Seeds and Bubbles and Lists

The farmer sows the seeds. Then he proceeds to continue living in his own little bubble of life—eating, drinking, sleeping, laboring appropriately. Over time his plants grow. The farmer doesn’t know how.

We all live in our own little bubbles of life. What makes the farmer in the parable pious and fruitful? He knows he lives in his own little bubble. He knows that, outside the limits of his puny perceptions, God does great things.

alanis-morissette-27121At mid-day every day he pauses and declares: ‘Here are the crops God gives me, growing in the soil He gave me, thanks to the sun and the rain He has given me. All according to His design, and by His power! Praise Him! Now: time for lunch.’

The trend among American bishops these days is: Release a list of all the priests accused of sexual abuse in my diocese. In the ‘American bishop bubble’ this amounts to major drama these days. ‘Look! Openness! We’re actually willing to discuss these things! See!’

Meanwhile, outside the highly insulated bishop bubble, the rest of us are like: ‘Okay. Fine. Good for you. Do your thing. Let’s hope it’s all fair and true. Let’s hope it does more good than harm.’

Sexual predators try to create an impenetrable bubble, to swallow up the victim. Alanis Morissette completely nailed it in her song “Hands Clean.”

If it weren’t for your maturity, none of this would have happened. If you weren’t so wise beyond your years, I would have been able to control myself… This could get messy… Don’t go telling everybody. Overlook this supposed crime.

There’s more. It’s agony to listen to. Because it is so real.

Jesus Christ came and died to liberate us from such bubbles of enslavement and degradation. He came to free us, and unite us again with the indomitably life-giving mystery of God.

Christ’s grace comes from heaven to pop the noxious bubbles and get us out into some clean air. We still live in our bubbles of highly limited perception. It takes a lifetime to get free of them completely. But at least, with the grace of Christ, we can live like the steady farmer. We can see that God has plans of love and growth for us, even though we don’t always understand those plans.


What a Fool Believes He Sees

[An essay at inspired me to give the old blog a new name–the first line of Shakespeare’s Henry V. A Muse of fire can destroy a Death Star.]
Homily on the Parable of the Sower

The eternal Word proceeds eternally from the Father. He pours out the eternal Spirit. And He gives us created reality as we know it, in all its glory.

Or, should I say: He gives us reality as we strive to know it. The work of our lifetime: to attune our wayward and ignorant minds to reality as it actually is, as God gives it to us.

To hear the Word and accept it—that requires constant effort. It requires our daily readiness to admit that we, for the most part, live in our own little dream-worlds, miles away from God and each other.

doobie brothers 1979

What a fool believes he sees no wise man has the power to reason away.

(Doobie Brothers, 1979)

How? How can we find the courage to reason away all our own foolishness? So we can welcome God’s gift, as it comes? Without getting in His way? Without shutting the little door that cuts off our ‘personal space’ from the great, lovable world outside, full of people whom God gave me to love?

How about if we try to grasp the most-fundamental reality of all, first.

On the cross, the eternal Word spoke His entire truth. “You are My people!”

Let’s answer: “You are our God!”

The Good Samaritan Seeks Justice


Rembrandt Good Samaritan
The Good Samaritan, by Rembrandt

Today at Holy Mass we read the parable of the Good Samaritan. It turns on one sentence. The Samaritan looked at the robbery victim “with compassion.”

Let’s try to think of that victim with compassion, too. Don’t we have to imagine that, at some point, the poor, wounded man asked, “Did they catch the thieves who did this to me?”

He might add: “If only they had asked me peacefully, I would gladly have helped them with some money. But to beat me and leave me half-dead? For this, they should do time in prison. And restore to me my money. Justice demands it.”

To which we can only imagine the Samaritan—who represents Christ—saying: “Amen, brother.

“I spoke to the centurion in Jericho. I gave him a full account of what I know. He has investigated the case, and his soldiers arrested a group of thieves. When you’re well enough, we’ll take you to see if you can identify them as the group that robbed and beat you.”

