16 October 2016

This is an inconvenient time

29th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

We hear Paul saying to Timothy: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus [. . .]: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.” We hear Jesus tell his disciples a parable of persistence – the unjust judge who decides to render a just verdict for a persistent widow. Then, finally, we hear our Lord ask this question: “. . .when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Of course, we would want to answer Jesus, “Yes, Lord, there is faith on earth!” We might be less enthusiastic, however, about finding this elusive faith. . .unless it's our own. Our own faith might not be all that impressive – the deepest, the most subtle or sophisticated; the most lively. Our own faith might not even be all that strong. But it persists. It endures. . .along with love and hope. Along with mercy and forgiveness. Along with the courage necessary to stand in this world and shine out the Good News. Polished or not, smooth or not our own faith is the assurance we need and that the world needs to prevail. This is an inconvenient time for the faithful. I feel it in my own spiritual life. Turbulence. Disorder. Snatching temptations. We know that persistence requires courage. So, are you courageous?

Nothing going on in New Orleans right now can compare to what was happening in Timothy's day. Open persecution of Christians. Arrests. Trials. Torture. Executions. In the face of this opposition, Paul exhorts Timothy to remain steadfast, to proclaim the Word, to encourage, to reprimand, to convince. And to do all these with patience. Of course, Paul is urging Timothy to do all these within the Church. Earlier in his letter, Paul makes a prediction, writing: “People will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious, callous, implacable, slanderous, licentious, brutal, hating what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, as they make a pretense of religion but deny its power.” How does Paul counsel Timothy to handle these people? “Reject them,” he writes. Reject them. . .not simply b/c they are sinful, but b/c they refuse to repent and turn to Christ. Teach them, preach to them, minister to them – all with patience, charity, and persistent faith. But those who persist in turning away Christ? Reject them b/c they have chosen to be rejected. Honor their choice.

I know, that seems downright un-Christian. But it's not. Our duty to love always includes a duty to teach with patience and minister in charity. That never changes. All we can do is live the best lives in Christ that we can possibly live; bear witness to the mercy that we ourselves have received; and sacrifice in service to all those who need us. All we can do is show the world the reality of God's providence – the truth, goodness, and beauty of life; the freedom of His children; and the wonders of living and moving and having our being in His Love. And if we doing all that we can do as followers of Christ, then the world can see for itself all that God has given freely given it. To receive these gifts or to reject them is a choice left entirely to the individual conscience. We cannot make that choice for others. We cannot compel faith or coerce love. What's freely given must be freely received. And the choices made must be honored. 
But to belong to the Body of Christ as heir to the kingdom means wholly embracing the whole of the Gospel. Not just the fun parts, or the nice parts, or the parts that don't disturb my life too much. All of it. When Paul urges Timothy to be persistent, he's urging his disciple to endure temptation, trial, and every terror that can be brought against the faith. He's exhorting him to be steadfast and courageous in the face of whatever the world may bring to bear while trying to sully the Bride. The unjust judge bows to the persistent widow not b/c he truly believes her to be in the right, but b/c he fears that she will eventually wear him down. Our persistence in holding onto the faith and doing all that we can to bear witness to Christ in the world probably won't “wear down” every soul in the world. But it will bring more and more along the Way. And that's our ministry. More specifically, that's your ministry – the ministry of the laity, those who live more fully in the world, reaching into places and out to people that most of the clergy never visit or meet. It's your Christian duty to “wear down” the walls that our secularized culture have built around the Church and her saving message. It's your duty to take the blessings of this Eucharist “out there” and bring the light of Christ into the darkness. So, to you, Our Lady of the Rosary parishioners, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus [. . .]: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.” And to bear fruitful witness to the mercy you yourselves have received.

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09 October 2016

Don't be one of the nine!

28th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Jesus heals ten lepers. How does he do it? He doesn't pray over them, or spit on them like he did the man born blind; he doesn't allow his tunic to be touched, or command the leprosy to begone. He tells the men to go tell the priests that they are healed. And they are healed as they run off to report to the priests. In other words, they hear Christ's Word and they obey it. By listening to and complying with Jesus' order, the men are healed. Nothing fancy. No big drama, nothing worthy of an audience. Just hear his Word and obey. The drama comes after one of the healed men returns to Jesus to thank him for the miracle. Just one. . .of the ten. And this one grateful soul is a Samaritan – a member of a heretical Jewish sect that the majority of Jews believe to be unclean. Jesus says to the man, “'Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?'” Then he said to him, 'Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.'” Nine are healed. One is both healed and saved. What's the difference between the nine and the one? The one who offers his thanks to God is not only healed of his disease, he – a foreign idolater – is also restored to righteous with the Father. Gratitude is more than good manners; it's soul-saving.

