28 May 2011

The world hates us. . .

5th Week of Easter (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

As persons wholly owned by God through our baptism in Christ, we are in the world but not of it. We live here, endure here, but we do not thrive here. Our full flourishing as creatures of a loving God comes when we see Him face-to-face. Until then, our principal joy is to share the Good News of His mercy to sinners. And as good as this news is, it is not always welcomed news. Jesus says to his disciples, “. . .you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, [therefore] the world hates you.” Why did the world hate our Lord and why does it hate us? To bring the Good News of God's mercy to sinners first requires that we identify the sinners, starting with ourselves. Pointing out sin and naming it as such is a tricky business to say the least. We risk being self-righteous, harshly judgmental, and becoming the enemies of human freedom. Announcing to a self-satisfied world that its virtues and vices are deficient in the eyes of God invites ridicule and persecution. And, frankly, there have been times when we have deserved all the ridicule and persecution we have received. When we have allowed our own gross failures to diminish the luster of our Lord's teachings, we have not only invited the jeers of the world, we have welcomed them. Thus Jesus' warning stands today, “No slave is greater than his master.” If we keep his word, the world will hate us as it hated him. If we abandon his word, the world will join us in our self-destruction. Either way, in this world, we lose.

But losing in this world is no evil thing. Nor does it have to be a painful fall. As Christ himself says, we may suffer for a little while, but our suffering, if properly endured for the benefit of others, will serve all the more to give witness to his sacrifice for us. Is this comforting? Maybe, a little. It doesn't matter. We were never promised comfort. We were given a commission and the authority to carry it out. We either accept this commission and its attendant authority, or we do not. If we do, then we can expect little more than opposition from the world and the threat of constant defeat while we are here. Thankfully, it is no evil thing to be defeated by that which we cannot endure, cannot, in the end, claim victory. Victory over death was won on the cross. Our task is to proclaim that victory come what may, come what will. If we keep his word, we abide in his victory and all the hate, persecution, and ridicule thrown our way will pass with the world into defeat.

Jesus tells his disciples that he chose them out of the world to be his own. This isn't the sort of choosing that the childish long for, the sort of choosing that marks us out as special, above the herd. To think we are somehow better b/c we are chosen is the Devil's temptation; his attempt to entice us to set ourselves aside as particularly holy or pure. None of us is chosen for our special purity, or our extraordinary righteousness. Christ calls to all those hearts and minds open to his Word, and we answer. Not so that we might be “better than” but so that we might be perfected out of our sin. The moment we believe our baptism confers on us an immunity to sin, we rejoin the world's passing and we welcome defeat. How do we call sinners to repentance and welcome them to God's mercy? By first bringing ourselves to repentance and welcoming Him into our lives as God and Father. If can't or won't keep his word, then we have no authority to witness to a world that hates us. No slave is greater than his master. Christ learned obedience through suffering. Are we listening to his word and suffering for the salvation of the world?

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27 May 2011


Earlier this week Sr. Therese Huong Do, OP was killed in Houston by a drunk driver.  Sister was on her way to teach a confirmation class.

Sr. Therese has a special connection to the Southern Dominican Province of friars. . .her brother, fra. Tan Do is a student friar of our province, currently studying in St. Louis.

Please pray for Sr. Therese, her family, and the young man who caused her death.


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Missing Kindle book

A kind HancAquam reader purchased a Kindle book from my Wish List recently. . .Bright of the Sky

I didn't get an email notification from Amazon about the gift, and they have no record of the book being purchased.  

So, if you bought this book for me, I didn't get it!  It's possible that someone saw it on my Wish List and bought it for themselves. . .which is fine. . .but it shows up on the "purchased" list under my List.

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Grazie. . .mille grazie!

A quick Mille Grazie to those who sent books on my birthday!  I hit 47 yesterday.  Mama Becky denies that I am that old. . .but the birth certificate does not lie.

The books were shipped to Texas, so official thank you notes will go out after I arrive in Irving on June 4th. 

