05 July 2008

Fasting during the Party

13th Week OT(Sat): Amos 9.11-15 and Matthew 9.14-17
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Holy Family Catholic Church, First Saturday Mass

Even among those who should know better, the temptation to compare and contrast religious practices is great. My Friday fast is more severe than anyone else’s. I go to Mass more often than she does. He goes to confession more than I do. John’s disciples, apparently concerned about their own fasting, approach Jesus and question him about the fasting practices of his disciples. Are they worried that they are fasting unnecessarily? Or, fasting too much or too little? It’s not clear if they are criticizing Jesus’ friends or if they are simply curious about another way of growing in holiness. And though we have no way of knowing how John’s disciples reacted to Jesus’ response, we have to imagine that they were at least a little confused when Jesus answered, “Can the wedding guest mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” You can just see Jesus’ disciples, standing behind him, smiling and snickering at the answer. They themselves have heard this kind of puzzling answer from their Master a number of times! But for the uninitiated, Jesus’ bizarre question comes out of the blue. And his subsequent teaching on shrunken and unshrunken cloth, new wine and new wineskins must sound completely random. So, what is Jesus teaching?

Notice that Jesus links fasting with mourning. He says that the wedding guests, the disciples, do not mourn so long as the groom, he himself, is with them. Then he adds, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast.” Fasting then is a way to mourn those who have been taken away in death. How we can understand the connection between fasting and mourning? Think of the times you have fasted. Do you fast because you are mourning the loss of someone you love? You may stop eating while you grieve, but this is not fasting strictly speaking. Fasting is intentional; it is directed, focused, not done by accident or force. However, Jesus’ point seems to be that the inner meaning of fasting IS mourning; that is, when we fast with the proper intent and focus, we are indeed mourning. In a very subtle way, Jesus is rebuking John’s disciples for misunderstanding the purpose of their religious fast.

Like their Master, John’s disciples subject themselves to an austerity that disciplines the mind and body. The goal, of course, is spiritual purity in the pursuit of holiness. But how often do our spiritual disciplines become the measure of our holiness. In other words, we are often sorely tempted to believe that a severe discipline (fasting, prayer, etc.) mark us as spiritually superior to our neighbors, or perhaps somehow closer to God, our perfection. It is entirely possible, for example, that we have fallen away to the degree that all of our strictly observed disciplines simply bring us on par with our holier neighbor! Regardless, fasting itself is not a measure of our love for God nor is it a means of determining our purity. Fasting is mourning; fasting is one way we have to miss our Lord, one way to experience his absence from the wedding feast.

Jesus’ question to John’s disciples—“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”—is his way of telling them (and us) that we are to be joyful while he is among us! No one mourns during a wedding party, no one grieves while celebrating a marriage. In fact, Jesus notes, it is foolish to pour a brand new wine into an old and battered wineskin. It will break open and waste the wine. Those who rejoice at the wedding of Christ and his Church pour new wine into new skins. We are a new people filled with a new spirit. Mourning comes when we must remember Christ’s death for our salvation; however, even as we fast and mourn, we remember the feast. If your fasting is intended to keep you occupied with our loss of Jesus, then you fast for the wrong reasons. If your fasting is intended to measure your holiness against your neighbors, then you fast for the wrong reasons. Fasting prepares us for feasting. Mourning prepares us for the outpouring of the Spirit. We empty ourselves out so that our Lord may fill us up.

There is no other reason for us to remember Christ’s death than to prepare us for celebrating his resurrection and our eternal life with him. Therefore, do not give Christ a miserable spirit and expect him to pour out his joy. You will burst and be ruined.

04 July 2008

Suffering well...

Recently, I conducted a one-day retreat for the local lay Dominican chapter. I was asked to give three talks on the theme, “Preaching Truth in a Lying Age.” During one of the talks I mentioned the notion of suffering and gave a very brief ferverino on what suffering means for Christians. That little piece of the much bigger retreat is still sitting with me this morning.

