Homilies - February 2013

Select a homily to read:
Fourth Sunday of the Year: February 4, 2013 by Fr. Gabriel
Fifth Sunday of the Year: February 10, 2013 by Abbot James
Ash Wednesday: February 13, 2013 by Abbot James
Lenten Conference: Non-Possession: February 14, 2013 by Abbot James
Mass of Christian Burial for Catherine Roberts: February 16, 2013 by Fr. Joseph
First Sunday of Lent: February 17, 2013 by Fr. Joseph

Fourth Sunday of the Year

  • February 4, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Gabriel

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Athena was born fully formed from the head of Zeus. “Fully formed” shows how the Greek gods are very different from us. They do not have to go through the messiness, jagged edges, and divided sensibilities of growing up. Growing up is a glib phrase, for it suggests something as natural as rolling out of bed, as easy as hopping onto your exercise equipment. Whereas, actual growing up means leaving what is accustomed and familiar, and moving into the next stage of life. This is arduous and traumatic, happens many times in life, at many ages. Ask a new mother, struggling with her strange feelings of morbidity and sadness; ask a senior couple selling their house, dispersing their possessions, to enter a retirement community. Each of these transitions is also growing up.

Jesus, being like us in every respect, was historically a very different god from Athena. John’s gospel doesn’t show this, being focused on his divinity. But Luke’s gospel concentrates on the humanness of Jesus. Therefore it gives hints of him as developing, as needing to grow up. The classic example is his adolescent rebellion at age twelve, when to the consternation of his parents he deliberately “got lost” in Jerusalem. But more interesting to us might be the adult stress he felt at age thirty when he left the stability of Nazareth for a precarious career.

Today’s gospel shows Jesus deliberately antagonizing his home town. One minute (we heard this last week) they are eating out of his hand; the next they are trying to throw him over a cliff. It seems unnecessary. Why did he do this? It is a moment when he seems uncomfortable in his own skin. The proverbs he flings in their faces—“physician, heal yourself”; “no prophet is accepted in his own place”—say more about his insecurity than the people’s animosity. They are ready to be impressed, and he insults them. It would take a while until he was the great physician, the serene prophet. He grew into his identity by degrees, not instantaneously as sanitized versions of the story suggest.

He had to struggle. This makes him the legitimate heir of the Old Testament prophets. They always resisted God’s call as being too hard and painful. This lies behind the first reading. Given God’s challenge to speak to the people, Jeremiah says, “I am too young.” Whether this is a chronological excuse or an accurate reading of developmental unreadiness, we do not know.

We do know that each of us, however privately, must struggle to become the persons we are meant to be. The outcome is not assured; many people settle for less, out of fear, laziness, or unwillingness to bear the wounds such a challenge always brings. They never reach fullness of being, uniqueness, the special purpose for which God uniquely created them. To help us, we do have guides in stories of moral courage, of churchly heroes and secular saints, to prod and inspire us.

An odd one is the movie “Becoming Jane [Austen],” accent on the word “becoming.” Jane Austen wrote six perfect books in the early 19th century, classics, but we know little of her actual life. The movie takes one fact and speculates. She got engaged to a nice man, at a time when marriage was vital to a woman’s security, but 24 hours later inexplicably broke it off. The movie shows how she needed this traumatic choice in order to stop writing silly amateur-stuff and start writing the high art which for some reason always needs suffering underneath to be convincing. This is a good example of how difficulty comes into our lives, or we subconsciously choose it, in order to find enlargement.

A more recent example would be our President’s autobiography, “Dreams from My Father, A Story of Race and Inheritance.” Quite apart from politics or even art, this is a great human achievement. The story of the father who abandons his son for his original family; the demanding mother who rattles around the globe for idealistic schemes that never come to term—conjures up the universal questions: why did she choose him? Why did he leave us? Which parent am I like? Not just what color am I—but who am I? Who do I choose to become? To be bushwhacked by such questions is the human predicament; to come up with answers is a great victory.