Once, not too long ago, a seminarian asked me what would my motto be if I were ever made a bishop.* I said, “I'd be a good Mississippi bishop and my motto would be 'Y'all Come!'” Actually, it would be “Deo gratis!” Thanks be to God. The rock hard center of prayer – and thus the center from which we grow in holiness – is gratitude. Nothing beats gratitude for growing in genuine humility, and humility is the essential ingredient in prayer. If I cannot or will not acknowledge my total dependence on God for everything that I have and for everything that I am, then I cannot be humble; in fact, I dwell in ruinous pride, and my fall will be long and painful. Giving God thanks does nothing for Him. He doesn't need my thanks or praise or good wishes or compliments. He doesn't need my prayers either. God is God – unchanging and unchangeable by anything He has created. Like all prayer, gratitude changes the one praying. As I give thanks, I grow in humility. As I grow in humility, my prayer life deepens and improves. As my prayer life deepens and improves, I am better able to receive the grace God has always, already given me. The better I am to receive grace, the more I resemble Christ.

That one grateful Samaritan was not only freed from leprosy, he was freed from sin and death and given a place at the heavenly wedding feast. He not only became physically whole again, he became spiritually reunited with his Father. His obedience to Christ's Word cleansed his body, and his gratitude cleansed his soul. He is once again a whole human person given over to the mission and ministry of Christ Jesus. What happened to the ungrateful nine? We don't know. We do know that they were Jews, that is, not Samaritans. More than the foreign idolater who remembers to give thanks, these nine should've known that their healing was a godly miracle. Yet, they never returned to give Christ thanks. Given their education, cultural traditions, religious upbringing, they should've known to praise God for their own good. But they didn't. Why? Maybe they were too excited at being healed? Maybe they were too stunned to speak? Or maybe, having grown up in their religious tradition, they had grown complacent, spiritually-lazy, and had allowed contempt for God to creep into their souls. Whatever their reason or excuse, they miss a chance to heal their relationship with the Father with the simple act of thanksgiving.

So, here's the question: are you the one who gives thanks, or are you one of the nine? Like me, you are probably like the grateful one half the time and the ungrateful ones the other half. Remembering to be grateful in our entitlement culture can [be quite the challenge]. The mantra of “my rights” and “I am owed” and “Give me mine” can drive even the holiest Catholic to forgetfulness. Like any other act of virtue, being grateful is a good habit, one developed over time with constant practice and a sense of determination to succeed. Singers, musicians, actors rehearse. Athletes practice. Christians pray and give thanks. It's what we do and who we are. With our thoughts, words, and deeds; with our every day lives, warts and all, we are prayers of thanksgiving. Here's my challenge to you: this next week, make giving God thanks for everything you have and everything you are you number one prayer priority. Don't ask for anything. Just give Him thanks and praise. Nothing more. Even thank Him for what you haven't yet received. I predict that your prayer life, your life in Christ, will change dramatically. Pray gratitude and receive all the Father has already, always given you. 
* I can't express in mere words how horrible this would be for me. Seriously, I can't think of a better way for God to punish me on earth for my many sins.  [shudder]

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06 October 2016

The virtuous act of hanging-in-there

27th Week OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

How does a finite being – like a seminarian or a Dominican friar – receive Infinite Being? How do created beings seek their Creator? We know such things are possible b/c Christ himself says, “. . .ask and you will receive; seek and you will find. . .For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds. . .” We could say that asking is receiving and seeking is finding. And there's some truth in that. Asking for what I do not have is one way to confess my poverty. Seeking for what I have not yet found is one way to admit that I am lost. But asking and seeking imply an end, a goal. I am not asking just to ask, nor am I seeking just to seek. No. Emphatically NO. The journey is not the destination! For us, faithful followers of the Way, Christ is the one we find when we seek and the one we receive when we ask. So, how do we find and receive Christ? We endure. We persist. We practice (in grace) the virtuous act of perseverance, and we harvest its good fruit.

When we talk about asking for and receiving Christ, we are talking about asking for and receiving the divine gift – a more perfect participation in the Divine Life. As imperfect creatures who persist in being perfected, we ask for and receive the One we desire to become. Thomas tells us that perseverance “consists in enduring [long] delays” brought about by “special difficulties” (ST.II-II.137.1-3). Perseverance then is that virtuous act of fortitude that strengthens our constancy while we travel the narrow way toward becoming Christ. Jesus makes the point a bit more plainly, “I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.” So, we persist in prayer; in celebrating the sacraments; in attending to formation; in study, teaching, and in the joys of community life; we persevere in writing papers, exams, reflections, homilies; in going out to minister and coming home to rest. We persevere while being challenged to grow; while being challenged to change. And we do none of these things for the sake of just doing them. We persevere for the sake of Christ, his Church, the preaching of his Word, and the salvation of souls. 
We persevere to become Christ for others.


