20 June 2008

Christ our Holy Alka-Seltzer

11th Week OT(F): 2 Kings 11.1-4, 9-18, 20 and Matthew 6.19-23
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation (Serra Club)

In the dark, we can lift a lamp to light our way. Or, just flip on the lights and go about our business. Either way we see the way to go. . .unless our eyes are bad, and then the light becomes less and less helpful. If our eyes are completely dark, then the light is no help at all. Jesus takes this line of thought one step further and adds, “And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be.” It makes perfectly good sense to say that if one is blind, then light itself will be of no help in seeing. This simple fact of seeing also makes perfectly good sense translated into a spiritual truth: if you are willfully spiritually blind, unwilling to see the light of Christ, to use his light for your good, then no amount of his light will help you see. But what does Jesus mean when he says, “…if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be”? How can light be darkness? And why will that darkness be so great?

We have to back up just a bit and rehearse a familiar teaching about the loves of the heart. Jesus teaches us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. . .for where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” Entrusting your heart—the tabernacle of the Lord you carry with you everyday—, entrusting that fleshy ark of the covenant to the world is a dangerous gamble, a risk beyond the value of any possible payoff. Rather, store what you most value in heaven, give your heart to God and prize beyond the world the treasures of His love and mercy. These moths and decay cannot touch and thieves cannot steal. And remember the warning of the Psalmist: you become what you love most.

With the warning of the Psalmist ringing in your ears—“you become what you love most”—let’s listen again to Jesus’ caution: “…if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be.” Shut your eyes to the assistance of the light and become willfully blind—“your whole body will be in the darkness.” Make the darkness your light, in other words, “see” with a dark heart, blinded eyes, and the darkness you welcome into your heart will be great indeed. If you love the darkness more than the light, you will become the darkness. And all you will ever see is night.

It makes sense for us then to ask, how does darkness become our light? Another way to approach this question is to ask the question our brother Thomas Aquinas answered: how do we become fools? How do the otherwise wise lose wisdom and entertain folly, becoming fools along the way? Thomas says: one sin after another begins to twist our gift to choose the Good, to twist this gift so that we come to see Evil as Good and choose Evil as the Good, and we do so over and over again until we have lost the gift to distinguish Good from Evil. In other words, just as growing in holiness means consistently choosing to do the Good (virtue), dying in darkness mean consistently choosing to do Evil (vice). The real irony of our vicious decline is that we almost always feel entitled to the evils we choose, rightfully given the vices we have acquired, and duty-bound to follow the foolish path to our deaths. Walking down a hill easily turns to running down the hill, which quite easily turns into stumbling then falling then wrecking against the merciless stone. How much sadder, more despairing is it to stumble, fall, and wreck against the stone in miserable darkness, wholly alone with your folly?

Who lives in the tabernacle of your heart? What treasures have you stored there? Think of your heart as a large, slowly dissolving mass, a giant lump that fizzes away, feeding your body and soul and then growing again only to begin again to dissolve slowly. Is your heart—the seat of your wisdom from God—nourishing your body or polluting it? Feeding you bright light and life? Or dark-night and death?

Since our Lord sent his Spirit at Pentecost to give birth to his Church, we have remembered his constant presence among us in this sacrificial meal of Thanksgiving. Renewing the food of life in us, our hearts grow wiser, stronger, more loving, and even more merciful. Store up Christ in your hearts and let him fizz away in that tabernacle of yours, making you his more and more and more. What treasure is worth more than God Himself reigning supreme in the hub of everything you are?

17 June 2008

Being Better Monsters

10th Week OT(T): 1 Kings 21.17-29 and Matthew 5.43-48
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Are we an unusual people? An extraordinary people? Christians, I mean, are we strange? Jesus instructs his disciples to do weird things all the time. Forgive hurts. Heal the sick. Turn the other cheek. Die for the faith. Weird stuff that normal people don’t do. He says repeatedly, “You have heard it said. . .but I say. . .” He seems to be going out of his way to teach us to be freaks living among the ordinary. Even our early history as a people of faith bears this out. Early on we were accused of being misfits. We refused to do perfectly mundane things like worship the emperor, prostitute our children, pay our taxes, marry only once. All of these and more seem designed to tattoo our foreheads: ODDBALL or MONSTER. At a time when folks were rewarded for doing what everyone did and being exactly what everyone else was, standing out at the temple, the marketplace, the baths as a sign of nonconformity was not only annoying to the Normals but downright dangerous for the eccentrics. This sort of unwanted attention could mean torture and death for the Christian. There were simply too many good reasons to hate a disciple of Jesus. Why add yet another gallon of fuel to our enemy’s fire? The problem, essentially, is the Christian pursuit of perfection. No one likes a perfectionist, especially a perfectionist who preaches perfection.