In other words: If we claim to have Christian compassion for victims of violence, that means: Doing the painstaking work required to see justice done.

Of course we know that no human effort can attain perfect justice. And we trust that God will make everything right in the end.

But when God helps someone who has been victimized see the wrongness of what has happened; when a victim of violence attains the clarity of mind necessary to describe the crime carefully and thoroughly, and then demand justice—that is a miracle of grace.

If we do not accompany that victim in the quest for justice, then any claims we make to Christian compassion are nothing but empty hypocrisy. A Good Samaritan who loves the suffering neighbor will fight for justice, and will not rest until something gets done. We won’t live in a world in which people can rob and beat innocent travelers and get away with it scot-free.

The Wise Virgins’ Oil


The question that remains, after the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins: What does the oil represent?

We considered this question exactly one year ago. Anyone remember what we came up with? The oil represents prayer. Specifically: praying the Mass.

But our Lord’s parables offer inexhaustible depths of meaning. So let me throw another answer at you. A two-fold answer. The oil in the parable represents:

1. Self-abandonment to divine Providence. Total trust. God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom, and His weakness is greater than human strength. We live by faith in the unconquerable goodness of the Lord Who governs everything.

2. But total abandonment to divine Providence does not involve our abandoning our capacity for foresight and sound decision-making. The Lord said: Be innocent as doves. He also said…? Be wise as serpents.

–Yesterday I heard someone describe the American bishops as: Wise as doves and innocent as serpents. But let’s leave that aside—

So: The oil is total abandonment to divine Providence and also prudence. The virtue that “finds both the true good in every circumstance and the right means of achieving it,” as the Catechism puts it. Catechism goes on: “Prudence applies moral principles to particular cases and overcomes doubt about good and evil.”

Another definition, to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas: “Prudence means both skill at thinking about how to live a wholesome, good life and skill at putting the good thinking into practice.”

Prudence requires self-control, honesty, and courage. By the same token, no one can exercise self-control–or stay honest and brave—without prudence. In other words: No one can think right about doing right without doing right. But no one can do right without thinking and judging right.

Prudence is not “policy.” It is skill at applying good policies. But, of course, without good policies–without good principles–prudence cannot correctly resolve any problem. A prudent person is a principled person who also sees reality clearly enough to know which policy should guide you right now.

We need this oil. May God help us to keep it in our flasks.

Not Bad, but Good: The PA Grand Jury Report

PA Grand Jury victims

Today at Holy Mass we read the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Pretty famous parable.

The king forgives a huge debt. Turns out that debtor has a debtor of his own, owing much less. But he refuses to forgive. The other servants are outraged. So the king calls his debtor back and righteously condemns him.

Who’s the main character of the parable? A question prompted the parable: Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother’s sins? So: I guess this parable is about the original debtor? About his failure to show mercy? Or maybe it’s about the fellow servants? Their zeal for justice?

No, silly. Obviously the parable is about: The King. God. The mercy of God. He has compassion. He sees reality.

He is the only one in the parable who isn’t desperate. Because He has no needs. He doesn’t owe anyone anything. He has no fear whatsoever of the unvarnished truth.

Out of kindness, in order to get everything straight for everybody, He initiates a reckoning. But He Himself has such endless wealth that He can afford to write off huge debts. It doesn’t matter. He has infinitely more. Infinitely more.

God is the hero of the parable. He is the hero of the Bible. And He is the Spouse of the Church.

…Everybody heard about the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report? How about: Anybody actually read it?

Probably not, because the nauseating recurrent narrative in the Catholic media has repeated itself: The report comes out, and the usual happens. Bishops everywhere begin to talk endlessly about themselves. (Because that is what they do.)

My question is: Why is the release of this grand-jury report an occasion for sorrow? Most of the sorrowful events recounted in it occurred twenty years or more ago. The original events are terribly sad, and sickeningly maddening. But the release of the report is not sad. The release of the report is a triumph. Of the truth.

