09 March 2013

I will come to you like the rain. . .

3rd Week of Lent (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

A Pharisee and a tax collector go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee marches right into the temple courtyard to pray, but the tax collector stands off at a distance. The Pharisee prays aloud. The tax collector prays quietly. The Pharisee recounts his righteous deeds and gives God thanks that he is “not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” While the tax collector humbly beats his breast in contrition and prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Watching from the sidelines, anyone with eyes to see could tell the difference btw these two men. Their demeanor, dress, speech; the stance each takes before God. All different. But can we see how they are alike? Is there any reason to believe that either of two men is lying? Not that I can see. Both are telling the truth. That's how they are alike. The Pharisee is righteous. And the tax collector is a sinner. What justifies each man, for Jesus, is what they do with these truths. To what purpose do they put their spiritual condition? Both the righteous and the unrighteous will be exalted if they humble themselves before God. 

The key to understanding this deceptively simply parable is understanding the parable's audience. Luke writes, “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” This parable at fired at those of us who are certain that we are righteous AND b/c we are certain of our righteousness despise everyone else. For a Pharisee to be sure of his righteousness is hardly scandalous. Follow the Law and your rightness with God is certain. There's no spiritual ambiguity here, no anxious hand-wringing about being in a state of grace. Now that we are certain of our rightness with God, what do we do? Well, one thing we do not do is despise everyone else b/c we are righteous. Nor do we give God thanks for helping us stay clean w/o also asking Him to pour out His graces on others in need of His help. Rather than despising your fellow sinners, your security in righteousness should compel you to further acts of sacrificial love in order to bring as many as possible into right relationship with God. The Pharisee's problem is his lack of genuine humility before God and his lack of genuine gratitude to God for his hard-won holiness. Humility and gratitude will persist in the truly righteous soul. 

The Lord says to Hosea, regarding His chosen people, “Your piety [Judah] is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.” In place of “piety,” other English translations use love, goodness, loyalty. The Latin Vulgate uses misericordia, which conveys the notion of a compassionate mercy, a sympathetic humanity towards others. Through the mouth of His prophet, Hosea, the Lord condemns Judah for its fleeting compassion, its fugitive goodness and stingy mercy. He says, “. . . it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Give Me your love, come to know Me in love. Keep your sacrifices, your burnt offerings. Dare to be genuinely righteous before Me; lay all your wounds before Me—your worry, your pride, your fear, all of your secret sins. Set these ablaze before My altar, come to know Me in love. And I will bind all your wounds. I will come to you like the rain, like spring rain watering the earth. Then, when you stand to pray, you can pray with genuine humility and give wholehearted thanks. True righteousness can abide only when humility and gratitude stand under you as your unbreakable foundation. 

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08 March 2013

Conclave date is set!


The eighth General Congregation of the College of Cardinals has decided that the Conclave will begin on Tuesday, 12 March 2013. A Pro eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass will be celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica in the morning. In the afternoon the cardinals will enter into the Conclave. 

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The Four First Things of Love

NB. Deacon John is preaching this morning.  Here's the conclusion of a Roman homily for the 30th Sunday OT (Oct 2008). The whole thing is titled, Reaching Down for Higher Things.

To love well we must first come to know and give thanks to Love Himself. He loved us first, so He must be our First Love. 

Second, we must hold as inviolable the truth that we cannot love Love Himself if we fail to love one another. 

Third, love must be the first filter through which we see, hear, think, feel, speak, and act. No other philosophy or ideology comes before Love Himself. This means obeying (listening to and complying with) His commandments and doing now all the things that Christ did then. 

Fourth, after placing God as our first filter, we must surrender to Love’s providential care, meaning we must sacrifice (make holy by giving over) our prideful need to control, direct, order our lives according to the world’s priorities. Wealth and power do not mark success. Celebrity does not mark prestige. “Having everything my way” does not mark freedom.

Last, we must grow in holiness by becoming Christ—frequent attention to the sacraments, private prayer and fasting, lectio divina, strengthening our hearts with charitable works, sharpening our minds with beauty and truth in art, music, poetry, and while being painfully, painfully aware of how far we can fall from the perfection of Christ, knowing that we are absolutely free to try again and again and again. . .

Though we often fail love, Love never fails us. Remember: who needs for love to never fail more than he for whom Love is God?

Question: Do you think that this piece on the "first four things of love" could be expanded into a short book? 