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02 October 2016

Christ watching You watching Him

27th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Pope Francis asks, “Where [does our] journey to Christ begin?” He answers: “It [begins] with the gaze of the crucified Jesus. With letting Jesus look at us at the very moment that he gives his life for us and draws us to himself.” His answer to this question is frightening. His answer shows us why Paul must encourage Timothy: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice.” And why the apostles beg the Lord: “Increase our faith.” His answer even shines light on why the prophet Habakkuk wails at God: “How long, O Lord?. . .Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery?” To look and see such misery and knowing all the while that Christ's ruin is our repair. . .no one possessed by the spirit of cowardice could watch this. No one lacking in faith would be pulled into his gaze from the cross. Accepting and living the Good News of Jesus Christ is one life-long act of courage, one small act of faith after another. But neither Christian courage nor faith in God deserves applause or gratitude. Why? B/c we are drawn to Christ. . .by Christ. 
Pope Francis says that our journey to Christ begins “with letting [the crucified] Jesus look at us at the very moment that he gives his life for us and draws us to himself.” What does he mean by “letting Jesus look at us”? No one needs my permission to look at me. They just look at me and here I am, being looked at. All of us are seen everyday without even knowing it. We look at others all the time w/o their permission. But couldn't we say that the difference btw Looking and Seeing is the same as the difference btw Hearing and Listening? What's that difference? Attentiveness, intention? I can hear but do not listen; I can look but do not see. Does this sound familiar? Jesus teaches his students that they will meet people along the Way who hear and look but do not listen or see. These people will hear with mistrustful ears and look through cowardly eyes. Attentiveness and intention make a difference, of course, but the difference that makes The Difference is faith. Jesus doesn't just look at us from the cross; he gazes at us. He looks with intent, with purpose, and if we let him gaze at us, we return his gaze in kind. We are drawn to him and our looking becomes seeing with faith.

Notice why the apostles suddenly beg the Lord to increase their faith. They ask him how many times they should forgive a brother who sins. Jesus says, “. . .if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.” The apostles immediately see the connection btw forgiveness and faith, and they immediately recognize the weakness of their faith. To forgive someone who sins against you over and over again requires a great deal of confidence in the power of mercy to correct error. It also requires a strong sense of one's own sinfulness. But the purpose of forgiving others is to draw us back to the Cross and the merciful, dying gaze of Christ, the one who makes all forgiveness possible. When you forgive someone who sins against you, you bring the merciful gaze of Christ to them. You become Christ for them in that moment. That takes courage. It takes courage and a deep trust in the fact that not only are their sins forgiven but so are yours. The apostles know this, so they beg Jesus to increase their faith, to add to their ability to trust. Unfortunately, the apostles don't yet quite grasp how faith works. They still see faith as a quantity, a measurable amount of something that can be increased or decreased. Jesus, as usual, reveals the truth.

He says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Faith isn't measured in quantities; it's measured in acts of courage and obedience. As the good habit of trusting in God's loving-care, faith—even the size of a mustard seed—can accomplish the seemingly impossible. If this seems improbable, then consider the strength it would take to forgive someone who sinned against you seven times, or seventy-seven times. That's not a feat of brute physical strength but rather a feat of spiritual strength. What does it say about you and your relationship with God that you can show mercy to a person who's hurt you seventy-seven times? It says that you are painfully aware of your own sinfulness and your own need for mercy. That you can forgive them—even just once—is an act of courage, an act done in fear despite that fear. If you trust that Christ died on the Cross for you and even now draws you into a life of holiness with his dying, merciful gaze, then that trust must be shared, given out. We cannot follow Christ unless we are ready to become Christ. And that kind of trust can be large or small so long as it is also strong.

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25 September 2016

But. . .have I loved?

26th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

On my way to and from the seminary every day, I see five or six individuals panhandling at different spots along the way. You've seen them too, probably, holding up handwritten signs asking for help. The five or six that I see every day have been the same five or six for almost five years now. One of them – at S. Carrollton and Earhart – has been pregnant for more than four years! I usually wave at these folks and drive on. I never give them money. Honestly, there are times when I resent them deeply. I don't resent them b/c they cause me any trouble. They don't. Or b/c they don't have a work schedule to follow like I do. Who wants to spend their days standing beside the road begging for change? I resent them b/c they remind me just how far I am from attaining the holiness that brings the peace of Christ, just how much more there is for me to work on, to perfect, in order to achieve the necessary detachment from fleeting things. Like Lazarus outside the rich man's door, these beggars are a sign – no less worthy of God's bounty than the rich man in his fine garments or a friar in his only habit. In this world, we too are impermanent, a vanity made to die. How should we live knowing this truth?

The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is not a story about the blessedness of destitution and the evils of wealth. Billionaires can be saints and beggars can be sinners. Jesus makes it clear that holiness is more readily achieved in poverty b/c a beggar's heart and mind are not focused on earthly treasure. However, a billionaire who shares her wealth in love for the sake of Christ does holy work. Beggars and billionaires both can lie, cheat, and steal. And both are perfectly capable of great charity and mercy. We could say that the question here is not what does one have or have not, but rather what does one do with one's wealth or poverty? But these miss the point as well. Maybe the question is one of attachment. Is wealth or its absence the whole focus of your life, the defining quality of your existence? Closer but still not quite right. What if the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a story about how you choose to love, that is, how you choose to manifest love in the world? By what means – tangible, palpable, really-real – what ways do I, do you leave evidence of God's love behind? Giving a beggar on S. Carrollton a dollar or two may assuage my guilt, but have I loved? Organizing meetings on the causes of poverty, protesting corporate greed, and calling for the redistribution of society's wealth, all of these might edge me closer to a feeling of “getting things done,” but am I doing any of these for love, for God's love?

