Homilies - September 2013

Select a homily to read:
Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year: September 1, 2013 by Fr. Gabriel
Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year: September 8, 2013 by Fr. Joseph
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year: September 22, 2013 by Fr. Christopher
Praying the Psalms According to Basil and Cassian: September 26, 2013 by Abbot James

Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year

  • September 1, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Gabriel

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This is a gospel of contrasts. (It might be noted that the most desirable church seat today is not the highest, but the one in the back.) Jesus contrasts the guest who grabs the best seat with the host who invites the blind and lame. He is contrasting arrogance with humility, selfishness with generosity. Jesus is following a long rabbinic tradition which contrasts the wise man with the fool. We find this in the very first psalm. “Blessed is the one who delights in the Lord, who is like a tree planted by the water. Not so are the wicked, not so. They are like chaff, dispersed by the wind, who will not survive judgment.”

The contrast may be too stark, for most of us are a mixture of humility and arrogance, selfishness and generosity, good and evil. The rotten apple has some good in him; the apple that looks shiny on the surface may have an internal worm. We want to be wise, and we know this means hard work. So we excuse ourselves; we postpone. As Augustine said, “give me chastity, but not quite yet.”

Traditional Christian literature has much to say about humility of heart and behavior. This includes the chapter on the steps of humility in St Benedict’s Rule. It is the second-longest of seventy-three chapters. It is both inspiring and forbidding.

The end of the chapter inspires. “When you have climbed all the steps of humility, you will arrive at the perfect love of God which casts out fear. What you once did with dread, you will now do effortlessly out of love for Christ.” But then there are the forbidding parts. Step one: “To be humble you must keep reverence for God before your eyes always, never forgetting God’s commands.” Step four: “you must quietly embrace suffering and endure it without seeking escape.” Step seven needs some qualification: “you must be convinced in your heart of your inferiority to all, believing with the psalmist you are a worm, scarcely human.” I for one believe that God reveals many truths in the discipline of psychology, including the importance of self-esteem. We need psychology’s insights to affirm and recover the dignity of the human person, as a preliminary to the pursuit of humility.

Does humility make you feel discouraged? There is a surprising amount of secular literature on humility. It comes in odd places. On LeadershipFreak.com (8/28/11) I found “Fifteen Ways to Tell if Someone is Arrogant or Humble.” It is meant to teach managerial or career skills, but is profound at deeper levels. Number one: “Arrogant leaders advance their agenda by telling others what they want to hear; humble leaders tell the truth to serve the higher purpose.” Thus true humility is willing to speak up; it does not silently swallow wrongness. But to balance this, number fifteen: “Arrogance blames; humility takes responsibility.” We should not use truth as a weapon, aggressively. This is a serious temptation for the religious person. Believing I am correct, I may use my truth to condemn others, when I should set an example by applying the truth to myself.

This is hard, and we may have to start small. Jesus said, become as little children. This set me thinking about a magazine which I enjoyed in grade-school: Highlights for Children: Fun with a Purpose. I learned it is still around from another website called simple-pleasures.org (5/19/13). Highlights had regular features, such as Hidden Pictures, the Timbertoes, and Jokes (always including one knock-knock joke). But the best was Goofus and Gallant. This was an illustrated feature, with three pairs of pictures, showing two brothers. Goofus (on the left) always made the wrong choice; Gallant (on the right) always made the right one. On the school bus Goofus hogs the seat; Gallant makes room for someone to sit down. Goofus bosses his friends; Gallant asks his friends, “What do you want to do?” Goofus takes the last apple; Gallant shares his orange. That one is an ethical dilemma I myself have faced in my community’s kitchen—to take that last cookie or leave it for someone else. Gallant was prim and a bit goody, the classic teacher’s pet. Goofus was a bully and punk. The brothers are stereotypes, but nevertheless show the options: do I try the path of humility or take the easier way of arrogance and selfishness?

The answer seems obvious. But as simple-pleasures.org says, “The Goofus’s in our society are admired for their strength and ability to achieve.  They attain positions of leadership, which they often abuse. [Certain politicians, sports and entertainment stars, and church leaders come to mind]. They are rewarded with financial wealth.  Goofus’s don’t care how many heads they have to step on or how many rules they break as they climb the ladder to the top.  They are manipulators who look out for Number One.  Ironically, these are the members of society who often excite us; we envy their power, success, and wealth, even though we question their values and character traits.”