God bless, Fr. Philip

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On being leaders in love

5th Week of Easter (F)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

Of all the strange things our Lord has said—and he's said some pretty strange things—the last command he issues to the disciples is probably the strangest of all. He commands them to love one another. And if that's not strange enough, he goes on to command them to love one another as he loves them. Not just any old sort of mundane love, not just to think good thoughts or say nice things. . .but to love each other in the same way that he loves each of them. Perhaps the only thing he could say to make this any stranger would be something like, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Of course, he does say this and this whole episode moves from the unusual to the outright bizarre. Now, you might be thinking that there's nothing all that unusual or bizarre about Jesus commanding us to love one another as he loves us, or that dying for a friend is the greatest sort of love we can give. As a Church, we've lived with these ideas for centuries, and we've heard them repeated and expounded upon countless times. But as members of the Church in the 21st century, we are the beneficiaries of a Judeo-Christian culture that lifts up divine love not only as an ideal but as a real possibility. Even when we fail as individuals and as a culture to love one another we recognize the obligation to do so, and we mark our failures as failures. What's so strange about Jesus' command to love one another is that he thinks that love is something that can be commanded. 

What if we were to act as though love was something we deserved, something we are entitled to. What if we engraved in our laws and civil customs the idea that each of us—in virtue of just being born—has the natural right to be loved by everyone else. Like the right to vote or the right to free speech, the right to be loved is now fundamental to the constitution of our republic. Would this reform comply with our Lord's command? Law-suit happy citizens would be delighted. Trial lawyers would certainly be delirious. But would love given under the threat of legal action really be love? Or would we eventually come to understand love in strictly behavioral terms? I could fake love by acting lovingly in order to avoid having to pay damages. We would have stacks of Supreme Court rulings detailing various tests for true love, complete with dissenting opinions objecting to the very notion that love can be quantified. Before the ink is dry on the Love Amendment, the Lord's command would be destroyed b/c we would have reduced it to a natural right, that is, a legal prohibition against not-loving. Yes, it would be a command but would it be what the Lord actually ordered? No, it wouldn't.

The Lord's command to love only makes sense if we are first his disciples and then his friends; only if we first sit at his feet to listen and learn and then become his companions on the Way. His authority to command us derives from our surrender to him, from our willingness to be commanded—our freely given consent at the beginning our discipleship to follow wherever he leads. That kind of surrender takes enormous amounts of trust and not only trust in him but trust in one another. We cannot obey the command to love God w/o loving each and every one of His children. In fact, we show our love for Him by loving one another. If you think that's easy, try it. Try willing the good for your worst enemy for just one hour. Will all happiness and joy for someone who has injured you most. Will all blessings and success for someone who loathes you, someone who would see you humiliated or destroyed. Even better, will every good thing for the one you would see injured or humiliated. Difficult? Oh yes. And thus the necessity and the wisdom of the Lord's command. Could we even begin to love w/o the love he has shown us? Would we even know where to start? He suffered death to show us the Way to love. We followed. Now, it's our turn to lead.

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26 May 2011

Back in town. . .

Back in Ponchaoula!  I managed to lose my wallet on the shuttle btw Hobby and Bush.  The driver kindly returned to the airport to give it back.

I lost my cell phone at the retreat center.  Someone used my cell to text one of the friars on my contact list and told him that the phone would be at the front desk.  It never arrived.

We had a great time at the Assembly!

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23 May 2011

Just say NO to idols

5th Week of Easter (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

Paul and Barnabus find themselves in an awkward situation. Having preached the Good News in Lystra and healed a crippled man, the two apostles are acclaimed by the crowds and mistaken for gods. When the priest of Zeus attempts to sacrifice an ox to them, Paul shouts, “Men, why are you doing this?” He tells them that they are just men come to proclaim God's mercy to sinners. He tells them that they must turn from their idols and offer worship to the living God, the one who “who made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them.” It's not too difficult to imagine that the crowds, especially the pagan priests, received this bit of news with some skepticism, even a little hostility. Here are two obviously powerful, gods-touched men who perform a miracle refusing to take credit for a miraculous feat and yelling at them that their centuries old religious traditions are deficient maybe even evil. Surely, the gods are testing the faithful, waiting to see if they will abandon Zeus and Hermes on the word of two wandering prophets. Paul tells the crowds that the living God has allowed these pagans “to go their own ways” and at the same time provided them—out of His abundant goodness—with many sure signs of His presence and purpose: the rains and fruitful seasons, nourishment and gladness for their hearts. Even with this revelation, the pagans are barely prevented from offering sacrifice to the Lord's ambassadors. Mistaking the sign for that which is signified, the pagans continue in their idolatry. Are we tempted to do the same?

