06 October 2015

Choosing the best part: humility

27th Week OT (T)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

When I want to learn something new, I first find a way to teach it to someone else. The messy work of jumping into an intellectual project w/o a clear plan of attack doesn't bother me. I don’t have to know every text, every authority, every footnote. Living is mostly about introductions, anyway: bits and pieces, snapshots, and collections. But to make sense of all of my collected snapshots, I need a bigger introduction, a larger story. Something to fit My Story into The Story, so that My Story doesn’t end up as a knock-knock joke or a fortune cookie proverb. This need for a bigger explanation, a grander script is basic to human flourishing. We are pattern-making animals created to love the One Who made us. Because we have heard the Good News and received the Father's mercy, we sit at the feet of the Teacher who is himself the Biggest Story, the Grandest Script, and we let him coach us through our ignorance, our rebellion, and our pride. He is the Gift that turns our wandering into wonder, and pushes us out to give all we have received. 
To be properly taught, we must bring one small gift to The Teacher. We must bring the shiny red apple of humility! To be taught – properly taught – is to be changed, turned around and upside down, and made new. Wooo! Can you feel the anxiety! Changed?! Made new?! Teeth clench. Fingers form a fist. And humility is trapped, trapped by worry, by anxious need. We cannot give ourselves fully to the Teacher if we will not unclench our teeth and relax our fists – those busy, busy, hands that seem to believe that determination and hard work will eventually earn us salvation. Any sort of earned-salvation is never worth the work. We cannot be saved by anything made by human hands. There's a better way – the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus teaches Martha by telling her that Mary has chosen the better way. But Mary is just lazy and wants to avoid work, right? No. And Martha is trapped in a socially constructed, oppressive gender role that forces her to serve the patriarchy, right? No. Jesus teaches Martha that Mary has chosen the better path b/c she, Martha, is “anxious and worried about many things.” Martha, sister, where is your humility?!

We could ask Martha: “Martha, does your worrying about many things proclaim the Christ in you? Are you presenting yourself as perfect in Christ when you flail around the room throwing off anxiety like clothes set on fire?” Martha might answer, “I am showing our Lord honor by serving him. And Mary is lollygagging at his feet doing nothing!” So, maybe the question we need to ask is: what is it to serve the Lord, and how is that service an honor to him? Martha argues that being up and moving, doing something productive, serves the Lord. It's true. Manual labor does honor the Lord b/c it shows a willingness to work for his sake. Mary seems to be arguing that sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to him teach, serves him. And he is honored best by allowing him to serve her as her Teacher. The Lord says to all this, “Mary has chosen the better part…” Yes, she has. Not b/c doing good work in the Lord's name is dishonorable, but b/c doing good work in the Lord's name out of fear and worry and anxiety is. Humility never leads to worry. Humility always brings us to peace and docility. Sure, anxiety, worry, and fear can motivate hard work. But hard work – alone – can never bring peace. Mary chooses the better part, the Big Picture. She chooses in humility to allow Christ to be her teacher. 

Choose the better part. No. Choose the best.

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04 October 2015

Any marriage can thrive. . .

27th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Uncomfortable truths do not go away simply b/c we harden our hearts against them. Reality does not yield to argument or whining. Truth is truth; the Real is real, and we are thrown into both and forced to deal with each as best we can. However, better than most, we Catholics are equipped to confront and thrive in the truth of the real b/c we know and believe that God our Father is Love. He created us in love; redeemed us in love; and He brings us back to Him in love. Our daily reality – given and unavoidable – is soaked through with the abiding presence of Love Himself. Also given and unavoidable. God's presence does not guarantee us that we will never come to harm, or that all of our works will prosper, or that we will always be happy. What His presence does guarantee is everything we do and say can be given the weight of eternity if we work and speak in His name for His glory. With our hearts and minds firmly focused on our lives in Christ, our hands and feet are free to do the holy work we have been given to do. Uncomfortable truths do not go away simply b/c we harden our hearts against them. Reality does not yield to argument or whining.

Earlier today in Rome, the Holy Father opened the 2015 Synod of Bishops. The synod Fathers are gathered to address “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.” This is the conclusion to last year's controversial synod where it appeared – for a moment – that a faction in the synod had maneuvered the Fathers into recommending that the Church dilute her ancient teachings on marriage, divorce, and same-sex relationships. That faction was exposed and its contentious mid-synod report was withdrawn and amended to better reflect the actual recommendations of the whole synod. Between last year's synod and this year's, many of the synod Fathers have published books, articles, and interviews variously defending the Church's tradition; attacking her tradition; or calling for modest reform of the tradition. A few months ago, Pope Francis reformed the annulment process, making the long, expensive ordeal shorter and cheaper. Some applauded. Some booed. Some said, “About time!” Others said, “Catholic divorce is here!” In his homily this morning, the Holy Father said this, “This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self.” 
This is not how the Pharisees understand marriage. To test Jesus, they ask him, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” The answer to this question is, “Yes, it's lawful.” But Jesus wants to know if divorce is right. At his request, the Pharisees repeat Moses' law on divorce – a simple matter of the husband writing a bill of divorce for his wife. Jesus says to this, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment.” He then quotes Genesis – “two become one flesh” – and concludes, “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Here we have an uncomfortable truth that does not go away simply b/c we harden our hearts against it. Here we have a reality that does not yield to argument or whining. Moses allowed divorce b/c the hearts of men were hardened to the gifts of marriage, hardened to the possibilities found in the “mutual gift of self.” Because they would not understand the indissoluble nature of marriage taught in Scripture, Moses gave them a way out. Our Lord knows that though we often fail, we are able – with his grace – to enter the covenant of marriage and thrive.

With the grace of the sacrament and the support of the Church, any marriage can thrive. Notice I did not say “any marriage can be perfect” or “no marriage will ever have problems.” Any marriage can thrive b/c the foundation of marriage is the divine love of Christ for his Church. What obscures or blocks God's love from helping a marriage thrive? In Moses' day it was probably the fact that the wife was more or less the property of the husband. Or the wife's failure to produce a male heir. Or some economic difficulty. In our own day, the obstructions are more subtle but no less destructive. Is the marriage kept barren through the use of artificial contraception? Or worse still, abortion? Does the very real threat of no-fault divorce make every disagreement potentially fatal to the marriage? Somehow, we've convinced ourselves that we can alter the nature of marriage by judicial fiat. When marriage can mean whatever we want it to mean, when does it come to mean nothing at all? With technology and gadgets, how much harder is it to avoid the temptations of adultery and fornication? All of these and others can obscure God's love in a marriage, they can. . .but only if the husband and wife forget that God forms the foundation of their union. Only if they forget that marriage is for the stability of the family and the salvation of their souls.

For the next three weeks, we will be hearing news from Rome about the synod on the family. We will hear reports that sound like a political nominating convention. The conservatives are winning! BOO! The progressives are winning! BOO! We'll hear about how the Pope is letting this thing run wild, and how the media is lying to us about the proceedings. We'll hear from the lobbying groups – the gay and lesbian group, the divorced moms group, the remarried dads group, the stick in the mud traditionalists – everyone will have an opinion and an agenda. There's only one opinion and agenda that really matters here: God's. And Scripture has spoken eloquently on the subject, “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh.” One man, one woman, complementary, joined by God again into one flesh. What God has joined together, no man can tear apart.
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