13th October 2019
Apart from those seasons having their own distinctive character, thirty-three or thirty-four weeks remain in the yearly cycle that do not celebrate a specific aspect of the mystery of Christ. Rather, especially on the Sundays, they are devoted to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects. This period is known as Ordinary Time.
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The wearing of chains carries signification. Dignitaries often wear chains of office to signify status. Convicted criminals sometimes wear ankle chains that also signify status. St. Paul was put in chains for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In his 2nd letter to protégé Timothy (today’s Second Reading: 2:8-13), Paul writes:
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David: such is my gospel, for which I am suffering, even to the point of being chained, like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.”
Individuals freely choose to wear chains of precious or other metals as either a decoration or a declaration; for example, to claim membership or affiliation with an organisation. For St Paul, the manacles he was forced to wear for years were the badge of his Christian apostolate. Down the centuries, up to and including the present, countless women and men have followed his example by stoically bearing incarceration and torture rather than deny their allegiance to Jesus the Christ.
Memories, too, can enchain us and cause torment. Seniority can bring a recall of behaviour and attitudes in earlier decades that, with hindsight, show a depth of selfishness and self-righteousness that an older and wiser person now finds embarrassing. Accumulated invisible memories can be persistent as well as unyielding. One suspects that Satan is surreptitiously behind many a memory-chain invasion of prayer time, especially. Such historic distractions can make a person feel unworthy to pray, to believe in Jesus, to share in the Mass. It is, therefore, important to grasp the truth that when God forgives us – in response to our prayer: “… forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us …” – he never makes use of what he has forgiven to mock or belittles us. God has only compassion and love for us, even when we fail to love him. It is Satan who mocks us with our past when we choose to give time to prayer.
A holy person recommended an enquirer, who continuously felt undermined by Satan’s mockery, to confront the Devil. “Say to Satan,” the holy person said, “All that you accuse me of, and which I do not deny in my past; all that you mock me for when I pray, I do not have anymore. I surrendered it all to Jesus and in return received his healing absolution.”
Whenever Satan rakes up the memories of earlier behaviour and dispositions – as he does – we must confront him with the truth that, when we surrender our failings to Jesus, he absorbs it into his suffering, Crucifixion and Death. Our sin is dissolved into the enormity of his love for us. The Risen Jesus calls us to take refuge in his wounded Body, in which we can find healing and redemption.
Our will to be one with Christ does not imply that we will be free of memories. We will need to pray “… forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us …” while we draw breath. For the duration of our earthly life, we will not cease to be recovering sinners bearing the scars of our sinfulness, just as the Risen Jesus carries the wounds of his suffering, Crucifixion and Death. His wounds, and our status as recovering sinners, will be complete only when God calls all to judgement at the end of the world. Meanwhile, Satan will continuously attempt to undermine our belief in God’s forgiveness by re-presenting to us the fickleness from which we still suffer because we remain ‘recovering’, i.e. not yet recovered, sinners.
Disease, too, is an enmeshing contagion capable of capturing the incautious and the unwary. The First Reading and Gospel for this Sunday feature leprosy, which has afflicted humanity for thousands of years. In Jesus’ day, leprosy was widely feared because no antidote then existed. Stringently imposed segregation was the norm, at least for ordinary people. Evidently, Naaman’s elevated social position in Syria, and apparently in Israel, allowed him exceptional freedom of movement. Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is no longer common in the developed world but is not unknown.
It could be said that leprosy has an affinity with human sinfulness. Both are long-term debilitating infections. Initially, a person infected with leprosy might have no identifiable symptoms for anything between five and twenty years. When symptoms do develop, they may reveal themselves in a lack of ability to feel pain in the extremities due to the growth of a mass of vascular tissue. This in turn can lead to the loss of extremities due to repeated injuries or infection. The disease can also affect lungs and eyes. Leprosy, occurring more commonly among those living in poverty and lacking a proper diet and healthcare, is contagious, although extensive person-to-person contact is necessary.
Leprosy is curable with long-term multi-drug therapy provided free of charge by the WHO. In the past 20 years, 16 million people worldwide have been cured of leprosy. The average number of new cases per year is something over 200,000, predominantly found in sixteen identified countries, with India, China and Africa at the top of that list. There are about 200 cases reported annually in the USA. World Leprosy Day was initiated in 1954 to draw attention to those bearing the long-term loss of limbs and sight due to leprosy.