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council teach the Church that God reveals Himself to us through scripture, the person of Jesus Christ, and the witness of “created things.” Surrounded as we are and totally dependent upon the created things of this world, we are free to direct our worship to the things themselves or to the One who created them. We can believe that mountains, trees, rivers, animals, and the stars all stand above us as gods, or we can respect them as signs of God's presence, created windows through which we see and hear the Word Himself revealed. In this scientific and technological age, we might choose to honor creation in less religious terms, in less worshipful ways and still hold the things of the world above their Creator. We can deny the presence of God in His creation and believe that nothing exists beyond or above the material stuff of the universe. We can live out our lives believing that our dominion over creation was sealed by the coming of the scientific age and that our technology gives us certain if not absolute control over our destiny. If we make such a choice, choosing to center ourselves in the temporary matter of the world, we sacrifices our lives to that which cannot endure, cannot persist beyond its own destruction. We become idolaters, worshipers of the Signs of the divine and not the Divine Himself.

Most modern Christians aren't tempted to worship Zeus or Odin or Vishnu. These aren't the idols we set up on the altars of our daily lives. Our idols are less substantial, more subtle than the figures of ancient myth. If we are tempted to idolatry nowadays, we are tempted to offer praise and thanksgiving to our ambitions, our passions, and our prejudices. Rather than acknowledge the presence of Christ in the tabernacle of our hearts, we are tempted to place a selfish will or a libertine spirit on the throne reserved for our Lord. Even with the grace of baptism and the sustenance of the Eucharist, we will worship Worry and Vengeance if we believe that worrying and revenge will serve us better than surrender and mercy. Christ sends the Holy Spirit to teach us and remind us that idols of all kinds—whether they are made of gold or psychological distress—are made things and subject to death. Only the Lord of Life, the one who has conquered death, is worthy of our worship. Only He deserves our faithful attention and the sacrifice of our lives in His service.

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Away into the wild blue yonder. . .again.

I am off today to Houston to attend our Provincial Assembly.

Be back in Ponchatoula late on May 26th.

Pray for the Province of St. Martin de Porres!

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22 May 2011

What Sisyphus Can Teach Us About Faith

5th Week of Easter (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

The king of Corinth was a clever man. He was also prideful and lived to lie to friend and foe alike. His pride and deceitfulness kept him in power and flush with gold. When given the chance, he would divulge an ally's secrets to a mutual enemy and reap the rewards of betrayal. It was only a matter of time before his hubris compelled him to expose the follies of Zeus and gamble his cleverness against the anger of a god. One day, believing himself equal to the gods, the king told the river god, Asopus, one of Zeus' secrets in exchange for a fresh water spring in his city. As punishment, Zeus ordered Death to chain the king in the Abyss. The king, ever-clever, tricked Death and escaped. When the king died, his wife did not observe the proper burial rites, so he ended up in Hades only to escape and return to his wife to scold her for being disrespectful. Fed up with the king's impertinence, Zeus ordered his spirit to bear an eternal burden. He was condemned to push a boulder up a hill. When he nearly reached the top of the hill with the boulder, it would escape his grasp and roll to the bottom. The king would have to begin again. . .for eternity. The king's name was Sisyphus. To this day, we use his name to describe an absurd task, or a futile burden that leads to despair. For some, Sisyphus and his fate serve as a warning against pride and deceit. To others, he's an absurd hero, a foolish solider in a war against tyrants. Who is he for the followers of Christ? Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” But how often do we lovers of Christ wallow in our burdens and make our troubles badges of honor?

