Just like fire burning up the way, if I could light up the world for just one day. Watch this madness, colorful charade. No one can be just like me anyway.
We get a name in baptism. The depths of our souls are stamped, by that holy sacrament, with a supernatural identification which will eternally tell us who we were meant to be.
Baptism gives us a divine vocation to find ourselves in Christ. It gives us our identity in Christ. Baptism gives us our personal vocation to reproduce in our own lives the life and sufferings and love of Christ in a way unknown to anyone else who has ever lived under the sun.
–Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, “The Word of the Cross”
Question: How can you possibly tell me that my becoming myself depends on an obscure rabbi who died during the Roman Empire?
Answer #1: If not on Him, then who? Who else has revealed the beauty of God like Jesus of Nazareth?
Answer #2: Join us sinners who gather around the holy altar, and you’ll see.
In our readings at Holy Mass today—the first reading from Job and the gospel reading from Luke 9—we encounter two intense human emotions. Neither of them are feelings that we generally want to experience. But we do have these feelings sometimes.
Job cursed the day he was born. He prayed for death. We might call that: Despair. Hopelessness. Now, Job had pretty much every right to feel this way. He had lost everything and suffered miserably.
In the gospel we read about how the Lord’s disciples reacted when the Samaritans treated them rudely and contemptuously. “Shall we call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans?”
The disciples had suffered mistreatment, so they were angry. They wanted revenge. Again: we would probably feel the same way; probably have felt the same way, under similar circumstances.
Life can be rough. Anger, despair—sometimes we come by these feelings honestly. The question is: Can we find any medicine for them?
We heard in our gospel reading that the Lord Jesus “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” Now, why did He resolutely determine to journey to Jerusalem? Was he headed to see a playoff game at Mount Zion Stadium? Between the Jerusalem Templeminders and the Capernaum Tilapia Tuggers?
No. He resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem because “the days for Him to be taken up” had arrived. His Hour had come. He went to Jerusalem to die on the cross. And to rise again from the dead. And to ascend to the right of the Father in heaven, whence He shall come to judge us all.
Human life involves suffering. Some suffer more than others. But no one skates through totally unscathed. Sometimes we get angry. Sometimes we despair.
But Jesus is alive. That is the medicine. He suffered for us, with us–in us, and us in Him. But that’s not all. He suffered so that we sufferers could share in His victory and His glory. He suffered, and He triumphed. Triumphed over suffering, over death, over all evil.
That’s the truth. To hold fast to that truth; to hold fast to Christ Himself—the living, breathing Jesus, Who dwells in heaven, Who knows all, Who understands all—to hold fast to Him, and to build our lives on Him, on faith in His immortal life: that is the medicine for anger and despair that we really need.
That we have the right to kill babies in the womb. That two people of the same sex can marry. That the Pill or implant or I.U.D.’s count as “health care.” That the rules apply to everyone except us enlightened crusaders for the pet causes of the Hollywood gentry. That I obviously have the feminist prowess that it takes, because of my long record of faking it till I made it (all of which began by being married to a former president): Hillary Clinton’s endless nonsense.
That we should break up Mexican-American families and turn our backs on desperate refugees. That we should burn more greenhouse gases. That we have the international clout to benefit from imposing trade barriers. That the world will just roll over whenever I bark. That I have any idea whatsoever, really, about how to lead the executive branch of the federal government. That I have any idea what I’m talking about pretty much ever: Donald Trump’s endless nonsense.
The nonsense cascades over us like Niagara Falls. But that does not give us an excuse to bathe in nonsense ourselves.
We must watch carefully tonight; we must listen carefully. Thinking of the poor and defenseless as we listen. Thinking of facts, as many facts as we know–rather than wallowing in our own sometimes-vituperative prejudices.
Thinking: fraternal charity will oblige me to vote for one of these candidates. Thinking: I must stand as a bulwark against the tidal-wave-size tendency in this country to see this as a sideshow that we can play for cheap laughs.
Charity towards my neighbor and my fellowman will oblige me to vote for one of these candidates. Which ought it to be? This choice, and no other, will face me. The Lord will not hold me responsible for everything that could have been, but wasn’t.