This moment has come because: the victims have achieved heroic honesty. They have stood up. They have born witness to exactly what we, the Catholic Church, believe in: Justice. Chastity. Truthfulness. The victims have done this in spite of the excruciating pain involved in doing it.

Seems to me that our job right now is to honor these heroes. They have shown great faith in the infinite love of God. Sorting out good from evil in their lives has cost them an enormous struggle. But they did it. They triumphed. This is their hour.

I say: We should rejoice that they have climbed to the top of this terrifying mountain. Now they can see a beautiful sight. God is good, and there is hope.

Many of the sex offenders listed in the report have died. They have met justice. Those still alive should face justice, and let’s hope they will. Seems like we human beings can manage that; we can organize things so that criminals face justice, and a penalty, for what they have done.

Steve Breen statute of limitations in hell
copyright Steve Breen

One thing the report, and the reaction of the bishops the past 36 hours, shows: The bishops of the United States do not know how to organize that. That is: Seeing justice done. They don’t have the foggiest idea how to study facts and make careful judgments.

Thank you, grand jury, for pointing that out. But we knew that already. That has actually been perfectly obvious for many, many years.

All that, really, is just a tawdry sideshow to the real brilliance of the moment. What really happened when this report came out is this: A people abused and suffering stood up, spoke the truth, and brought about a new and better day.

James: The Man of Hour. Part I

James w McCarrick

The yeast leavens the dough. Makes it delicious bread. The yeast of the Kingdom of God turns this flat and dry world into a beautiful, airy wonderland.

What is this yeast of God? The charity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ. Divine love. The Holy Spirit. The giving of life.

And what marches right alongside the charity of the Heart of Christ? What moves with it, bound up with it like two strands in a coaxial cable? The cable that delivers holiness, vigor, and hope to your house? The chastity of Christ. The charity of Christ and the chastity of Christ are so closely interwoven with each other that they are practically the same thing. Only one different letter.

sacredheart(If you count “st” as one letter.)

In the loving Heart of Christ, we find two gifts of chastity.

1) The Lord Jesus never married, never had children by the martial embrace. To some men and women, he gives this gift of perpetual chastity in celibacy. It involves spiritual struggles, sometimes intense. But consecrated celibacy also brings with it the indescribable blessedness of living on earth with one foot in heaven.

2) The loving Heart of God also loves His spouse, the Church, with unswerving, gentle fidelity. To most people, He gives this gift of marriage and family life. The Christian conjugal life, faithful until death, offers us an image of the communion of heaven.

Life flows into the world through these two forms of chastity. The coaxial cable of charity/chastity puts the divine yeast in the oven. The bread rises and becomes delicious.

What made me think of all this? The great Catholic hero of the past fortnight. James. He hasn’t given the public his last name. But he has given us a witness to the beauty of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

How, you ask? Isn’t he the one who came forward with the accusations against the former Archbishop of Washington? He tells an ugly story, a heartbreaking story. (See Part II of this post.)

Yes, indeed, he does. But the nugget at the heart of the story is this: James still has faith in the true, divine love and chastity of Jesus. If he didn’t, then the former Archbishop’s selfish cynicism would have overwhelmed this man’s soul completely.

But it hasn’t. James has enough faith and hope in God to measure McCarrick versus Jesus. And to stand up and cry out for justice.

Growing in God


The Parable of the Seed’s Growth. The farmer sleeps and rises, night and day, and his plants grow. He knows not how. [Spanish]

Even if this particular farmer had a doctorate in cellular biology, or botany, or meteorology—he still could not claim really to know how his plants manage to grow. To produce blade, then ear, then the full grain in the ear. The sun has power, and the rain, and Mother Earth, and the genius of the little seed: all have power which the farmer does not fully understand.

If he’s a contemplative sort of person, the farmer sleeps and rises, night and day. He watches this power unfold itself before his eyes. He gives God the glory.

Which brings us to the fact that the Lord Jesus presented this image as a parable of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps we could synthesize the parable’s meaning with one sentence. Life means growing in divine love.

