25 October 2014

Reaching Down for Higher Things

NB. Finally! I get to preach this 2008 Roman homily. I knew that keeping up with my homily writing while in Rome would come in handy one day. . .

NB 2. So. . .I'm sitting there in the presider's chair, listening to the readings. . .when it hits me that the reader had just said: "A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians." I almost stopped her. . .I checked the missalette. Yup. She's right. I wrote this homily in 2008. I've read it dozen of times since then. . .tho never preached it. Today is the first time that I noticed that I used Corinthians instead of Thessalonians in the homily. No idea why.

30th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Anthony of Padua/Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Audio File

St. Paul, ever the romantic(!), writing in his first letter to the Corinthians, insists that “love is patient, love is kind. Love is not jealous, is not pompous; it is not inflated; it is not rude; it does not seek its own interest [. . .] but rather rejoices with the truth”(1 Cor 13). He goes on to write that love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things; and finally, he declares, as if he has never grieved a betrayal or lost his heart to passion: “Love never fails.” The romantic whispers, “Yes!” The cynic scoffs, “Bull.” The pragmatist asks, “Really? Never?” The Catholic exclaims, “Deo gratis! Thanks be to God!” Who needs for love to never fail more than he for whom Love is God? This is why Jesus teaches the Pharisees that the spiritual heart of the Law is: “You shall love the Lord, your God, will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind [. . .] You shall your neighbor as yourself.” Listen to Paul again, “Our Lord is patient, He is kind. He is not jealous, is not pompous; He is not inflated; He is not rude; He does not seek His own interest [. . .] but rather Our Lord rejoices with the truth.” Though Paul is writing to the Corinthians to show them how we must love one another—patiently, kindly, selflessly—we cannot, cannot love at all except that Love Himself loves us first. Therefore, with the Lord and because of the Lord, we love Him, one another; and we rejoice with His truth.

Now, that we must be commanded to love says everything that needs to be said about the weaknesses of the human heart, soul, and mind. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we do not eagerly enthrone love in the center of our being, making all we do the children of charity. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we do not love as a way of giving thanks for our very existence, for the gift of being alive. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we do not reason with the grace of God’s wisdom, with the deliberative power granted to us as creatures created in His divine image. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we are not God but rather creatures imperfect without God, longing for God, grieving our loss yet yearning for the peace and truth of His Being-with-us.

Think for a moment of the ways we have struggled in our past to find some small portion of peace and truth. Moses returns from Mt. Sinai to find his people giving themselves over to the idols of their former masters in slavery. Paul admonishes the Corinthians for turning to “worldly philosophies” for their much-needed wisdom. He lashes them for rutting indiscriminately in the flesh, surrendering body and soul to disordered passion and vice. Jesus teaches against the legalistic blindness of the Pharisees; he calls them “white washed tombs,” beautifully, lawfully clean on the outside but stuffed with rotted meat on the inside. In our long past we have turned to idols, pagan philosophies, debauchery and license, and taken an easy refuge in the dots and tittles of the law. Each of these reach for the peace and truth we long for, but none grasp the love we need.

Think for a moment of the ways you yourself have struggled in your past and struggle even now to find some small portion of peace and truth. Do you look to the idols of power, wealth, possessions, or Self to find your purpose? Do you scratch your itchy ears with the wisdom of the world? With the profound systems of material science, the occult mysteries of New Age gurus, the glittering gospels of prosperity and celebrity? Perhaps you search for and hope to find some peace in your body, your flesh and bones. Do you worship at Gold’s Gym, Kroger and Target, Blockbuster, or CVS, searching for peace in a perfectly sculpted body, a full belly, a house full of things, a visual distraction, or over-the-counter cures for the nausea and headache of a life that will not love God? Or, perhaps in this election season, you look to parties and politicians to give you hope and security. Do you look to the Democrats to give you the ease of a well-funded government entitlement? Or perhaps you look to the Republicans to secure your place near the top of the economic food-chain? Do you think Obama will give you hope? Or that McCain will give you security? When we reach down for higher things, we grasp the lowest of the low and in our disappointment we name the Lowest the Highest, and then, in our pride, we pretend to be at peace. To do otherwise is to confess that we are fools fooled by foolish hearts, that we are stubborn mules needing the bridle and bit.