Sinfulness, too, is contagious. From small beginnings, and left unchecked, it can grow exponentially by numbing the conscience of an individual, a tribe or a nation. Earlier this year, the free world celebrated the 75th anniversary of ‘D’ Day. People still wonder how Hitler succeeded in duping his followers to inflict the evil of Nazism on numerous victims in so many countries. The parallel with the wilful abandonment of the Ten Commandments and the norms of the Gospels by the free world is not only plain to see but terrifyingly frightening for those who see through the eyes of faith.
The innocent words of one of his female child slaves persuaded the mighty Syrian, Naaman, to put aside his highhanded dismissal of the prophet Elisha’s message. Naaman’s change of heart and compliance with the prophet’s instruction – ‘plunge yourself seven times into the river Jordan’ – brought him not only physical healing but faith in the God of Israel.
What innocent yet muted outpourings, inflicting death and/or profound suffering, in our 20/21st century are being largely ignored or even denied by society? Among those that readily come to mind are direct abortion, the deliberate ending of life, capital punishment, chemical or nuclear warfare, driving in a manner that threatens life. Are there, also, invisible, personal chains that impede our growth as disciples of Jesus?
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shortages Provoke Panic
The merest whisper of basic shortages can cause a buying panic. Bread is one of the first commodities to disappear from the shelves. People overbuy and stock their freezers. One wonders how much of that overbuy will eventually end up in the bin! Meanwhile, others have no bread. Fear spreads like a plague and prompts irrational, anti-social behaviour of the worst order. Hitler, Stalin and multiple lesser-known people of evil have made abhorrent use of the public’s susceptibility to fear.
So, is it fear that prompts the Apostles’ second petition to Jesus in this 27th Sunday’s Gospel (Luke17:5-10): “Lord, increase our faith”? And, if it is a fear-motivated request, what type of fear does it illustrate?
It is Luke (11:1) who records the Apostles’ first petition to Jesus when they asked him to teach them to pray after they had seen him at prayer.
In all likelihood, the Apostles second petition would have been fear-motivated, but for the highest of motives. Their enthusiasm to fulfil the mission entrusted to them would have demonstrated their individual commitment to Jesus, who had called them to himself. It would have been the very opposite of subservient fear.
Luke sites the Apostles’ second petition to Jesus at the conclusion of his extensive enumeration of the struggles awaiting them in their apostolic mission. A gentle reading of chapters 11 to 17 may help identify what prompted the Apostles second specific request. The missionary work ahead of them would have appeared daunting, the more so when they reviewed their individual resources of faith.
Most people, these days, take time and interest in frequently updating their awareness of their financial viability. Up to the moment information of one’s credit worthiness is just a few button-presses away via phones and other devices. One wonders if people are equally well-informed, or even concerned, about their spiritual viability?
It would be a ‘to be marvelled at’ grace from the Holy Spirit were we, today, prompted to make our own the Apostles’ petition: “Lord, increase our faith”.
God-fearing folk are not hesitant in presenting the Lord with their own, as well as others, unending needs; health and wellbeing being uppermost on many a long list. But here’s a question – when was the last time we consciously petitioned the Holy Spirit for the single issue of an increase of faith? In fact, has it ever been our consciously specific personal prayer, as opposed to one of the many ‘response’ type petitions in dialogue prayer.
The following comparison may lack finesse but it might dramatically identify a lacuna in our spiritual armoury, should one exist. Do people regard a residual supply of God’s grace as something akin to the old water tanks that used to be in the lofts of our houses? Each had a ballcock automatically regulating the supply of water from the mains. If this is how we regard the grace of faith then an upgrade is urgently needed. In the days before central heating and micro-lagging, loft water tanks and ballcocks could freeze in a harsh winter, not only ending a home’s water supply but also threatening the fabric of the building whenever the thaw came. Today, too, farmers need to keep their livestock’s drinkable water supplies flowing in barns and fields in a mean winter.