Call it successful maturation, or growing up, or monastic conversion. It doesn’t happen all at once, and ultimately it is a spiritual quest that no one else can do for us. At the heart of all great religions is this experience of breakthrough, blossoming, second birth. You have to leave the chrysalis, get out of the womb. That is represented by the Israelite crossing of the sea, the enlightenment of Buddha, the revelation given Muhammed. For us it is the profound truth of Jesus dying in order to experience resurrection. We are invited to this possibility by undergoing the little deaths that plunge us into deeper life.

Deeper life is describe in the second reading. Love is not boastful or arrogant or rude; it hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things. Who can live up to this great ideal?

We do so by moving forward little by little, falling down and getting up. It takes time, which Paul describes so eloquently. “Our present knowledge is partial and our religion is partial. But when the complete comes, the partial will end. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and behaved as a child; but when I became adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see through the glass darkly, but then we will see face to face.” Through the looking glass we go to leave the murkiness and find the truth.

The contrast between partial and complete, between childhood and adulthood, is Paul’s way of saying we have the opportunity to grow up. To become powerful and mature like Jesus did. It means leaving home (where no prophet is accepted), and the often lonely but divine task of healing yourself. It means making a new beginning wherever we are, and struggling to move into the next phase.

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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Fifth Sunday of the Year

  • February 10, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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As you know, normally the first and third readings on a Sunday are rather clearly interrelated, while the second reading—often from the letters of St. Paul—is usually on a quite different topic. Today, however, there is at least one way in which all three readings touch on the same subject. The vision suddenly given to the prophet Isaiah fills him with dread of his own unworthiness and uncleanness, and yet one of the seraphim assures him that his wickedness has been removed, his sin purged. In our second reading, Paul is likewise keenly aware of his own unworthiness and sinfulness, claiming that he was not fit to be called an apostle because he had persecuted the church, and yet he too was changed: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective” (1 Cor 15:10). Indeed, it led him to travel throughout the Mediterranean basin proclaiming the Good News that “Christ died for our sins … and was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (vv. 3-4). Finally, in our Gospel reading, the other great apostle, Peter, likewise confesses his unworthiness: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). So in all three readings there are emphatic references to one’s sinfulness, making it almost incumbent on me to talk about this subject, perhaps especially because we do not hear much about sin these days. A few decades ago there was even a best-selling book with the title Whatever Became of Sin?1

If I try even briefly to summarize what Scripture says about sin, it would not be sufficient merely to say that it is presented as some kind of offense or transgression of God’s law. One of the most highly acclaimed studies of sin in the Bible is titled Sin: A History,2 in which the Old Testament scholar Gary Anderson shows that there were two major and rather different understandings of sin in ancient Israel. In some texts, mostly early ones, sin was primarily thought of as a weight or burden that had to be carried. This is evident, for example, at the very beginning of the Book of Isaiah, where Israel is called a “sinful nation, a people laden with wickedness” (Is. 1:4), and it is graphically described in the regulations for the Day of Atonement in the Book of Leviticus, where a live goat is brought before Aaron, who lays both his hands on its head and thereby transfers all the iniquities of the people to the animal, which is then led out into the wilderness. What’s going on there? Well, Aaron has symbolically placed the weight of Israel’s sins on the goat, which carries them out into the wilderness, where they cease to burden the people who had once committed them. Even though the weight of iniquity could not be annihilated, it could at least be banished.

Quite different was the understanding of sin after the Israelites’ return from the Babylonian exile and the building of the second temple at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. From then on, the predominant metaphor was no longer sin as a weighty burden but rather as a debt, with forgiveness being the remission or non-collection of the debt. Since Jesus himself lived and taught in this milieu, it is not at all surprising that, for example, the text of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s Gospel has the verse “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Mt. 6:12), or that the parable of the Unforgiving Servant has the same symbolism, concluding with the master’s saying to malefactor: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Mt. 18:32-33). This also explains why almsgiving became so important a part of Christian practice, for if sin is a debt, this means we owe money, and if virtuous activity is going to be a credit, then the most obvious way to accumulate credits is by giving away money to those in need. Such giving was actually understood as making a loan to God, as we read in the Book of Proverbs: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done” (Prov. 19:17).

