What a Fool Believes He Sees

[An essay at theatlantic.com 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!”

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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.

λόγον τῆς βασιλείας: Weeds No, Coffin Yes

Sermon_on_the_Mount_Fra_Angelico
Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico

In ancient Palestine, you had to have a path through your fields to keep people from treading all over your seedlings, because everyone had the right to walk anywhere. And rocky patches dotted all the arable Palestinian hillsides. And thistles would germinate and sprout as weeds in your fields, no matter what you did. [Click por español.]

So seeds really did face the perils that the Lord described in the Parable of the Sower. He went on to explain that the seed in the parable represents “the word of the kingdom,” λόγον τῆς βασιλείας. Like the third luminous mystery of the Holy Rosary: the proclamation of the kingdom and the call to repentance.

Thistle seeds carried on the Palestinian breezes, and farm fields had weeds. As Jesus went on to explain: worldly anxiety and the lure of riches can grow like weeds in a soul, choking the word of the kingdom, so that it bears no fruit.

Now, how would that be? we might ask. Since λόγον τῆς βασιλείας means the full fruition of human life in God. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it: “To carry out the will of the Father, Christ inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth. The Father’s will is to raise up men to share in his own divine life.” (Lumen Gentium 2-3) To raise up men to share in His own divine life.

In exactly three weeks, we will keep the Feast of Christ’s Transfiguration. The boundless light of His divine nature shone through His human flesh. For a few moments on Mount Tabor, Peter, James, and John saw the divinity of Jesus.

Christ’s union with God, the inner permeation of His being by God’s infinite glory: such a union is precisely what awaits us. In the kingdom of heaven, our entire human personality will receive God’s warm and loving light–everything about us permeated by Him. Such is the meaning of λόγον τῆς βασιλείας, the word of the kingdom.

st-francis-contemplating-a-skullSo, we wonder: how could the weeds of worldly anxiety, or the lure of riches–how could anything ever choke out the fruition of something so wonderful? What success or satisfaction in this life could ever hold a candle to the glory that Christ promises us with God? Nothing can compete with God!

Wouldn’t it make more sense, we think–wouldn’t it make more sense intentionally to renounce the comforts of the earth, if they could ever interfere with us reaching heaven, like weeds interfere with the growth of good plants? Hard to believe that anyone would prefer a fancy life for sixty or seventy years over an eternity of divine happiness. Better just to become a monk who sleeps in his coffin and passes the few short decades of this pilgrim life in prayerful simplicity!

But people do make such a nonsensical choice, the choice of short-term, low-budget satisfaction over an eternity of divine communion. The danger of weeds choking the holy word–that danger exists.

Usually it doesn’t happen all at once. It happens gradually. Over time a soul can lose the taste for spiritual things, for the life of faith. One little compromise with a clear religious duty here, a little flim-flamming with the truth there, an unwholesome self-indulgence (for this once!) there…

Next thing you know, I haven’t prayed in a long time. I haven’t meditated on the inevitability of my own death and burial. I haven’t made a decision to sacrifice something, to forego a pleasure or comfort for the sake of spiritual gain. All I do is seek the approval of others, or sit around and watch tv, or over-eat, or swill liquor like a lush.

In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum spent so much time in his cave with his Precious, eating raw fish, that he forgot the taste of bread. A human soul can spend so much time staring at a little phone that it forgets the taste of silent prayer.

But: As long as we still draw breath, it’s not too late. The word of the kingdom can and will bear fruit. The wonder of Christ’s free invitation to us, to share in our Creator’s eternal and utterly beautiful Being: the wonder of λόγον τῆς βασιλείας never fades. It never tarnishes with time. It always comes as fresh and new as if today were the first day of creation.

Yes, we have let wordly anxieties and the lure of shiny trifles choke the growth of our friendship with the Lord. Lord, we are sorry! Forgive us, and give us a fresh start!

We can pray. We can cultivate our taste for the life of faith and meditation. We can grow in union with the undying light that shone in Jesus. We can live holy lives and bear fruit for the heavenly kingdom.

If we can get ourselves to Mass,  there’s hope for us yet. May the Lord help our souls grow.

Parable of the Snower

Representation_of_the_Sower's_parable“A snower went out to snow.  And, as it snowed, a lot of snow fell on the path, and on the rocky ground, and on the thorns, and on the rich soil.

“The shovelers came and removed the snow on the path.  The sun rose and melted the snow on the rocky ground.  The snow around the thornbushes had to be removed because it impeded the air flow around the heat pump.

“But the snow on the rich soil just sat there.  And sat there.  And sat there.

“Do you not understand the parable?”

Seriously, though, I think we can actually find one genuine point of agreement between the real parable and my “Winter-storm Jonas Aftermath” version.

Everyone thinks that children love a big snow the most, because school gets canceled for at least 3 ½ days.  But, actually, it’s not children who love a big snow the most.

Who loves a foot of snow more than anyone else?

Farmers, of course.  All that water, sitting on the fields.  For days, for a week, for two weeks.  Melting little by little by little into the soil.  Nothing moistens a field like a foot of melting snow.