Because water is essential for life, the regular maintenance of both feeder pipes and any water-storage container itself has to be attended to. Have you thought how much debris can collect, over time, on top of and in a water tank? A tank may be full but is the water it contains fit for consumption? We can draw a parallel with ourselves. The gift of the Holy Spirit is primarily to help us break the all too easily undetected crust of self-centredness and overriding self-concern that stealthily weaves its way over so many of us as a defensive measure. In a despiritualised environment, such as Europe has tragically become, it is so easy to lose communion with God and with one another. The Holy Spirit enables those who value and live their faith to pray for an increase in faith that they, and others, may stay receptive, alert and willing to open their minds and hearts to Jesus and to one another.
But, are people nowadays, including the Baptised, willing to risk being stronger in faith? For there is a risk if and when people ask the Lord to ‘increase their faith’, as did the apostles. Faith is not a protective shield, a sort of spiritual armament. To be filled with faith is being gifted with the staunch vitality to preach the Gospel, by word and by action, in season and out (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5) with a wholehearted readiness to take the consequences, as did Jesus himself. Pope Francis has said that the era in which we live is recording more Christians martyred and persecuted than ever before. Preoccupied or brain-dead through Brexit and the value of Sterling, we can so easily miss the almost out-of-sight, bottom of the page, notices about the latest Christians who have suffered in hate attacks. Yes, indeed, faithfulness can be hazardous to your health and, daily, people prove it so.
This, conveniently, leads us back to this Sunday’s First Reading from the prophet Habakkuk (who dates back to around 612 BC and was an early contemporary of the prophets Jeremiah and Zephaniah). Under siege from crushing military forces attacking Jerusalem, Habakkuk cries out:
“How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.”
Then the Lord answered:
“Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfilment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.
The rash ones have no integrity; but the just ones, because of their faith, shall live.”
Is the delay, referred to by the Lord, his last attempt to win over the rash who so lack integrity. Is it through the witness of the faithful that those, now rash, might be prompted to petition God for faith and find redemption? There is a saying that (human) history repeats itself, but that it puts up the price each time. If there is panic on this world’s final day it will be because people have not paid attention to God, not because we have not been warned.
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Can you recall standing, mesmerized, in a supermarket? Before you were well-stacked shelves. Your eye searched for a product you had previously bought but now failed to see. Having ‘eyes wide shut’ is something akin to that. The eye and brain, for some inexplicable reason, fail to coordinate. Perhaps the product had been repackaged, given a change of colour and you were unable to identify it. Your preconceived memory acted as a block to the present reality. When you asked a person for help, you discovered that the item was immediately in front of you all the time!
Sometimes we fear advancing beyond the routines of long- established forms of prayer and belief. How often adults choose an Act of Penance that can be traced back to a primary school classroom in its format and content, though we have long left behind our childhood. There can be lingering, sometimes painful, memories of occasions when we attempted to make changes in both the format and the practice of our baptismal faith and earned ourselves a sharp rebuke. Sometimes we pay the price for not having made time to reflect upon the gift of faith which we have received. We may also have failed to discern how our faith interacts with our daily life.
Consequently, there can be a significant chasm between some adult Christians’ technological/scientific knowledge and abilities and their comprehensive overview of their spirituality. Then there is the ‘shortage of time’ factor. Overextended tiredness, spiritual or physical, deters many from drawing closer to Jesus, despite His saying: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28) Plus, dare one say it, it is all too easy to surrender to temptation and find our love, that once was for Jesus, squandered in other directions.
The adventurous spirit of youth becomes, in most of us, more measured as we advance along the path of life. Specific experiences such as betrayal, war, injury, protracted illness, bereavement can curtail our ability to trust. As a consequence, we view almost everything unrecognised through, as it were, caution-reinforced lenses.
Unforgiven personal and corporate sin can have a similar effect upon our spiritual life. The soul’s unhealed scars not only hold our growth towards Jesus in a type of abeyance, they act as receptacles for the infectious and avaricious activity of Satan. Spiritual weariness affects many today, just as it did in the days of Jesus.
One wonders how many times the unnamed rich man, featured by Jesus in the parable we read this 26th Sunday (Luke 16: 19-31), being permanently preoccupied by his business-affairs, arrived at and left his house without ever seeing Lazarus, the beggar, at his gate. One suspects that had the rich man’s attention been directed to the beggar, he might have said that he had never noticed him before.