Both of these metaphors—sin as a weighty burden and sin as a debt needing to be repaid—are certainly still valid for us today. If, with St. Paul, we want to praise and thank the Lord for all he has done for us, this could well be in terms of Christ’s bearing the weight of our sins, just as it is said of the Suffering Servant in chapter 53 of Isaiah: “My servant shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear” (Is. 53:11). But we could also understand Christ’s saving work in terms of the cancelling of a debt, as in the Letter to the Colossians, where the key verses read literally: “When you were dead in trespasses … God made you alive together with [Christ] when he cancelled the debt of all our trespasses, erasing the bond of indebtedness that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13-14).

Nevertheless, I think we would have to admit that the metaphors of sin as burden and sin as debt are not the most prominent ones today. When asked what is the dominant one in our own time, Professor Anderson replied in an interview: “I think the dominant language of sin and forgiveness is that of the therapeutic … [whereby] the seriousness of sin is often dramatically underplayed. What might have been seen as sin in the past is now understood as something reflecting my upbringing or other formative circumstances.”3 Now however fine a scriptural scholar Anderson may be, he surely misses the pastoral mark in this evaluation. For one thing, there are plenty of passages in Scripture itself that speak of sin as a kind of illness and of God or Jesus as a healer or physician. We need think only of Jesus’ saying, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners” (Lk. 5:31-32). To disdain this therapeutic model seems to come from an overly juridical approach to wrongdoing, where someone in a court of law would have to be declared either legally guilty or innocent. This kind of strict dichotomy may be necessary in a juridical setting, but it is too simplistic in other respects. The moral theologian Timothy O’Connell is much more faithful to the teaching of Jesus when he writes:

Criminals are to be punished, normally with severity … On the other hand, the sick are to be recipients of the most tender human mercy and care…. The appropriate Christian response to the sinner is reconciliation and forgiveness. By underscoring the powerlessness, disorientation and weakness of the sinner, this model invites compassion and mercy for one who is lost, as opposed to judgment and punishment for one who is evil.4

This does not underplay the seriousness of sin nor does it deny personal responsibility, but it does honestly recognize that there are limits to our freedom. The fact that a movement like Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step programs have been so effective in helping millions of persons succeed in ongoing recovery is not at all because they have somehow eliminated the ethical issue of personal responsibility but because they have relieved the sufferer of a disproportionate, crippling sense of guilt and have simultaneously empowered him or her to take more responsibility for their actual freedom. This is not a denial of personal wrongdoing and certainly not some unrealistic attempt to recapture lost innocence, but is instead a way of helping one move to a new sense of wholeness without denying the past. All this is, of course, altogether in accord with Jesus’ own way of dealing with sinners, as when he told the woman caught in adultery, “Go, and from now on sin no more” (Jn. 8:11). As we draw near the beginning of Lent, a traditional time for focusing on our need for reconciliation with God and with one another, let us take advantage of the wonderful sacrament of reconciliation, trusting that we will find in its priestly minister someone who is as compassionate and as empowering as was Christ himself.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973).
2 Gary Anderson, Sin: A History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009).
3 Anderson, “The Evolution of Sin” (an interview by John Wilson), Christianity Today, March 2010, p. 32.
4 Timothy O’Connell, Sin as Addiction (New York: Paulist, 1989), 132-33.

Ash Wednesday

  • February 13, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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As you may know, the person who distributes ashes on Ash Wednesday has a choice between two admonitions that may be said as he places the ashes on each person’s forehead. One of them, almost certainly the more commonly used, is: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” This is fully in accord with all three of our readings and may be the reason why it is normally chosen. The passage from the prophet Joel begins on this very theme:

Yet even now—oracle of the Lord—return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the Lord.

So, too, our reading from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where the Apostle writes: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God,” and again: “We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” And finally, in the Gospel, Jesus speaks of three preeminent ways in which we can manifest genuine repentance: by almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

The other admonition that the priest may select as he imposes ashes is this: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is not so obviously related to the three readings, but it may also sound a bit too stark to be normally selected by the minister. It is, however, very much in accord with a prayer that the priest may pray as he blesses the ashes, for part of that prayer goes like this: “O God, … be pleased to bless these ashes, which we intend to receive upon our heads, that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes and shall return to dust, may, through a steadfast observance of Lent, gain pardon for our sins and newness of life.”