God has spoken His Word to us.  Indeed, He has showered it down upon us like a foot of snow.  When we participate regularly in the Church’s Sacred Liturgy, the Word of God sits on our souls like snow pack on a field.  It moistens our spirits—gradually, constantly, giving us the capacity to burst forth with springtime life, eternal springtime life.

Planning a Talk

Makes life so much easier for the preacher when we have the same gospel readings on the weekdays that we just recently read of a Sunday. 🙂

We remember: the devil’s birds will eat the seeds of eternal life in us, unless we work on developing spiritual discipline of some kind, building our personalities on the foundation of faith.

Representation_of_the_Sower's_parableGod says, “I love you,” in the simplest, most straightforward manner. But maintaining the kind of interior quiet in which we can hear the Lord’s proclamations of love—in this noisy world, it can be harder than multivariable calculus. If we see things only on the surface, we encounter noise and agitation that manage somehow to both exhaust our minds and bore us to tears. It takes a lot of hard work to sit still and listen to God.

Speaking of noise in the world…I’ll speak for myself, but I can’t imagine that I am alone in this feeling this way: Over the course of the past two and a half years, developments on the national- and the world-stage have gotten considerably more complicated—and difficult for us Catholic Christians to navigate and deal with. I, for one, feel the weight of a great burden when it comes to sorting things out and finding the basic ideas that can help me make sense out of it all.

I have too much to say on this to fit in right now, so I propose to give a 20-minute talk.

The talk is called: “Conservative Enough to be Liberal,” and it covers the 1st, 6th, and 5th Commandments.

Come in person:

5:45pm Saturday, July 26th at Francis of Assisi, Rocky Mount

7:30pm Friday, August 1 at St. Joseph, Martinsville

And I will try to publish the talk here, too. 🙂

Scaring Off the Gospel-Pecking Pigeons

The Gospel of the Word was announced that all men by faithful acceptance of the same might be included in the kingdom of Christ and in this kingdom might attain everlasting bliss.

fortune cookieChrist Himself–His identity, His kingdom, His goal in all His works–He offers us the key to understanding all His parables.

The parables of Christ do not fall into any other category of wise teaching. They do not offer wholesome morals like Aesop’s fables. They do not spell out helpful rules to live by like the sayings of Confucius. No one has ever successfully found a way to put the parables of Christ inside a cookie.

No, the gospel parables illustrate; they illuminate; they make visual and visible the as-yet-invisible reality of the Kingdom of Christ Himself.

Now, the Gospel. The Gospel of the incarnate Word of God. The Good News, euangelion. A seed. That God has sown in a field. And that we, too–if we would co-operate with God–must also sow.

Continue reading “Scaring Off the Gospel-Pecking Pigeons”

Rest from Parable Enemies

Representation_of_the_Sower's_parableI will give you rest from all your enemies. (II Samuel 7:11)

Almighty God said this to King David. ‘I will give you rest from all your enemies.’

We can hardly imagine, I think, what a relief it was for David to hear this. After all, Scripture sings of the young king that he “played with lions as with young goats and with bears as with lambs of the flock. Did he not kill a giant?”

So David was relieved to hear that rest from his enemies was coming. And the Lord’s statement gives us hope, too. Especially when we consider:

“As soon as they hear about the mystery of the Kingdom of God, Satan comes at once.”

king davidAnd if we survive that, then “tribulation and persecution comes.”

Not to mention the fact that we have to deal with “worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things,” things other than heaven.

Our enemies are lined-up, in other words, like they lined up before King David, ready to take a crack at us at a moment’s notice. Staying focused on the invisible things of God can become enormously hard. It takes a long time for the seed to grow into full flower, and a lot of weather comes in the meantime—polar vortexes, summer droughts, ice storms, derechos, etc.

But we can count on God’s help. We read also of David, in the same place where it recounts how he played with lions and bears, that “he appealed to the Lord, the Most High, and God gave him strength.”

So let’s appeal, too. Help us, O Lord, to persevere in faith! May we have the better of the spiritual enemies who tempt and haunt us. And, when it shall please You, we look forward to the rest You will give us from their attacks.

Profligate Seed Sewing in the Desert

A sower went out to sew the seed. And he asked himself, “Can God spread a table in the desert?

No. Not true. The sower most certainly did not ask such a question. To the contrary, he scattered seed liberally, prodigiously. He scattered seed in what may seem to us to be a scattershot fashion. He scattered the seed, full of confidence that God can give the increase.

Representation_of_the_Sower's_parableEven though birds peck, and the sun scorches, and thorns choke. Even in the desert, in other words: God can give the increase.

The Israelites marched across the Red Sea, as if supernatural amphibious units were transporting them to a grand invasion of the Promised Land. Things looked good. But then they came to the desert of Sin, and their march became a slog. They grumbled.

Compare this with the great divine sower of the parable. No slogging; no grumbling. He seems to dance His way across the arid plain. The pecking birds flutter around Him menacingly; the sun scorches down; thornbushes unfold their spikes to His right and to His left. But He utters nary a complaint. He just scatters seed far and wide. We might say that He appears to scatter life-giving seed in a footloose and fancy-free manner, even in the middle of the desert.