Possibly, the first time we saw a person sleeping rough on a city street or a park bench, we were disturbed, if not a little scared. Scared, not so much for our own safety but that this could happen to a fellow human being. Then, as these sightings became more frequent with increasing numbers of homeless populating our cities’ streets from dusk to dawn, we tended to no longer see them. Our busy, self-focusing minds had merged these bedraggled, cardboard-covered shapes into their unspecific and unrecognised background. We even found ourselves accepting hearing them referred to as ‘the homeless’, as if they were no longer deserving of the title ‘people’, like us. A disabled friend used to become irate whenever he heard himself categorised as ‘disabled’. “I’m not a ‘disabled’, he would say forcibly to the offending speaker from his low wheelchair, “I am a disabled person and just as much a person as are you!”
There are two classic Gospel events that highlight Jesus’ struggle to endow his apostles with developing Truth. Both occur on Jesus’ last night on earth in that Jerusalem Upper Room of the Last Supper. The first is recorded by John (13:1-7)
Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet.
“….. Jesus rose from supper … laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’”
Not infrequently, it is the persevering implementation of faithfulness that, eventually, brings the blessing of understanding. As Jesus once said:
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” (Luke 16:10)
The second is recorded by Luke (22:19); Matthew (26:26) and Mark (14:22.) “Jesus said: ‘Take this, this is my Body’ …. ‘Take this, this is my Blood’.”
This Sunday’s Gospel has challenging home-truths.
Are we conscious of any gap between whom we publicise ourselves to be and who, in fact, we are? If there is a gap, then we can petition the Holy Spirit to help us more authentically fill our Christian profile.
Christian ethics calls for a just distribution of the world’s resources which, currently, are more often motived by selfish greed. We may not be able to change the world, but we can and must review our own behaviour for it is here and now that the eternal die is cast.
Christianity calls us to value the potential of each individual. When we are willing to allow God to love us through the least likely people it is a clear sign that this love comes from God.
Always in a Hurry http://ronrolheiser.com/
Haste is our enemy. It puts us under stress, raises our blood pressure, makes us impatient, renders us more vulnerable to accidents and, most seriously of all, blinds us to the needs of others. Haste is normally not a virtue, irrespective of the goodness of the thing towards which we are hurrying.
In 1970, Princeton University did some research with seminary students to determine whether being committed to helping others in fact made a real difference in a practical situation. They set up this scenario: They would interview a seminarian in an office and, as the interview was ending, ask that seminarian to immediately walk over to a designated classroom across the campus to give a talk. But they always put a tight timeline between when the interview ended and when the seminarian was supposed to appear in the classroom, forcing the seminarian to hurry. On the way to the talk, each seminarian encountered an actor playing a distressed person (akin to the Good Samaritan scene in the gospels). The test was to see whether or not the seminarian would stop and help. What was the result?
One would guess that, being seminarians committed to service, these individuals might be more likely to stop than most other people. But that wasn’t the case. Being seminarians seemed to have no effect on their behavior in this situation. Only one thing did: They were prone to stop and help or to not stop and help mostly on the basis of whether they were in a hurry or not. If they were pressured for time, they didn’t stop; if they were not pressured for time, they were more likely to stop.
From this experiment its authors drew several conclusions: First, that morality becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases; and, second, that because of time pressures we tend not to see a given situation as a moral one. In essence, the more in a hurry we are, the less likely we are to stop and help someone else in need. Haste and hurry, perhaps more than anything else, prevent us from being good Samaritans.
We know this from our own experience. Our struggle to give proper time to family, prayer, and helping others has mainly to do with time. We’re invariably too busy, too pressured, too hurried, too-driven, to stop and help. A writer that I know confesses that when she comes to die what she will regret most about her life is not the times she broke a commandment, but the many times she stepped over her own children on her way to her den to write. Along similar lines, we tend to blame secular ideology for so much of the breakdown of the family in our society today when, in fact, perhaps the biggest strain of all on the family is the pressure that comes from the workplace that has us under constant pressure, forever in a hurry, and daily stepping over our children because of the pressures of work.
I know this all too well, of course, from my own experience. I am forever pressured, forever in a hurry, forever over-extended, and forever stepping over all kinds of things that call for my attention on my way to work. As a priest, I can rationalize this by pointing to the importance of the ministry. Ministry is meant to conscript us beyond our own agenda, but deeper down, I know that much of this is a rationalization. Sometimes too I rationalize my busyness and hurry by taking consolation in the fact that I came to be this way legitimately. It’s in my genes. Both my father and my mother exhibited a similar struggle. They were wonderful, moral, and loving parents, but they were often over-extended. Responding to too many demands is a mixed virtue.