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07 March 2013

Lenten Check Up

3rd Week of Lent (Th)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

We're approaching the end of the third week of Lent. It's time to check in and see how we're doing. What better way to test our Lenten resolve to grow in holiness than to think hard about this ominous declaration from Jesus: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters”? Where are you right now on your Lenten trek to a cross in Jerusalem? Thinking about just the last three weeks, since Ash Wednesday. . .Are you with Christ? Or, are you against him? Have you gathered together with him? Or, have you scattered? Maybe you've gathered a few times and scattered a few times? If you are an “average Catholic,” you can probably lay claim to some victories and confess a few defeats. After all, we were never promised a short war against an unarmed enemy. In fact, we were told that our greatest enemy is our own reluctance to yield the battlefield to Christ and his victory on the Cross. So, in these last two weeks of Lent, how do we gather with Christ instead of scattering away from him? We begin by yielding the battle against sin and death to the one who has already defeated them both! 

Our Lord went into the desert for forty days to be tempted by Satan. Why? Well, there are probably hundreds of good reasons. We usually hear: he went into the desert to be tempted to show us that temptation can be resisted. Close. Jesus went into the desert to show Satan that his infernal influence on us is just that: influence and nothing more. Now, since this fallen angel is incapable of right reason and love, he can't listen (obey) to Jesus. So, the Devil learns nothing at all from his chat in the desert. Now, imagine Jesus talking to the Devil; listening to his blandishments; rejecting each one in turn; and then, after each rejection, turning to you with a wink and saying, “I hope you're seeing this. He's got nothing to give you in exchange for your worship.” After each temptation, Jesus says to Satan, in effect, “You can't give me that b/c it already belongs to the Father.” When Satan tempts us with—whatever we're tempted with—we're to recall this scene and say to him and to ourselves, “He can't give me that. You can't give me peace, wealth, vengeance, happiness, power. They all belong to the Father!” Bluff called. Checkmate. Game over. Jesus won. And we win b/c he won first. 

If all of this is true, then why do we still fail to grow in holiness by falling into sin? If Jesus has already won the battle, then why are we still fighting? Good question. Why are you still fighting? Better yet: who are you still fighting? The only fight to see here is the one between You and You as you struggle to yield to the truth of the Cross and the Empty Tomb. Jesus won, is winning, will win. . .always. Why is this truth causing you so much trouble? Maybe we like fighting temptation b/c there's always the chance that we'll lose. Maybe yielding to the truth of Christ's victory means saying goodbye to our favorite sins. Maybe we relish playing the role of the tortured wannabe saint who heroically defies the minions of Hell. . .most of the time. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, we don't really believe that Christ won our freedom on the Cross and it's our job to help him. Let's listen to that ominous declaration one more time: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Gather with Christ and his victory over sin and death. Our Lenten disciplines do not do battle with the Devil. They battle our reluctance to surrender ourselves to the truth that sin and death no longer divide us from our Father's kingdom. 

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Venezuela after Chavez

Excellent article on the Disaster That Is Venezuela post Chavez:

What has Chávez bequeathed his fellow Venezuelans? The hard facts are unmistakable: The oil-rich South American country is in shambles. It has one of the world’s highest rates of inflation, largest fiscal deficits, and fastest growing debts. Despite a boom in oil prices, the country’s infrastructure is in disrepair—power outages and rolling blackouts are common—and it is more dependent on crude exports than when Chávez arrived. Venezuela is the only member of OPEC that suffers from shortages of staples such as flour, milk, and sugar. Crime and violence skyrocketed during Chávez’s years. On an average weekend, more people are killed in Caracas than in Baghdad and Kabul combined. (In 2009, there were 19,133 murders in Venezuela, more than four times the number of a decade earlier.) When the grisly statistics failed to improve, the Venezuelan government simply stopped publishing the figures.     

[. . .]

The problem isn’t Election Day—It’s the other 364 days. Rather than stuffing ballot boxes, Chávez understood that he could tilt the playing field enough to make it nearly impossible to defeat him. Thus, the regime’s electoral wizards engineered gerrymandering schemes that made anything attempted in the American South look like child’s play. Chávez’s campaign coffers were fed by opaque slush funds holding billions in oil revenue. The government’s media dominance drowned out the opposition. Politicians who appeared formidable were simply banned from running for office. And the ruling party became expert in using fear and selective intimidation to tamp down the vote. Chávez took a populist message and married it to an autocratic scheme that allowed him to consolidate power. The net effect over Chávez’s years was a paradoxical one: With each election Venezuela lost more of its democracy.

Read the whole thing.  God bless Venezuela.  They need it.

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05 March 2013

Knotty Brain

All day teaching. . .my brain is mushy. . .I think it might be a sprained or something.

