Vague vs. Biblical, Con’d

In our first reading at Sunday Mass, we hear Moses prophesy the coming of another leader who would shepherd the people like Moses himself had shepherded them, leading them to the Promised Land. In the gospel reading we hear how even an unclean spirit could declare the fulfillment of this prophecy and recognize the truth about Jesus, the Holy One of God.

ignatiuswritingIf you happened to find yourself reading here a week ago, hopefully you remember how we started talking about the kingdom of the Holy One of God.

As Pope Paul VI put it, Jesus came first of all to proclaim a kingdom. His kingdom is the true Promised Land. The phrase “Kingdom of God” refers to the one absolute reality of life. Everything else is relative.

To quote St. Ignatius Loyola: “Health or sickness, wealth or poverty, honor or dishonor, a long life or a short one”– all are matters of indifference, compared to the Kingdom of God.

If you were reading last week, you may recall that we considered two possible interpretations of the phrase “Kingdom of God:” the vague, shallow interpretation vs. the more concrete and precise interpretation, based on the Holy Scriptures.

We were just getting ready to tackle two particularly vague things about the vague, shallow interpretation, when we ran out of time a week ago. The vague, shallow interpretation insists on being especially vague and shallow when it comes to two things.

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St. Ignatius Feastday and the Holy Land

At one point in his life, St. Ignatius Loyola wanted above all to live in the Middle East, in the land of Christ. Ignatius resolved to go to Palestine and never return home.

As things turned out, he had to return to Europe. The Franciscan superior ordered him to leave Palestine, because the situation had become perilous, due to a war.

Sound familiar?

It appears that the fighters who have taken over a lot of Syria and Iraq, who call themselves ‘Islamic State,’ have systematically sought to rid the land of Christians–and Shia Muslims, for that matter. The Islamic State fighters have committed obscene atrocities with spurious religious justifications, justifications which mainstream Muslim leaders have strenuously denounced.

ignatiuswritingFor a millennium and a half, the original Christian people, the Christians of the Levant, have lived at peace with Muslim neighbors. We recall how, eleven months ago, the church leaders of the Middle East, along with the Pope, begged the western military powers not to attack Syria and foment the civil war there. We recall how, over a decade ago, the same leaders, and Pope St. John Paul II, begged us not to invade Iraq.

Perhaps we can understand a little better now why the Christians of the Middle East made these pleas for peace. It was not simply a matter of naïve pacificism.

Our war in Iraq certainly looks like the fiasco of the 21st century at this point, but that’s not for me to say. What I do know is that we need to pray very hard for our suffering brothers and sisters who live in the land where the Lord called the patriarchs and prophets to Himself, and where He, in Person, walked the earth.

Can You Build the Tower?

For which of you having a mind to build a tower, doth not first sit down, and reckon the charges that are necessary, whether he have wherewithal to finish it: Lest, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that see it begin to mock him, saying: This man began to build, and was not able to finish.

Or what king, about to go to make war against another king, doth not first sit down, and think whether he be able, with ten thousand, to meet him that, with twenty thousand, cometh against him? Or else, whilst the other is yet afar off, sending an embassy, he desireth conditions of peace. (Luke 14:28-32)

St. Ignatius Loyola drew up a procedure for young men who thought of joining his religious order. The procedure applies for anyone who wants to become a religious or a priest. Maybe this same procedure should apply to anyone intending to serve as President of the United States, too.

Seclude yourself completely. Then meditate for three days on these two little parables of the tower and the king going into battle…

What exactly is it going to take for me to pull this off? (Whatever “this” might be.) Do I have what it takes? Am I meant to do this?

Now, maybe we wonder: Isn’t the Lord contradicting Himself here? What about the Sermon on the Mount? What about Let Go and Let God? What about the flowers of the field, who neither toil nor spin, yet the heavenly Father provides for them? What about, “Tomorrow will take care of itself?”

Can’t a Christian pray his way through anything—even an unrealistic, grandiose scheme? Even if I get too big for my britches and bite off more than I can chew?

Well, the Lord is merciful, even towards fools who rush in.

But I think what He is trying to say is:

I have bountifully provided you with a certain amount foresight. You don’t have all the foresight I have, of course, but you have some. I will take care of tomorrow, you can be sure of that. But sometimes your job for today is to think about tomorrow with ruthless realism and humility. Don’t decide to become a big shot, and then pray for me to get you through. Pray now about whether or not you are cut out to be a big shot.

St. Ignatius commends the person who takes the measure of what he has in mind–and then admits that it’s too much for him. Let the probationary novice go in peace, with a blessing, if he decides to leave the novitiate after these few days of meditation on the parable of the tower.

