The Shepherd

Bishop Barry Knestout portraitThe Lord is my shepherd. (Psalm 23)

Feels good to have a bishop. We find ourselves at a good moment to reflect a little bit on the great mystery of Holy Church. Apparently, Bishop Knestout wanted to follow me from the Archdiocese of Washington to the diocese of Richmond.

But seriously. Our church is a small place where we can try to know and love each other, an intimate little band of pilgrim souls. And our Church grandly extends all over the earth and back through 2,000 years of history.

The Church belongs to no one but Her Lord, Jesus Christ. He shepherds His Church on earth unfailingly. He does this through mystical, interior works—through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and all the holy inspirations we receive within. And He shepherds His Church by reaching us through the unchanging constants of our life together—the Sacred Liturgy, the Holy Scriptures, the sacraments, etc. And He shepherds us through the on-going pastoral government of the institution.

St. Nicholas died 1674 years ago today. He participated in the on-going pastoral government of the Holy Church. St. Nick served as a bishop and participated in the ecumenical council at Nicaea. Where would we be without those bishops, who gave us our Creed? Seventeen centuries have passed since then, and it took place on the other side of the world. Yet the Creed of Nicaea means everything to us, right here and now, in southwest Virginia.

st nick

So we don’t want to go it alone. We can’t manage it, if we’re isolated and on our own. We never want to find ourselves separated from the living Body, the unique organization that has all these attributes of Christ’s loving pastoral touch. The Church.

Christ the Good Shepherd of our souls: He is perfect. He does everything perfectly. We human shepherds—He chose us and put us in our places. But we do not do everything perfectly; we could hardly claim that we do. Pope Francis does not claim to be the perfect pope. Bishop Knestout makes no claims at being a perfect bishop or priest. (I’ve known him a long time—20 years. He has no delusions of perfection.) And God knows that the pastor in Rocky Mount/Martinsville is, well…hardly perfect.

But we imperfect men have been chosen to take our places in the great family–and to try and shepherd the flock as Christ would have us do. Pope Francis isn’t the perfect pope, but he is the pope—and thank God we have one. And now Bishop Knestout is our bishop, and thank God we have one.

Because we sheep want nothing more than to hear the voice of our Good Shepherd Jesus and to feel the loving touch of His crook. We can be sure that Christ does indeed shepherd us, when we stay united to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, founded on St. Peter and governed by His successors and by all the bishops in communion with him, spread across the globe.

Good Shepherd and Maimed Sheep

sheep

The Lord is my shepherd. We sheep hear His voice, and He leads us. We are His people, the sheep of His flock. As St. Peter put it: Jesus Christ, risen from the dead–“the shepherd and guardian of our souls.” He leads us to pastures of abundant life.

Good Shepherd Sunday this Sunday. Fourth Sunday of the blessed Easter season. I daresay we have all heard homilies about how we are sheep. And sheep are dumb. And I daresay we’ve heard other homilies about how yes, sheep are indeed quite dumb, but not about everything. Sheep can skillfully recognize their shepherd’s familiar voice. And I daresay we’ve heard other homilies about how gently and lovingly Jesus shepherds us; mercifully, sweetly, etc., etc.

All true. All good. Yes, we’re dumb sheep. Yes also: we’re not totally dumb; we can recognize and follow the voice of Christ, the Word of God. Yes, His voice sounds in the ears of our souls, in the ears of our consciences—and it’s not a hard sound, but a soft one, a familiar one.

We do not doubt that Christ our shepherd leads us to salvation. We know that we reach heaven by humbly obeying Him, just like sheep obey the shepherd. We need His guidance. The demands of His doctrine touch us like a shepherd’s staff. We pray that we might have the grace to co-operate. All this is Christianity in a nutshell, and we are Christians.

sheep-goatsBut maybe we sheep can credit ourselves with enough intelligence to pose a question. We can allow ourselves to recognize a difficulty, an apparent contradiction in the Good Shepherd’s teaching.

On the one hand, Christ promises us a pleasant time when we obey Him. He declared, “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” His Apostle John wrote to us, “Keep His commandments. His commandments are not burdensome.” The prophet Micah put it like this: “What does the Lord your God require of you but to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?”

Doesn’t sound all that difficult.