The recent death of our longtime Oblate Catherine Roberts makes it especially fitting to reflect on the reality of death at the beginning of this Lenten season. Catherine was a devout woman who had been well aware for months that she was dying, and yet she did not rebel or feel that God was in any way treating her unfairly. She gratefully and gracefully received the Anointing of the Sick, welcomed visitors to her sickbed, and in general gave those of us who knew her a wonderful example of how to draw near the end of one’s earthly life.

Needless to say, not everyone reacts in this exemplary way. Just a few days ago I heard of a man who, like Catherine, had been diagnosed with a very serious cancer, but that poor man is in a terrible state of mind: depressed, angry, withdrawn, unwilling to speak with his friends about his state. Similarly, a couple months ago one of our Oblates introduced me to a blogsite on the Internet in which various believing Catholics were expressing quite disparate opinions about how one would best face a diagnosis of a fatal illness and impending death. Some of the bloggers were quite unwilling to accept such a diagnosis with anything approaching the attitude of Catherine Roberts, but were instead writing about prayers for miraculous cures so they could live still longer. Our own Oblate entered the fray with the wry observation that of the canonized saints, those who are for us the model “cloud of witnesses” spoken of in the Letter to the Hebrews, every single one of them has died: 100% consistency!

I have also always been taken by something Dorothy Day once said in a filmed interview. When her own mother was quite old and suffering a serious illness, she said to her daughter: “Dorothy, don’t pray that I live still longer. I’ve been through the San Francisco earthquake, a Florida hurricane, and two World Wars. I think I’ve had enough.”

More seriously, if we really take to heart what many of us once learned in the Baltimore Catechism—that we are here on earth “to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy with him forever in the next”—and if we recognize that the only way to reach that ultimate goal is through the gateway of death, then this is not a fate to be at all dreaded. Rather, we will readily be able to follow that “instrument of good works” found in the fourth chapter of St. Benedict’s Rule: to keep death daily before one’s eyes, something that we ought to be able to do not fearfully but even with faith-filled expectation. May our observance of this season of Lent strengthen us in that resolve, especially as we receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, for this is actually at all times, and not just near the time of death, our “viaticum,” our nourishment along the way.

Abbot James Wiseman
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Lenten Conference: Non-Possession

  • February 14, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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This conference was given to the community of monks at the abbey on the day following Ash Wednesday.

As you know, our Compline reading this year is from a book in which the entry for each day begins with a passage from the Desert Fathers, followed by a brief reflection on the saying by one of our contemporaries. I’m going to start this conference in the same way, although my reflection will be longer than the ones in that book. You may have heard this saying before:

Abba Theodore of Pherme had acquired three good books. He came to Abba Macarius and said to him, “I have three excellent books from which I derive profit; the brethren also make use of them and derive profit from them. Tell me what I ought to do: keep them for my use and that of the brethren, or sell them and give the money to the poor?” The old man answered him in this way: “Your actions are good, but it is best of all to possess nothing.” Hearing this, he went and sold his books and gave the money for them to the poor.1

What are we monks today to make of a saying like that? It sounds like Abba Macarius wasn’t concerned if that group of monks out in the desert ended up with nothing at all to read and perhaps had to rely on recalling things they had once heard or read in order to receive some sort of spiritual nourishment. This would surely be altogether incompatible with our Benedictine Rule, with its emphasis on several hours of lectio divina, “holy reading,” every single day, not to mention St. Benedict’s requirement in chapter 48 that at the beginning of Lent each monk is to be given a particular book from the library to be read straight through. This means that we ought not apply that desert saying literally to our own lives. Benedict expected his monks to have books.