The seeds give life; they produce fruits; talents unfurl themselves in this world. To our judging eyes, these seeds may appear to have been misplaced, sewn in the wrong environment. Why is so-and-so such a good cook? God didn’t know what He was doing when He made her such a good cook. Why did He make such-a-one so thoroughly charming and confident? He didn’t know what He was doing. Why is that numbskull so good-looking? What was God thinking?

Jonathan Goldsmith most interesting dos equisThat’s us complaining, like the grumbling liberated slaves in the hard desert. We think we know better than the quiet, dancing, divine sower. Probably better not to sew seed around here at all. Better just to go back to Egypt. Freedom takes too much initiative and creative effort. Slavery is easier.

But how many times does it have to happen? Before we learn the truth? God can spread a table in the desert.

God can move hard-headed people like me to acts of kindness and humility. God can make selfish people like me into generous and loving and magnanimous Christians.

And it’s all because God provides. ‘God Provides’ is the #1 axiom of the world, because if God didn’t provide, there would be no world. If they were going to make a “Most Interesting Man in the World” ad with me in it, I would say, ‘I don’t often get the chance to order quail. But when quail’s on the menu, I always order it.’

God serves quail in the desert. The grumbling Israelites finally stopped talking and settled down to eat. The sun set over the dry and thorny landscape to the sounds of laughter and friendship.

The divine Sower does not take Himself so seriously as we take ourselves. He doesn’t have to, because the bag of seed He holds never runs out. Birds can peck all they want; the sun can scorch; thorns can choke. God will scatter more seed, and it will grow.

Hard Parable (of the Sower)

Is the Lord a poor famer? He scatters the seed of His truth all over the place. If we have ears to hear it, His Word declares to us that we have been made children of the Most High God, that we can have eternal life, that we can attain holiness. God is real, and He loves us.

The reality of God, the love of God—this truth comes to us by the faithful apostolic witness of the Church. The truth refreshes our souls. It gives our lives direction. And then it proceeds to make demands on us throughout the rest of our earthly lives.

Representation_of_the_Sower's_parableHolding fast to the Gospel, as exhilarating as it can be, can grow difficult. Not because it changes. But because, with time, we grow to understand it better. We find ways to grasp it more fully. And that can cost us.

The fact is that divine love has enemies. The parable highlights three. First, temptations by demons. The closer we get to purity of faith, the more ardently they besiege us with the knottiest challenges.

Second, fear. Let’s not beat around the bush: Believing the Gospel involves facing death squarely in the face, without fear. To believe in Christ and His victory means that if today is my day to die, then I am just as glad as I would be if it were in a hundred years.

And the third enemy of divine love that the Lord refers to in the parable: worldliness.

But, Father! We live in the world! How can we avoid being worldly? We have to eat and pay the bills. We have to have the internet and at least basic cable.

Let us be wholesome inhabitants of this beautiful earth. But God forbid that we let the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. “I have overcome the world,” He said. Did He come to the earth to overcome good things? No He came to overcome the enemies of our eternal happiness.

The world, the Super Bowl, the Beyonce lip-synching controversy, the hegemony of the United States, Google, Inc.—it will all pass away. Even Shakespeare and the fleeting beauty of the Grand Canyon will pass away.

This world is not our home; it is the place through which we pass on a journey; it is, at times, the arena of our pitched spiritual battles. It is, fundamentally, temporary.

For the seed to take root, we must see the unseeable truth and grasp the ungraspable fact: We have only one real home. And it is God. Only God.

(Published from my slick new Microsoft Surface. Please forgive typos.)

Understanding the Word of the Kingdom. And not.

“The word of the kingdom.”

The Kingdom of God is at hand. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done. The kingdom of God is within you. The kingdom of God has come to you.

So spake the Son of God. And He tells us: You will bear fruit if you receive the word of the kingdom and understand it.

Understand it. Okay. Sure. No problem. 2 + 2 = 4, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Easy.

Right?

Well, no. If understanding the word of the kingdom means grasping the whole business fully. “Yeah, I’ve got this. The kingdom of God looks just like…umm…ahhh…”

But: Yes, it is easy, if “understanding the word of the kingdom” means:

God speaks. He says His kingdom comes. He speaks true and wills nothing but the best. His kingdom must be awesome and glorious, more so than my meager powers can imagine. He’s asking me to believe in it. I would be a fool not to, because this is God we’re talking about.

I understand that the kingdom in question belongs to God. Not to Robert Griffin III or Mariah Carey or David Cameron.

Therefore, I clearly have no business thinking that I can altogether understand the kingdom of God right now. I could understand the Kingdom of Elton John, and it would not do too much for me. But the kingdom of God? I understand perfectly well that I cannot understand it.

I think that is precisely the kind of non-understanding understanding that the Lord wants.

…PS. Long-time, faithful readers will recall that this ridiculous little weblog began life as a venue for me to jump up and down (verbally) after Team USA won the basketball gold in Beijing.

Four years later: Let’s get fired up again, people!