05 May 2007

Knowing Christ-Being Christ

4th Week of Easter (S): Acts 13.44-52 and John 14.7-14
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory


If I were to ask you whether or not you “know the Lord,” I wonder what you would say. Being good Catholics, I hope you would all say with some enthusiasm and joy, “Yes, of course,” but my naturally suspicious mind nags me with the probability that at least a large few of you would ask me in return, “What do you mean by ‘know the Lord’?” Jesus says, “Remain in my word and I will remain in you.”

Both Thomas yesterday and Philip today join you in your insistence on having a clearer idea of what it means to “know Christ.” Thomas is worried about what it means for Jesus to be our destination. He is also worried about it means for Jesus to be the Way to Jesus the Destination. Philip presses the Lord for a more empirical demonstration of his claim that “if you know me, then you will also know my Father.” Philip says, in essence, “Good to know, Lord…now, show me the Father…” Our Lord’s esoteric response to Thomas—“I am the way, the truth, and the life”—and his pointed rebuke of Philip—“Have I been with you for so long, Philip, and you still don’t know me?’—both of these responses from Jesus to questions about his identity seem to me to glide over his disciples’ central worry: who do you, Lord, want us to be for you?

Now, of course, our Lord is perfectly aware that his disciples are anxious about their identity as his followers. They’ve been worried about this from the beginning and the question reaches critical mass in the garden when they scurry like rats, denying that they know him at all! So, if the Lord knows this worry, why does he seem to be deflecting the real question in favor of answering secondary (or even tertiary!) questions about who he really is? Here’s my best guess: the disciples, like any of us, must come freely to the Father through Christ in response to His invitation to live with Him forever; and they must come in humble trust to accept, like any of us, that following Christ to heaven means following him first through the desert, on to Jerusalem, up the Upper Room, into the Garden, before Pilate, up on the Cross at Golgotha, and down into Tomb; like any of us, the disciples must come to know Jesus as both a Way and as a Truth, in other words, they must come to know him as the only Means to Perfection (the Way) and as the only Eternal Given (the Truth).

Since the disciples must freely respond to the Father’s gift of faith and they must follow Jesus in his passion and death and they must come to know Christ as both Perfection Himself and the Way to That Perfection; then, it is reasonable to posit that Jesus will tell them who he is for them and how to reach him but leave unanswered precisely who it is he wants them to be. Christ needs freed men and women, filled with the Spirit of charity, flooding the cities and nations to do his work. He does not need or want factory produced replicas, assembly line Jesus-Barbies or Preach-It-Elmos, marching lock-step, shouting bumper sticker platitudes at unrepentant sinners. He needs and wants witnesses to the Father’s renovating grace, His superlative love. He wants and needs prophets who lay claim to the power of the Word to shape the human heart into a tabernacle worthy of His Presence.

He wants you, freely given, to know him as the Truth and to seek him on the Way; to believe in him and to do now the works that he did then; he wants you to live in him as he lives in the Father and to ask of him what you need so that he can give it to you. He wants you, freely given, to be a light for the darkness; to be a holy silence for the world’s racket; to be a Word of grace for the fallen; and he wants you to come to know him by becoming him.

What do we mean by “know the Lord”? We mean “know Christ by being Christ right where you are.” Remain in his Word and he will remain in you.

04 May 2007

Jesus: Our Heavenly GPS Navigator

4th Week of Easter (F): Acts 13.26-33 and John 14.1-6
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation


My mother has a near pathological fear of getting lost while driving to a strange place. Giving her detailed directions does no good. Starting her out from somewhere familiar and leading her step by step to the unfamiliar does no good. She doesn’t even like to drive with someone in the car who knows where they are going! Once she cannot recognize a place, she panics and the way is lost. This is true for us spiritually as well: when our lives between Right Here/Now and Then/There become alienated from God in sin, our hope of reaching our destination becomes weaker and weaker, less and less sure. Our destination does not change. Nor does the way there. What changes is our certainty that we are getting anywhere, that we are going anywhere. And so, our hearts become troubled; our trust in God’s promises of showing us the way becomes thin. And we panic.

Geographically speaking, there is a way to everywhere, a way to anywhere you want to go and getting lost is not about not knowing your destination but about not knowing your chosen path. The same is not true for us as followers of Christ. There is only one way to our destination. And a failure on our part to know our path is also a failure to know our destination. Why, you ask? Because for us, the Path and the Destination are the same. Jesus is the Way and he is the Truth. Getting to him with him is our Life. For us, to be lost is death.