But, on the other hand, Lord Jesus said: “How narrow the gate, how constricted the road that leads to life! Those who find it are few.” “If anyone come to Me and hate not even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” Jesus damned the selfish people to eternal hell for failing to offer Him a glass of cold water. They protested, “Lord, we never saw you thirsty!” We know how He replied. “Whatever you failed to do for even the least ones, you failed to do…  for Me.”

Sounds pretty demanding. Pretty burdensome, in fact. Jesus Christ is a gentle, loving shepherd—with a staff that feels more like a whip on our shanks. He smiles, then whips us and says, “Hurry up and become saints right now.”

So we have an honest question: Lord, how can it be both hard and easy to follow You as our shepherd? How can it be both hard and easy?

I think there’s a way for us to resolve this apparent self-contradiction on the part of Christ the Good Shepherd. But it will be humiliating for us. To find the answer, what we have to do is: Acknowledge that, if we find obeying Christ the gentle Shepherd difficult, it’s our own damn fault.

goodshepherdAs far as what He has done goes, He made it easy. He took the initiative of total love. He knew that the human race as a whole had fallen into hopeless sin. So He became one of us and offered the sacrifice to make things right. And He poured out the Holy Spirit upon us in such a way that, had we co-operated ever since earliest youth, becoming a diligent mature Christian would have involved far fewer challenges than we sinners have to do battle with. For the soul that keeps a pure conscience from childhood onward, growing into holiness involves maybe the kind of effort and exertion involved in a round of miniature golf.

But who among us can reasonably claim to have co-operated all along and maintained that kind of purity? Don’t we rather have to admit: “Okay, Lord. Keeping up with you as the shepherd feels to this particular sheep more like training for a marathon than like walking in a park. But that’s because I have sinned, and I have developed bad habits that make it hard for me to act with virtue. I have turned something pleasant into something hard. Forgive me! And please give me the help I need to stumble after You, and stay close enough to hear Your voice, in spite of the self-inflicted wounds I bear, which make me a slow and feeble sheep.”

Now, how does He respond to this? With the same immeasurable patience He had when He invited us to follow Him in the first place. “Come to Me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.”

Our sins have debilitated us; we are not just dumb sheep—we are maimed sheep, and we have maimed ourselves. But Christ’s medicine is stronger than the wounds we have given our own souls. He will even yet make the burden of following Him light, even for us. “Don’t give up, sinner,” He says. “The shepherd will gladly lay you on His shoulders.”

The Lord is My Divine Mercy

divine-mercy“Do not be afraid,” says the Lord, “once I was dead, but now I am alive.” (Revelation 1)

Here’s a question.  If we had to name the single most famous and beloved little part of the Bible, worldwide, what would it be?  Everybody’s favorite?  Right, Psalm 23.  Everybody loves the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord God Almighty rules the cosmos not as a capricious tyrant, nor as an absentee landlord, but as an attentive shepherd.  He knows what we need, and He provides.  Our spirits droop; He revives us.  We get lost; He leads us back to the path of life.  We walk through a dark valley, but we fear no evil.  Because we feel His crook and His staff on our little flanks, keeping us moving forward, even through the darkness.

He knows where He leads.  To a table with an overflowing cup, and the oil of gladness.  To the house of the Lord.  To unending goodness and kindness.

Ok, now:  Everyone familiar with the image of Divine Mercy?  The picture of Himself which the Lord revealed to St. Faustina, during the 20th century?   A famous painting, with the Lord Jesus in white, with rays of light flowing from His Sacred Heart.  The pale rays signify the water of Holy Baptism.  The red rays signify Christ’s Precious Blood, shed for our salvation.

Anyway, is it going too far to say this:  That the Divine Mercy image really gives us the perfect visual depiction of the 23rd Psalm?  If we could translate the words of Psalm 23, not into Spanish or Swahili, but into an image—wouldn’t it be the Divine Mercy image revealed to St. Faustina?  Give me an Amen?

Do not be afraid.  Once I was dead.  But now I am alive.

Fear can do us good.  I live in mortal fear of getting up in the pulpit to talk, without anything properly prepared to say.  Parents fear that certain videogame devices will swallow-up whole their children’s heads and hands and necks.  And we all rightly fear that we would offend God, that we would displease our Creator and Father.

caravaggio_incredulity_st_thomas1But one thing has always distinguished Christians from everyone else.  We do not fear death.