On the other hand, even more sobering would be: To take the careful measure of the difficult task and come to the humble conclusion that, Yes, I guess if anyone is meant to do this, then it’s probably me. May God help me.

Which calls to mind another famous saying of St. Ignatius. Work as if everything depended on you. Pray as if everything depended on God.

St. Dominic’s Style of Success

A Dominican and a Jesuit argued with each other about which founder achieved more greatness. “St. Ignatius fought the Lutheran heresy!” The Dominican answered, “Yeah. St. Dominic fought the Albigensian heresy. And have you run into any Albigensians lately?”

Pope Benedict XV celebrated the 700th anniversary of St. Dominic’s holy death with an encyclical letter. The Pope pointed out three distinctive characteristics of St. Dominic and his followers. First: love for the Pope and the Apostolic See of Rome. Second: devotion to the Blessed Virgin and diligence in praying the Rosary and teaching others to do so. And third: Solidity of doctrine.

How did St. Dominic “fight” the Albigensians? He used no physical violence. The people of southern France knew him as a gentle wanderer, willing to sell himself into slavery to save a poor man from falling into unbelief.

St. Dominic ‘fought’ the Albigensians by calmly and thoroughly explaining the Catholic religion, basing himself on the Sacred Scriptures. He patiently showed how the Albigensians’ own doctrines made no sense.

Why would God become man with a body—and die an agonizing death—if He does not love man, both soul and body? Why would God dwell in the womb of the Virgin Mary, if she were not truly His Mother? Why would the Lord have celebrated the Last Supper and entrusted His Body and Blood to His Church, if He had no intention of feeding His people throughout the ages with the sacrament?

Faith and reason united; preaching and teaching that flowed from hours of quiet study and contemplation. This is the Dominican way; this is the Catholic way.

But before we turn this into some kind of Olympic medal ceremony for the humble Spanish friar, let’s revisit a question we asked ourselves a moment ago: Have we run into any Albigensians lately?

The Albigensians praised abortion. They refused to give food and water to the terminally ill–and sometimes euthanized them. They preferred temporary concubinage to the permanence of matrimony. They believed in reincarnation. They refused to believe that the God worshipped in the Old Testament is the same loving Father of the New Testament. They accepted some parts of the New Testament–and not others. They considered themselves to be the authentic followers of Jesus, Whom the Church had obscured by Her immoral sham of empty ceremonies. They hated the Pope. They insisted that faith in their doctrines was all that mattered; morals did not matter. They denied that justice could be done on earth at all; therefore, criminals should not be prosecuted in court.

Some of these things sound all too familiar to me. Do I have a calm and gentle explanation ready–for why all of these positions are unreasonable and dangerous?

St. Dominic did. Maybe, if we follow in his soft-spoken footsteps, a generation after we die, all the destructive and ill-founded doctrines of our age will have passed into oblivion. Maybe a few centuries after we die, someone will be able to make a little joke about how successful we were in lovingly standing up for the truth.

Staff in an Old Man’s Hand

“Father, You have revealed the great mystery to the simple-hearted,” exults the Lord Jesus.

As we gather from reading part of the tenth chapter of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord does not take kindly to our self-aggrandizing pride. “Shall the axe boast against him who hews with it?” Or, as the prophet puts it in the 45th chapter: “Woe to anyone who contends with his Maker…Shall the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’”

The tool in the hand of the one who wields it: A perennial analogy in the sayings of prophets and saints. St. Ignatius Loyola, captain of the most successful international organization of the 16th century, wrote that he wanted only to be a “staff in an old man’s hand”—the ‘old man’ being God, of course. Blessed Mother Theresa, captain of one of the most successful international organizations of the 20th century, wrote that she lived solely as “a little bit of pencil with which God wrote.”

Seems to me that this analogy has two salient aspects. One: The task cannot be accomplished without the tool. Every grade-schooler knows that you cannot pass a test without a pencil. You might know all the answers in your mind. But if you can’t write them down? F. Or, as my sixth-grade teacher liked to threaten us: F-. “I will give you an F minus if you don’t find a pencil in 15 seconds!”

So the tool must operate in order for success to be achieved. But: The second salient aspect of the perennial analogy. The one who wields the tool conceives the overall plan and executes it according to his design.

Pencils don’t pass tests. Lumps of clay do not make bowls with their own hands. Walking sticks do not climb mountains. Axes do not build houses. And individual human beings do not control the unfolding of divine Providence.

The great mystery that gladdens the hearts of the child-like: God is God, and I am not. I have a task, which God has given me to do. But it is not my job to run the world.

