30 June 2007

Wherever you go, I will follow. . .

13th Sunday OT: 1 Kings 19.16-21; Gal 5.1, 13-18; Luke 9.51-62
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Luke’s Parish, Irving, TX (Vigil Mass) & St Paul's Hospital


Go and proclaim the Kingdom of God! I say, then: live by the Spirit! Go, follow Christ, and live by the Spirit! Well, what are you waiting for? Go! This command is like Jesus’ command to us to love one another. If I were yell at you: Go and buy me peanut butter! Or, Go, follow the bus, and visit Houston! Well, you would know what to do, right? You have some idea of what it is I’m yelling at you to do. But when Paul yells at the Galatians: “I say, then: live by the Spirit!” and Jesus says, “Go and proclaim the Kingdom of God!”—do we have any idea what they are yelling at us to do? Maybe we have some vague notions about doing good deeds and going to Mass and making sure other people know we’re Catholic. Or, maybe we think that it means to do something really strange like joining a monastery or becoming a nun or a priest or starting to have visions of Mary or St. Agnes in the shrubs. Probably not what Paul and Jesus had in mind. So, what do they want us to do when they tell us to follow Christ, live in the Spirit, and proclaim the Kingdom of God?

How easy would it be for me to let us all off the hook here and repeat the predictable? Let me pump you up with the sweet air and tasty bits of religious cliché—to follow Christ, live in the Spirit, and proclaim the Kingdom of God are all just matters of the heart—right intention, good feelings, sweetness and light, and basically, just being a swell guy or gal. Or, I could really let you off the hook and tell you that following Christ, living in the Spirit, and proclaiming the Kingdom are all big tasks that require a lot of work and time and organization; so, tell you what: let the pros worry about it—the priests and lay ministers—and you just show up here every Sunday, do your Mass-thing, and go home as if nothing happened. Sorry. Can’t do that. Paul and Jesus are teaching us something very different. . .

Paul, quoting Jesus, reminds the Galatians that “the whole of the law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Then he tells them to live in the Spirit so as to not “gratify the desire of the flesh.” What is this desire? First, “desire” is a kind of lacking; a wanting and not having, a longing for a promised completion or fulfillment. (Paul is most likely talking about inordinate sexual desire here.) He continues, “…the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh…” What is a desire of the Spirit? Most basically, this desire is a longing to be with God forever; to be brought back to Him free and whole.

Now, you might come away from this teaching believing that Paul is arguing for a kind of dualism: flesh vs. Spirit; body vs. soul. No. He doesn’t say that the flesh and Spirit oppose one another. He says that the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit oppose one another. These opposing desires prevent you from doing what you want to do. And who are you? You are body and soul, flesh and spirit. One person, undivided; one will, one intellect. And if in one person there is a battle between the disordered and well-ordered desires of both body and Spirit then that person is a slave. Thank God that “for freedom Christ set us free”!

Living in the Spirit is at once perfectly simple and immensely complex. Perfectly simple b/c all we have to do is become Christ for one another. Easy cheesy. Just become Christ! Living in the Spirit is immensely complex b/c we have to become Christ for one another. Very difficult. Becoming Christ is perfectly simple b/c we are brought to that transformation in baptism. But becoming Christ is immensely difficult b/c we must continue to cooperate with the gift of baptism all our lives. If you are consumed by a conflict between the desires of your flesh and the desires of your Spirit, how capable are you of cooperating with God’s baptismal graces? This is why Paul teaches the Galatians: “…do not use this freedom [the freedom to cooperate with God’s grace in Christ] as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.” Love being, of course, the Spirit—the Holy Spirit, the love the Father and Son have for one another, the creating and redeeming passion that made us, saves us, and feeds us.

So, if you will be guided by the Spirit, you must follow Christ! Excellent. I’ll follow Christ. What does that mean? As Jesus and the disciples were proceeding to Jerusalem, Someone says to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” To another Someone along the way, Jesus says, “Follow me.” And then Another One further along says, “I will follow you, Lord. . .” To the first Someone Jesus replies, “…the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Translation: following me ain’t easy—it’s work and hard work and long hours and rest comes only with death; there’s no “time off” or “vacation” from Becoming Christ for One Another. The second Someone answers Jesus, “I will follow, but let me go first and bury my father.” Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” Translation: right now is the time to follow; there is no postponement, no hesitation; do not wait until this and that and all those things are done; the dead are dead, Become Christ for the living now! Then the last Someone promises Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord” but then he hesitates, “but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” And Jesus says to him: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom.” Translation: if you will do my work here and now, you must do my work Here and Now; leave behind what cannot or will not come with you. To those of us along the way to Jerusalem—to the cross and the empty tomb—to those of us along the Way who say, “I will follow you, Lord, but I must go and do this or that first,” Jesus says, “I am First. If you will follow me, I am First. If you will live in my Spirit, I am First. If you will proclaim my kingdom, I am First.”