When I am asked to recount my vocation story, I often tell the story of how I came to a better understanding of humility. In 1998, I had injured my back at work. For about two months my doctor thought I had merely sprained a lower back muscle and he treated me as such—mild muscle relaxers, milder pain meds, and physical therapy. I was in excruciating pain, often fainting and completely unable to bathe or walk. Only after I had lost about 50lbs. and nearly lapsed into a coma with a 106 degree temperature did he finally decide to send me for an MRI.

After the MRI and during one of my physical therapy sessions I was called to the phone to hear my doctor’s nurse order me to cease therapy immediately and return to the office. Her voice was insistent and slightly frightened. Obviously, I was terrified. They had found something. Once in the office, the doctor informed me that I had a large mass growing between my two lower vertebrae. He showed me the MRI films and ordered me back to the clinic for another MRI. This time they shot me full of contrast fluid. The mass shone like a mountain. My doctor, nearly in tears because he had ignored my pleas for better pain meds, told me that he was pretty sure I had cancer. Only a biopsy could confirm this.

The biopsy indicated that the mass was a staph abscess. They rushed me to the hospital where I was told that my heart had likely been severely weakened by the infection. Tests showed that this was not the case. However, the staph had infected my blood, sending my sed rate to deadly levels. My infectious disease doc confided to me that he couldn’t explain that why after almost three months of an internal staph infection I wasn’t dead. He ordered a PIC line inserted into my heart and I was fed two IV anti-biotics for seven weeks. During those seven weeks I was at home with my parents recovering.

I was unable to keep food down. Couldn’t bathe or sleep. And I was dependent on my parents for everything. I was 35 years old and once again a child. The day humility came to smack me around I had a doctor’s appointment. Since I could barely walk, my mom had to dress me. The absurdity of my situation hit me hard when it came time to put on my socks. Sitting on a low bench in my underwear with my mom kneeling in front of me, struggling through a stream of tears to get my socks on for me, I started crying in frustration, anger, gratitude, and a sense of helplessness. It was all so absurd, so surreal, and yet also weirdly peaceful.

My point? I had been in constant pain for almost four months, and I grieved my loss of independence. But I had yet to suffer. Pain is not suffering. Grief is not suffering. Since I was merely experiencing pain and not giving that pain purpose, I had refused to suffer. There was no grace for me in simply being in pain. Once I decided to allow the pain to have a purpose (i.e., “to suffer the pain”) as a gift of humility, my recovery quickened, and I was able to go back to work in month or so. Now, when my oh-so-ready pride pokes its head into my business, I remember the scene of my mom struggling to get my socks on without hurting me—the two of us crying like babies at the absurdity of the whole thing.

The question is not “do you suffer?” but “do you suffer well?” Or, rather “do you allow your pain/grief to have a purpose?”

So, suffer well.

Stranger than God?

St Thomas the Apostle: Eph 2.19-22 and John 20.24-29
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Think for a moment about how you come to believe that some claim about the natural world is true. Could you, if asked, chart out the flow of your thinking, the steps you have taken in assenting to this or that truth? Could you provide sufficient and convincing evidence for the truth of each step, each twist and turn in the flow? On a scale of 1 to 100, how difficult do you think it would be to produce this detailed evidence for a claim about the supernatural world? About your belief that God is real? That Jesus is the Son of God? That heaven and hell exist—somehow—as real possibilities for us? It seems that my belief that the sun will rise in the east and set in the west is a vastly different sort of belief than my belief that bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ for no other reason than that I invoke the Holy Spirit to make it so. The former is a kind of verifiable knowledge, a fact; while the latter can seem to be something akin to voodoo.

Thomas the Twin must have felt that his fellow disciples had gone bonkers. Returning to their hideout, Thomas is told by the others (and we have to imagine that he was told breathlessly) that they had seen the Lord. This is the same Lord that the Romans had only just recently convicted, tortured and then executed as a traitor and heretic. Thomas must have sighed, looked at his frazzled friends with pity—“The stress has finally cracked their good sense! When would the lunacy end?” But being a good friend and probably desirous of setting them all straight with a simple test, he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my hand into his side…I will not believe.” Good for him! Show me! Let me see the evidence and draw my own conclusion. What right-thinking mind wouldn’t demand solid proof of this alleged truth?