What He will hold me responsible for, once everything is said and done: When I voted in the fall of 2016, did I make a serious, thoughtful choice, based on facts?
And did I pray, pray, pray that His will be done, that the innocent and defenseless be protected, and that we would live together in peace and fraternity as a nation?
The fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel recounts three enchanting parables. We read them at Mass two Sundays ago… Lost sheep. Lost coin. Prodigal son. Vivid images of Divine Mercy. Comforting, and not difficult to understand. Luke 15.
Dogs licking the poor man’s sores. The rich man dying of thirst in the afterlife. A chasm that no one can cross. And father Abraham saying that no one else can go to warn the rich man’s brothers.
Now, most people know that life in this world isn’t fair. Bad luck can hit good people, and the wicked often prosper. The ancient pagans expressed this by inventing a special goddess, the goddess of Fortune. She spins the wheel of arbitrary and unfair fate.
Like what happened to the king of ancient Troy. The Greeks snuck into the city, hidden in a big wooden… horse. Then a young Greek warrior mercilessly slew the old Trojan king.
Any fans of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? One scene in Hamlet narrates the fall of Troy and the murder of the king. Old and feeble, the king couldn’t even lift his sword. The scene of his death is so sad, so wrong, so utterly unfair, that Shakespeare curses the goddess:
Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod, take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends!
The “Prosperity Gospel:” If God loves you, and you’re good, then you will have a comfortable house, a shiny car, a well-padded bank account, and good teeth. On the other hand, if you’re a loser, and can’t pay your bills, it’s your own fault, and God doesn’t love you.
That’s the Prosperity Gospel. A doctrine which lets comfortable, self-centered people like the rich man in the parable sit at their tables, while a poor man starves, and think: “Well, it’s his fault that he’s so poor and such a loser.”
But the arbitrary spinning of Fortune’s wheel does not deal out justice on earth. To live in the truth, we must utterly reject the Prosperity Gospel for the nonsense that it is. Material prosperity does not accurately measure interior virtue, and it doesn’t make you one of the Chosen.
Lord Jesus addressed last Sunday’s parable of the Dishonest Steward, the first part of Luke 16, to His own disciples. But the Pharisees overheard Him. So then the Lord told the story of Lazarus and the rich man for their benefit, the Pharisees’ benefit.
It’s no accident that, in the story, the bosom on which Lazarus comes to rest belongs to Abraham. One way for us to understand all of Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees is to grasp the fundamental question in dispute, namely: What does it mean to be a child of Abraham? God Almighty chose the children of Abraham as His own, His people. But what precisely makes you a child of Abraham, one of the Chosen?
Jesus spent His earthly ministry trying to help people understand: Fulfilling the Law of Moses will not bring anyone to Abraham’s bosom. Not because the Law of Moses is wrong. But because no one in this fallen world has enough righteousness to keep the divine law. God does not choose us because we’re good. Rather: God chooses to save sinners.
Abraham himself lived before the written law came down on Mount Sinai; he never had the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone. But what he had was true humility, true faith in the Providence of God. The opposite of the Prosperity Gospel, the opposite of pharisaism.
God has given us sinners a means by which to purify our selfish hearts. Provided we are humble enough to see that when someone suffers in poverty, it’s not because it’s his fault. It’s because it’s our fault, the human race’s fault. We can enter the Kingdom of God, as Luke 16 says, by doing a particular kind of violence. Doing violence to the concept of “mine.”
“Mine, mine, mine!” we must utterly destroy. We destroy our selfishness by giving things away. In this fallen world, the children of Abraham, the children of God, learn to forget the word “mine” by giving alms.
When the Lord Jesus came out from the Jordan River, after His Baptism, the heavens opened and the Father spoke: “This is my beloved Son, on Whom My favor rests/in Whom I am well-pleased.”
That moment in Christ’s life expresses the goal of our spiritual lives, doesn’t it? To rest in the pleasure of God, right here, right now. To live on the will of the Father as our food and drink, like the Lord Jesus lived on the Father’s will. To love God and please Him—by lovingly obeying His plan to make us ourselves, in full.