It is harder, and not always rewarding to be a Gallant. But, simple-pleasures.org concludes, “Each day we are presented with a variety of decision-making moments.  Whether facing important or trivial matters, we possess the ability to think and feel before we act.  We have the power to choose actions that will bring about positive outcomes and shape lasting relationships.”

Back to our gospel theme, “Whoever exalts self shall be humbled; whoever humbles self shall be exalted.” One detail I particularly like is that Jesus told this humility parable because he noticed the guests choosing places of honor. Earlier it says, when Jesus went to dine, the Pharisees watched him. So we have Jesus watching those who are watching him. There is a contrast between the goofus Pharisees trying to trap, and gallant Jesus being aware.

The more self-aware we are, the more humble we can be. We can let go of the need to be selfish and to blame. We can cultivate the Christ in us who gives such self-awareness. We can imitate the Christ who humbled himself by coming down to earth from his exalted place in heaven. When we fail, instead of blaming ourselves, we can find forgiveness and empowerment from Christ. We can make amends and start again. We can become the humble host who makes room for someone, even someone uncongenial, on our bus seat.

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year

  • September 8, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Joseph

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We all hate someone who tells us an elaborate story and then can't remember the punch line. I remember a story I heard many years ago about a famous philosopher who had reached the age of 90 and his friends threw a big birthday party for him; there was a large cake with many candles (probably not 90) and with the inscription (in Latin): "For 90 years completed, congratulations!" But one of his philosopher buddies had bribed the decorator to add the words, "Quid ad aeternitatem?"--"What is this compared to eternity?" There's more to the story, but I can't remember it. The point I want to make relates to today's gospel and the difficult sayings therein.

What are these difficult sayings? One has to do with hating father & mother, wife & children, brothers & sisters, and even one's own life. Another has to do with carrying one's own cross. And the third one is about renouncing all one's possessions. These are hard sayings. One rich man who wanted to follow Jesus turned away after hearing the one about renouncing his possessions.

But Jesus is totally serious about these things; each of these sayings is prefaced with "unless" and concludes with "you cannot be my disciple." Thus decision is unavoidable. The seriousness is heightened by the two parables, about the would-be tower builder and the king facing an enemy. Let the would-be disciple take note of the difficulties and take them into account in reaching a decision.

So it's really being between a rock and a hard place. It's either "hold on to what you have" (but then "you can't be my disciple") or "be my disciple" (but then renounce everything else). And remember, these words are not directed not just to the people in robes in the choir stalls; they are directed also to all of you people out there.

But this is where the "quid ad aeternitatem" comes in. This call to renouncing our own life has meaning when we measure it against eternity. As Christians who need to live our lives here and now, we do not too often (perhaps not often enough) remember that it is only in the light of eternity, our eternal calling, what God has destined us for, that our lives have their deepest meaning.

But, in practice, how do we do these things? Do we step out of everything but our clothing, as St. Francis did? Christian tradition, even as seen in some of the greatest saints, tells us this is not the way.

First, let us look at that word "hate." Even in English it is not always intended in strictest rigor. For example, do you really hate me because I don't remember the punch line to the story I told at the beginning? As for the gospel saying, is God, who says "Honor your father and your mother," now telling us to hate them? So already we know there is a problem.

One way to approach it is to note all the ways in which Scripture uses the word for "hate." I started to look up in a Hebrew concordance all the OT passages in which sana', the Hebrew word for "hate," appears. Then I thought, "Why do things the hard way?" and I switched to the English concordance. At once I discovered that there are a number of passages in which sana' appears but is not translated "hate" in English, but with a much weaker word--the translators recognized, from the context, that "hate" really was not intended. So, for example, we all know the story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah--how Jacob worked 7 years for Rachel as his wife but Laban gave him Leah instead. In spite of this disappointment, Jacob obviously did not hate Leah--after all, she bore him six sons and a daughter. But the Hebrew says, "When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he caused her to conceive"--where the English translations have, "When the Lord saw Leah was unloved ..." So also when Samson wagers with his Philistine in-laws that they can't solve the riddle he proposed to them, they enlist the aid of his wife. Lying beside him in bed she says, "It is clear that you hate me, since you won't tell me the answer to your riddle." What she is saying, in effect, is "You are acting as though you do not love me because you prefer to keep your secret rather than reveal it to me." And this captures pretty well the meaning we have in the gospel: it means to set priorities without regard to what other loves (family, life, possessions) would dictate.