Or, to put it another famous way: Lord, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change for the better the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Meditation on the Call of the King

St. Ignatius Loyola discovered that a person can grow closer to Christ by using the power of the imagination.

As one of his spiritual exercises, St. Ignatius proposes that we first envision the most captivating leader imaginable.

We imagine someone with a clear sense of purpose, a beautiful and noble plan. Someone embarking on an adventure requiring great self-sacrifice. This leader personally invites us to join the enterprise. He promises us an equal share in the labor and in the fruits of its success.

Maybe we could take the fields of business or science as an example. Let’s each imagine our favorite entrepreneur coming to us personally to invite us to join his or her company, right as it was just starting up. It could be Henry Ford, or Walt Disney, or Steve Jobs, or any other great market visionary. “Work with me, share my life, and you will share in the rewards.”

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St. Ignatius and the Crazies

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over—twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children. (Matthew 14:19-21)

Anyone ever heard of St. Ignatius Loyola? As a young man, he dreamed of a life of knighthood and soldiering. But he fell, gravely wounded, in his first battle.

During his long recovery, Ignatius began to read passages from the gospel and imagine himself as a minor character in them. Over time, Ignatius became intimately familiar with every detail of the life of Christ. He gave up the idea of being a soldier and longed to serve Christ as His dutiful knight.

Ignatius studied and became a priest. He founded the Jesuit order. He became famous for his unswerving adherence to Church teaching. ‘Something might look white to me, but if the Church teaches that it is black, then I conclude that it is black.’ Ignatius died 455 years ago today.

St. Ignatius encouraged frequent Holy Communion. He wrote:

One of the most admirable effects of Holy Communion is to preserve the soul from sin, and to help those who fall through weakness to rise again. It is much more profitable, then, to approach this divine sacrament with love, respect, and confidence, than to remain away.

We read in the gospel that the Lord Jesus felt pity for us in our hunger. He knows that we human beings have appetites that don’t quit. He formed us from dust, and we tend toward dust. For all the magnificent intricacy of our bodies, they nonetheless starve to death without regular feeding.

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Tremble and Trust

Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

As we recall, our second readings at Sunday Mass for three weeks now have been taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We will read from this letter once more next week.

Between last Sunday and this Sunday, our readings from Philippians have skipped a chapter. We missed one of St. Paul’s most famous exhortations: “work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” This is what the Apostle told the Philippians to do at the end of chapter two: “work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” Perhaps this sounds strange, since in our reading today, St. Paul began by telling them to “have no anxiety at all.”

“Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” “Have no anxiety at all.” Did our beloved Apostle Paul contradict himself?

Let us try to understand it this way. In the first sentence, St. Paul was thinking about us, the human race, weak sinners that we are. In the second, he was thinking about our loving and generous Father in heaven. These two sentences were put together perfectly by St. Ignatius Loyola when he said: Work as if everything depends on you. Pray as if everything depends on God.

When our Holy Father Pope Benedict came to visit us here in Washington and New York, his theme was hope. Hope is one of the three virtues which unite us directly with God. We believe in Him—faith. We hope to be in heaven with Him someday. We love Him because He is absolutely wonderful, and we love ourselves and everyone else because God loves us—charity.

We can fail in the virtue of hope in two ways. St. Paul’s words to the Philippians help us to avoid both.

“Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” The past couple of weeks a lot of people have been nervous and afraid about our economy. When knowledgeable people warn us of possible economic catastrophe, it is perfectly natural for us to be afraid. May it please God to see us through these difficult times.

But when we get right down to it, there is really only one thing to be truly afraid of. God will always provide for us one way or another, so other than this one thing, we really don’t have anything to fear. Even death can’t do us any harm if we die in God’s friendship.

The one genuinely frightening thing is: H—E—double hockey sticks. When we seriously consider the possibility of winding up there, we tremble. Not a good prospect. Not at all. We are right to take every care to avoid the bad place.

Hell is a real possibility. We sin against hope if we presume with God. Hope is hope, not certainty. I cannot assume I am going to heaven. It is not automatic. I have to strive to do good and avoid evil; I have to confess my sins and beg for mercy. Being presumptuous with a friend is rude; being presumptuous with God is a sin.

On the other hand, St. Paul wrote, “Have no anxiety about anything.” Pray, make your requests known to God, and “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Living the virtue of hope means trusting with confidence in God’s generosity. If it really were all up to us, we would be in trouble, serious trouble. But it is not up to us alone. We can trust God.