And perhaps we are fools. Perhaps this is why Jesus finds it necessary to command us to love God and one another. Why command what we would and could do willingly? In Exodus our Lord must command that we not molest the foreigners among us. That we must care for the women who have lost their husbands and children who have no family. He must command us not to extort money from the poor or strip them of their modest possessions for our profit. We must be commanded not to kill one another, not to steal, not to violate our solemn oaths, not to worship alien gods. Why doesn’t it occur to us naturally to care for the weakest, the least among us? To help those who have little or nothing? Why must we be commanded not to destroy the gift of life, not to lie or extort, not to surrender our souls to the demonic and the dead? We must be commanded to love God, to hope in His promises, to trust in His providential care because in our foolish hearts we believe that we are God and that we have no other gods but ourselves.

Are we fools? Probably not entirely. But we are often foolish, often believing and behaving in ways that give lie to Paul’s declaration, “Love never fails.” God never fails, but we often do. When we make the creature the Creator, giving thanks and praise to the bounty of our own wisdom, we reach down for the higher things and convince ourselves that we have grasped truth. We do this when we believe that it is not only sometimes necessary but also good to murder the innocent; when we believe that it is right to murder the inconveniently expensive, those whom the Nazis called “useless eaters,” the sick, the elderly, the disabled. We reach down for higher truths when we create markets for housing in order to exploit for profit the homelessness of the poor. We are foolish when we raise impregnable borders around the gifts we have been given , gifts given to us so that we might witness freely to God’s abundance. We do foolish things because we believe we are God, and so, we must be commanded by Love Himself to love. But surely this is no hardship. Difficult, yes. But not impossible. With Love all things are possible.

What must we do? 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 mean 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?

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Five Abstracts (II)

Here are five abstracts I recently finished. 16 x 20 canvas board. NB. all the usual caveats about my crappy little camera washing out the colors. . .

^ Lava me, Domine! RECYCLED

Ezekiel 37 (RECYCLED)

 ^ Across the Red Sea (RECYCLED)

^ Leaving Eden Again

^ Perfecting Graces


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24 October 2014


29th Week OT(F)
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

There's a Facebook meme that reads: “Remember—when someone asks, 'What Would Jesus Do?' Freaking out and throwing tables is a viable option.” The meme has a line drawing of Jesus. . .freaking out and throwing tables. When we wonder whether or not anger is an acceptable Christian response, we think of Jesus in the temple courtyard, thrashing the moneychangers. What gospel scene do we imagine when we wonder about the acceptability of feeling and showing frustration and impatience? May I suggest this morning's gospel? Jesus accuses the crowds of hypocrisy b/c they continue to hesitate in accepting the truth right in front of their faces. They can read the signs of an impending storm. And they can read the signs for a warm, sunny day. So why can't they see that he's come to fulfill the Law and free them all from sin? Just a few verses before today's reading, we read Jesus saying, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” Impatient? Frustrated? Well, what would Jesus do? He'd set the world on fire.

Lest you think Jesus is threatening an actual conflagration, let me quickly point out what he says immediately after this, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” Baptism here refers to his sacrificial death on the cross, the sacrifice that must occur before the world can set ablaze with the Holy Spirit. If his reference is a little obscure, his feelings on the issue aren't. He's frustrated, impatient. And the dumbstruck crowd milling around him isn't helping matters much. Keep in mind: he's anxious to be about the business for which he was sent—our salvation. So the reluctance of those who listen to him to accept their own redemption must be extremely aggravating. As understandable as his frustration might be, why does he accuse these poor people of hypocrisy? When they see a cloud in the west, they know it's going to rain, so they scramble to prepare for a storm. They see the sign and act on it. Here he is—a living, breathing sign of the Father's mercy—and most of them just stand there gawking at him. A few want more evidence. Some even demand miracles. Fortunately, there were no tables or moneychangers in the crowd that day! And that Jesus left his whip with Mother Mary.