If that is a change that may have developed in large part because of the difference between the eremitical (or semi-eremitical) life of the Desert Fathers and the cenobitic life for which Benedict was legislating, there is another change that has entered even into Benedictine life since the time when our Rule was written. There is a well-known passage in Blessed John Henry Newman’s Historical Sketches that comments on this change in a memorable way. I have probably quoted it before, but I hope you won’t mind if I do so again. Newman wrote:

[The monks] had sought, in the lonely wood or the silent mountain top, the fair uncorrupted form of nature, which spoke only of the Creator. They had retired into deserts, where they could have no enemies but such as fast and prayer could subdue. . . . They had secured some refuge, whence they might look round at the sick world in the distance, and see it die. But, when that last hour came, it did but frustrate all their hopes, for, instead of an old world at a distance, they found they had a young world close to them. The old order of things died, sure enough; but then a new order took its place, and they themselves, by no will or expectation of their own, were in no small measure its very life. The lonely Benedictine rose from his knees and found himself a city.

This was the case, not merely here or there, but everywhere; Europe was new mapped, and the monks were the principle of mapping. They had grown into large communities, into abbeys, into corporations with civil privileges, into landholders with tenants, serfs, and baronial neighbours; they had become centres of population, the schools of the most cherished truths, the shrines of the most sacred confidences. . . . And they comprehended that unless they fled anew from the face of man, as St. Antony in the beginning, they must bid farewell to the hope of leading Antony's life.

What Newman there wrote was surely already obvious to each of us when we applied to join a community such as ours. Otherwise we might have sought entrance into a charterhouse, where the strictly withdrawn life of the ancient desert monks is still the Carthusians’ acknowledged ideal. Unlike them, and unlike Abba Macarius and Abba Theodore of Pherme, we intend to be of service in a more direct way to people living outside the monastery, whether they be students in our own school or at Catholic University, or our Oblates, or people who come here as our guests for a period of quiet retreat and perhaps spiritual direction, and so forth, and for such work we obviously need a lot more even than books if we are to serve such persons in the way they deserve.

This, of course, is where the whole matter can get complicated, simply because that word “need” doesn’t always permit a clear-cut decision on which there might be anything like unanimous agreement. The problem is not new. Centuries ago, speaking of authentic monastic poverty, St. Bernard wrote of some monks: “They wish to be poor in such a way that nothing is lacking to them. They love poverty so long as they experience no shortage [of anything].” The things we want to do so as to be able to serve God and our neighbor in appropriate ways don’t mean that we should have things that really just burden us, even in insidious ways, whether these be objects owned by the community as a whole or ones available for our personal use and for all practical purposes owned by us individually, even if not in a strictly canonical sense. Some years ago the late Raimundo Panikkar reflected about ways in which such objects can really deflect us from the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary, that presumably drew us to monastic life in the first place. In a talk given up in Massachusetts several decades ago, he said:

Having is not simply riches, it is also the power of the means. And having can exert a deadening weight on [our] being. Having is all the artificial trappings that we accumulate…. Having is all the accessories that serve some purpose at first, but further down the line leave us entangled in the means without allowing us to reach our true goals. Having is all that weighs us down in our sack of provisions…. The contemporary monk does not so much want to wash his hands of all doing as to free [his hands] from all having, precisely in order to put them to use for their proper task. He wants no chains on his feet…. He would like to be active in the world as an outcome of his own being; he stresses poverty of having in order to attain a higher freedom in doing.2

That may sound too rhetorical, but it’s worth pondering the fact that some of the most influential persons in the history of the world have had almost no possessions. One thinks in the first place of Jesus himself, who said that while the birds of the air have their nests and the foxes their dens, he, the Son of Man, had nowhere to lay his head. Closer to our own day, one of the most influential persons of all time was a man I’ve spoken about several times before, Gandhi. In a letter to a young cousin written in 1930, he admitted that those whom he called “[us] ordinary seekers” might fall well short of the ideal of perfect non-possession, but, he wrote, “we must keep the ideal constantly before us, and in the light thereof critically examine our possessions and try to reduce them…. We thus arrive at the idea of total renunciation and learn the use of the body for the purposes of service as long as it exists, so much so that service, and not bread, becomes for us the staff of life. We eat and drink, sleep and walk, for service alone. Such an attitude of mind brings us real happiness and the beatific vision in the fullness of time. Let us all examine ourselves from this standpoint.”3