It’s no accident that virtually all of the classical spiritual writers, writing without the benefit of the Princeton study, warn about the dangers of overwork. Indeed, the dangers of haste and hurry are already written into the very first page of scripture where God invites us to make sure to keep proper Sabbath. When we are in a hurry we see little beyond our own agenda.
The positive side to haste and hurry is that they are, perhaps, the opposite of acedia. The driven-person who is always in a hurry at least isn’t constantly struggling to get through the morning to the lunch hour. She always has a purpose. As well, haste and hurry can help make for a productive individual who is affirmed and admired for what he does, even as he is stepping over his own children to get to his workplace. I know this too: I get a lot of affirmation for my work, even as I have to admit that pressure and hurry prevent me much of the time from being a Good Samaritan.
Haste makes waste, so goes the saying. It also makes for a spiritual and a human blindness that can severely limit our compassion.
Ruled By Numbers
Numbers have always had a prominent place in our lives. As very small children we may been talked to count our tiny fingers and toes. We would certainly have learned our numerical position among our siblings and probably our wider family.
Catholics, of a certain age, will likely remember their religious life being ruled by numbers. When, for example, you were expected to go to Confession at least every two weeks. When you had to fast from food and drink (except water) from the preceding midnight if you intended to receive Holy Communion the following morning. Fast days were regulated by numbers. Depending on your teacher, you may have been told to eat no more than 4 ounces of food at breakfast and 6 ounces at supper. One meatless meal was allowed in the day. 21stcentury Catholics may think such measures to be unbelievable, but then 20th century Catholics found it hard to believe that their forebears had been expected to fast every day throughout Lent.
Of course, there were (as there still are) the casuists. For example, some believed in measuring out 4 ounces of, say, dry porridge oats. By adding the water after weighing the oats, a more substantial breakfast was enjoyed! The same casuistic reasoning was applied to dried vegetables!
Whenever mathematics hold sway in the living out of our faith, it would be fair to say that we had, to a worrying extent, lost our way. St Peter, about whom we read in St Matthew’s Gospel for this 24th Sunday (18:21-35), quite likely felt that he was being magnanimous when he asked Jesus: “How often must I forgive my brother(sister)? As many as seven times?”
As a practising Jew, Peter would have been taught from his earliest years that he was required, under Jewish law, to forgive a person who sinned against him three times. (See the Book of Amos chapters 1 and 3) By asking Jesus if he should grant forgiveness seven times, Peter was doubling the required legal number for granting forgiveness to another and adding one! Once again, Jesus’s response would most likely have caught Peter by surprise: “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
More than a few scriptural scholars would contest the Jerusalem Bible translation. Instead of “seventy-seven”they believe that Jesus had said: “seventy times seven”. This would bring a total beyond comprehension – 70×7=490; 490×7=3430 and so on. In other words, Jesus was indicating that, for him, forgiveness was unlimited. And if it was for him, then it will be so for his heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit. In other words, God is a Trinity of compassion and forgiveness when we, made in his image and likeness, open your heart and genuinely seek his forgiveness.
The Catholic Church’s preoccupation with numbers was particularly evident in the Sacrament of Reconciliation – formerly called “Confession”. The penitent was expected to state the time lapse since their last reception of the sacrament. Individual sins where to be identified with a number corresponding to the number of commissions. In most cases the penance imposed by the priest was a set number of prayers such as the ‘Our Father’ and/or ‘Hail Mary’. Judaism’s preoccupation with numerical regulations found continuity in the structures of governance within the Roman Catholic Church!
The impulse to measure by numerical quantity is ingrained in our nature. It could be argued that without numeracy everyday life would become impossible. It could equally be argued that the Church, by incorporating the dominance of numeracy in its rules and regulations, strayed away from the example Jesus set. There is no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus used numeracy to determine how we should implement his teaching except by way of being generous. Jesus used multiplication to demonstrate that as God is generous so must we practice that virtue. In Matthew’s Gospel (5:40-42) we read: “…if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well; and if someone forces you to go one mile, go two with him. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.…” You may or may not be aware that in Jesus’ day a Roman soldier had the authority to make a Jew carry his burden for one mile.