New Orleans is populated by hurricane experts. We know how to interpret the weather in the Gulf, but do we know how to interpret the present time? We do, even if we sometimes forget that we do. Here's a reminder. The present time is a godly gift. Call it a Saptio-temporal Gift, the divine gift of space and time in which we always live and thrive. As a gift, the present time—right now—is the only moment we have to acknowledge our total dependence on God and give Him thanks for giving us life and keeping us alive. Every second we are alive affords us the opportunity to renew and reinforce our gratitude to God; every second we're alive grants us the chance to receive His mercy and grow in holiness; every second we're alive Christ dares us to set this world on fire with his Good News. We can interpret the present time b/c for us (as followers of Christ) the past, present, and future all come together in one explosive moment of all-consuming grace: the doors of heaven are slammed open, and we are set on fire by the glory of God's love for us. One Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all. What would Jesus do? He would die so that we all might live. 

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We have work to do

29th Week OT(F)
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Notre dame Seminary, NOLA

The gov't will implant microchips in its citizens. And the computer that controls theses chips is called “The Beast.” The leader of ISIS will be killed and then rise again in three days to become the Anti-Christ. The Ebola virus epidemic was designed by the CIA and the DHS to bring about martial law. The Blessed Mother warns that there is a Great Chastisement coming to punish us for the errors of the recent Synod. Secular powers, controlled by a cabal of modernist Illuminati-Satanists, will systematically persecute the Church. Bishops, priests, deacons, entire religious orders and even a future pope serve these Satanists even now. These are just a few of the dire predictions about the future world of our world. I won’t even touch on the Protestant disaster scenarios I grew up with. Here’s the problem with these predictions: even if they prove to be true, so what? I mean, what does it matter? We have a job to do and entertaining end-of-the-world fantasies isn't in the contract. We know who Christ is, therefore, we know how to read the signs of his coming again.

Jesus knows that the hypocrites in the crowd know who he is and why he’s preaching. He knows that they know that he’s fulfilled the prophecies and that he is among them as the Christ. Though they can easily read the signs in the sky and on the earth to predict the weather, they pretend not to be able to read the signs of his coming as the Messiah. Why? Likely b/c a correct interpretation of the signs would require them to consider seriously the necessity of conversion, the necessity of starting over in a New Life in Christ; meaning, they would have to leave the old self behind and start fresh. That’s frightening and arduous. In some bizarre sense a life of sin is comfortable, familiar, even boring! The prospect of having such a life revolutionized by acknowledging the arrival of the Messiah must be terrifying. But why do Catholics spend their time and energy worrying about Marian warnings, Illuminati plots, and sketchy cardinals? There's work to be done. Hard work that isn't always immediately rewarding and often quite dangerous. 
Now, if you think that I am implying here that we shouldn’t waste our time with fantastic predictions of our apocalyptic demise, you’re wrong. I’m not implying it at all. I’m saying it outright. Don’t waste your time. The only prophecy that need concern a Catholic is the prophecy of the arrival of the Messiah. He’s here. It’s now time move on and make sure that everyone who meets us, hears us, sees us, reads us, or even hears rumors about us knows that we have a single mind, a single heart, one Word, one miracle in faith; that we move and breath and grow and hope to die in one Spirit, preserved in unity through the bond of peace. We must be absolutely sure that everything we do and say fulfills with love the prophecy of Christ's coming, his suffering, his death, his resurrection, and his coming again. Does the world see the Body of Christ, the Church, coming in glory to suffer in love, to serve in hope, to persevere in faith no matter what comes?