Here's an existential question: whether you are 16 or 60, who do you hope to become? Since you are here this evening, we can wager that you hope to become Christ! That's what you have vowed to strive for, promised to work toward. You died and rose with him in baptism, and you eat his body and drink his blood in this Eucharist. If you are not intent on becoming Christ, then you have come to the wrong place. Why? By participating in the divine, we become divine – perfected creatures made ready to see our Creator face-to-face. If God is love (and He is), and we live and move and have our being in God (and we do), then it follows that we persistently exist in divine love. Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, we live and move and have our being in the creating and re-creating love of God. If we are to become Christ – fully human, fully divine –, we must participate wholly, fully. . .heart, mind, body, strength, intention, motivation, completely and without reservation, holding nothing of ourselves back, and shedding everything that prevents the light of Christ from shining through us: false charity, self-righteous indignation, token works of mercy, vicarious poverty, the delusions of worldly justice. Becoming Christ is always and only about becoming Christ for others and doing so for no other reason than to be a witness to the love that God is for us. To become Christ for any other reason is to become the Rich Man who steps over Lazarus on his way to yet another sumptuous feast.

Earlier on, I asked, how should we live knowing that we are impermanent beings? We can take the Rich Man as our anti-example. Why does he find himself in Sheol? Not because he's rich. But because he failed, repeatedly failed, to love. Like us, the Rich Man lived and moved and had his being in Love Himself. He was gifted, freely given, all that he had and all that he was. While living and moving and being on earth, he refused to allow the light of God's love to shine through his words and deeds. Lazarus was for him a sign, a memento of impermanence, a story about the vanity of all the things he held dear. But he refused to see the signs, refused to read Lazarus' story, and God honored his choice to reject His divine love by allowing him to abide forever outside that love. Sheol, or hell is by definition, one's “self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed...” God does not send us to hell, we send ourselves. Just as the Rich Man places a limit on his love, so God honors that limit after death. The chasm that separates the Rich Man from Lazarus after death is precisely as wide and deep as the chasm the Rich Man placed between the freely given love of God and the beggar, Lazarus. Failing to participate in divine love while alive, the Rich Man chooses to deprive himself of that love after death. And so, he finds himself in Sheol begging the beggar for just one drop of water.

Our Lord commands us to love one another and to go out and proclaim his love for the world. He does not charge us with ending hunger or fighting poverty or ending war. Our goal as followers of Christ on the Way is not is turn Lazarus the Beggar into Lazarus the Respectable Middle-class Worker. When we heed our Lord's command to love, feeding the hungry and standing up for justice come naturally; these arise as works uniquely suited to the witness we have to offer. What could be more just, more perfectly humane than helping another to see and enjoy the image of God that he or she really is! Poverty, hunger, war, all work diligently to obscure the image of God placed in every person. But they are all just effects of a larger and deeper evil: the stubborn, cold-hearted refusal to manifest the divine love that created us and re-creates us in the image of Christ, a refusal that God Himself will honor at our death. 

How should we live? As if we were Christ himself among the poorest of the poor, enthusiastically loving because we ourselves are so loved.

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23 September 2016

Fluid Abstract Paintings

 A Time to be Far from Embraces (SOLD)

 A Time to Cast Away

 A Time to Scatter Stones

 Across the Red Red Sea

 Child of Gehenna


 Queenship of Mary (SOLD)

 Furnace (SOLD)

 Be Glad and Rejoice!

 Smacking My Post-Op Knee on a Metal Desk

 The Deliberations of Mortals are Timid

 Cleverly Devised Myth

 Cistern (SOLD)

 Malebolge (SOLD)


 Keeping His Word

 Hit Me With Your Best Shot

 What is Hoped For


 Sweeping the House for One Lost Coin

 Teach Me Your Ways (SOLD)

 Those Who Hear His Word (SOLD)

 What's Left of the Upper Room

 Yuppie in Maui Hits the Fan! (SOLD)


 Never Will I Forget

Devotion and Dignity

Power Came Forth From Him (SOLD)