Jesus emphasises his answer to Peter with a powerful parable exemplifying God’s generosity (18:23-35). It teaches a lesson – running through the entire New Testament – that we must forgive if we are to receive God’s forgiveness. “Blessed are the merciful,” said Jesus, “for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt.5:7) As soon as Jesus had taught his chosen band his own prayer – the ‘Our Father’ – he directed their focus to one petition in particular namely, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Jesus explained: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15).
Why this should be so is shown in the parable for this Sunday. Look at the contrast between the two debts. The first servant owed his master 10,000 talents. One talent in today’s money would approximately equal £240. Therefore, 10,000 talents would equate today to almost 2½ million pounds Sterling. The size of this servant’s debt becomes even more clear when you consider that the total annual budget for the province of Galilee, a wealthy province, was only 300 talents. By contrast, the debt of the fellow-servant was a mere trifle! 100 denarii would be less than £5.
Nothing that Jesus calls us to forgive can even remotely compare to all that our heavenly Father is willing to forgive us. His forgiveness of us is conditional upon our forgiveness of others. We have been promised forgiveness for a debt that is beyond all repayment. The human race has brought about the death of God’s only Son and unless we forgive others we have no hope of finding mercy.
The ease with which we pray the ‘Our Father’ is born of constant repetition. It is a good thing that we have ready access to that prayer. However, if the words pass our lips with inadequate consideration then we are in danger of foregoing God’s forgiveness through a lack of attention to the specifics of God’s words. Did the penances that we were given in confession – say the ‘Our Father’ 10 times, for example – really encourage our understanding of the prayer of Jesus?
The twin themes of mercy and forgiveness have found constant expression in both the spoken and written words of Pope Francis. He is God’s emissary to a generation that sadly reflects the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“You will listen and listen again, but not understand,
See and see again, but not perceive.
For the heart of this nation has grown coarse.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)
This coarseness of heart is not medical but spiritual. The health of the human heart is affected by both internal and external factors – for example: the clogging of the arteries or the lack of bodily exercise.
Spiritual coarseness of heart occurs when there is an absence of God’s grace. This occurs not because God refuses us his grace when we choose not to accept it. At first, this refusal of grace can be through procrastination – “Oh, I will get round to prayer etc later”. Meanwhile, Satan edges ever closer to cleverly withdrawing us from God’s grace.
The remedy is in our own hands. Jesus patiently and lovingly awaits us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Praying the Psalms
Our problem is that we too-seldom actually do this when we pray. Rather than lifting up to God what is actually on our minds and in our hearts, we treat God as someone from whom we need to hide the real truth of our thoughts and feelings. Instead of pouring out mind and heart, we tell God what we think God wants to hear – not murderous thoughts, desire for vengeance, or our disappointment with him.
What makes the psalms great for prayer is that they do not hide the truth from God and they run the whole gamut of our actual feelings. They give honest voice to what is actually going on in our minds and hearts.
Sometimes we feel good and our spontaneous impulse is to speak words of praise and gratitude and the psalms give us that voice. They speak of God’s goodness in all – love, friends, faith, health, food, wine, and enjoyment.
But our lives have too cold, lonely seasons when disappointment and bitterness spontaneously boil under the surface. Again the psalms give us honest voice and we can open up all those angry and vengeful feelings to God.
Other times, we fill with the sense of our own inadequacy, with the fact that we cannot measure up to the trust and love that is given us. The psalms again give us voice for this, asking God to have mercy, to soften our hearts, to wash us clean, and give us a new start.
And then there are times too when we feel bitterly disappointed with God himself and need some way to express this. The psalms give us this voice (“Why are you so silent? Why are you so far from me?”) even as they make us aware that God is not afraid of our anger and bitterness, but, like a loving parent, only wants for us to come and talk about it.
The psalms are a privileged vehicle for prayer because they lift the full-range of our thoughts and feelings to God. For a number of reasons, we struggle with that. First, because our age tends to eschew metaphor and, taken literally, some of the images within the psalms are offensive. Secondly, we tend to be in denial about our true feelings. It’s hard to admit that we feel many of the things we do feel, from our private grandiosity, to our sexual obsessions, to our jealousies, to our occasional murderous thoughts. Too often our prayer belies our actual thoughts and feelings. It tells God what we think God wants to hear.