If we want to see this put into practice, we can look at the life of St. Thomas More. It was clear to him that he could not subscribe to the oath of supremacy and still be faithful to his Christian conscience--i.e., to be a disciple of Jesus. He lost his position at court, much of his source of income, was confined to the Tower of London. His family could not understand why he stood fast, especially since many of the bishops had succumbed. His wife, in particular, pleaded with him. She may have echoed the sentiments of Samson's wife, "you are acting as though you do not love me." Ultimately, as we know, he lost his life, too. In all of this St. Thomas More is living example of today's gospel, with reference to his family, to bearing the cross, to his possessions, to his life.

These and other examples allow us to rephrase the gospel message: your priority must be to be a disciple of Jesus and all other things must be regarded in the light of this priority. Sometimes we can exercise this priority with unselfish love toward others, as when St. Paul, in today's second reading, asks Philemon to transfer Onesimos' service from himself to Paul, or when one wishes to suffer in place of a loved one.

It is unlikely that any of us will be called to choose between life and death in the following of Jesus. But there are other choices that may face us. Are we so wedded to our own pleasures or to the affection of another person that we are tempted to transgress God's law for it's sake? Are we so attached to possessions or the acquiring of new things (including power, popularity) that we are tempted to transgress God's law for it's sake? Then it is that we need to remember the words: "unless you (hate, renounce)... you cannot be my disciple." but along with this, we must remember that the following of Jesus is not for this life alone. That is when the question "Quid ad aeternitatem--what is this compared to eternity?" is appropriate. To those who give the right answer we can apply the words of that beautiful psalm:

I keep the LORD always before me;
with the Lord at my right, I shall never be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad, my soul rejoices;
my body also dwells secure,
For you will not abandon me to Sheol,
nor let your faithful servant see the pit.
You will show me the path to life,
abounding joy in your presence,
the delights at your right hand forever.
(Psalm 16:811)

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year

  • Sept. 22, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Christopher

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“You cannot serve both God and mammon.” (Luke 16.13)

For three Sundays in a row we are hearing Jesus telling parables that can be linked together by the ways people make use of money. Last Sunday the parable included the very moving story of the prodigal son, the younger son who asked for and was given his portion of the inheritance. He did not go off to invest it and try to make more, but spent it, squandering it with little thought about the future. In today’s parable we hear about a shrewd steward whose master accuses him of squandering his property and how he prepares a welcome for himself when he is fired from his stewardship. Next week you will hear about Dives, the rich man who lives sumptuously, enjoying his wealth without regard to the plight of poor Lazarus at the kitchen door.

The lesson Jesus draws from today’s parable is challenging in this newer translation. “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” You probably remember the earlier translation was, “Make friends for yourselves through your use of this world’s goods, so that when they fail you, a lasting reception will be yours.” I believe that somewhere in the Scriptures it is written that the giving of alms covers a multitude of sins. I like to think that for most people their generous alms are given from money earned honestly, not dishonestly.

It is true there is and always has been plenty of dishonest wealth around, precisely because people have made a god out of money and possessions. Later in that same letter to Timothy we heard from in the second reading Paul warns Timothy that people even use religion as a means of personal gain. He wrote, “Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation, and a trap. They are letting themselves be captured by foolish and harmful desires which draw men down to ruin and destruction. The love of money is the root of all evil.”

How could anyone use dishonest wealth to find a welcome in the kingdom of heaven? There is a saying that between buying and selling, sin finds a way of wedging itself in. We heard about it in the first reading with the prophet Amos accusing his contemporaries of cheating with their fixed scales and measures. There are other ways of gaining dishonest wealth besides fixing scales and measures. People engage in embezzlements, kickbacks, insider trading, and outright thievery. Worst of all there is an owner’s neglect of safe working conditions for the sake of increased profit. That is the accepted explanation of the collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh that killed so many workers. The prophet warns the Israelites, and us, that God swears He will not forget a thing they have done, and that we too have done.