Thomas, no doubt as confused as the rest of us on hearing Jesus tell us about mansions in heaven and coming back for us and taking us with him, asks a question that any of us would ask: “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Think about it. Your best friend tells you that she is going to go set up cabin for a weekend retreat. She calls you up. Tells you about the cabin and then says, rather cryptically, “Where I am going you know the way.” First question out of your mouth is going to be…? “Um, where are you?” Second question: “how do I get there?” If she said to you in reply: “I am the destination and I am the way here and your trip to me through me is your life,” if she said this, well, you would likely hang up the phone and never, ever talk to this creepy friend again!

Thomas’ asks his anxious question about not knowing the destination or the way and Jesus replies, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” we think this is profound; enlightening even. And it is. But how is this enlightening and why should knowing this calm our troubled hearts? Geographically speaking, again, we can panic when we do not know the way to our destination, or when we do not know our destination well enough to get there via many ways. For us, there is only one destination and only one path to that destination. Jesus. He is where we are going (God the Father) and he is how we are going to get there (God the Son) and getting to him with him is our life in him (God the Holy Spirit). And no one comes to the Father except through him. This means that Jesus is more than a good model of ethical behavior; he is exemplary, but he is also that which is exemplified: the best, the truest, and the most beautiful.

Do not panic! Jesus promises: “I will come back and take you to myself, so that where I am going you may also be.” What is there for us to fear then? Jesus is the car, the driver, the road, the GPS Navigator; he is the street signs, the signal lights, and he is our destination. Riding with him is our Life. All we need to do is roll down our window and yell to those we see passing by, “Alleluia! He is risen! And there’s room for a few more in the back!”

02 May 2007

What will God always say YES to?

I just want to draw everyone's attention to a new release from Doubleday. Anthony Destefano has written a wonderfully accessible and timely book titled, Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To: Divine Answers to Life's Most Difficult Problems. What impresses me most about this book is way Destefano tackles some of our most tangled human problems in a fashion that is both immediately accessible to a non-theologian/philosopher and at the same time faithful to the real complexities of our available choices and reactions. In other words, this isn't one of those dumb "fix-it-easy-with-just-one-prayer" books, but a real attempt at thinking through--in an inviting way--those common human predicaments that we bring most frequently to God in prayer.

Recommended for high school and young adult study groups; parochial catechesis on prayer and daily spirituality; or as a gift for someone who's feeling a bit persecuted by Life!

Fr. Philip, OP

01 May 2007

O, the Suspense!

4th Week of Easter (T): Acts 11.19-26 and John 10.22-30
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation


Had I been in the temple area that day I would have been one of those nagging Jesus about his identity: “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Amen! Just say so, so we can make our choices and move on. How hard can it be to just say, “I am the Christ”? Not hard at all apparently b/c when confronted with the frustrated demands of his listeners, Jesus answers, “I told you [who I am] and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me […] The Father and I are one.” Does this dissipate the suspense for you? Let’s hope not! Well, I mean, let’s hope that you come to believe the testimony of Jesus’ works, or especially his own witness to his identity—of course! But let’s not be too hurried about suspending suspense. The fire of the Holy Spirit is gathering heat. Even here—in the early chapters of John—we can hear the Voice of the Shepherd, his Word and Spirit, roaring and commanding, boisterously reassuring: my sheep hear my voice. They know me and follow me. No one takes my sheep from me or the Father! This isn’t about the possession of property. We aren’t cattle. Nor is this about personal loyalty. Jesus is not our gang leader. The Voice of the Word, the Spirit is our guarantee of the Father’s radical love, a divine passion for us, a love that sprints along our skin; pulls and pushes our muscles; pumps our blood; sparks memory, mind, heart and will. And relentlessly spools us to Him like lazy catfish stuck on a river bottom. It is not enough to know that you’re hooked! Testimony. Witness. Evidence. Fine. All perfectly wonderful. But do you hear his voice? Do you know him as your shepherd and friend? Do you follow where he leads? Do not suspend suspense entirely! If you believe that being caught by the Divine Fisherman ends your questioning, your need for insight, your longing for wisdom; or stops the hard work of daily holiness, then you need to know that the Holy Spirit will settle for nothing less from you than everything you are made to be in Christ. So, tell me, with Christ, where is it exactly in your life that you want to wreck, surrender, and fade away?