At least we don’t fear death when we focus and meditate.  Human beings naturally recoil from dying, by a kind of kneejerk instinct for survival.  That can’t be avoided, and it’s a good thing.  But a Christian meditates, prays, puts everything in the hands of the divine Shepherd.  The Christian entrusts his natural life to the loving Lord Whose Heart lies open, with blood and water flowing out for our salvation.  The Christian meditates on all this, and finds peace, even in the face of imminent, unavoidable death.  The martyrs of Christ have sung their way into the lions’ den, or to the stake, or to the gibbet.

Do not be afraid, says the Lord.  I Myself was dead.  But now I am alive.

Divine Mercy Sunday during the Jubilee Year of Mercy!  We won’t see another such day in our lifetimes!

That the Lord emancipates us from fear, relieving us of the deepest anxiety:  that is indeed a great work of mercy.  We can live in the truth.  We can face reality as it is.  Not running away.  Not deadening our minds and perceptions with false comforts and fantasies.  Because, truly, we have nothing to fear.

Jesus, I trust in You.  I know that You will forgive every sin I confess.  I know that you will go to any length, to keep this little lamb on the safe path.  Thomas doubted.  So You came back to the Upper Room a second time.

Christ lived His Paschal Mystery–the most-bitter suffering and the most-sublime triumph—He underwent His Passover–so that the 23rd Psalm could be not just a pious canticle for us, but the most fundamental reality of our entire consciousness.  Jesus Christ—the Divine Mercy, the Alpha and the Omega, Thomas’ patient friend—Jesus turns our day-to-day existence into a living, breathing Psalm 23.  Fear no evil, because goodness and kindness will follow you.  A table will be spread before you.  You will dwell in the house of the Lord.

What else do we read in Sacred Scripture?  Perfect love casts out fear.  His perfect love for us casts out our fears.  We need not fear the unknown.  We need not fear whatever lies beyond, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.

What can we not accomplish, for the glory of the Father, when Christ purges fear from our souls?  What feats of tender, patient love can we not undertake, with joy, when we possess Christian fearlessness?  We will conquer the earth with love!  Let’s start right here.  Let’s conquer the Roanoke Valley with love.  Seriously.

He will see us through.  His mercy endures forever.  Though we dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, we will not want for anything.

 

 

Psalm 23 for Summer Vacation

Corona beach

At Sunday Mass: Twenty-third Psalm, everyone’s favorite. The Lord spreads a table for us, giving us repose near restful waters, refreshing our souls. Sounds like just what we want for summertime. A real vacation from all our worries and cares.

In the first reading, the prophet condemns the evil pseudo-shepherds. They had failed to lead the sheep to the peaceful pastures. Instead, the sheep trembled with aimless fear, because no one guided them. They grew exhausted and listless, neither resting nor fully alive. Like workaholics, or people who watch too much tv, or spend too much time playing videogames.

Perhaps we can attest to this: without a divine Shepherd guiding us, we human sheep do not find true rest. We cannot find refreshment. We wind up frazzled and spent, or we slip into self-destructive idleness.

Now, speaking of tired but restless: some of us over-exert ourselves physically. But the physical side is actually the least of our worries. Nervous mental exhaustion poses the greater problem.

We are, after all, primarily spiritual creatures. Intelligence distinguishes us from all the other hairy mammals running around the earth. We have ample minds, hungry for stimulation. But, left to our own devices, we don’t seem to know how to bring these minds of ours in for a truly refreshing rest.

sheepFor intelligent, reflective creatures, ‘rest’ fundamentally means: A quiet conscience. A soul prepared to meet the ultimate Judge. When nothing inside me accuses me of evil, then I can find peace and quiet. But if my conscience troubles me, then even two weeks on the white-sand beach of a Corona ad will not really refresh me.

The divine Shepherd leads us to interior repose, by guiding us down the path of harmony with truth. That’s the thing about a human conscience: truth is our only real rest. There’s only so much lying to itself that a conscience can do. No matter how many lies a conscience may tell itself, it always pays itself back–with strange, self-inflicted punishment.

I haven’t put in an honest day’s work for my employer, so my guilt-ridden soul fills itself with anxiety about something else, or gets angry over nothing, or loses its ability to enjoy simple pleasures.

Or: I lied to my spouse about something, so now I can’t concentrate at work, or pay attention to the friend I’m talking to, or the game I’m trying to watch.

As Gertrude puts it in Hamlet, reflecting on her guilt-ridden anxiety, “Each toy seems Prologue to some great amiss. So full of artless jealousy is guilt. It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.”