Now, do we care what life means? Or do we just want pleasure, or wealth, or power, whenever and wherever we can find it? Without bothering to try to understand why we exist?

Well, I think we care. We want to understand why we exist. And try to do it right. We know that no matter what doctorates or other forms of education or expertise we might have, we need God to teach us the meaning of life. No one else can.

Bill ClintonDivine love. God loves. The infinite and all-powerful God loves infinitely and all-powerfully. We exist because He loves.

He was fine. He was happy. He longed for absolutely nothing, because He had everything. But: Because He loves so generously, He made the heavens and the earth, the angels, and us.

He loves us. The meaning of life involves loving Him back. The human race failed to love our Creator, and made a huge mess of sin, but He didn’t give up on us. To the contrary, He came to the earth, and spread out His arms on the cross, to show us an open Heart, and to open our hearts by the power of His love. That’s Jesus Christ. That’s the Holy Spirit and the work of the Church, the life of the sacraments.

Therefore, life means: living in Christ’s Church, loving God back for the love with which He has loved us. And it grows. By the grace of the sacraments, divine love grows in a Christian heart. We know not how.

Time passes. Some of us could say that the Bill-Clinton presidency seems like just yesterday. Or even the Reagan presidency, or the Carter presidency.

The world turns. We meet people. We try to treat them right. We try to live in the truth. We pray. We try to obey God. We try to do well the work God has given us to do. Meanwhile, through all this, decades pass, and we grow in divine love.

Setbacks come, to be sure. We amaze ourselves with our own moral weaknesses. But we don’t give up. Life means loving the God Who loves me, Who loves us. Let me learn. Let me understand better. Let me master myself. Let me forget myself. Let me grow.

earthsunAnd it happens, we know not how. Now, not knowing how—that goes against the grain for us little human geniuses, who pride ourselves on our knowhow.

But: God is God. What do we really know about Him? Loving God is like loving a country which we have never even visited. The pictures we have seen—they’re accurate, yes. Jesus Christ and His saints, they are the pictures of eternal heaven. And they are absolutely accurate pictures. We can’t doubt the glory and beauty of the God we love. But we have never been to that country, not yet. We don’t know. We do not know God.

The contemplative farmer stares at the sky, and the rain clouds forming in the west, and his fields with the little cornstalks in their rows—doing their thing, getting bigger in tiny, daily increments. He gazes at all this, and he thinks to himself:

‘This is something. This is life living. I’m the farmer, and I cultivated this ground and sowed these rows of seed—so I have to credit myself with making some contribution here. But I can only consider myself a docile, uninformed custodian. It requires an intelligence a million times bigger than my own, and a power a million times bigger than mine, to make one single ear of corn. To God Almighty be the glory!’

I think that may be what the Lord intends to teach us with this parable. We grow in God’s love, night and day, sleeping and waking, precisely by: humbling ourselves before Him. Like that farmer humbling himself before the power of earth and sky and Mother Nature.

Growing in divine love involves not knowing everything and controlling everything. Like I said, that goes against the grain for us sons and daughters of this technocratic age of unbridled human cleverness. But: trying to know and control everything stifles our growth in divine love. Growth in divine love requires one thing: Faith.

When we believe in Christ, the love that dwells in His Heart can and does dwell in our hearts, too, by the power of the Church’s sacraments. Then, we just patiently do our duty. And our hearts grow in God.

The Duty of Religion, Freely Offered

Marlon Brando Godfather
Does God break kneecaps?

Today at Holy Mass we read the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

The vineyard owner sets up a productive, eminently workable farm. Then he leases it to some fortunate tenants, who produce a bountiful harvest with very little trouble. At the proper time, the owner of the establishment sends his emissaries to “obtain some of the produce of the vineyard.” (Mark 12:2)

Now, one way to interpret this: Our Creator has given us life and a fruitful earth, many blessings, and countless opportunities to make good. All He asks is that we offer a return to Him—by practicing religion.