29 April 2007

Dominican Poetry and a poem

I have been derelict in my duty not only to the Poetry World but to Dominican Poetry as well! Check out The OP Poetry Prize and lend your support to this worthwhile ministry of verse. I don't have enough poems collected to submit for the prize, but I will include one here just for a taste:

Jesus, Thief (Craigie Aitchison’s Crucifixion IV, 1988)

The whole of it could be the cross

And yellow again.

Pilate’s INRI held behind his back

In the last Messanic secret, now

An eight twinkle star, etched in snow.

It draws the one lamb left that will ask,

“Lord, what star marks your cross?

Who do you say that You are?”

The Lord, speaking to the burnt orange ground, says,

“I am He who stands on this pillar of wood, hiding

my name, and choosing my last seven words.”

“I am meant to be upset, Lord,” says the Lamb,

“but I am not. You will die like a thief.”1

Now, his mouth gone, the Lord says to the Lamb

with his eyes:

“Yes, I will steal death for you.”

Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Douai Abbey, Feast SS. Peter and Paul, 2004

1 In an interview with Andrew Lambeth, Craigie Aitchison comments on the animals in his depictions of the crucifixion: “The animals are meant to be upset, concerned.” The Journey: A Search for the Role of Contemporary Art on the Religious and Spiritual Life, Usher Gallery, Redcliffe Press, 1990, 70.

Know him, hear him, follow him (Revised)

4th Sunday of Easter: Acts 13.14, 43-52; Rev 7.9, 14-17; John 10.27-30
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation


Who belongs to Christ? Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.” Who are these sheep he’s on about? What does a flock belonging to Christ look like? Meanwhile over in the Book of Revelation, John is having visions of a great multitude of people from nation, race, people and tongue crowding the throne of God. These are all the saints who have survived the Great Distress. They certainly belong! Paul and Barnabas in Acts tell the Jews who have not converted and who are hounding the apostles in fits of jealousy that they have rejected the Good News and now it’s time for them—the apostles—to turn their evangelical efforts to the Gentiles. Apparently, some of the Jews do not want to belong—an unhappy situation—but the Gentiles now have a shot at belonging and they are delighted. Who belongs? Who can enter this house? Who is worthy? Better: who can be made worthy? What does it take to be made a member of the Body of Christ? And how is it done? And once done, what does a member look like?

These are vital questions on the fourth Sunday of Easter because we are rapidly approaching the birthday of the Church at Pentecost. Some fifty days after the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit sweeps down on the desolate and deserted disciples to swiftly kick them in their collective behind, motivating them to step up to the challenge of giving their lives to the infectious spreading of the Good News. This is the Church. This is what the Church does: spread the Good News. Infectiously. This is what Paul and Barnabas are doing in Antioch. This is what the great multitude crowding the throne in heaven did before they died. This is what those given to Jesus by the Father are grateful to do. Belonging to Christ then is not about the possession of a genetic trait or a political history or an attitude. Belonging to Christ is not about the mere intellectual assent to a theological formula or a philosophical worldview or knowledge of a wisdom tradition. Belonging to Christ means following Christ. Those who belong to him, know him, hear him, and follow him. And that can be anyone. Anyone at all. Any nation, any race, any people, any tongue. Anyone. Anyone given to Christ by the Father…

Wait. Anyone given to Christ by the Father? You mean we have to be given to Christ in order to belong to Christ? Yep. We are gifts to Christ from the Father, given to him for our salvation and the Father’s glorification. God the Father created each of us to desire Him before all things. And for our exclusive benefit we are made to worship Him. Our God has no need of our praise. The longing we enjoy to praise Him is His gift to us for in praising Him we are perfected in His love. We know the itching need to praise God only because He has graced us to do so. Our creation is a grace. Our desire to belong is a grace. Our need to worship is a grace. Our enduring existence is a grace. Our ability to say YES to God is a grace. Our capacity to obey, to be holy is a grace. And we ourselves—created, fallen, loved—are a grace to Christ, a gift to the Son from the Father in the Spirit. And all we need do is know him, hear him, and follow him. When we refuse to do these things, when we contradict the Word, disobey the Body, we do violence to ourselves as gifts, and we do not belong.

