember the wife of Lot. At the command of his angelic visitors, Lot gathers his family and flees the city of Sodom before its impending destruction. Lot received the command from the angel that they are not to look back as God destroys the city for its grave iniquity. Lot’s wife does not heed the Lord’s command and so is herself destroyed, being turned into a pillar of salt. What motivated her to “look back?” Was it curiosity? Was it to have one last glance at her home? A sense of nostalgia for the friends and familiar times she would be leaving behind?

You and I won’t be physically turned into a pillar of salt for “looking back,” that is, for indulging a sense of nostalgia. However, constantly living in the past won’t do us any good and might as well be the spiritual equivalent of a pillar of salt, both in our relationships with others and the Other: God Himself.

With regard to relationships with others: holding on grudges and past hurts doesn’t bring the offending party healing, and certainly doesn’t bring us healing either, but keeps the wounds foul and festering. Uniting these wounds to the Cross of Christ, asking Him — even begging Him — for the grace to forgive genuinely from the heart is a much better route than the road of anger, resentment, or (God-forbid) hatred.

What about if we’re the offending party? Feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse are useful to elicit personal contrition and so seek other’s forgiveness as well as God’s, not to mention receiving His forgiveness and healing in the confessional. Moreover, a healthy recollection of our past sins can be useful in gratefully recalling God’s abundant mercy towards us, stoking the flames of love for Him in our hearts, and strengthening our wills against falling into the same sins again in the future. Yet, living in past moral failings can be a black hole used by the enemy to suck us into discouragement, doubt God’s mercy, and entangle us in the snare of spiritual and psychological desolation.

In his epistle to the Philippians, Saint Paul references his own struggle to keep his eyes fixed on the upward call of that transformative union with Christ. Paul himself was no stranger to regrets from his past, having been such an ardent persecutor of the first Christians. Yet he made interest, as it were, on the Lord’s mercy, devoting himself to the Gospel message and using the compunction from past sins to propel him onward:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14). 
Perhaps the circumstances of your life aren’t quite as you had hoped they would be and all you want is to go back to make different decisions than you had: strain forward!  Do not doubt God’s power to bring good out of a dire situation: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Perhaps there are crosses and trials you never imagined would befall you: Strain forward!  Trust that God, in His divine providence, has a plan for you.

It can be very difficult to move through our lives with trust in God’s Providence. The changing of times and places and circumstances can bring with them doubt, fear, and anxiety: Why is God allowing this to happen to me? Where is He leading me? It is in these moments we need to remember the wife of Lot. It is in these moments that our decision to strain forward means all the difference between a pile of useless salt devoid of any flavor and basking in the light of His Face.

From Our Littleness

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Benedictine monk Fr. Mark Kirby’s reflection* on the “liturgical providence” of God demonstrates itself time and again as deeply insightful and filled with the light of truth, even in the simplicity of an ordinary weekday.

Having just celebrated the feast day of Saint Matthew, the great Apostle and author of the First Gospel, our brief weekday hiatus from Luke and into Matthew’s text yesterday left lingering on our hearts and minds the words of Jesus: Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do . . . . I did not come to call the righteous but sinners. The liturgy sought to sear these words of life on our hearts during the gospel but again at the Communion antiphon just as the faithful are readying their hearts to receive the Divine Guest in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. And how fitting, as we who labor against the forces of sin and death, draw near to receive the “medicine of immortality” (cf. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, c. 35 AD – c. 107 AD). The liturgy leaves us with Christ the Divine Physician, He Who brought healing to Matthew, and Who longs to bring healing to us.

And so it is providential that with the resumption of the normal weekday cycle of readings, we return to the Gospel of Luke, he who himself was a physician, and presents to us the Lord who longs to bring wholeness to His people. Signs of this are found throughout the brief passage. Luke tells us that with the Lord are the Twelve Apostles, but also many women disciples who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, amongst them Mary Magdalene, from whom, Luke tells us, Jesus had exorcised seven demons; Joanna, the wife of King Herod’s steward, Chuza; and a woman named Susanna; the fact that Luke makes a point of singling them out individually indicates that they enjoyed some prominence in the early Church. They accompany Jesus as He travels from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God.

From one village to another, Jesus travels and speaks, bringing that living water (cf. John 7:37-38) to quench and to heal. And yet, for us, it is perhaps the words with which Luke leaves us that are the point of receptivity for us in the gospel passage today. After naming Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, he says there were many others who provided for them out of their means. That is, they provided material support for the Lord and the Twelve in their mission. Whether she was affluent, such as Joanna, or one of the “many” who are not named specifically, each had a necessary part to play; if they hadn’t, Luke, who is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, would not have made the effort of including this reality in the sacred text; and so if it is important to God that it be included in the gospel text, there is something in it for us.

Their material support would have provided food, drink, shelter, a place to rest and recuperate from wearying travel under a harsh climate. But what of, we might say, the immaterial support they provided? Is it not true that as much as we value the physicality of a gift – the taste of food, the beauty and warmth of a piece of clothing – isn’t it equally, if not more so, true, that we relish the sentiment and, above all, love, that gives reason and acts as a vehicle for gifts? Both for the apostles and for each other, would not the invisible beauty and generosity of their hearts, manifested in visible ways to be sure, been a source of inspiration and encouragement at the times when the Gospel message was met with rejection and scorn?

Matthew’s conversion brought about the conversion of many others, Saint Bede the Venerable comments in his homily for the Feast of Saint Matthew. And so too with the holy women: their generosity elicited the generosity of many others. This dynamic cannot be overemphasized: our holiness is not for ourselves alone, but radiates out from us and through the entire Mystical Body of Christ. The dynamic of holiness is always that of a river, flowing through us and out to the world around us.

Today’s simple gospel passage is the continuation of the dynamic of conversion and discipleship begun yesterday: just as Christ’s heart-piercing gaze elicited a response from Matthew, so it was for this holy band of faithful women who accompanied Jesus. Whether that discipleship was forged in dramatic ways, as with Mary Magdalene, or in ways only known to God and themselves, they first received and then responded in like manner to the Divine Generosity which first transformed them, giving from their means, even if only meager. Are we emulating their example? Giving from our means? Our littleness?

 

 

* “I am astonished at the liturgical providence of God . . . . There is not a day in the calendar when God does not, in some way, reach out to each of us through the sacred liturgy. There is not a day when God, acting through His liturgical providence, does not address to each of use the word that cleanses, that heals, that illumines. If we hear nothing, retain nothing, and go away empty, it is not because God has failed us; it is because we have not known how to open the ear of our hearts to God” (Dom Mark Kirby, OSB, Silverstream Priory).

A further reflection of his:

http://vultuschristi.org/index.php/2015/10/gaudium-sit-tibi-semper/