Living in the Spirit is the day to day struggle to be free from the slavery of sin. To live free in Christ is to be guided by Love, that is, to be directed, constantly poked and prodded, by your redeemed desire to live with God forever—to serve each another with one heart and one mind; graciously sacrificing for friends and enemies alike; drowning in prayer, breathing God’s Word, breaking his body and drinking his blood; becoming, here and now, Christ for others. If you will say to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord” do so without regret, hesitation, without burden, or debt; do so shamelessly, eagerly, without guile or presumption; do so immediately, full-throated with arms spread, without fear or foreboding; not looking back, but falling head-long and free into the field, taking on his yoke and proclaiming first with every breath, first with every muscle and every drop of sweat: Christ is Lord! And his kingdom is at hand!

29 June 2007

Living in God

From the English translation of M.-D. Chenu’s Aquinas and His Role in Theology we find this absolutely beautiful description of our relationship to God:

“When God’s mercy and friendship are revealed to us as the real abundance of sheer generosity that they are, we are overwhelmed: our religious feeling reaches a high point, and we can only respond with the gift of our heart. The more God is revealed to us in a communion of life, the more this feeling of God’s being “totally other” grows. We become vividly conscious of the disproportion between Creator and creature in the very midst of an experience of unity. Even the most childlike trust carries with it a rush of emotion at being so greatly loved. But the point is this, that religion in it exterior worship and its interior oblation is dilated and as it were straightway transported onto another plane (without putting our indebtedness to God out of the picture). It becomes no longer a question of living for God, but of living in God—or better, living a divine life. No more is the issue how properly to relate to God (which always remains a fact of life, of course), but how to commune with God”(38).

I read this book for a class in seminary some five years ago. At the time, I remember thinking that it was extremely mushy theologically and probably dangerous spiritually. Chenu’s take on Aquinas’ teachings on grace made a bit queasy b/c Chenu seemed to want to downplay the efficacious nature of the sacraments in imparting divine favor. Reading this book again, I can see how wrong I was AND—most astonishing for me—how much Chenu (in this book anyway) has deeply influenced my own preaching about grace, faith, and our final end in God, divinization.

I highly recommend the book for those who know enough about Thomism not to get lost in the terminology but who still want something challenging, something to make them reach a little beyond the ordinary in Aquinas studies.

The English text is translated from the French by my Dominican brother, Fr. Paul Philibert, OP

28 June 2007

The Devil's Straw Men

From David B. Hart's First Things review of Daniel Dennet's latest anti-religious mash, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon:

"All Dennett knows is that something he dreads haunts the world, something intolerant and violent and irrational, and he wants to conjure it away. This, of course, raises the now quite hoary-headed question of how, in the wake of the twentieth century, the committed secularist dare wax either sanctimonious toward faith or sanguine toward secular reason, but Dennett is not one to pause before doubts of that sort. He is certain there is some single immense thing out there called religion, and that by its very nature it endangers us all and ought as a whole to be abolished. This being so, it is probably less important to him that his argument be good than that, for purely persuasive purposes, it appear to be grounded in irrefutable science-which it can never be."

Hart captures my own view that the latest spate of "scientific" attacks on religious belief are more or less screeds pouring irrationally from prejudice. Dennett, Hitchens, Dawkins, ad. nau. never seem to be debunking anything that even closely resembles the God of Christianity. It is as if they've read a comic book of the Crusades and decided that this piece of infallible literature is the true and only testament of the faith. No wonder they've spent their adult lives babbling on about the evils of religion. Of course, when you live with Straw Men you tend to find them to be itchy after a time and not good conversationalists at all. . .

David B. Hart is the author of The Beauty of the Infinite, 2003.