We don’t know how the other disciples reacted to Thomas’ sensible disbelief in their ridiculous claim that their dead Master had appeared to them while he was gone. Were they outraged? Hurt? Were they sad for him? Maybe amused? All we know is that one week later Jesus appeared again. And Thomas was there. They must have all panicked, or erupted with questions and requests, because Jesus enters, saying, “Peace be with you.” He goes to Thomas and gives his disbelieving friend a chance to rest his disbelief, “Put your finger here and see my hands…do not be disbelieving, but believe.” At this Thomas exclaims, “But I could be dreaming, or perhaps this is all just an illusion; or more likely, you are the product of a mass hallucination brought on by stress, hunger, my need to believe in something larger than myself.” And Jesus wept. His friend Thomas had become a stranger to him.

Alright, so that’s not the way it goes in the gospel, but my version shows up the basic mistake we often make when dealing with belief. In the real gospel Thomas refuses to believe without hardcore empirical evidence. He sets another gospel above the witness of his friends—the gospel of believing only those claims that can be verified through empirial investigation. Jesus’ miraculous appearance shocks Thomas into the gospel that Jesus actually preached: with faith comes understanding. First, we must trust, then we know. But wouldn’t a contemporary Thomas reply, “Well sure, if you require that I believe before I believe, then believing is merely a prejudice. The case has been settled before it has been investigated.” This would be a reasonable objection if we were investigating the rising and setting of the sun, but we are not. We are investigating a personal encounter with God.

Because of his weak faith—that is, his mistrust—Thomas is allowed his empirical evidence. Only then does he come to trust. Jesus says, “Have you come to believe because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Jesus is not telling the disciples that they must accept unverifiable claims. What he is telling them is that they will know him best in faith. In other words, he is teaching them that their belief in him is matter of love and not evidence, of hope and not chance. No mother or father loves a child because the empirical evidence requires it. We love, then we believe and understanding grows from trust. We are not strangers to God. Even when what we sometimes believe about God is very strange indeed…

30 June 2008

Separation Anxiety

1st Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church: Rom 8.31-39 and Matt 24.4-13
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Are we comforted by Paul when he writes to the Romans: “…in all things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us,” or does the idea scares us just a little bit? Conquer overwhelmingly? All things we conquer overwhelmingly? Maybe I’m overwhelmed by the idea that our conquest will be overwhelming. Like you, I am pretty much happy just to win one here and there. As long as the win column stays a bit higher than the lose column, I thinking: hey, not bad for a sinner. Then I have to remember that those are all Christ’s wins not mine. The losses…well, the losses go to my side of the table. After all, Paul writes that our overwhelming conquest is accomplished “through him who loved us” and not through my good nature or my iron will or straight-shooting determination. Since Christ’s love never fails, it follows that all the failures must be mine alone. But even here—right in the center of my failures—I find Christ, abiding, faithful, always eager to forgive. How much more then must I guard against letting my love grow cold?

Jesus says to the disciples, “See that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will deceive many.” Exactly how important is it for us not to be deceived by false Christs? If Paul is right when he writes to the Romans that our overwhelming conquest of persecution and trial comes through the love God has from us, then it is vitally important that we not let ourselves be deceived by wolves dressed as shepherds. How then are we deceived? Jesus and Paul both hint at an answer. Jesus says that as deceitful gospels are offered by the false prophets, evil-doing increases and “the love of many will grow cold.” But Paul notes that nothing will separate us from the love of Christ—not anguish, distress, persecution, peril, or the sword. Who is right? Will our love grow cold in deception or will we never be separated in Christ’s love? Both.

Cold love is still love. Weak, easily lead astray, prone to evil though it is. This is the love we have for Christ when things get scary for us as lovers of Christ. However, it is Christ’s love for us that never grows cold, never waivers, or blinks. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” So, Paul is telling us that in our worst moments, Christ is always with us. While Jesus is telling us that when we are most tempted to fail by following false prophets, we know our love for him has gone cold.