By these parables about various uses of earthly wealth, Jesus challenges us, as children of light, to examine how we have used not just earthly but also the spiritual gifts we have received. Like the man in the parable, we too one day will be called before the Master to give a full account of our stewardship. I have to ask myself have I been trustworthy in small matters so that God can entrust me with greater gifts and opportunities to work for the good of others. Will God ever forget my selfishness, my neglect and failure to see and to help ease the burdens of the needy who happen to join on this pilgrimage of life? Paul reminds us that God wills everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. If we can do nothing else, he urges us to at least pray for everyone’s earthly and spiritual wellbeing, not only for popes and presidents but also pimps and prostitutes, for prisoners and their guards, for the mentally ill and marginalized, really for everyone. As we sang in the final verse of the opening hymn: “Love can exclude no race or creed if honored be God’s Name; our common life embraces all whose Father is the same.”

As we turn back to the altar to offer the perfect sacrifice, which we receive in the Father’s gift of his only Son to be our Savior, we are reminded by the words of the gospel antiphon that ‘though our Lord Jesus Christ was rich, he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ We are rich indeed by the gift of faith and hope, and of the indwelling Spirit, enabling us to believe that God is trustworthy in all his promises. In these mysteries we are invited to join Jesus in his willing self-sacrifice, which showed us God’s enduring compassionate love for all mankind, for those made in his image and likeness. Let’s believe that by the gift of his Son to us God has demonstrated a merciful compassion that will override his stern judgments of our failings. To the all holy and merciful God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be honor, praise and obedient love now and forever. AMEN

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Praying the Psalms According to Basil and Cassian

  • Sept. 26, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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The following is a talk given by Abbot James to the monastic community on September 26, 2013.

When we think about what St. Benedict says about prayer in his Rule, we rightly think first of all on chapters eight through twenty on what he calls the Work of God and the spirit with which it is to be prayed, along with chapter 52, on the oratory of the monastery. It is, however, important to keep in mind that there are many other places in the Rule where he speaks of prayer. For example, in the fourth chapter, on “the tools for good works,” he writes: “Devote yourself often to prayer” and “Every day with tears and sighs confess your past sins to God in prayer,” and “Pray for your enemies out of love for Christ” (4:56, 57, 72). In a later chapter, about monks who refuse to amend after frequent reproofs, he writes that if all other measures don’t seem to help, there is an even better remedy: “Let [the abbot] and all the brothers pray for him so that the Lord, who can do all things, may bring about the health of the sick brother” (RB 28:4). There are still other parts of the Rule that I could mention, but my point is that one of the practices that should most clearly characterize a monk is that he be a man of prayer. But since entire books have been written about prayer and I don’t want to speak at great length, I will this evening touch only on our prayer in common, whether it be called “the Work of God” or “the divine office” or “the liturgy of the hours,” and even within this I will focus on the psalms.

Let me begin by referring to the two authors who, in addition to holy scripture, are the ones whom Benedict recommends the most: St. Basil and John Cassian. Since Basil is the great monastic legislator of Eastern monasticism and wrote in Greek while living in his native Asia Minor, he has perhaps had less influence on prayer in the Western church than Cassian, who wrote his Conferences and Institutes in Latin while residing in southern Gaul. In fact, it was only when preparing this conference that I learned what Basil teaches in particular about praying the psalms. In his homily on the first psalm, he has this to say:

A psalm gives profound serenity to the soul, dispensing peace, calming the tumultuous waves of thought. For it softens anger in the soul and bridles intemperance. A psalm solidifies friendships, reconciles the separated, conciliates those at enmity. Who, indeed, can consider as an enemy him with whom he has uttered the same prayer to God? So psalmody in choral singing is a bond, as it were, of unity, joining harmoniously the people into a symphony of one choir, producing the greatest of all blessings, charity. A psalm is … a shield against the fears of the night, a rest from toils of the day, a safeguard for infants, an adornment for vigorous youth,  a consolation for the elderly…. It is the foundation for beginners, the improvement of those advancing, the solid support of the perfect. It is the voice of the Church, brightening feast days; it creates a sorrow which is in accordance with God, for a psalm calls forth a tear even from a heart of stone. A psalm is the occupation of the angels, heavenly life, spiritual incense.1