Can gray matter get a charley-horse???

Time for some Introvert-Contemplation with 'Puter Solitaire!

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04 March 2013

Obedience is a cure-all

3rd Week of Lent (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

The King of Israel is angry. Naaman is angry. The people in the synagogue are angry. All of these biblical players are angry; for different reasons, each is upset, each feels put-upon, or disappointed; filled with fury and prepared for violence. The king rips his clothes in frustration. Naaman storms off, disillusioned. The synagogue congregation turns into a riotous mob. Everyone is stressed to their limits. The king is shown to be powerless over disease. Naaman is exhausted from traveling and dying of leprosy. And the mob is riled up by one man accusing it of spiritual infidelity. It seems as though peace has not only been forgotten but brutally beaten and left for dead. We begin this work week, the third week of Lent, plunged into the bitterness and bile of human weakness and failure. No one relishes the possibility of being exposed as a fraud, as an impotent actor in their own lives. But if Lent isn't the season for us to stare into a mirror and honestly calculate our place in God's holy family, then what are these 40 days for? Are you angry, disappointed, full of fury, exhausted, powerless, bitter? Now's the season to rend your garments and seek the cleanliness that obedience to God provides. 

Take Naaman, for example. He's a decorated military man. Highly honored by the King of Aram. He's a hero among his people, valient. Has everything a man of his day could want. He also has a disfiguring, incurable disease: leprosy. Naaman hears from his wife's Jewish slave-girl that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure him. This prophet, Elisha, tells Naaman to bathe seven times in the River Jordan. Disappointed, he balks at this prescription, “Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleansed?” Is he wrong here? Did he travel so far only to be told to go wash in a river? Fortunately, his servants get it, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it?” He washes in the Jordan, and he is healed. What heals him? Not the magical-mystical waters of the Jordan. He is healed b/c he obeyed—heard and listened to—the word of God's prophet. Had he listened to his own disappointment and anger, he would've returned to Aram a leper. Naaman's pride, prestige, wealth, and his bitter disillusionment almost cost him his life. But he listens to God's servant and lived. 

Yesterday, we heard Jesus tell the parable of the fruitless fig tree. The little tree gets one more season to produce good fruit or be chopped down. Why couldn't the tree produce its fruit? Not enough cultivation or fertilizer? We can't know for sure. But we do know that the orchard owner has no use for fruitless fruit trees. What prevents you from producing good fruit? The King of Israel is a suspicious sort, shown to be powerless. Naaman is poisoned with pride and disappointment. The congregation that runs Jesus out of town is unfaithful, refusing to listen to his Word. All three of our biblical players fail to obey, fail to listen to what God has to say to them. Only Naaman manages to subdue his disobedience and find healing. If this third week of Lent is to be a time for contemplating your place in God's holy family, then spend some time contemplating how well you listen, how well you obey what God has to say to you. Anger, bitterness, disappointment—all these deafen your ears, darken your eyes. They poison your spirit and leave you unable and unwilling to be healed. Listen to God, not b/c it's convenient or logical or b/c it makes you feel good. Listen to God b/c obeying His Word is your truest path to holiness, your straightest approach to a glorious Easter morning. 

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03 March 2013

Pregnant Cravings

How do I know it's Lent?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. . .Ordo, lectionary, violet vestments, blahblahblah. . .

Here's how I know it's Lent:

The Bacon Peanut Butter Onion Marmalade Burger!  Will I be making one of these during my next trip to visit the squirrels?  You betcha.

Why do I always get the culinary cravings of a pregnant woman during Lent?

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The pruning ax is always falling. . .

NB. This is a revision of the homily I preached yesterday at the vigil Mass. Feedback is always welcomed!

3rd Sunday of Lent 2013
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic/Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

There's a hard challenge in The Parable of the Fig Tree that needs a response from each one of us. When the orchard owner orders his gardener to cut down the unproductive tree, he asks (what at first sounds like) a rhetorical question: “Why should [this tree] exhaust the soil?” Why should we allow a barren fruit tree to live in an orchard full of flourishing trees, when all it does is exhaust the nutrients in the soil? The gardener hears the challenge and takes it up immediately, “Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it.” Give me a year to work with the tree. I'll do everything I can to help it along. Then he adds, “It may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.” A reprieve not a pardon for the barren little tree. What's the hard challenge for each one of us? Our first answer might be: produce good fruit in the time we have left or face the pruning ax. But we all know that the pruning ax is going to fall on each one of us regardless of how much good fruit we produce. We will all die one day. So, the challenge here isn't Produce or Else! The challenge laid down in this parable is: produce good fruit every day, hour, and minute you have left b/c the Gardener has already begun to swing his ax. The first fruit we must produce is the good fruit of repentance. 