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18 September 2016

The temptation to serve evil

25th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Two Sundays ago, Jesus told us that we must love him first, so that when we love our families, friends, and our stuff we love them all through him. Last Sunday, he taught us that when we love him first, we receive his love as divine mercy. Tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers, murderers, prodigal sons, even priests (!) experience the love of God as forgiveness of their sins. This Sunday, our Lord piles on the wisdom by revealing a simple yet difficult truth: we cannot serve two masters. This truth is simple b/c it reveals a starkly bare choice. This master or that one. It's difficult b/c making the choice leaves no room for compromise, no wiggle-room for convenient adjustments, or mercenary deal-making. I serve Christ, or I serve the Enemy. If I choose to serve Christ, then I serve Christ with all my heart, soul, body, mind, all my strength. There are no vacation days so that I might pop over to the Enemy's place and do a bit of work for him. Serving your master (whichever one you choose) is a great responsibility. The risks and rewards are greater still. For the followers of Christ, those who serve our master, the Christ, the task is easy, the burden light.
Our task is easy and our burden is light. However, teaching, preaching, and living out the Good News of Christ Jesus is still a fairly large responsibility. To this one task are attached many other tasks. And to these many tasks are attached even more. But all these tasks come down to one Big Task: serving Christ among nations. We serve Christ among the nations by doing, saying, thinking, feeling only those things that bring us closer to Christ, only those words and deeds and thoughts that propel us toward perfect holiness in him. The more consistently and zealously we serve, the more determined we become to serve. And the more determined we are to serve the greater the chance that we will not fall prey to the temptation of serving the Other One. If you think that the Enemy is going to appear in your bedroom at 3am and entice you into his service with wealth, power, and celebrity – think again. Such a stunt would likely give you a heart attack! He's a fallen angel not a Cartoon Network clown. The temptation to serve the Enemy can be subtle. It's quiet, often elegant and complex. Sometimes – true – it rushes at you like a flash flood. And more often than you might imagine, the invitation to serve the Other One comes dressed up in its Church clothes.
For example, this past week, a group calling itself “Catholics for Choice” put full-page ads in a number of major media markets, touting their lies about the compatibility of Catholicism and abortion. The ad proclaimed in part, “Public funding for abortion is a Catholic social justice value.” Tellingly, the ad goes on to note that since 99% of married Catholics practice artificial contraception, it makes perfect sense that Catholics can – in good faith – ignore the Church's 2,000 year old teaching against abortion. So, the logic goes, if you use contraception, you can condone abortion – in good faith. That is the Enemy tempting you to serve his cause. He dresses it up in churchy language, ties it to a common sin, and then offers you a way to serve him that allows you believe that you are still serving Christ – in good faith. If you think the Church is wrong on contraception, and you practice contraception, and you still consider yourself a “good Catholic,” then why stop there? You can be a “good Catholic” and support using taxpayer money to pay for the killing of unborn children. Thank God, our bishops stepped up immediately and rounded denounced this group for what it is – liars. It isn't Catholic. And it doesn't serve Christ. 
“Catholics for Choice” is just one, very obvious example of the Enemy tempting faithful Catholics into his service. Most of us will experience more subtle temptations. The occasional venial sin. The more dramatic mortal sin. The compromise to keep the peace, to keep a job. The small, apparently harmless nod of approval to someone else's favorite sin. The failure to forgive, to love, to show mercy. That hesitation to offer hospitality. All of these can and will open a door to serving the Enemy. BUT if you maintain a constant vigilance in your service to Christ, you will look at these temptations and see them for what they are: pathetic attempts to get you to switch masters. We have been entrusted with a huge responsibility – one, big, divinely assisted task. Teach, preach, and live out the Good News of Christ Jesus. This task requires us to think with the mind of Christ; to work with the heart of Christ; to pray with the soul of Christ; and to sustain ourselves in the good graces of God by being His hands and feet in the world. The Enemy will not relent just b/c we pass a law or win a court case. He's not going to stop just b/c we say we're Catholic. He's not interested in our arguments or our evidence. He wants our service. B/c he knows that we cannot serve two masters. 
If we are busy serving him, we 're too busy to serve Christ.

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11 September 2016

Confess, Repent, Follow Christ

24th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

If we are not moving toward God – growing in holiness, allowing Him to perfect us in Christ – then we are moving away from Him. There really is no middle ground. Standing still isn't an option. Last week we heard Jesus say to us that we must hate our families, our friends, and renounce our possessions in order to follow him. Christ comes first, or not at all. This kind of thinking – right/wrong, yes/no – can make us a little nervous b/c our culture tells us that we are not truly free if we aren't given nearly limitless options to choose from. We like to mix and match; a little from here, a little from there. You know, customizeable religion, Have It You Way Faith. Unfortunately for those of us who want to a DIY religion, scripture and tradition bear witness to the truth of the Good News – there is only one way to find peace: when we find ourselves moving away from God, we must confess, repent, and follow Christ. As individual men and women of God and as the Body of Christ, the Church, our salvation, our peace is found only when we confess our disobedience, repent, and return to Christ. Thankfully, we're not left to our charms and wits in all this. God makes our return to Him possible.

This truth of our faith cannot be repeated often enough – God Himself makes our return to Him possible. IOW, w/o His help, we cannot return to Him. We can't confess. We can't repent. We can't follow Christ. I hope you find this as comforting as I do! Why comforting? B/c it means that I am not left on my own to find Christ's peace. I shudder to think where I would be right now if my salvation and growth in holiness were left up to me alone. Thank God this work is not mine alone. Nor is it yours alone. Yes, we must cooperate with God's help; we must put in our share of the work, but even then, our share is nothing more than what God has already given us. We aren't giving up or giving away anything that truly belongs to us. Whatever we have to give was first given to us by God. Our families, friends, our stuff, even our very lives were all given to us by God. So, whatever it is that we sacrifice to cooperate in our salvation. . .it was never really ours to begin with. Perhaps the only thing we can say is ours and ours alone is our sin. My sin really does belong to me. And to me alone. Only I can confess it, repent of it, and choose to return to God through Christ. With God's help, everyone can return to Him.