How well Gandhi did this himself is almost incredible. At his death, his personal possessions numbered about ten: a pair of spectacles, a watch, his simple garb, a couple eating bowls with wooden fork and spoon, a diary, a prayer book, a letter opener, and two pair of sandals. He used to give away or auction any gift that was ever given to him. To what degree might any of us be able to say that of ourselves, and yet this was a man who successfully brought the world’s most powerful empire to leave his country in a non-violent way? (To his great and pained regret, of course, he was unable to get Hindus and Muslims to live at peace with one another once the British left, and in that respect he believed he was a failure.)

As a brief practical conclusion to these reflections, let me remind everyone of our annual practice of compiling a poverty bill during Lent. I do read these and occasionally I have asked one or another monk if a particular object is really necessary, but the real judge should be each of you as you go through your rooms before you even turn in your list. Let us keep in mind what so many of the Fathers of the Church, like St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom, used to keep saying: that items stashed away in our closets that we don’t really use don’t belong to us in the first place but rather belong to the poor who could actually use them. As always, there are boxes in the corridor on the second floor of the Johnson wing where you can place such items. Please turn in your poverty bills by one month from now, March 14, and if you wish to add something about a special Lenten practice and/or some special Lenten reading, feel free to list that too. For all of us, may this season be the joyful one that St. Benedict writes about, a time of even now looking forward with the joy of the Holy Spirit to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1975), 73.
2 Raimundo Panikkar, Blessed Simplicity The Monk as Universal Archetype (New York: Seabury, 1982), 46-47.
3 Letter to Narandas Gandhi, Aug. 26, 1930, in Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Writings, new ed., ed. Judith M. Brown (Oxford University Press, 2008), 92..

Mass of Christian Burial for Catherine Roberts

  • February 16, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Joseph

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Catherine Roberts passed away on February 11, 2013. Her funeral was February 16th at St. John the Evangelist church.

I'm thinking right now that I'm an example of the Peter Principle, promoted to something that is just above my competence. I mean, I don't really feel competent to do justice to Catherine, wonderful woman that she was. Fr. Abbot's note on the board about Catherine's passing referred to her as a holy woman, and she certainly was that. He also referred to her in his Ash Wednesday homily. She knew she didn't have long to live, but she didn't react with depression or rebellion or denial as some have, and that is because she was thoroughly grounded in her faith. She knew that the catechism tells us that God made us to know, love, and serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. She certainly had lived the first part (known, loved, and served) and was certainly ready for the rest: "to be happy with Him forever in the next." The times I was privileged to visit her in those last days, she was as cheerful and as outgoing as I ever remember her being. I can easily believe that she knew that eternal joy was right around the corner, and she was anticipating it. Certainly there was no complaining and certainly no self-pity. She seemed more interested in others than in herself, which was a measure of her generosity--certainly a constant characteristic with her. Her piety was not obtrusive, but she was eager to pray a decade of the rosary each time I was there.

We have to rejoice to know she is now with God, enraptured by the Beatific Vision, removed from all suffering. If she didn't seem unhappy at the thought of leaving us behind, it was no doubt because she knew she wasn't. She might be going to a new kind of existence, but she knew that did not exclude her being as close to us as she has always been. She may never be formally proposed for canonization (depends on whether or not the miracles come rolling in), but I have no trouble praying to her now.

The Christian life is full of paradoxes, and this is probably nowhere truer than in this Mass of Christian burial: the moment in which we experience a sense of profound loss and sadness, we also find the greatest reasons for rejoicing and thanksgiving. Catherine's passing is indeed a great loss to us and therefore the occasion for sadness, and the same event of her passing brings us both the joy and the gladness. At the very moment we grieve to lose her, we see her being called to God, and thus an occasion for happiness and thanksgiving.