Pic credit: Measuring Infinity

27 June 2007

Wolves and Prophets

12th Week OT (W): Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18 and Matthew 7.15-20
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Albert the Great Priory


[NB. I don’t like this homily, or should I say “homilies.” There are at least three homilies here! I’m posting it anyway. . .]

Abram worries that he will have no heirs. God assures him that he will have his own children as heirs. Taking Abram outside, God tells him that his descendants will be as countless as the stars. Abram places his trust in the Lord who “credits it to him as an act of righteousness.” Abram’s faith is for us, the Church, the good tree that bears good fruit. Root, trunk, branch, and leaf, Abram’s covenant with the Lord is deeply planted in an act of surrender, a giving-over of his plans, his needs, his wants, everything that might mitigate against the fullest possible embrace of the Lord’s will for himself and his descendants. Abram not only receives from the Lord the land and a nation and a people, he also receives from the Lord a revelation of the divine, an unveiling of “I AM.” And this revelation, this unveiling of what we cannot know otherwise, remains with us in the preaching and teaching of Jesus Christ—handed on through the ordinary and extraordinary ministry of the magisterium, the teaching office of the Church.

Jesus warns his disciples against false prophets. Who are these false prophets? Prophets are called by God to be His voice among His people. Prophets are called and given a vision of perfection, a glimpse into the fulfillment of our human history. Then they are told to look carefully at their tribe or nation or people or church and compare the fulfilled vision with the reality of who we are right now. Glaring failures in charity, hope, obedience, trust, fidelity to the mission, all of these are fodder for the prophet. And he or she is called to point to the ideal and tell us in clarion notes: “We have strayed! Let’s get back on track, get back to bearing good fruit!”

A prophet called by God to restore His people to fidelity in the covenant cannot preach or teach against the apostolic faith or in any way attempt to undermine the legitimate authority of the Church in defining and defending the “handed on” revelation that Abram won by faith so long ago. There is nothing “prophetic” about an obstinate refusal to listen to the magisterial office of the Church. There is nothing “prophetic” in assuming a suspicious critical stance when reading and teaching magisterial documents. And there is nothing “prophetic” in presuming to hold the office of prophet for the Church w/o the Church’s participation in the selection. In other words, I don’t get to decide (contra ecclesia) that I am a Prophet. I cannot be for the whole Church, in the name of the Church, that which the Church has not authorized me to be.

Who are these wolves? Well, who claims to teach the faith yet will not accept ecclesial authority in defining the faith? Who sets him or herself up as an “alternative magisterium,” as a rival to the apostolic ministry of our bishops? Who abuses their ecclesial authority for personal gain or the promotion of allies or the destruction of enemies? Who steps into the shoes of an apostle only to lust for a bigger and more prestigous pair? Who will not serve the least, or protect the innocent? Who lifts up his or her idiosyncratic theological views as the truth of the faith, or promotes w/o the benefit of Tradition his or her eccentric readings of scripture as authoritative? The list could go on and the list could easily include me, you, all of us at some point!

Jesus is not asking us to hunt the ravenous wolves among us. We must pay attention to them to keep track of them. Our most fundamental task is preaching the gospel as the Church has handed it on to us. We do this well when we surrender pretension, guile, pride, the need for approval, and disobedience. We preach the gospel best when we use our God-given gifts to explore His revelation to us: in creation, scripture, and in Christ himself. But we cannot preach the gospel at all outside the Body that is Christ’s church. When you see or hear a wolf in sheep’s clothing, tag him or her. Watch carefully. But remember: bearing good fruit is more important than hunting wolves.

Pic Credit: Osmo Rauhala

25 June 2007

Of eyes, judges, and splinters

12th Week OT (M) Genesis 12.1-9 and Matthew 7.1-5
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Albert the Great Priory


Do not judge! Don’t judge me! Who are you to judge? You are being judgmental. Let’s suspend all judgments and just share our feelings without fear of being contradicted. Judge not lest you be judged. What do we do when we judge? Quite apart from the spiritual narrative of judgment in this gospel, when we perform “judgment,” what are we doing? Sometimes we are simply evaluating the desirability of a thing’s or person’s qualities—do I like this wine, this sweater, this book, this woman? When we choose the white wine and not the red, the vest and not the sweater; the novel and not the non-fiction, the woman and not her sister, we are involved in judgment. Weighing all available evidence against a preconceived set of criteria, we all make judgments about our relative safety in a dark parking lot; the street where we want to go running; the level of intimacy to shoot for on a first date; which university to attend given money, reputation, etc. Making judgments is something we do like we breathe!