Look at how Jesus treats the sinners at table. Tax collectors, prostitutes, unclean Gentiles. According to the Law of Moses, he is defiling himself eating in such company. We're talking about mere social embarrassment here. We're talking putting himself outside the good graces of God Himself by violating the purity code of Scripture. The Pharisees and Scribes grumble and snark about Jesus' laxity and plot to use it against him. Jesus hears all the whispering and decides to teach them with a parable. The upshot of his story is this: a lost sheep once found is better than ninety-nine sheep that were never lost. That lost sheep is missed. It was once part of the flock and now it's gone, wandering alone and afraid. And here's the key: the shepherd goes looking for it. He doesn't wait quietly at home until the sheep comes home or turns up dead. The shepherd gets up and goes out into the wilderness to find his lost sheep. When he returns home with the sheep, he celebrates b/c what was once lost is now found. Jesus goes to the lost sheep among God's people and brings them home. He doesn't wait for them to come to him. He doesn't wait for us to find him; he comes out to us, looking for us, and brings us back to God.

Of course, we're not sheep. That lost lamb has little choice in returning home. The shepherd throws it over his shoulders and walks home. What our Lord does with the lost sheep among God's people is to show us how to return home. He comes out to us and walks with us back to where we belong. But we must carry ourselves behind him. If we are weighted down with sin. . .well, the trip back is going to be a tough hike. Christ will take our sin and carry it away. . .if we give it all to him. If we give it all to him – everything: our stubborn hearts, our closed minds, our clouded judgment, our disordered passions, everything – he will carry it all away. And our hike back to God will be straight and smooth. But giving it all away – every sin – takes courage. It takes trust. More than anything else, it takes faith in God that our surrender will bring us peace. We have the witness of the saints. We have the witness of Scripture. We have the holiness and unity of the Church. We have the sacraments. We have everything we need to know – to KNOW! – that a life in Christ brings peace. Confess, repent, return to Christ. There's an eternal party waiting us once we're found.

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04 September 2016

Do or Die. . .there is no try

NB. I could not preach my way out of a chalk circle tonight for some reason. . .
23rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Among the conveniences of modern life like no-fault divorce, no-receipt returns, money back guarantees, it may be hard for us to grasp fully what Jesus means when he says that we must hate our parents, our family, and renounce all of our possessions in order to follow him. This demand for all-in commitment, for there's-no-going-back dedication can sound unnecessarily harsh, uncompromising even. Why can't we try on being a disciple for a while and see how we like it? Just dip a toe in and see if the water's right for us? All this hating family and friends and giving up our stuff seems a bit over the top! Who else asks this kind of commitment from us? No one! With just about everyone we meet and everything we do, there's an Exit that allows us a clean, guilt-free get-away. We're allowed to divvy up our time as we see fit; parcel out our energy according our needs; juggle various activities and people as we like. Almost no one is going to dare demand of us 100% of our time and energy. We need the option of backing out, the option of saying, “Sorry. Not today. Got better things to do.” Unfortunately for us, our Lord dares to demand 100% of our time and energy b/c he gave himself for us on the Cross. We belong to him – time, energy, attention, heart and mind.

Being a disciple of the Lord is no cake-walk. In his own day, many who followed him ran off when his demands for allegiance got – shall we say – bizarre. That time he told the crowd that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. How many ran away that day? When he got arrested in the Garden, even his most devoted disciples denied him and fled. Even Peter the Rock dodged the guards with lies and swift feet. If the men and women who knew him best can't stay faithful when the feces hits the oscillator – what chance do we have? Well, the best chance we have of staying faithful is to be 100% faithful from the beginning, doing everything in our power to stay firmly rooted in the Gospel and given over wholly to the mission of Christ. We do this by having nothing else and no one else standing between us and Christ. Not family. Not friends. And certainly not our stuff. This doesn't mean that we have to actually feel hatred for mom and pop, or burn our things in a bonfire of the vanities. It does mean that we love Christ first and then love everyone and everything else in light of our love for Christ. 
Easily said. Not so easily done, I know. But consider: that we are able to love at all is a gift from God, Who is Love Himself. When I say that I love my mom and dad, I am also saying that I love God b/c God is Love. He makes my familial love possible. Knowing this and living it are two very different things. I know that God is Love, and that I am capable of love only b/c God loved me first. But how do I live this truth? If I attach my God-given love to people and things w/o regard to what God wills for my life, w/o thinking about how loving these people and things affects my holiness, then I am attaching myself to temporary people and things. If we become what we love – as Scripture teaches – then I too become temporary, not destined for eternal life in Christ. However, if I attach my love to Christ first, then love my parents, friends, and things as Christ loves me, I can say that I am loving in a divine love – sacrificially, eternally with my heart and mind focused on holiness. When Jesus warns us about the dangers of building a tower w/o a solid foundation and taking on an enemy king w/o proper planning, he's warning us to put First Things first. He comes first. Or not at all. And that's how we manage to stay faithful when the things start to fall apart.

When we lose the people and things we love, we don't fall apart; that is, we don't if we have loved them all through Christ first. He endures when nothing and no one else can. We are still capable of love. And – in Christ – we are still loved. Our work toward holiness can continue, and our life in mission endures.