Catherine lived a long life, almost 93 years. It is truly said that there is no point in living long unless you live well, but Catherine certainly did that. She was a devout and faithful Catholic from her early years. She had a fine married life for almost 50 years and raised, with her husband, a family of children that any couple could be proud of--as we can see before us. She worked productively for the federal government for 40 years, but even after retiring from that she volunteered for parish work and, more importantly for many of us here, she volunteered to work for St. Anselm's, working at the desk for many years, and she became a Benedictine Oblate. Even after leaving our desk she continued to attend, especially on Oblate Sundays. Even after set-backs from illness and injury, of which she had her share, she would be back and as cheerful, generous, and loving as ever.

I'm grateful to Terry for the little account of her life that he gave me, especially because it confirmed for me something I consider important. Partly as a judgment about her life in general. Living in a community, we are sometimes taken aback by the wonderful report we would hear about this or that person--how friendly and sweet and considerate they are; and we might think, "We wish they were that way here." So one could rightly be reserved about expressing judgments about a person one has not lived with 24 hours a day for many years. Therefore it means a lot to have the testimonial of people who have, as in the declaration, "You could not ask for a better mother," and also, "Mom was just a very, very good person," from those closest to her and well able to observe (and remember!) faults and failings. I'm grateful for Terry's report for one specific essential point: I, personally, have never heard her say anything critical about anyone. Criticizing others is a very easy fault to fall into and almost all of us are guilty of it to an extent, so a confirmation from one who knew her well is gladly received: "Mom never had a bad word to say about anyone. She always saw the good in people." St. James says, "if anyone does not fall short in speech, the same is a perfect person."

There are many reasons for rejoicing and thanksgiving: Catherine now goes to the presence and vision of the God she loved so much and served with such devotion, and she goes to join the loved ones--so many of them who were so dear to her heart--who had gone on before her.

To find consolation in this Christian hope requires faith, and those consoling words in John's gospel provide basis for that faith, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever lives and believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die" (John 11:25-16). I could have chosen that gospel for today, but I thought for Catherine the one I did choose (Matt 12:25-30) was even more appropriate: consoling words for those who have labored and deserve rest, especially for those who, like Jesus, are meek and humble of heart, and as Catherine was, in imitation of her Lord.

I'd like to close with some beautiful words on dying that I have Alessandra Styles to thank for: she used them for her mother and I have found comfort in them ever since:

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: "There, she is gone!"

"Gone where?"

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says: "There, she is gone!" there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: "Here she comes!"

And that is dying.

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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First Sunday of Lent

  • February 17, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Joseph

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Last Sunday our opening hymn was "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty," one of my favorites, as I mentioned on an earlier occasion. But the third line in this version had been changed: Instead of the more familiar "Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinful man, thy glory may not see," it went, "though the eye made blind by sin thy glory may not see." I understand why the change was made, i.e., for the sake of inclusive language, to avoid using "man" in a way that seemed to stand for all of humankind. I'm all in favor of inclusive language: I've written articles to promote it and have incorporated it into biblical revisions and translations I have been responsible for--and have the scars to prove it. However, I don't think the new wording catches the intended meaning. Certainly our sinfulness impedes our ability to see God, but I think the point intended here is the gap between the human and divine: the vision of God would be beyond any human, even supposing one to be sinless. The whole scene is a contrast between the heavenly liturgy ("cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee") and us still on earth, not yet qualified to join the heavenly liturgy, to look upon God face to face.

Of course Our Lord Jesus Christ has wonderfully narrowed that gap. By the very fact of His incarnation, Jesus has made us sharers of His divinity. He is our brother; the process of our divinization has already begun. But we are not yet ready for the beatific vision. St. Paul contrasts "now," when we see indistinctly, "as in a mirror," with "then, when the perfect comes," when we shall see face to face. Elsewhere Paul says that that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. That is why we used to sing "the eye of sinful man your glory may not see."