The Truth, therefore, is our best friend, when it comes to actually getting some rest. And Christ the divine Shepherd leads us to all truth, if only we stay within earshot of Him.

Give God His due. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Repent, and believe. Pray morning, noon, and night.

Simple enough, really—humbly obeying the Son of God. Not easy, to be sure, but not complicated, either—provided that we simply listen and obey. The peace of a tranquil Christian conscience does not require rocket science. It requires something much more rarefied, something much more sublime: Taking a vacation from my own ego, my own pride.

In our pride, we convince ourselves that… It’s all up to me! Or: My sins are so evil God could never forgive them! Or: praying and studying religion don’t matter anywhere near as much as all my other stupendous enterprises!

jacobi branagh christieDo we really want a good, relaxing summer vacation? Then let’s turn humbly to God and take a vacation from our own nonsense

Let’s give the divine Shepherd a chance to lead us to some real rest for our souls. Let’s purify ourselves with a good, thorough summer Confession. Let’s open our ears more to the Shepherd’s soothing voice, by giving more time to prayer. Let’s spend some extra time studying the faith, so that He can nourish us with the food of his truth.

[Now we get into matters of local interest in Rocky Mount/Martinsville] Speaking of vacations, pretty soon you will have a nice, permanent vacation from the tall nerd who has bored you to distraction for these past four years.

Next week I will have a few things to say by way of a goodbye. But let me say now that these past four years have been the happiest of my life. No priest could ever hope for a parish full of people more kind, more generous, more truly faithful. You have been so much kinder to me, and more patient with me, than I have deserved. In your kindness and patience, you have taught me more about the good Lord than I can really fathom.

Thank you very much for being so good to me.

The Shepherd Leads, Our Souls Grow

sheep

“The Lord is my shepherd.” The Lord’s flock knows His voice, and we follow Him. We follow Him as He leads us through the pilgrimage of time, the pilgrimage of our earthly life. Time passes. We listen for His voice and follow. Years pass. He leads on.

Two quick points on this.

1. Speaking of time passing… Exactly three years ago, we had just finalized the Martinsville-Rocky Mount parish-cluster Mass schedule. Remember that? On Good Shepherd Sunday, 2011, those of us down here in Franklin and Henry counties, Virginny, had to face some facts together. Life was going to get a little bit harder, for the people and for me.

Continue reading “The Shepherd Leads, Our Souls Grow”

The Narrative

One of the big buzzwords of contemporary journalism is “narrative.”

Facts bombard us from every angle—or at least information claiming to be factual. How do we make sense of the jumble? We need to organize everything into a coherent whole. “The narrative” does that. The narrative arranges the chaotic welter of facts into a picture that we can see clearly.

For instance, facts: our current federal tax code and revenues generated by it, our federal spending levels, the automatic cuts signed into law during the debt-ceiling negotiations, the results of the last week’s elections, the current growth-rate of the economy, etc.

The narrative: Congress and the President have 48 days to make a deal—or we go over a cliff.

So what about this: What is the “narrative” for all of life, taken as a whole? When each of us gets up in the morning, what image can truly help us to organize absolutely every fact—the whole dizzying jumble of realities we face?

In other words, what can make up the headline of my interior newspaper that keeps me up-to-date and informed on my own life—the heart of it, the truth of it, the meaning of it? What can I read—or, even better, what song can I sing to myself—so that I can conceive the perspective that I need to interpret events? What’s the narrative?

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for His Name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
For you are with me;
Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me.
Etc. (Psalm 23)

In Through, and Out From, the Sheep’s Gate

Here is a little homily, with some remarks of purely local interest…

Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10:7-9)

Kidron Valley, without a knucklehead in the photo

“The Lord is my shepherd.”

Maybe these are the most famous words in the Bible. With these words, we, the Church, respond to Christ, Who declared Himself to be the divine Shepherd of souls.

Christ gave His Good Shepherd discourse in the Temple precincts of Jerusalem.

In other words, Jesus spoke about being the sheep’s gate very near the Sheep’s Gate in the Jerusalem city wall, where they led the animals for sacrifice into the Temple area.

The sheep that entered through this gate had walked through a dark valley–the Kidron Valley between Jerusalem and Mt. Olivet. For these lambs, the Kidron Valley was a valley of death in more ways than one.

Continue reading “In Through, and Out From, the Sheep’s Gate”