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31 August 2016

Aerial Pic of NDS

 Notre Dame Seminary


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28 August 2016

Praiseworthy Self-abasement [Audio Link added]

22nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

I know a lot about humility. I know the definition of the word. I know how to distinguish it from its many synonyms. And I know how to work with it intellectually as a theological concept and virtue. In other words, I can massage just about every aspect of humility into a homily, a paper, a lecture, or a spiritual direction session. Good for me! The hard question though is: am I humble? Do I actually exhibit the virtue of humility as a spiritual good for my growth in holiness? If I say yes, am I boasting? If I say no, am I being falsely modest? Perhaps humility is a virtue best practiced in secret. . .with great courage. St Thomas tells us that humility “conveys the notion of a praiseworthy self-abasement to the lowest place” (ST II-II.161.1.ad.2). St Gregory of Nyssa tells us that “[t]he Word speaks of voluntary humility as 'poverty in spirit'”(De beatitudinibus 1). And Our Lord implies that humility opposes self-exaltation, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” What humility is is a reality check on our self-appraisal, a speed-bump on our high-speed chase to perfection: “Go and take the lowest place.”

Take the lowest place. When St. Thomas tells us that humility “conveys the notion of a praiseworthy self-abasement to the lowest place,” he's being very careful to make some crucial distinctions. Probably the most important one: the distinction btw self-abasement and praiseworthy self-abasement. Humility is not about self-abasement, a groveling, hatred of the self that leaves you debased and cringing. Humility is about abasing oneself in a praiseworthy manner. Simply put, praiseworthy self-abasement is nothing more than the recognition and acceptance of one's Christian reality: I am both a sinner and a redeemed child of God. I am capable of both great holiness and great evil. I am unworthy of heaven but made worthy in Christ Jesus. Recognizing and accepting this reality – the both/and of being a sinner made worthy – is what it is to abase myself in a praiseworthy manner. I cannot deceive myself into thinking that I am already a saint. Nor can I deceive myself into thinking that I am an unholy worm deserving death. The reality is much more complicated and much more difficult than those easy extremes. The truth is: we are being perfected. Not yet there but on our way. And while on our way, we recognize and accept that our failures and flaws prevent us from raising ourselves above our brothers and sisters.

Jesus' parable of the banquet gives us a window into this thinking about the proper place of humility in the kingdom. Notice in the parable that we are not always relegated to the lowest position. The host might ask us to move up to a higher position. But we can only be moved up if we have first chosen a lower position for ourselves. When we presume – in our pride – to take the highest place, the only direction for us to move when ordered to do so is down. Rather than humble ourselves by recognizing and accepting our unworthiness for the honor, we instead jump pridefully to the place of honor and find ourselves humbled by the host. At the core of this parable is the authority of the Host. He determines who sits where in the order of honor not the guests. If the wedding banquet in the parable is heaven in reality, then it is God Who decides who sits in the places of honor. . .not His guests at the table. If you exalt yourself now, you will be humbled later. However, if you humble yourself now, you will be exalted in heaven. 
So, how do we humble ourselves now? Jesus gives us a clue in the parable: “. . .when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” In other words, doing something good for someone who can repay you is less humbling than doing something good for those who can never repay you. Spending your wealth – time, talent, and treasure – freely on those who cannot repay you is the sort of sacrifice that leads to greater humility. Wanting to be “paid back” indicates that you believe that what you have given is truly yours. And that you want your depleted wealth restored. However, spending wealth on those who cannot repay you indicates that you know that all that you have truly belongs to God and that you are merely the steward of His wealth. The sacrifice is not in the “giving over” but in the recognition and acceptance that you are steward of God's wealth not the true owner of the wealth. That sacrifice helps perfect your humility and draws you closer to God. You pull more deeply on the truth that saves: I am wholly dependent on God for everything I have and for everything I am. I am but His instrument.

We could spend hours going over the many ways that we are encouraged by the powers of this world to exalt ourselves above others: class, race, education, martial status, parenthood, economic status, etc. The ways we have of degrading others for our own exaltation are as numerous as the fallen angels. And just as evil. There is but one way to fight and defeat the temptations of self-exaltation: embrace the humility of Christ on the Cross. Scripture tells us that the Son of God emptied himself out to become one of us so that he could die as one of us on the Cross. Theologians sometimes refer to this emptying out as the Son of God “condescending” to become like us. We could just as easily say that he “humbled himself” in order to make our own humility possible. How do we make use of the humility he made possible? We receive into our own hearts and minds his motivation for humbling himself – he loved us as his own and died for us so that we might live. That's sacrificial love. Love that sacrifices self for another. And there is no greater humility to be found. When the powers of this world tempt us to exalt ourselves at the expense of our rich/poor, black/white, Republican/Democrat, educated/uneducated neighbors, bring to your heart and mind the image of Christ on his Cross. Remember that he – the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity – humbled himself to become one of us and to die as one of us so that we might live. That WE – all of us – might live. 
It is Devil's work to divide us into rich and poor, white and black, upper and lower classes. It's Christ's work to save us all in his one act of sacrificial love on the Cross. And it's our work to be his instruments in this fallen world. Give when you cannot be repaid. Choose the lowest place.