Qoheleth penetratingly assessed the vanity of the world. It’s all perfect futility–with the rivers running to the oceans through generation after generation, and Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar, and, Mao Tse Tung, and Whitney Houston, and every other dead person, moldering in dusty graves. And all of us facing the same oblivion… Pure futility. Unless we have the mind of Christ, and rest in the divine good pleasure.
To share the triune love–which heaven vividly revealed to us on the bank of the Jordan—that gives life meaning. That gives life true joy. Without a share in the divine good pleasure: vanity and chasing after wind.
We Catholics very much favor dialogue with other religions. Anyone who does homage to the one true God we recognize as a brother or sister. We always seek mutual understanding and peace with everyone.
But we would never say: “All religions are really fundamentally the same.” Because, without the mind of Christ—it’s all vanity.
We Catholics love to seek unity with other Christians, which we call “ecumenism.” We recognize anyone who confesses Christ as a brother or sister, with whom we seek peace and mutual understanding.
But we would never say, “All denominations are really the same.” Because having the mind of Christ is fundamentally a matter of supernatural grace. We cannot rest in the pleasure of the Almighty Father, in union with the Son, without a Gift from on high.
That Gift comes to us through the sacraments that Christ gave to His Church, when He founded Her. On the rock of Peter—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—united on earth by the Bishop of Rome, our pope. With whom we pray at every Mass, seeking to share the mind of our Lord through the holy mystery we celebrate at our altars.
When people open up their Bibles, do they generally tend to read the Old Testament, or the New Testament? I figure: the New.
If you start reading the New Testament from the beginning, what’s the first name you encounter? Gospel according to Matthew.
We read the gospel according to Matthew to hear about the wise men visiting the baby Jesus. We read the gospel according to Matthew to hear the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s gospel is quoted in the dome of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, in letters taller than me (Tu es Petrus… stands 6’6″). Matthew’s gospel tells us about the separation of the sheep and the goats at the end of time.
Of course we love all four gospels. But this man Matthew wrote the definitive book, the biography of Christ that we call “the gospel of the Church.” It gives us all the most-basic information about Jesus that we need to know.
Now imagine a large airport, like JFK in New York, or LAX. Imagine all the TSA officers at work in that airport, and in all the airports in the US. Now imagine one of those TSA officers.
Airline travelers tend to think of TSA officers as: a highly annoying necessary evil. Which is how subjects of the Roman Empire mostly thought of imperial tax collectors. Airline travelers hardly think of TSA officers as unique human beings.
But imagine one of the thousands and thousands of TSA officers being chosen by God to communicate in writing the knowledge essential to the meaning of life. And true everlasting happiness. One—chosen, and who becomes the first name you encounter when you open your Bible to find God’s Word.
That is God’s incredible way of dealing with us. Coming into the middle of this huge, whirling mess of a world. Lifting up a nondescript, no-count dude like you or me. And sharing divine glory with us.
“…those who hear the Word of God and act on it.” (Luke 8:21)
We need religion and Church to help us conceive clearly what the world really is, and who we really are. We can play around, imagining that we are something that we’re not—like imagining that I’m Superman or Darth Vader. That’s what Halloween is for, right?
But: to live in reality, we need the Word of God and the teaching of the saints.
Thousands of Korean Christians died as martyrs about 200 years ago. One of them, Fr. Andrew Kim, wrote to his people shortly before his martyrdom, to remind them of the message of the Word of God.
The people were rice farmers. Anyone every visited a rice farm?
Anyway, I think it’s pretty similar to farming in general. 1. The farmer works to cultivate the soil and sows the seed. 2. The seed needs water to grow. 3. The farmer hates to see weeds. 4. The farmer looks forward to a fruitful harvest.
St. Andrew Kim reminded his people: God is a farmer. The world is His farm. He has sown us as His rice plants. He has watered us, by sending His only-begotten Son, so that we can grow. He hates to see us choked by the weeds of self-centeredness and sin. He looks for us to bear fruit—which we do by seeking to know His will and acting on it. He hopes to share the joy of the harvest with us.
These days plenty of people seem never to think of God. They hardly seem to understand what going to church is all about. Meanwhile, they have no sense for the grand reality of the world, or of our own particular lives.