That is: We must acknowledge that we owe God everything. But if we pray every day, obey His commandments, and give Him an hour a week in church, along with some honest financial offering–that satisfies our duty. We get to keep “the rest,” so to speak.

Palermo Pantocrator Christ priestWe can apply the entire parable, using this interpretation. How does our Creator insist on us human beings doing our religious duty? Does He use force or threats? After all, don’t a lot of people skip religion these days?

The owner in the parable “insists” on receiving His due portion by: sending his defenseless son. The Son of God came not to break kneecaps, but to show us perfect religion. He never laid a violent hand on anyone. In fact, He never exactly demanded anything. He simply showed that true faithfulness to the Father brings peace to the soul, and genuine joy—joy beyond what the world can give.

Christ invoked no authority, other than the authority of the truth. Our Creator does not force anyone to practice religion. Precisely because religion must involve love and gratitude, freely offered.

Doesn’t mean that God will endure mockery forever. A reckoning will come. Jesus came once in gentleness; He will come again with terrifying judgment. We do need to teach our children to fear hell if they skip Mass. Gentle Jesus Himself said that the owner would put to death the tenants who refused to practice religion.

But the way the owner went about “collecting” his portion—not by force, but by kindness aimed at reconciliation—that method must guide us always. It cost the son his life. But that’s the parable’s message: A Christian willingly dies for the sake of religion, but would never kill for it.

Mental Prayer and PB & J’s

Soil that receives the seed, allows it to grow, and then brings forth fruit thirty-, sixty-, a hundredfold. As the Lord explained, that fertile soil represents “those who hear the word and accept it.”

Representation_of_the_Sower's_parableThe Word: Jesus Christ, the Person. Those who hear Him. Those who hear the gospels, and think about them regularly. Those, in other words, who live under the “roof” of the Church, venerating the Son of God, rejoicing in the salvation He won for us, and striving always to participate in His unfathomable love.

The Lord gave me the gift of mental prayer at a young age. I know I had it by age twelve, since I have a vivid memory of writing a poem about the Lord Jesus for a seventh-grade English assignment.

But Christian mental prayer is no extraordinary, esoteric gift—at least not for people raised in the Church. It was just the simple fact that my parents made sure I was where I was supposed to be every Sunday morning. So I heard the gospel readings, and I found them interesting. I found Him interesting—Jesus Christ. More interesting than anything else, even including basketball. My middle-school existence consisted, therefore, of Christian mental prayer at chance moments, and endless shoot-arounds, lay-up drills, and three-on-threes.

Seriously, though, let’s listen to St. Francis de Sales. They laid the Gentle Doctor to rest 395 years ago today, so January 24 makes an especially good day to listen to him. That said, a lot of people make their way toward heaven by studying the teaching of St. Francis de Sales every day. …Anyway, he wrote:

Children learn to speak by hearing their mother talk, and stammering forth their childish sounds in imitation; and so if we cleave to the Savior in meditation, listening to His words, watching His actions and intentions, we shall learn in time, through His Grace, to speak, act, and will like Himself.

Christian mental prayer—which is the highway to heaven—involves absolutely nothing that the average bear doesn’t already have in his or her life. The opposite. Christian mental prayer is like sandwiches, folding laundry—like making sure there’s milk in the fridge—it’s the homiest, most day-to-day thing, for a practicing Catholic. When we are where we’re supposed to be every Sunday morning, the gospels become part of the way we think, feel, react, and speak.

Once we reach adulthood, however, we do become susceptible to Word-choking distractions in life. So we must set aside time for the Lord every day, time for meditation on the gospels–at least a few minutes.

May the good Lord help us to do that. So that He can bear His fruit in us.

Conscience and the Commandments

Rembrandt Moses Ten Commandments

The Parable of the Vigilant Servants, according to St. Mark. Here the Lord singles out the gatekeeper from among the servants. Does the watchful gatekeeper represent anyone in particular in the Church? Who among us must keep watch through the night, so to speak, for the benefit of the rest of the household? [Spanish.]