And yet, Jesus says, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as your judge, so will you be judged…” In a sentence, Jesus turns making judgments into the dirty habit of the hypocrite! And then he turns on the hypocrite and tells him to get his own life together before he starts running around fixing everyone else’s life. So, now we have to be morally perfect—“See, Ma, no splinters!”—before we can help others find and pull the splinters from their eyes? How exactly are we supposed to correct one another when we sin? How do I fraternally correct one of my Dominican brothers if Jesus is telling us not to judge?

Read but little commented on in this passage is this question: “Why do you notice the splinter on your brother’s eye?” The rest of that sentence we know well: “But you do not notice the wooden beam in your own eye?” Do we normally notice that first “notice”? Other translators render the verb as “see,” “observe,” “look,” and “consider.” Here we have intent. Focused will. There is in the hypocrite’s heart a need, a desire to find fault, to seek out, find, and hold on to the flaws and imperfections in others. When you see you do more than look. When you consider you do more than look. You are in search of. . .splinters in your neighbor’s eye and this is a problem for Jesus.

It is simply not the case that when Jesus teaches us not to make judgments, he is teaching us to avoid evaluating potentially destructive attitudes and behaviors. It is simply not the case that the often tossed-off line, “Judge not lest ye be judged” means, in effect, “You cannot tell me that my beliefs or attitudes or behaviors are immoral or heretical b/c Jesus said not to judge. Therefore, all my beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are OK.” In other words, b/c you can’t judge me, anything I believe to be true is true. This is a serious misunderstanding of this passage.

What is it then that Jesus is warning us not to do? We are not to use the bad behavior of others as an excuse for our own bad behavior. We are not to focus on the faults of others to the point where we cannot see our own faults. I am not to argue that Br. X.’s correction of my bad behavior is wrong b/c his bad behaviors are far worse than mine. In other words, my bad behavior doesn’t magically become good behavior simply b/c a badly behaving friend points out my bad behavior.

And to end on a point of absolute clarity: there is nothing in this teaching that prohibits the charitable exercise of fraternal correction. Jesus is teaching us not to allow an obsession with another person’s sin to distract us from our own sin. Get your sin taken care of and then offer your charitable, fraternal assistance to others. Always, always, always remember: presume that grace is working in us all. To fail in that is to fail in charity twice.

24 June 2007

Worth the Wait, or unstick your tongue

Nativity of John the Baptist: Isa 49.1-6; Acts 13.22-26; Luke 1.57-66, 80
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul
, Dallas, TX

Isaiah gives us plenty of warning: He is given his name in the womb and called from birth. He is a sharp blade, a polished arrow, a servant—hiding in the shadow of the Lord’s mighty arm: waiting. This servant’s strength is the Lord’s strength. And he is made glorious in the Lord’s sight. The Lord says that he is too glorious now to be a servant, and so the Lord raises him up to be “a light to the nation, that [the Lord’s] salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The Lord releases him from servitude into Servanthood—no longer a slave in his body alone, he is now—raised up and released—a servant in his body and soul, a servant for us: to serve us; to teach us servanthood to show us how to kneel on the brittle back of pride; and if we are still following him, he will teach us how to obey until death and how to offer ourselves as sacrifice on a cross. Our servant is a polished blade and a sharp-edged arrow. He comes to cut our bonds and to pierce our hearts.

Then he sends another herald to tell us everything we need to know. The Christ is coming. Repent and be baptized. Our Father sends to His God-fearing children a whole world of salvation! Of course, John the Herald understood his place in this cosmic drama when he leapt in his mother’s womb during Mary’s visit while she was still pregnant with Jesus. John recognized his purpose immediately; he knew instantly that his Job in Life was only a few months behind him. John, though not the polished blade itself, polishes the blade. Though he is not the sharp-edged arrow itself, he sharpens the tip. Though he cannot save all of creation in the shedding of his own blood, he makes sure that as many people as possible know that Jesus, the Messiah, can and will. He prepares the way for the Way and dies ignobly as a martyr on the whim of a gouty king goaded-on by a scorned stripper.