Being Superman might be fun for like 15 minutes. Maybe for a couple hours, if I’m trick-or-treating. But being who I really am is a million times better.
We are God’s handiwork, God’s rice plants, God’s beloved children. To praise Him, worship Him, love Him, and try always to co-operate with His will—that’s what we were made to do. And when we do it, we can actually find true happiness.
First: Everything we human beings do, we do for the sake of some goal. There are really only two ultimate goals. Either we live for God, or we live for some satisfaction which we can have in this world—pleasure, power, or vainglory, all of which require money. The first goal–to live for heaven–is worthy of who we are, the children of God. The second goal is the sad desperation which takes over when we lose God’s friendship.
The ultimate goal we set for ourselves puts us into one of two categories. As Christ Himself put it: living for God makes a person a “child of light.” Living for something else makes someone a “child of this world,” a servant of mammon.
The second fact to keep in mind: The Parable of the Dishonest Steward is addressed to Christ’s disciples, to the children of light. The gospel itself says this. This is not a parable about converting from serious sin to a life of obedience to God’s commandments, like the parable of the Prodigal Son we read at Sunday Mass last week. The Parable of the Dishonest Steward is for people who are already converted.
And the third fact to keep in mind is this: leaving aside his dishonesty, the steward in the parable did act in a remarkably resourceful, clever, and decisive manner. We could get into nitty-gritty details about the role of land stewards in the corrupt farming economy of first-century Palestine, which involved absentee landlords, exploitative sub-leasing arrangements, and dishonesty at every level. But suffice it to say that this steward used his mind, identified his own difficult situation, and took quick and effective action to prevent a personal disaster.
If we keep these three facts in mind, perhaps we can see the point the Lord Jesus is trying to make in the parable. He was speaking to His disciples, to people like us, who know His commandments and try to live by them. We already know that dishonesty and double-dealing are bad.
But He asks us to do is this: Think of the worldly people we know, the people bent on seeking pleasure or wealth or the esteem of other people. Their goals are not worthy, and yet look at how energetically and how cleverly they pursue them! Look at the dexterity and skill with which they seek fleeting satisfactions of one kind or another.
Meanwhile—the Lord is saying to us—meanwhile, you say that you are committed to living for my glory, that you seek true and everlasting happiness, which is infinitely more worthwhile than what the children of the world are after—and yet you sit here slack-jawed and passive, with glazed eyes, when you should be bending every effort, honing every skill, and capitalizing on every opportunity you have to grow in holiness and win souls for heaven.
We have been entrusted with many precious resources, and we have been given many opportunities. God gave them to us to use to further the noble goals that we say we have. We have to ask ourselves: Do we have energy? Then we should spend it all for Christ. Do we have skills? Then we should use them for the good of souls. Do we have money? It should be used for the growth of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.
How can we stand around clueless and idle while Satan’s servants are filled with uncanny zeal for the wrong things? We should be a hundred times more creative, more resourceful, more realistic, more prudent in rendering faithful service to God than the children of this world are in chasing after the shadows of selfishness and greed.
I think the Lord actually explained the parable perfectly when He added: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
Throughout His life and ministry, Christ certainly preached the message, “God is love.” No doubt about it. That God is love was Christ’s message. But He also preached another message that went hand-in-hand with the “God is love” thing. We close ourselves off to the Scriptures if we do not open our ears to this other dimension of Christ’s teaching. God is love. True. But guess what else? Life is short.
When Christ communicates the message “God is love,” He does not also say, “Therefore, relax. Therefore, take a Calgon bath.” God is love. Therefore, chill out on the couch, and loll around all the time. Because God made this world plush for us.
No. To the contrary. Christ’s message, taken as a whole, could perhaps be distilled like this: “When you die–which could be today–you will go to meet the God of love. Therefore, get ready to meet Him. By loving. Love like today were your last day on earth.”
Don’t be a woolgathering, slack-jawed, passive disciple. Be a disciple who is more clever than the cleverest Las-Vegas hustler. As clever as the cleverest Fortune-500 CEO is–be that clever about souls.