When we grind away our short hours here wringing our hands over strange visions and crazy fortunes, we waste the gift of time for witnessing to Love Who saves us and Who will bring us to Him forever. A preoccupation with these visions opens us to all sorts of sins of omission. What are we not doing for God’s people while decoding biblical numerologies and arguing about the authenticity of another Marian apparition. What gets left undone? Never does Jesus tell the disciples that they will find themselves among the roasting goats in Hell for failing to properly interpret and apply the message of one of his mother’s visits. They will go to Hell, he tells them, for failing to clothe the naked, for failing to visit the imprisoned, for failing to feed the hungry, and for failing to welcome the stranger. In other words, for failing to do the work Christ did, we fail as his students and ambassadors, and we reject his grace. Goat, let me introduce you to Fire. Goat, fire. Fire, goat.

We have one Lord, one faith, one baptism and we have one witness: to bear with one another through love so that the world is astonished by our generosity and comes to Christ b/c our joy in his grace is irresistibly contagious! We must prove that being a prisoner for the Lord is the freest anyone can ever be.

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21 October 2014

If the Church is a Field Hospital. . .

1. A severely wounded solider is brought to the Field Hospital. The doctor pokes his injuries with a stick and declares, "These wounds are self-inflicted. You can't be admitted to this hospital until you are completely healed."

2. Another severely wounded solider is brought to the Field Hospital. The doctor begins life-saving treatment. The solider blurts out, "STOP! I don't want to be healed! I want to be affirmed in my woundedness. Just accept my injuries and welcome me as I am!"

3. Yet another solider is rushed to the Field Hospital. The doctor and the soldier agree that he is OK in his woundedness and let him stay in the hospital just as he is. . .wounds and all.

4. One last wounded soldier is carried into the Field Hospital.  The doctor immediately begins treating his wounds. The solider says, "Thanks, doc. I can't heal up w/o your help."

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19 October 2014

He is the LORD and there is no other

29th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
The Pharisees show Jesus a Roman coin and ask whether or not they should pay Caesar’s taxes. Matthew tells us that “knowing their malice, Jesus said, ‘Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?... ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?’ They replied, ‘Caesar's.’ At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’" Much has been made of this infamous distinction between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. And even more could be made of it during this tense political season. Ultimately, the distinction is meaningless because everything belongs to God, including Caesar himself. I won't belabor the point. The more interesting moment in this story is the moment Jesus calls the Pharisees out for questioning him, or more precisely, for “testing” him. According to Jesus, the Pharisees test him out of a malicious hypocrisy; that is, a hateful insincerity, a spiteful duplicity. Their apparently sincere question about paying taxes is really a contrived event to catch him up, a staged incident, choreographed and scripted to force Jesus into either treason against Rome or blasphemy against God. Jesus skillfully dodges the trap with an ultimately meaningless answer, but he manages to teach them and us a truth nonetheless: “I am not who you want me to be. . .”

Let’s get down to the question: who do you want Jesus to be? Father, Mother, Santa Claus, mischievous elf, mythical Ego, Jungian archetype, Ground of Being? Spiritual direction often starts with a question about one’s image of God. Our prayer life tells us volumes about how we understand who Jesus is for us. In desperate times, an image of God emerges. Suffering carves out of us a hard figure of God. When we reach beyond ourselves, beyond the possibilities of easy helps and cheap fixes, we usually reach out toward heaven and call on our God for His care, His rescue. And this is exactly what we ought to do. There is nothing so humbling and spiritually purifying as a moment of desperation, a flash of weakness, or damaging stupidity that drives us to God’s comfort. But we must be careful: “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” Our God is not our student, every ready to be questioned, every ready to be tested.

Obviously, like most politicians probing an opponents weaknesses, the Pharisees are trying to trip Jesus up by asking him the “are you still beating your wife?” sort of question. No answer is good, any answer will be vacuous in the end. The point of the exchange is not to find the truth but to expose a hated enemy as worthy of one’s hatred. Jesus calls this attempt malicious and hypocritical. Malicious because their intent is evil and hypocritical because they know that they are not asking a real question but setting a trap. Their insincerity is poisonous. But only to themselves. Who do the Pharisees need Jesus to be? Or perhaps the best question: who do they hope he turns out to be? Given their institutional investments in riches and political commitments to power, no doubt the Pharisees hope he turns out to be little more than some redneck preacher from the podunk town of Nazareth. Most of those guys didn't live long enough to know the truth of Christ's mission and ministry.