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23 August 2016

Update and Thanks

Thanks to Jenny K. for hitting the Wish List and sending me two jars of much-needed paint! 

The Knee is healing well. No sign of infection. I overdid it a bit yesterday and paid for it today. Oy. Swelling, soreness, and angry joint noises.

Classes are off to a great start at Notre Dame Seminary. Orientation Week was a big success.

We celebrated a Mass of the Holy Spirit with Archbishop Aymond yesterday. . .he dedicated and blessed the renovations of St. Joseph Hall. 

Doc appt on Friday. . .

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21 August 2016

Who will be saved?

21st Sunday OT (2012)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Blackfriars, Oxford Univ.

Some see it as a door. Others see it as a path. Jesus says it's a gate, a narrow gate. Flannery O'Connor's creation, that paragon of 1950's white rural middle-class Protestant respectability, Mrs. Turpin, saw it as a bridge. She stands at the fence of her hog pen, the pigs have gathered themselves around an old sow: “A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.” She watches them 'til sunset, “her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge.” Finally, ready for the revelation, Mrs. Turpin raises her hands and “a visionary light settles in her eyes.” A purple-crimson dusk streaks the sky, connecting the fields with the highway: “She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” Mrs. Turpin is surprised to see not only poor white trash on that bridge but black folks too. And among the “battalions of freaks and lunatics,” she sees her own tribe of scrubbed-clean, property-owning, church-going people—singing on key, orderly marching, being responsible as they always have been. We might imagine that it was a distant relative of Mrs Turpin who asked Jesus that day, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”

Some say it is a door or a path. Some think of it as a key or a tabernacle. Jesus says that it is a Narrow Gate, a gate so narrow that most won't have the strength to push themselves through. There will be some on this side of the gate and some on the other side. Most of us imagine that we will be on the right side of the gate when the master of the house comes to lock the door. We will be on the inside listening to those on the outside plea for mercy, shout out their faithfulness, and cry for just one more chance. We will be on the inside when the master shouts at those on the outside, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” When we hear this brutal rebuke, do we flinch? Do we beg mercy for those left outside? Do we try to rejoin them in a show of solidarity?

These questions matter only if we have gathered the strength necessary to squeeze ourselves through the gate. If we are weak, exhausted, apathetic, or if we really are evildoers, then staying on this side of the gate, away from the table of the kingdom, probably seems more attractive, easier to accomplish, not so much sweat and tears. Do we really want to be part of a banquet that excludes so many? Do we want to lend our support to a homeowner who crafts a narrow gate for his front door, knowing that most will not be able to enter? We may be lazy or stupid or just plain evil, but we would rather suffer righteously with sinners than party self-righteously with the saints!

Mrs. Turpin's distant cousin is insistent, however: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus never answers the question. Rather than giving a straightforward yes, no, or about one-third, he moves the question away from the number of those to be saved toward the method by which they will be saved. Those who are saved are saved b/c they have used their strength to push through the Narrow Gate just before the Master locks the door. How many are saved? Don't know. Who are these people? Don't know that either. What happens to those who didn't make it through? Wailing, grinding teeth, and being cast out. Despite all their pleas, they are cast out.

Is there anything for us to do now in order to build up our strength for that final push through the Narrow Gate? Anything for us to do to fortify ourselves for that last surge, that last run at the battlement's gate? We read in the letter to the Hebrews: “. . .strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.” This is a call to righteousness, not just the sort of uprightness that comes from following the rules, but the righteousness that comes from calling on God to correct our infirmities—our drooping hands and weak knees—so that what is lame is healed and not made worse by time and trial, not left to become disjointed. Our rush through the Narrow Gate is not a test of physical strength, nor is it a marathon of virtue. The narrowness of the gate is a test of our determination, a trial against a tepid heart and irresolute mind. The narrowness of the gate challenges the sharpness of our focus on being among the blessed who will be called upon to sacrifice everything for Christ's sake, everything for the love of just one friend. It is not enough that we have been to dinner with the Lord; that we have shouted his name from a crowd; that we have witnessed his miracles, praised his preaching, memorized his teaching, or invited ourselves to recline at his table. It is not enough that we are respectable, well-educated, middle-class, religious, worthy citizens of a civilized nation. We might manage to squeeze our respectability, our diplomas, our tax forms and churches and passports through that Narrow Gate, but none of these will assist in the squeezing. Yes, we will likely end up on Mrs Turpin's bridge, heading into the clouds with all the other freaks and lunatics, but we will end up there b/c we have placed ourselves at the mercy of God to forgive us the sins that impede us, that slow us down, and all but guarantee that we do not make the gate in time.

Mrs Turpin sees her own people on that bridge. Somewhat bewildered by the strange company of white trash and black folks, her tribe of middle-class church-goers nonetheless sing on key: “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” Perhaps what will get us through that Narrow Gate is the willingness to have everything that seems so vital, so necessary, so absolutely true. . .to have all of it burned away.


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