The good Lord, in fact, has a perfect plan to get us all to heaven. He has a plan to get each of us there, starting right now. No matter what we have done or failed to do, until the moment you and I draw our last breath on this earth, the Lord always has a contingency plan to save us. He will always forgive us our sins, if we ask Him. He will always give us whatever we need to persevere on our pilgrimage, if we ask Him.

It is a sin to presume; it is also a sin to despair. Despair is a sin against hope. God will provide. He will give us the grace to repent of our sins. All we have to do is ask. That is why St. Paul urged the Philippians to pray. And the good Lord has even given us the perfect way to pray.

At the end of today’s reading, St. Paul wrote, “Keep on doing what you have learned and received.” These words call to mind what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you…In the same way the chalice…saying, This is the new covenant in my blood.”

If we hope in God, we pray. The best prayer is the Holy Mass. In the Mass, we ask for exactly what we need to get to heaven. And in the Mass, the Lord gives us everything we ask for, and then some: He gives us Himself.

If we want to learn how to pray with hope, if we want to learn how to avoid presumption and despair, let’s ‘tune ourselves in’ to all the prayers of the Mass, and pray them ourselves. To pray the Mass is an act of perfect hope.

Old Bests Retiring…

New Bests above.

Best team for the Redskins to beat: Dallas Cowboys!!
Second-best team for the Redskings to beat: Philadelphia Eagles!!!!

Best Coffee: Dunkin Donuts

Best Prince Album: Grafitti Bridge

Best Car for a Priest: Scion tC

Best Secret Recipe: Big Mac special sauce

Best Bridge over the Potomac River: Rt. 301 Potomac River Bridge

Best Public Oratory on the East Coast: St. Ignatius Loyola Church, 84th and Park Ave., Manhattan

The Benefit of the Doubt

St. Ignatius Loyola was a dandy knight and a courtier until he was seriously wounded in a battle. As he lay in bed recuperating, he read the life of Christ and some biographies of saints. He decided to renounce the world and to try to imitate the Lord Jesus in a life of poverty, chastity, and total obedience to God. St. Ignatius went from delusions of grandeur to extreme, almost frightening humility.

St. Ignatius is famous for his “Spiritual Exercises,” a month-long series of meditations which unite the person who makes them with Christ. In order for someone to do the Exercises, he or she needs a guide. The relationship between the person praying and the director is crucial for spiritual success. Profound trust is obviously necessary.

Because this relationship is so important, St. Ignatius spelled out how both parties should approach it. His teaching is a perfect guide for all of us in our dealings with other people:

“That both the giver and the maker of the Spiritual Exercises may be of greater help and benefit to each other, it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.” (paragraph 22 of the Spiritual Exercises)

It is much easier to want to do this than to do it, as we know. Giving the other person the benefit of the doubt every time is a very demanding discipline. But isn’t it the way that the saints have seen things? Haven’t the saints always been accused of being naïve and obtuse, precisely because they refused to think ill of another person until there was unimpeachable objective evidence? The saints have lived in the so-called “dream world” in which other people always mean well.

At the end of the book of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius gives some practical rules for staying in communion with the Church. One of them is: “What seems to me to be white, I will believe to be black if the hierarchical Church thus determines it.” (paragraph 365).

This extreme case of self-doubt obviously only applies in matters where the Church teaches a solemn doctrine. But the underlying theme is the same as in the rule for giving the benefit of the doubt to the other person. The underlying theme of St. Ignatius’ spiritual life is: I should be quick to doubt myself. My own conclusions must always be put to a rigorous test before I commit myself to them.

I do not claim to be any expert at this. I tend to assume that everyone thinks that I am a big fool, deluded and impossible to understand. In fact, only about 50% of the people I know think this.

Now, there is self-doubt and there is self-doubt. Humbly withholding judgment is good self-doubt. Perpetual fear and trembling is bad self-doubt. This perpetual fear and trembling pretty well describes my first five years as a priest. After all, the responsibilities are frightening, and my capacities are woefully limited. Someday the Lord will ask me to give an account for all the souls that have ever been under my care in any way, and if I have failed any of them, I will have to pay the price for my negligence.

I am not looking for pity here, though. I love being a priest, and in fact I do not tremble at all times. I know that if I do my duty, teach the truth with loving care, and do my best to be kind, then I can hope that I will get to heaven someday, and be with the people I have loved here on earth. Being a priest is fundamentally a matter of duty; the good Lord does not ask His priests to be mind-readers (believe it or not) or rock-stars, or even particularly good politicians. We are just supposed to pray all the time.

May the good Lord give me the grace to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to think that they are right until I know for sure that they are wrong, and to help them in any way I can.