We've heard the truth, so let's test ourselves: given your institutional investments in riches and political commitments to power, who do you hope Jesus turns out to be? Jesus says to give to Caesar what is his and give to God what belongs to Him. Of course, this means that we give all things to God in the end b/c all that belongs to Caesar really belongs to God. For a while, while we walk around on the dirt, we give Caesar his due—his taxes, our obedience to his laws within our duties to God, our civic participation. But in giving Caesar his due now our hearts must always be inclined to a longing and a goal well beyond Caesar’s temporary crown; focused fiercely, permanently on the Crown of Heaven. The Pharisees hope to use this apparently split-allegiance to force Jesus into a political-religious quagmire. They need for Jesus to be a madman or a traitor or a blasphemer, so they test him in their malicious hypocrisy, rigging the test to give them the result they hope for; and in getting the hoped-for answer, relieving them of any duty to preach his message, teach his word, or offer him their obedience as the Messiah promised by the prophets.

Rather than giving them what they hope for, Jesus says, in essence, “I am not who you want me to be.” Jesus is not a traitor or a blasphemer. Nor is he a revolutionary or an institutional cog. He is not a preacher of flaccid tolerance nor a fire-breathing demagogue. He is neither a temple priest nor an institutional preacher. He is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. He is the Prince of Peace who comes with a death-dealing sword to deal death to our sin. He is the Lamb of God who comes with a scourge to beat the unfaithful for their hypocrisy and out of his temple. He is the Final Judge who died for us, making us clean before the Father’s throne. He is the Lion of David’s House who gently shepherds, protects, and provides. He tells Isaiah: “I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the LORD, there is no other.”

And no other is the LORD! Not the state, not a political party, not an institution, not a person or an idea or a theory. Nothing made can save us. Nothing passing can give us eternal life. If it can die, it cannot give eternal life. If it can change, it cannot impart perfection. If it can fail, it cannot gift us with goodness. That we want a man, a party, a system, or an idea to save us, to give us life, to grant us goodness is a sin as old as Eve’s yes to the serpent’s gift. Like the maliciously hypocritical Pharisees, don’t we often find ourselves testing Jesus to see who he will be for us today? Just poking him a bit to see if he will budge on a favorite issue or yield a bit on a favorite sin? We've seen and heard quite a lot of this week coming out of the Synod on the Family in Rome. One cardinal wanted to test the waters and published a report on the bishops' discussions to that point. The report contained language about divorced and remarried Catholics, co-habitating couples, and same-sex unions that directly contradicts the Church's ancient biblical understanding of marriage. Apparently, the good cardinal looks at Jesus and sees a therapist, or perhaps a man who really didn't mean it when he quoted Genesis, “. . .a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Fortunately, a majority of the bishops called the cardinal to task and the report was rewritten to reflect the truth of the faith. The temptation to remake our Lord in our own image and likeness is overwhelming; however, we do well not to worry him with our tests. He is the Lord, not our student.
Jesus fails the Pharisees' test. Turns out that he is not who they hope he is. He is not the traitor, the blasphemer, the arch-heretic they had hoped for. Neither is he a cuddly affirming therapist, nor the fiery-eyed God of Righteous Vengeance Come to Smite Our Enemies, nor the sagacious prophet with a stoical temper. He is the Judge, the Lamb, the Prince, the Child, the King, the Seed, the Vine, the Word, the Spirit. He is the LORD. And there is no other and no other is the LORD.
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Synod: desolations, tensions, and temptations

The Holy Father mentioned a few moments of "desolation, of tensions and temptations". . .

- One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

 - The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

 - The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).

 - The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.

 - The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…

That's some masterful Jesuitical tight-rope walking, folks! Obviously, the Holy Father was paying careful attention to the synod discussions.

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