Above all, the parable highlights this fact: Everything we have in our hands now, everything about which we even can be clever now–it will all pass away. Everything we see or touch will pass away. Life on earth will end. And only our acts of genuine love will endure. Only the pure love we share with God and our neighbor will endure. Everything else is just so much straw.
It’s not a sin to have a million dollars. The sin would be to think that a million dollars will do me any good after I die–which I will soon do. It’s not a sin to hold power and influence in this world. The sin would be to think that I have any power over death and judgment. Death and judgment will come when they will come, whether I like it or not.
Let’s use a Las-Vegas metaphor. God holds the cards. All the cards are His. He deals me a hand to play in this short life. And He tells me, “Son, play your hand to win friends for eternal life. Play your hand so that when the game is over, which it will be very soon, the other players will say of you, ‘That’s a kind person. That’s a God-fearing person. That’s a person who listens before he speaks, smiles before he frowns, and gives with no thought of taking.’”
Win friends for eternal life with whatever you have to work with now. Because soon you will die. And then it won’t matter what kind of phone you own. Or whether or not your brother owes you $5,000, and never paid you back. Or whether you were right or wrong when you insisted that the house be painted that particular color, even though your wife wanted it to be a different color.
None of that will matter. Only kindness, honesty, generosity, piety, humility, justice, chastity, and faithfulness will matter. The godly things. They last.
The steward thought of his future, and it put the present into perspective. The Lord asks us to do the same. Life is short. Pray hard. Love. Let go of everything else.
I have traveled west for a few days, chasing the spirit of Fr. Thomas Merton–and trying to get out of my dear parochial vicars’ way, which I thanked my pastor for doing sometimes, when I was young.
I have reached the west bank of the Mississippi River; now it’s about time to turn around for home. But last Sunday I made some new Maronite Catholic friends, when I subbed for the abouna at St. Elias in Roanoke, and I want to let them know that I got as far as St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral, on Lebanon Drive, near the St. Louis Purina factory.
..The best Mertonian advice I have found so far (which he gives in his reflections on conscience in No Man is an Island):
We ought to stop taking our conscious plans and decisions with such infinite seriousness.
My own words for Senator Kaine: You have misdiagnosed our national problems, brother. We have a baby shortage. We need more babies. And I think we all know where babies come from, amigo. You are barking up the wrong tree.
…Speaking of politics, now that the presidential debates shortly will descend upon us, let’s remind ourselves:
We Catholics are pro-life, pro-baby, pro-immigrant, pro-real-health-care, pro-good-old-fashioned-marriage, andpro-Paris-Agreement on carbon-emission reduction.
Knowing anything about pastoral problems in Argentina certainly exceeds my paygrade. But Father Merton offers some profound insights into conscience. He expresses himself beautifully, and I recommend reading his own words, but allow me to summarize a few points.
1. On the one hand, “conscience” means that I act freely, making a choice for myself. Animals don’t have consciences. But on the other hand, conscience presumes the guidance of a higher authority. God governs things, not me. Acting out of “conscience” means submitting myself to the truth.
2. Faith underlies the operation of conscience. I believe in God, and I believe that God exercises His authority through properly established laws. Holy Mother Church’s laws, above all.
3.Ergo, I act freely when I make decisions guided by just and true laws. That’s how I discern the will of God.
The Lord gives us holy inspirations all the time. But we have to sort those inspirations out from all the interior impulses that we experience, many of which are not holy. The most-basic principle for sorting it out: If what I want to do involves breaking a just law, then that impulse doesn’t come from God.
I don’t mean to minimize the pain and confusion that divorced people may feel about receiving Holy Communion. But we have a much more fundamental issue to face: the law of conjugal love itself demands lifetime fidelity, and there’s nothing any priest or pope can say to anyone that can change that.
No one can have a peaceful conscience and a tranquil soul without attaining some level of chastity–that is: true joy in exercising sovereign command over my sexual expression of love, so that I am always honest with it.
What I’m getting ready to say may involve some over-simplification, but not much more that a few percentage-points’ worth:
We can solve most of our sixth-commandment problems by going for a walk instead. If it’s raining, use an umbrella. Just keep your pants on, and go for a walk instead.
Repeat 100 times. Then the whole situation will become immeasurably clearer.