Because he was a fool to challenge Zeus and because his punishment seems so familiar, so “right,” Sisyphus is a popular subject in modern poetry. The American poet, Stephen Dunn, in a series of poems starring our anti-hero, wonders what Sisyphus would do if he were forgiven his sins, relieved of our ridiculous task. In a poem titled, “Sisyphus and the Sudden Lightness,” Dunn gives us the man mysteriously absolved of his debt to Zeus and wandering the streets in search of a purpose. Dunn writes, “Sisyphus, of course, was worried;/ he'd come to depend on his burden,/wasn't sure who he was without it.” He peels an orange; pets a dog, keeps moving forward b/c he is “afraid/of the consequences of standing still.//He no longer felt inclined to smile.” Over time, Sisyphus realizes that he is no longer being punished b/c the gods have disappeared. He hasn't been forgiven; he's been abandoned. So, out of anger or frustration or maybe defiance, “He dared to raise his fist to the sky./Nothing, gloriously, happened.//Then a different terror overtook him.” Sisyphus has been his punishment for centuries. Now that the boulder and the hill no longer imprison him, who is he? The gods are gone and the history of his punishment is more ridiculous, more meaningless than ever.

Sisyphus' heart is troubled. He has been abandoned by his gods, and he no longer knows who or what he is. He was condemned to an eternity of futile labor. Had he come to enjoy that boulder and the hill? Had he come to believe that his punishment was not only well-deserved but actually beneficial to his soul? As followers of Christ, what would we tell him about pride and its punishment? About lying and the consequences of defying God? Would we tell him that he got what he deserved and that he should shoulder his burden w/o complaint? If so, then we have to ask ourselves: Do we see ourselves in Sisyphus, wallowing in our burdens, making our troubled hearts badges of honor? Are we freed men and women, liberated children of a loving God; or, are we prisoners to our self-selected and self-imposed punishments? It might not be polite to say or pleasant to believe, but those of us who lay claim to the kingdom of God too often see ourselves as lost, abandoned; forsaken and punished for our sins. Sometimes we see this so intensely, believe it so fervently that we become our burdens; we transform ourselves from forgiven souls with an occasionally troubled heart into constantly troubled hearts with souls we cannot trust are forgiven. After all, we deserve our burdens; we are entitled to our troubles and we would not know who or what we are if, suddenly, our sentences were commuted and we were set free. Who are you once you are unchained and your prison is destroyed?

Jesus tells his disciples that he is preparing himself for death. He is leaving them. Confronted by their overwhelming anxiety and fear, Jesus says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father's house. “I will come back again,” he assures them, “and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.” Most anxious and skeptical of them all, Thomas, blurts out, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Can you hear Thomas' real question? He's really asking, “How can you abandon us? How can you just leave us here? Why are we being punished? We don't know the way!” Jesus says to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father.” You know the way. You know me, and I am the way. You know the truth and you know the life. I am the truth and the life. You have come to me, and in doing so, you have come to the Father. When I return, you will all return with me to the Father. Did his friends believe him? Do we believe him? If we think Jesus is lying, then we will never surrender our burdens, never give up the punishments for sin that we believe we deserve. If we trust in his word, then we will crawl out from under the anxiety and the despair; we will gladly, eagerly push aside all of our destructive guilt and self-recrimination. Finally, we will come to accept that we are not the sum total of our sins and the years we have spent in prison, but that we are the freed children of a loving God who waits for us to occupy the many rooms of His heavenly house. That's who and what we are: not guests or visitors but children, beloved sons and daughters come home, and come home for good.

Peter tells us more about who and what we are in Christ: “You are 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises' of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are a race—black, white, yellow, brown, red—a race of those chosen by God. We are royal priests, offering sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving on the altars of our daily lives. We are a holy nation—Americans, Russians, Japanese, Mexicans—a nation set aside to be a commonwealth of faith and reason in a world slowing going insane. And we are a people, a tribe, citizens and subjects of a kingdom that will never end. When we are who we were redeemed to be and when we do what we were redeemed to do, there is no time for us nor energy left in us for absurd burdens, futile punishments, or useless anxiety. 

Sisyphus, upon realizing that his punishment was at an end, and realizing that his gods had abandoned him, shook his fist at heaven, and “a different terror overtook him.” He was terrified of not knowing who or what we was without his burden, without his petty gods. If you are afraid of surrendering your worries and your labors b/c you believe that you deserve them, or b/c you fear that you will become lost, let Christ's words bang around in your mind for a while: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. . .I will come back again and take you to myself. . .”

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