That passage might sound too exuberant, too idealized, but if one considers carefully the various points that Basil is there making, one would surely have to agree that there is much substance to what he says. If we really take to heart the words we regularly sing at the various hours of the divine office, then we would certainly be led to rejoice with the whole Church on great feasts even as we would be led to compunction when praying any of the seven penitential psalms. Or again, if we take seriously such lines as the opening verses of psalm 133—“How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers dwell together as one”—then we could not but be helped to want to foster such harmony and to repent of ways in which we have harmed it. And if one keeps in mind that truly saintly men and women have never tired of praying what Dame Maria Boulding once called “the robust earthiness of the psalms,”2 then we would have to agree with Basil that the psalms are not only foundational for beginners and a way forward for those advancing in the spiritual life but are also what he calls “the solid support of the perfect.” Even if, humanly speaking, it is not realistic to expect to pay perfect attention throughout the psalmody, let us therefore never tire of seeking more and more to keep our minds in harmony with our voices, as Benedict urges at the end of his nineteenth chapter.

As you would expect, the other great monastic source for Benedict—John Cassian—is in basic accord with Basil’s teaching on the psalms. His tenth conference has some wonderful passages on making the sentiments of the psalms one’s own, as when he writes:

The man who in his moral ascent possesses simple innocence and yet the gift of wisdom … will make the thoughts of the psalms his own. He will sing them no longer as verses composed by a prophet, but as born of his own prayers. At least he should use them as intended for his own mouth, and know that they were not fulfilled temporarily in the prophet’s age and circumstances, but are being fulfilled in his daily life….

For example, if we have the same attitudes of heart with which the psalmist wrote or sang his psalms, we shall become like the author and be aware of the meaning before we have thought it out. The force of the words will strike us before we have rationally examined them. And when we use the words, we will remember, by a kind of meditative association, our own circumstances and struggles, the results of our negligence or earnestness, the mercies of God’s providence or the temptations of the devil, the subtle and slippery sins of forgetfulness or human frailty or unthinking ignorance. All these feelings we find expressed in the psalms. We see their texts reflected in the clear mirror of our own moral experience. And with that experience to teach us, will not hear the words so much as discern their meaning intuitively. We will not merely recite them like texts committed to memory, but will bring them out from the depths of the heart as an expression of [our own] moral reality.3

This is exactly what St. Benedict means when he writes of having our minds in harmony with our voices when singing the psalms. To the extent that we enter into the spirit of what Basil and Cassian and Benedict are talking about, we will come to the divine office not at all as a chore needing to be accomplished but as a privilege that most people don’t even have the time to enjoy. This is why it was entirely appropriate for the Belgian Benedictine Jean Gribomont, who taught for many years at Sant’Anselmo, to sum up St. Basil’s teaching about prayer precisely on this note of joy. He wrote that for Basil prayer is “a spontaneous effect of love, manifesting itself by joyous delight, wonder, and constant gratitude, rising above the [concerns of this] world and ordering itself to the will of God.”4 As we now conclude this day’s prayer with Compline, may we have the grace to experience something of that joy, wonder, and gratitude in our own hearts.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 St. Basil, “Homily on Psalm 1,” n. 2, in Matey Havryliv, OSBM, “Prayer in Life and Work of St. Basil.” http://osbmcommission.wordpress.com/list-of-conferences/on-prayer-in-the-teaching-rule-and-life-of-st-basil/ (accessed Sept. 24, 2013).
2 Maria Boulding, “A Tapestry, from the Wrong Side,” in A Touch of God: Eight Monastic Journeys, ed. Maria Boulding (Still River, MA, 1982), 38.
3 John Cassian, Conf. 10:11, in Western Asceticism, ed. and trans. Owen Chadwick (Philadelphia, 1958), 243-44.
4 J. Gribomont, “La preghiera secondo S. Basilio,” in  La preghiera (Rome: 1964), 374.