So we have a step still to go. And we do not simply wait till "the perfect comes," because we have lot of our own perfecting to do. How that is to be done we see in today's gospel; Our Lord shows us how to react to temptation. Satan throws three challenges at Him, three feats of power to prove the He is the Son of God. Two of his challenges begin, "IF you are the Son of God, do ..." We remember Israel, God's son being delivered from slavery, 40 years in the wilderness, tempted and constantly falling. Some of Jesus' temptations, after 40 days in the wilderness, resemble those that Israel succumbed to. In spite of the signs and wonders God had performed, they complained that in the desert they would die of famine, so God sent them "bread from heaven," the manna. Satan first tempted Jesus, "if you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread." But Jesus knew what that manna was to teach Israel, "One does not live by bread alone." We can also see a parallel between Israel's worship of the golden calf, and Satan's next attempt, the promise to give Jesus power and glory if He would worship Satan. Jesus proved Himself to be the Son of God by His obedience to God, as Israel had not.

The temptations we meet with come in the course of everyday life, not by encountering Satan in the wilderness, and it can be supposed that this is the way it was for Jesus, too, that the presentation of confrontation in the desert may actually be a dramatized report of experiences of Jesus in His public ministry. An article written by Raymond Brown some years ago suggest that the temptations described by Matthew and Luke were in fact anticipations of things Jesus encountered during His public ministry.

For example, we might think of the time when, right after Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus began telling them that He was to suffer and die. We know that the suffering He foretells was a difficult prospect for Him to face, and Peter was playing to these sentiments when he tried to persuade Him that this could never happen. "We have just recognized that you are the Messiah. Forget this suffering and dying business." Jesus would gladly have done so, but He knew this was not the way His Heavenly Father had planned it. When Jesus rebuked Peter, rather sharply, for thinking like men rather than God, His words were almost identical to those He used to the devil in the wilderness, "Begone, Satan."

In both Matthew's and Luke's version, the devil's first attempt was "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to be turned into the loaves of bread." What would be the point of that? Apparently the devil was trying to lead Him to use miraculous powers to satisfy a purely ordinary need, or, more likely, to use such powers to demonstrate that He had them, whereas Jesus used them only to alleviate the needs of others. In John's version of the miracle of the loaves, when the people "saw the sign he had done, they said, `This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world," and Jesus had to flee because He "knew they were going to come and carry him off to make him king." The next day, when the same crowd comes looking for a repeat of the miracle, He tells them that they should be looking for food that lasts forever, that He will give them. They challenge Him by asking for a sign, referring specifically to the manna that Moses gave in the desert. Jewish tradition believed that in the days of the Messiah the manna would again descend from heaven. They are suggesting here that if Jesus "turned these stones into bread," in effect, acceding to the devil's suggestion, He would be accepted as the Messiah-king-prophet without further ado--so, in effect, the same temptation that Peter had offered.

Again, it is not Satan in person but the bystanders at the Crucifixion who taunt Him, "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!" "Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusted in God; let God deliver him now .... For he said, `I am the Son of God.'" In the third wilderness temptation Satan had made him stand on the parapet of the Temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:`He will command his angels concerning you' and `with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'" I suppose this was to be a public manifestation of God's approval of Him. For Jesus to come down from the cross in the face of His taunters would have been such a demonstration-Band He would have fallen to Satan's plan.

Like Jesus, who proved Himself to be the Son of God by His obedience, we must prove ourselves to be children of God by obedience. Our temptations normally come in our everyday affairs. If they came through a red-cloaked figure with horns and a tail, they would be easier to spot, but they come in subtler form. Temptations against purity are usually pretty apparent, though they can also be subtle and not easy to recognize. Satan will not offer us wealth and power if we will adore him, but it's easy to make the pursuit of them into a form of idolatry. Just read the newspapers and you can find people doing all kinds of things for the sake of money and power and popularity. This is where Lent comes in. A time for special vigilance. There are all kinds of penances we can perform, but what God really wants is abstaining from sin and true repentance from whatever evil we have been guilty of. "Rend your hearts and not your vestment." Giving alms is highly recommended for those who have the means. But kindness and generosity cost us nothing and are even more acceptable. Everywhere we hear the call to a new evangelization. Perhaps we don't know how to respond; to open ourselves to all with a new effort to be kind and generous is a good start and will, in surprising manner open up other pathways to us.

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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