Once again we come upon Jesus instructing his disciples to be living, breathing signs of His Father’s perfection. Doing the Law is just fine for those who are content to move through their lives as unfulfilled creatures of Love Himself. As difficult as it was to carry out the Law, doing so could lead the determined to a life of extraordinary purity. But this wasn’t enough for Jesus. He demanded something more from those who would pick up a cross and follow him. Just as he came to bring the Law to its full potential as a spiritual path, so we too are expected to see through the letters of the Law to its soul, to the life of sacrifice and mercy that being a child of God demands. On those occasions when we manage this herculean feat, we look like the freaks that we have vowed to be. So, where’s your tattoo? Where do you keep the badge that marks you as a monster?

From the first century document called the “Didache” to Clement’s letters to the Corinthians and on through Justin’s defense of the faith and Ireaneus’ “Work Against the Heretics,” we have been marked out as cannibals, sexual perverts, unpatriotic draft and tax-dodgers, and impious louts. Why? Because Jesus says outrageous things like, “Turn the other cheek when you are struck…don’t swear oaths…lusting after another is the same as adultery…being angry with a brother is the same as killing him…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…I am the Son of God.” Can you blame the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities for thinking we’re daft and probably dangerous to the moral and political order?

Do we find ourselves in a similar situation today? Almost. In Canada it is illegal to preach Christian sexual ethics. In Colorado, a bill was recently signed into law that makes it illegal to teach outside church walls against gay marriage. In the Middle East, churches are burned and Christians murdered for witnessing to the gospel. All over the world the Church is being portrayed as an enemy of the state, a virus among the healthy, as a boil on the tush of decent, freedom-loving folks. Perhaps one day this time in history will be known as “The Revenge of the Pagans!” Our pursuit of the Father’s perfection is more than an unhealthy hobby; it is a dangerous ministry of resisting the rising tide of libertinism and death in a culture growing more and more intolerant of rational limits and those who would point to King David or Herod and name them unjust.

So, how are we to respond? We must become better monsters, freakier freaks! The way out for us is the way in. We love our enemies and pray for them. We turn the other cheek. We proclaim to the last breath that Jesus is the Son of God. We hold to the absurd standards that sent Jesus to his death on a cross. We follow him, never looking back, taking our licks, and never once do we blame the culture. We chose this path. Now we have to walk it.

Who told you that the road to Golgotha was free from potholes, speed bumps, stupid laws, dirty cops, and the occasional horrific accident?

15 June 2008

Big Question for Readers

NB. Read all the way to the end. . .there's a Question there for you to answer. . .

I seem to be recovering from dental surgery just fine. . .I was able to gnaw on a Subway roasted chicken breast sandwich for lunch without too much winching and bleeding. . .

My apologies for not having a Sunday homily posted. Since my jaws are starting to swell, I thought it best to find a substitute for this morning's Mass. I am up again for preaching this coming Tuesday morning. . .

In the meantime, check back later on tonight for a new post titled, "F.A.L.Q's: Frequently Asked Liturgical Questions." In this post, I try to answer some of the liturgical questions thrown at me from time to time. Forgive me if my answers sometimes seem a little cranky. . .

And while you wait for my cranky responses, why not check out the UPDATED WISH LIST? Because of the generosity of benefactors, I have been able to rustle up from Half-Price Books a number of good Italian and French language programs for my laptop, several excellent dictionaries and verb conjugation books, and even a cheapo sci-fi/fantasy novel or two. . .however, what I am really excited about is this new series from Cambridge University Press called "Contemporary Philosophy in Focus." I ran across the volume featuring Thomas Kuhn this afternoon at HPB, and I've added several other volumes from the series to my WISH LIST. For the most part, I know almost nothing about these philosophers. . .and thus the excitement!

Now here's the Big Question: if you could have me write a book in my areas of academic interest (poetry, theology, spirituality, philosophy), what sort of book would you have me write? I'm thinking of this as something for a more general but well-read audience not necessarily an academic audience. I've been told that though my homilies are publishable (!), no one really buys collections of homilies anymore. So, anyway, suggest away!

Thanks for stopping by. . .and God bless, Fr. Philip, OP