But what can a false prophet preach that will turn our fervor into stone? He can preach that our salvation is our own work and not Christ’s. He can preach that our worries are God’s punishments for sin, or that we are hungry, sick, imperiled because God is bringing judgment against us. He can preach that there is someone else who intercedes for us before the throne of God rather than Christ alone. He can preach that God’s kingdom is present in some political system or religious organization, or that our faith must be invested in human justice, or the good works of a few. He can preach that the Church born at Pentecost is not the Body of Christ but an institution, a man-made association made for man. Most viciously, he can preach that death was not conquered on the Cross and lead us to believe that all we have is the moment, this day, and nothing more.

How do we persevere? Remember: “if God is for us, who can be against us?...It is God who acquits us. Who will condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us. What will separate us from the love of Christ?” No one, no thing. Nothing, nothing at all.

29 June 2008

What is a homily?

I was in my campus office this evening packing things up and getting all of my personal files off the company computer, and I ran across this blog post of mine from Dec. 31, 2005. I read it and wondered if things have changed all that much in three years!

Mechanics of a Homily

Several readers have written asking me to explain what a “homily” is, meaning, I think, that they want to know what a homily is supposed to do in the liturgy. I’ve directed them to relevant church documents, etc. but I think the question deserves a more direct answer. In the comment boxes on Jimmy Akin's site I listed off a few things that parishioners could look/listen for in a homily so that they could give Father constructive feedback. I made a dramatic plea for the Catholic faithful to hold priests to high standards of preaching. The bottom-line is quite simple: if you don’t care about the quality of the homily, Father isn’t going to spend much of his rapidly dwindling time on quality preparation. He needs to know that you think it’s a priority!

Q: What is a homily?

A: Let’s start with what it ISN'T

* several stories of dubious humor strung together with a “moral” tacked on

* a pep talk, an appeal for money, an update on parish construction, or a book review

* a report on Father’s last visit to his shrink/therapist/spiritual director

* a stump speech, a rousing call to political arms, a psychology/sociology lecture

* an academic essay on Things Theological-Philosophical-Scriptural

* a love-letter to big money donors

* 8-15 unscripted minutes of the Mass where Father gets to show the crowd what a great guy he is by blowing off the homily!

…so, what IS a homily?

* a liturgical device of Speaking the Word, giving the Word of God voice for today

* authentic, authoritative instruction in the living faith of the Church

* an exhortation to communal and personal holiness, encouragement in the face of despair

* an “unpacking” of the readings in a way that addresses real problems of faith

* a liturgical device for raising questions, suggesting answers, stirring up trouble, getting into fights

Q: How is a homily prepared/written?

A: Every preacher is different, of course. I can give you a brief outline of how I do it:

I read the lectionary readings about a week ahead of time to see what strikes me. I usually mumble to myself about how dull the reading is or how I’ll never squeeze anything out of THAT text or how we just had that reading two weeks ago, etc. Then I will read it again a few days later—having forgotten it by then—and something will strike me as odd/weird/brilliant/curious. I will grab a commentary to check on any cultural references or historical oddities, and then I will begin to pose a question or a problem to tackle. I will locate the readings in a Bible (I own five different English translations!) and look at “where” the readings are in the larger narrative. This almost always gives me something to work with in the homily. All this time, I am praying for inspiration, for insight. I don’t write a word of my homily until the morning of the day it is to be preached. I am a morning person, so I’m up at 4:30am, coffee in hand, ready to roll! Weekday homilies are 550-650 words, Sunday homilies are twice that.

What’s basic, I think, to any good homily is an application of the readings to real, contemporary problems. I don’t mean to suggest that the homily needs to be a “fix-it” talk where the priest gives the assembly quick and easy DIY solutions to complex problems; however, the homily can be a great way for the preacher to raise issues, questions, problems that are common to his parish/ministry and show how the readings and the tradition might help to address them. This means, of course, that a good preacher is listening, listening, listening to what’s troubling God’s faithful.

I always try to do the following in every homily…

* preach the gospel in front of me, not the gospel I think the congregation wants to hear, or the gospel that will get me the fewest complaints, or the gospel that will get me the most compliments!

* include a humorous story if there’s one that’s truly relevant (I’m a Southerner born and bred, so I exaggerate like I breath—loudly and on a regular basis.)