Why? Why should repentance be the first fruit we produce? Jesus tells the parable of the barren fig tree after he is confronted by some local folks with a theological problem. Two recent disasters have left them doubting their faith in God's justice. Pilate slaughters a group of Galileans at prayer and mixes their blood with the blood of the temple sacrifices. An abhorrent sacrilege. The locals wants to know how God can allow His faithful followers to be butchered by an unclean pagan like Pilate. Jesus answers them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!” In other words, those killed by Pilate were no more sinful than anyone else. Their deaths were no accident but neither were they killed as a punishment for sin. And neither were those killed by the collapsed tower at Siloam. Jesus asks, “Do you think [that those killed] were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!” Accidents happen; Roman governors slaughter people. And the Gardener's ax has already started its swing towards each one of us. Therefore, Jesus says, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” 

Jesus' call to immediate repentance sounds like a threat: failure to repent right now will result in death. That's not what he is saying here. He's saying that if you do not want to perish in the same spiritual condition that these folks did, then you need to repent. How did they perish? Unrepentantly. What was their spiritual condition? Unclean. Our Lord's warning is not a threat, or a prediction that being unclean will cause a fatal accident, or give you cancer, or attract a serial killer with a thing for Catholics. In fact, his point is exactly the opposite. The Galileans Pilate murdered and the eighteen people killed in the tower accident were no more sinful than anyone else; yet, they died anyway. And they died unrepentant sinners. “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” If we do not want to die “as they did,” then we must produce the first good fruit required for holiness: repentance. Again, Jesus is not impersonating a televangelist trying to scare you, nor is he one of those guys down on Bourbon St. at Mardi Gras with a sign that reads, “REPENT! THE END IS NEAR!” Jesus is teaching us a simple but challenging truth: death comes for us all. . .best be ready. 

So, let's make the connection btw the two disasters and the fig tree parable a little more explicit. Like the fig tree, we have one more season, one more week, or maybe the rest of today to produce the good fruits of repentance; to turn ourselves around and run to God's mercy. Therefore, our focus needs to be on repentance not running after esoteric philosophical explanations for random events, or psychological analyses of a petty dictator's motives for violence. Why should our focus be on repentance and not asking why bad things happen to good people? Because random accidents can kill you. . .randomly, and sometimes petty dictators will decide that mass murder is a permanent solution for a temporary problem. Our time in the garden is ebbing away. The ax has begun to swing. So, Jesus is pleading with us; saying, in effect, “You're worrying about the wrong thing. You are all going to die one day. Get right with God before it's too late!” Our capacity for worrying over the wrong things is nearly limitless; however, our time on this earth is not. Therefore, repent and bear good fruit. . .before the season ends. 

Paul's letter to the Corinthians develops Jesus' call to repentance with a little reminder about Moses and those freed from slavery in Egypt. Recalling that their ancestors in faith suffered and died in the wilderness with Moses, and noting that many were struck down b/c God was displeased with them, he writes, “These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us. . . Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” Those struck down in the wilderness with Moses are examples for us, and we read about them as warnings. Our immediate impulse here is to ask, “So, does God really strike people dead for displeasing Him?” And then we should immediately hear Jesus say, “Were those struck down any more sinful than all the others? By no means! Repent, so that you do not die as they did.” Paul develops admonition teaching us that a large part of producing the good fruits of repentance is standing firm on our Rock, Christ Jesus. He notes that our ancestors in faith ate and drank in the wilderness “from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ.” They survived b/c God was with them always, especially in times of trial and disaster. And when they were faithful to their covenant with Him, He lavishly blesses them, eventually bringing them to their promised land. 

We begin the third week of our trek through the Lenten desert, eating and drinking from Christ, our Rock. If you have been attentive to your fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, then you know what it means to find humility, to be fully aware of your dependence on God for your life and all that you have. Think carefully and pray urgently about what your friendship with God, about your place in His holy family, and what sort of person you are called to be in the world for the His greater glory. What is preventing you from receiving in full all the gifts that He has to give you? Is it some vice? A history of unconfessed sins? A stale prayer life? Whatever it is, turn away from it and run to God's mercy. Just walk away from whatever it is that stands btw you and the perfect love of God. And most of all, kill your worry. It will never bear good fruit. Our capacity for worrying is nearly limitless; however, our time on this earth is not. Therefore, repent and bear the good fruit of that repentance. . . before the season ends and the Gardener comes to prune his orchard. 

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