The psalms have more honesty.
Mary Under the Cross (6 OF 6) http://www.ronrolheiser.com./
[Last in a six part Lenten series on Mystical Images]
One of the most popular images in all of scripture (an icon that’s been endlessly painted, sung, put into litanies, written up into poetry, and used to triggered every kind of pious feeling) is the image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing silently under the cross as her son dies.
As Jesus was dying, the Gospels tell us that Mary, his mother, stood under the cross. What’s in that image? What’s in this picture that invites us to more than simple admiration, piety, or sympathy?
This is a mystical image and it is anything but pious. In the Gospels, after Jesus, Mary is the most important person to watch. She’s the model of discipleship, the only one who gets it right. And she gets it very right under the cross. What’s she doing while standing there?
On the surface, it seems she isn’t doing anything at all: She doesn’t speak, doesn’t try to stop the crucifixion, and she doesn’t even protest its unfairness or plead Jesus’ innocence. She is mute, seemingly passive, overtly doing nothing. But at a deeper level, she is doing all that can be done when one is standing under the weight of the cross, she’s holding the tension, standing in strength, refusing to give back in kind, and resisting in a deeper way.
What’s meant by this?
Sometimes well-intentioned artists have painted Mary as lying prostrate under the cross, the wounded mother, helplessly distraught, paralysed in grief, an object for sympathy. But that doesn’t honour what happened there nor teach its lesson. Prostration, in this situation, is weakness, collapse, hysteria, resignation. In the Gospels, “standing” is the opposite, a position of strength. Mary “stood” under the cross.
Still, why the silence and why her seeming unwillingness to act or protest?
In essence, what Mary was doing under the cross was this: She couldn’t stop the crucifixion (there are times when darkness has its hour) but she could stop some of the hatred, bitterness, jealousy, heartlessness, and anger that caused it and surrounded it. And she helped stop bitterness by refusing to give it back in kind, by transforming rather than transmitting it, by swallowing hard and (literally) eating bitterness rather than giving it back, as everyone else was doing.
Had Mary, in moral outrage, begun to scream hysterically, shout angrily at those crucifying Jesus, or physically tried to attack someone as he was driving the nails into Jesus’ hands, she would have been caught up in the same kind of energy as everyone else, replicating the very anger and bitterness that caused the crucifixion to begin with. What Mary was doing under the cross, her silence and seeming unwillingness to protest notwithstanding, was radiating all that is antithetical to the crucifixion: gentleness, understanding, forgiveness, peace, light.
And that’s not easy to do. Everything inside us demands justice, screams for it, and refuses to remain silent in the presence of injustice. That’s a healthy instinct and sometimes acting on it is good. We need, at times, to protest, to shout, to literally throw ourselves into the face of injustice and do everything in our power to stop the crucifixion.
But there are times too when things have gone so far that shouts and protests are no longer helpful, darkness is going to have its hour come what may and all we can do is to stand under the cross and help eat its bitterness by refusing to participate in its energy. In those situations, like Mary, we have to say: “I can’t stop this crucifixion, but I can stop some of the hatred, bitterness, jealousy, brute-heartlessness, and darkness that surround it. I can’t stop this, but I will not conduct its hatred.”
And that’s not the same thing as despair. Our muted helplessness is not a passive resignation but the opposite. It’s a movement towards the only rays of light, love, and faith that still exist in that darkness and hatred. And, at that moment, it’s the only thing that faith and love can do.
As the Book of Lamentations says, there are times when the best we can do is “put our mouths to the dust and wait!” Sometimes too, as Rainer Marie Rilke says, the only helpful thing is to absorb the heaviness: “Do not be afraid to suffer, give the heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.”
That’s not passivity, resignation, or weakness; it’s genuine, rare strength. It’s “standing under the cross” so as to help take away some of its hatred, chaos, bitterness, and violence.
So this is the image: Sometimes darkness has its hour and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Sometimes the blind, wounded forces of jealousy, bitterness, violence, and sin cannot, for that moment, be stopped. But, like Mary under the cross, we are asked to “stand” under them, not in passivity and weakness, but in strength, knowing that we can’t stop the crucifixion but we can help stop some of the hatred, anger, and bitterness that surrounds it.