Maybe we could say: The monks and nuns? Or the Pope? Or the bishops? Or all us priests? Indeed, we all have our particular duties in the service of God, and we shepherds must concern ourselves not just with the dangers that could affect our own souls, but with all the souls in the whole flock.

That said, the fact is that every Christian must see him or herself as the gatekeeper in this parable. Because we all have to keep watch over ourselves. We have to pray insistently with the prophet Isaiah: Lord, when You come, may you find us doing good, and not evil!

Now, where do we live? I mean, at this point in our pilgrims’ progress? And I don’t mean Rocky Mount or Martinsville. I mean: “the world.” Right now we live under temporary circumstances, in a place that is not really “home.” A place where things change all the time, and it’s often difficult to get to the heart of the matter, and it’s easy to get confused. We live in a place where doing good doesn’t always come easily. And avoiding evil can involve enormous struggles. We walk as pilgrims in “the world”–a beautiful but dangerous land.

So we must keep watch over our actions and our omissions. We must examine ourselves interiorly, like the night watchman examines the dim horizon. And when we do that; when we live a reflective, careful, sober life–we find within ourselves a helper, a source of insight into the truth, a kind of “moral pacemaker,” so to speak: the voice of conscience.

Charlton Heston Ten Commandments MosesThe invisible and transcendent God, Who has a plan to get us all to heaven–He speaks to me, deep within my heart and mind, to guide me along my pilgrim way.

God never fails to guide us. But I can and do fail to heed His guidance. And every time I ignore the voice of my conscience–every time I sin–I effectively turn down the volume on the interior speaker, if I might put it that way. Every sin makes the voice of conscience weaker. The more I sin, the deafer I become.

Lord, that You might meet us doing good! Because doing good gives us real peace. Doing good makes us genuinely happy. Sin might offer short-term pleasure–none of us would ever sin if it didn’t. But sinning always becomes a dog in the long run; sin always turns from short-term pleasure to long-term slavery. So we pray insistently with the prophet: Lord, rend the heavens and come down! Shake us out of our moral mediocrity! Make us good, by guiding us in the truth!

The Lord replies: Children. I already did that. I already opened up the heavens to help you morally. Ever hear of Moses and Mount Sinai? Remember when I gave you the eight commandments? (Trick question.)

When God gave Moses the tablets spelling out the fundamentals of doing good and avoiding evil, He did our consciences the greatest favor ever. Our consciences cannot work right without the Ten Commandments guiding them. When we stay close to God, the Commandments sit at bottom of the hull of our souls, so to speak, like a keel that keeps the boat from capsizing.

If I find myself starting to think things like, “Maybe one of these ten commandments really isn’t necessary,” then I know that I have strayed. I have turned the volume on the interior speaker of conscience down to zero by settling into one sin or another. I have become a stranger to the truth.

But if the Ten Commandments sing to me like a ten-stringed guitar; if I can hold them like a musical instrument in my hands, to give glory to God by living in obedience to His plan, then I can be sure that the volume knob on my conscience is turned up to the right level, and I can stride forward in life with confidence.

So, the $10,000 question. Do we know all the Commandments by heart? What greater Christmas present could I give myself than making sure that I do? My spiritual project for Advent maybe ought to involve re-memorizing the ten guiding lights of my conscience.

1? No other gods. 2? Don’t take His name in vain. 3? Keep the sabbath. 4? Honor father and mother. 5? Don’t kill anyone, either their body or their good name. 6? No adultery. 7? No stealing. 8? No lying. 9? No lusting. 10? And don’t get materialistic; live for God alone.

We want interior harmony. Harmony between our little wills and God’s great, all-encompassing, purely loving will. He showed us on the cross that He wills only our good, our salvation, our eternal life.

The Ten Commandments don’t solve every dilemma. Sometimes we need more help–prayer, advice, etc. But most of the time we can keep ourselves ready for the advent of the Lord by simply keeping the Ten Commandments in mind. And taking care not to break them.