St Augustine argues in a sermon for today, “John…appears as the boundary between the two testaments, the old and the new. That he is a sort of boundary the Lord himself bears witness, when he speaks of the law and the prophets up until John the Baptist. Thus he represents times past and is the herald of the new era to come.” Like all prophets and priests, John is a liminal figure, that is, a person who “stands between,” reaching into both sides, fully occupying neither, influencing both, but, finally, belonging to death alone. Liminality is too hard on the faithful heart; it stretches the muscle and beats back reason—“to stand between” too long is to commit to nothing. John’s ministry in the desert, baptizing with water anyone who came forward, prepared a population for the coming of the Lord; he prepared them by setting them firmly in the doorway, right between water baptism and the coming fire of the spirit. Their liminality, our own “betweenness,” right now, today, is about waiting—patience, endurance, fidelity, and courage.

There is a sacred vigilance to our faith. That sort of commitment to truth that weights down every doubt; calms every nervous fact; holds at bay every sticky interpretation and guess, while waiting for more weighty doubt. Faith, then, is not a narcotic escape from What Is, some sort of irrational means of collapsing truths into mere beliefs; nor is faith a virtual joyride through an emotionally jam-packed church-circus. Faith is not an exercise in willful knowing or patient guessing or even our own version of trusting that someone else is right. Faith is God trusting first and then making it possible for us to trust Him. Look at David and John. God says of David, “he is a man after my own heart; he will carry out my every wish.” Of John, Paul writes, “John heralded [Christ’s] coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.” John never played Messiah; he always pointed away from himself and toward Jesus: “Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.” John’s dedication to his call, his fidelity to the ministry given to him in the womb is a testimony to the fact that faith is not about believing ENOUGH. Or even believing NOW. Faith is about believing PERSISTENTLY—always, over and over; holding on to His promise; saying YES to his call; always, over and over again; being there, steady, fastened, loyal; doing his work in patience; always, over and over, one more time, over and over. You cannot believe “enough,” meaning that there is no correct “amount” of belief or faith that matters. What will name you His servant is a deep faith exercised for His glory consistently over time.

Look at Mary and Elizabeth. Do you think they were able to accept the weirdnesses thrust upon them w/o a persistent faith, an enduring trust in the Lord? Imagine if the Spirit had appeared to them on a “bad faith day” and asked the virgin to get pregnant w/o a husband’s assistance and then told the barren crone that she would be pregnant soon as well! Is there enough faith in heaven and on earth to make these ridiculous announcements appealing? NO! Mary and Elizabeth though a bit flustered never lose their composure. They know what all the priests and prophets know: deeply planted in every body and soul created by the Lord is a plan for moving forward. And part of that plan is about looking back to find out who you are, who it is that will be moving forward.

I am fully convinced that the most insidious spiritual problem facing the Church today is the lose of our sense of ourselves as Christs for one another. I think most of us “get” the idea of the Body of Christ. We belong to other clubs and groups that use similar images. We seem to get the idea of self-esteem. Though as a nation we have never been more anxious and depressed. We get success, advancement, popularity, wealth/health; and, we even get the idea of selfless sacrifice on occasion. What we don’t seem to understand as members of the Church is our identities as Christ. As Christs, we have a heritage, a lineage, a claim on the Son’s inheritance; we have a kingdom, we have eternal life. Jesus needed his herald, John, b/c he was coming into his kingdom for the first time. We don’t need heralds b/c we wake up in his kingdom everyday—not the kingdom fully revealed, of course, but the swelling possibilities of each hour reach for us and beg us to bring his throne room just that much closer. Serve one another, serve the least of his and draw that throne inch by inch closer to a terran stool, a new heaven and new earth.

John announces to the nations that our Messiah is coming. With polished sword and sharpened arrow, he will cut our bonds and pierce our hearts. One frees us from sin, the other enslaves us to Christ—the only state of true freedom! Elizabeth’s obedience in freedom gave us John. Mary’s obedience in freedom gave us Christ. Zechariah’s obedience in freedom unstuck his tongue, and he gave his son a name. Each stood at a limit, a threshold, and each reached up to God. That’s not enough faith. It is persistent faith, enduring trust. And out of trust the Lord will call you to be a light to the nations! So, unstick your tongue and declare before the world the glory of God!

And be prepared to wait.

Wait with fidelity.

Wait with courage.

Just wait.


Image Credit: Abraham Brewster