* use an image, a phrase, or a line from ALL four readings; the Psalms, sadly, often get shortchanged

* preaching is an oral form, so I write for oral presentation: lots repetition, alliteration, “unpacking,” and frequent use of language from the readings, the liturgy of the day, and the tradition

* say something truly challenging and maybe even unnerving! (I’m a Dominican, so I am not particularly inclined to spoon feed folks religious pabulum or feel-good psychobabble just to keep things sweet.)

* I am downright tenacious about preaching the following: a) the universal call to holiness; b). our salvation understood as our divinization; c) our salvation as an undeserved, unmerited, totally FREE gimme from God; d) our responsibilities to the Body of Christ as members of the Body of the Christ; e) the need for true humility before the authority of the Church to teach the authentic faith; f) the absolutely indispensable necessity of a powerful private and common prayer life (cf. CCC Part IV), and g) our responsibilities in revealing Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to one another!

Q: What needs work?

A: I read my homilies from prepared texts. This will never change. It can’t. I am tied to language as a writer, a poet, an English teacher, etc. I just can’t let go of the text and preach “off the cuff.” I will ramble, jabber on for an hour, wander around until someone chunks a hymnal at me. I need to practice more so I can be more engaging with the assembly and not so glued to the paper. I’ve been told that I talk too fast—and I’m a Southerner! And that my homilies are too complex for just listening, thus the blog site for those who want to read them. I’m always wrong about my homilies too—just about every time I think I’ve preached a real dud, I get lots of great feedback. And when I think I’ve preached a real winner—nothing, nada, crickets chirping. Oh well.

Comments? Comments from other preachers particularly welcomed!!

[So, whatta think? Am I following my own rules?]

Downright 'ornery

SS. Peter and Paul: Acts 12.1-11; 2 Tim 4.6-8, 17-18; Matt 16.13-19
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Paul Hospital
, Dallas, TX

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Peter, inspired by God, given a revelation, a view of God’s face, answers Jesus when he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” You are the Christ. You are the Son of the living God. Peter alone among the gathered disciples answers. Peter alone is given this revelation. Peter alone is blessed as the son of Jonah, the only one of flesh and blood to see clearly the truth of the Word of Made Flesh. He is the first to preach the name and face of our salvation. And in virtue of this unique privilege, Jesus the Christ says to him, “You are Peter, upon this rock I will build my Church…I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven…” Born of the Spirit at Pentecost, safeguarded against the assaults of the netherworld, and anointed as a prophetic body, the Church lives with Peter even now as a thriving witness, as a testimony to the love our Father has for us. Because of Peter’s faith, we are the Body of Christ alive and well in the 21st century; and alive and well well-into 21st we will remain. Despite our fundamental health and the promise of the Spirit to abide with us always, we are faced daily with attacks from the netherworld, both small and great, assaults on our foundation and our frame. How do we survive? How do we thrive?

The martyrdoms of Peter and Paul in Rome are perhaps the most egregious examples we have of how our enemy uses its secular political power to attack the Church. King Herod sees the pleasure James’ execution brings to the Jewish leadership, and so he plots to arrest Peter. Paul, despite his vigor and determination, and despite his Roman citizenship and deep connections to the Jewish community, is persecuted by both the State and the Temple. He speaks the Word plainly and without flinching and dies for his mission. Why would the King, the Emperor, the Chief Priest be threatened by these men? Why would those who wield the power of the throne, the empire, and the temple see these men as threats to their way of life, their power and prestige? Peter and Paul did little more than travel the known-world preaching a simple gospel of repentance and Godly love. Without armies, money, or influence, what power could either man bring against the rulers of their world?

What the enemy knows and we often forget is that the Church is the living Body of Christ, the breathing Body of the Son of the living God. We are not an institution. We are not a community of allegiance. We are not a convenient organization for charitable work. Nor are we a social club, a religious market, or a school for moral instruction. And though we are certainly a society of vowed believers, we are more than a gathered family, praying together during a communal meal. In fact, if we restrict the Church to her function and utility, we become nothing more than an terribly inefficient means of redistributing our members’ wealth, time, and talent for the meager good of others. Would you die eagerly for a social service club? How about dying for a largely wasteful and embarrassingly messy neighborhood association? Would you die for your family, your living faith?