To be clear: sin does not hurt God. Sin ravages the sinner. Abuses the Church. Hates friendship. And defies every baptismal promise. Sin is the enemy of belonging, the adversary of a graced communion.

When we sin, the longing we feel for God turns to loneliness. When we sin, the emptying-of-self that imitates Christ turns to abandonment. When we sin, the humility we rightly feel at our brokenness turns to shame and guilt. In sin, our longing for God becomes a rejection of Him and we end up living lonely, empty, and restless lives—not just imperfect but broken and lost. When we disobey—fail to listen to the Shepherd—the creative desire for holiness that seduces us to turn to Christ becomes a destructive appetite for material satisfaction that tempts us away from Christ. We cannot belong to Christ while rebelling against his Word; while rejecting the life of the Spirit he offers us; while mucking around with alien gods and strange wisdoms.

Beloved Sheep, the wolves will do worse than eat you; they will make you into a wolf and give you sheep to eat.

Who can belong to Christ? Anyone, anyone at all. Who belongs to Christ? Those given to him by the Father who know him, hear him, and follow him. Why would anyone want to know, hear, and follow the Son as a gift from the Father? So that they might be perfected in their vocation to become Christ for others. Why would anyone abuse themselves as gifts to Christ by rejecting his saving Word? This is an ancient desire, one whispered by the Serpent in the Garden, the desire to become god without God, to be perfected through unaided efforts, to be made holy by pious works alone; and this inordinate desire is best named Disobedience b/c it is the willful refusal to listen to Christ in his Body, the magisterial witness of the Church, a refusal to listen to the Good News that your life is a gift, your progress in holiness is a gift, your life eternal is a gift. All just given to you freely, without charge or interest, handed over to you, an open-handed donation from God through Christ in the Spirit.

Now, the hard question: what does a life that belongs to Christ look like? You belong to Christ, does your life look like a gift from God, a freely given grace, or does it look like an expensive debt that will never be paid off? If you live your life in Christ like an expensive debt, exactly who is it you think you owe? Christ? The Church? Who? Who among the saints, the Blessed Trinity, or the souls in purgatory has sold you something on credit? Is there a Jesus Christ VISA card I don’t know about? And even if you can identify your creditor, how are you paying off this debt? Good works? Prayer? Mass attendance? Donations? All perfectly good things for a Christian to do, of course; but if you are doing these things out of a sense of indebtedness, then you are not answering Christ with an excited and blessed YES but rather with a begrudged and depressing HERE’s THIS MONTH’s PAYMENT. CHOKE ON IT.

This is most certainly not the Spirit that crashes into the disciples, creating the Church at Pentecost! This is not the Spirit that drives Paul and Barnabas to risk their lives for the joy of the Lord. This is not the Spirit that excites the elders around the throne to worship the Most High. And this is not the Spirit that seduces us, pulls us toward the Lord so that we may know him, hear him, and follow him. We owe Christ nothing. He has already paid every spiritual debt we will ever owe. So, your prayers, your Mass attendance, your good works, your donations are not debt payments at all but down payments for the future of the Church, the church that survives the Great Distress and finds herself circling the throne of God forever.

Paul and Barnabas are expelled from Pisidia. They don’t sue or complain at a press conference or start a petition drive for a ballot proposition. They shake the dust from their feet and they are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. Are you truly happy to belong to Christ? Does being here bring you joy? If so, praise God for His goodness! If not, let me ask: do you know Christ? Do you hear him and follow him? Do you really belong? And, most importantly, what is it about his joy that frightens you so?

The fear of being joyful for a Christian is a stake to the heart! Is sin real? Absolutely. Shouldn’t we be contrite? You better believe it! But remember: the only way you know that you have sinned and the only way that you can come to true contrition and the only way you can do your just penance and receive absolution for your sins, the only way ANY of this possible is through the grace of God, His gift of mercy to you, to us for our holiness. Why would anyone fear this joy? So, let me ask you again: does your life in Christ look more like a wrecked funeral barge—with weeping and rending of garments and wailing and creased frowning—, or does your life resemble the life Paul and Barnabas are living: joyful, powerful, elated in the Holy Spirit; a muscular witness to Christ even under serious persecution; a life walking with Love held up by a trust more powerful than any fear.

Fear joy at your peril. No sheep of Christ will live long trembling in the shadow of death. Know him, hear him, follow him, and walk free of every fear, every limit, and belong to the only One on whose name we rely for help: Christ the Good Shepherd!