Peter and Paul stand at the beginning of our history as both a promise of growth and a warning of death. Their lives of service to the preaching of the gospel records tremendous successes and abject failures. In their day to day struggle against the onslaught of the netherworld, they called upon the help of the Lord, fully expecting, though not always without some doubt, that the Lord would give them whatever they needed to accomplish his commission to them. The prayer of their brothers and sisters sustained them in the most horrible of persecutions. They knew that the Body of Christ lived and that that Body lifted them up, stood them up, before the Lord as great men of faith and endurance. Luke, in his Acts, tells us: “Peter was being kept in prison, but prayer by the church was fervently being made to God on his behalf.” Paul writes to Timothy, “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength…And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.” That the Lord was with these men in their suffering was not only enough for their immediate survival and rescue but also sufficient for their perfection in heroic virtue. They live because Christ lives in them.

What did these men preach that threatened the powers of this world? What did they do to merit execution? Earlier we noted that they did nothing more than preach and teach a gospel of repentance and Godly love. Hardly sedition or treason. Why would a message of repentance and Godly love shake the Roman Empire and the Temple? Like their master these men brought down on the heads of those who ruled them in this world a condemnation, a declaration against their disobedience to the Word of God. Preaching and teaching a message of divine mercy threatened the state’s power by urging those who would listen to forgive offenses, to eschew vengeance, and seek forgiveness rather than redress. Preaching and teaching a message of divine love threatened the temple’s power by urging those who would listen to forego temple sacrifice, to ignore hypocritical clergy, to seek out the Father’s love in one’s neighbor. What judge in a court of law or priest in the temple wants to hear that his fundamental purpose is obsolete, completed in the coming, dying, and rising of one man? These two, Peter and Paul, and those who followed them, shook the foundations of their world with a Word: “Christ.”

In our own time, we are challenged as the Body of Christ with the difficult commission of living in a world diseased with relativism, subjectivism, narcissism, neglect of the young and old, the sick and dying, the poor and the oppressed. In our own time, we are presented by our rulers with the options of either living our lives of faith in private, or seeing the Church legally excluded from the public arena. In our own time, we are betrayed from within by those who would see us play fair with the enemy by preaching and teaching a gospel fraught with compromise and falsehood. In our own time, we are faced with the choice of either keeping our baptismal vows to serve the Lord without flinching, or to serve the enemy by retreating back into disobedience and cowardly concession. Knowing this, we can fall into a paralyzing despair, or we can give God thanks for placing us in a world in desperate need of His love. Regardless, the work of Christ’s Body, the Church, is the same now as it was 2,000 years ago: preach the gospel as Christ himself preached it. We can preach the Good News. Or we can play the devil’s game by his rules. We cannot do both. It was this stubbornness in holding up the truth that accompanied Peter and Paul to deaths.

I do not intend to sound like a blaring car alarm this morning, wailing insistently that some thug is breaking into the Church to steal our goodies. There is a time and place for subtly in our preaching, in our daily witness; in fact, the subtle witness of quietly loving God by serving our neighbor is perhaps the best way to show Christ’s face to those who need see God’s mercy. However, when confronted as we are with a world increasingly hostile to the gift of life and the possibility of eternal salvation, we cannot break the essential bond between our baptism into Christ and our witness inside and outside the Church. And so, we need to be reminded that we do not preach a theology, a philosophy, a therapeutic method, a political platform, or even a religious practice. We preach Christ—his life among us, his death for us, and his rising again to bring us to the Father. There is nothing else for the Church to say to the world and to herself than this: repent of your disobedience and come to Christ.

Though none of us here will likely see martyrdom preaching the Good News, our brothers and sisters all over the world are dying for Christ, suffering for the sake of his gospel. The empire of this world will not tolerate a black and white message of repentance and forgiveness. It will tolerate nothing less than the Church’s total unconditional assimilation into its chaotic celebration of choice, utility, and death. This we cannot do and remain the Body of Christ. Therefore, like Paul, we must keep the faith, run the race, and come to God perfected in His love alone.