29 April 2021

Surrender! Do or Do Not

NB. this is from 2016. The readings are not from today's Mass. 

St. Catherine of Siena
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Our Lord doesn't ask much of us. Love one another. Trust one another. Believe in one another. Correct one another. Remain in his love. Write our papers. Keep his commandments. Receive his peace. Take our final exams. Teach and preach all that he has taught us. Baptize in his name. Remember him. Forgive. Show mercy. Serve. Write evaluations. Keep his word. Feed the hungry. Visit the sick and imprisoned. Mourn the dead. Bless the poor. Grade exams and papers and turn in the grades. Drive out unclean spirits. Heal the blind and crippled. Complete faculty evaluations. Deny ourselves. Pick up our crosses. Finish up paperwork for accreditation. Compose syllabi and book orders for fall of 2016. Follow him. Oh, and, at last. . .die for the love we have for him.
O Lord! I am tired. My knees are swollen! My back aches! I have calluses on both my typing fingers! My eyes itch. I haven't slept well in four days. And I'm breaking out like a high school freshman. My room looks like a FEMA camp after Katrina. And I've not done laundry since the third Sunday of Lent. . .2014. I've forgotten how to read and I can no longer do basic addition or long division. I'm tired, Lord. I'm tired. What do you have to say, Lord? “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.” Well, thank you, Lord. One thing: can you unchose me?

The answer, of course, is no. He can't. Or, he won't. He knows our limits. And the limits beyond those limits. And he knows all that we give and all that we hold back. When we've given everything we have, all that we've held back. . .he gives us a new limit and the strength to reach it. The strength he gives is not some sort of magical grace-dust or a boost of sanctifying merits. He gives us himself. He's the limit. Not as an example, or a model, or a roadmap. He is the Limit. The Omega of all our striving. Think about it. Our end, our goal – Christ himself – comes to us in our soreness and sleepiness and crabbiness and hands himself over to us so that we might be made perfect as he is perfect. The Perfection we seek surrenders himself to us, the Imperfect, and dares us to surrender ourselves to him in return. How do we accomplish this astonishing task of surrender? “This I command you: love one another.” And forgive, show mercy, preach and teach, deny yourself, and follow him. 
Looking for answers, or maybe just some small consolation, I've searched the ancient libraries of the world – Oxford, Cambridge, Rome, London, Beijing, Ole Miss. . .and I've read hundreds of books and manuscripts. Talked to masters, professors, mystics, seers, soon-to-be saints, and quite a few sinners. How do I surrender? How do I hand over my life, everything that I am to God? I found the answer. My guide: a diminutive mystic of the Thomistic kind, a fellow renowned for his wisdom, patience, and kindness. I asked him my desperate question. He hefted his walking stick. Climbed a chair. And locked his eyes with mine and said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Expecting further distinctions or a citation from the Summa, I hesitated for a moment before breaking into tears. Love, or do not love. Forgive, or do not forgive. Believe, or do not believe. There is no try. Surrender, or do not. There is no try. There is no limit to surrender in love. Love one another as Christ loves you. He will not unchose you to complete the work he has given you to do. Therefore, with sore knees, cramping fingers, grouchy disposition, blurry eyes charge head long and recklessly into the work you have to do. . .knowing, knowing that Christ is your end, and he is always with you.

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25 April 2021

The wolves know our faith. . .do you?

4th Sunday of Easter

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


Audio File

What makes a shepherd a “good shepherd”? First, and most importantly, a good shepherd protects the flock from predators. He watches for wolves and does what's necessary to either drive the beasts away or get his flock to safety. A good shepherd makes sure the flock is properly fed, sheltered, and given medical care when needed. He also guides them into green pastures and rescues them when they get lost. It should be obvious why we call the priest in charge of a parish “a pastor.” Now, it might not be entirely flattering to think of yourselves as sheep, but the point of the comparison is to highlight the relationship between the parishioner and the pastor. Your pastor is your spiritual father, your shepherd in the faith. He does for you spiritually what the sheep herd does for his sheep materially. I'm not your pastor. But. . .Msgr. Hedrick once designated me as The Pastor of the 6pm Mass, so I'm going to take advantage of that entitlement and do some pastoring this evening! As the wolves of the world gather in the forest around our green pasture, I remind you of this truth: “There is no salvation through anyone else [but Christ], nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

Each generation of wolves invents a trap for the Lord's sheep, or reuses an old one. The simple strategy of these traps is to lure a wandering sheep away from the flock and slaughter it for a quick meal. Each trap follows a basic pattern: take a teaching of the faith, exaggerate just one element of that teaching, and call the exaggeration the whole truth. For example, the human person is composed of a body and a rational soul. The wily wolf will approach a wandering sheep and convince the poor thing that the human person is nothing more than a body, purely physical. If that's the case then the whole of the Christian life can be reduced to working selflessly for social justice in the political realm, improving living conditions for the poor and needy here on earth. That's all that it takes to be a good Christian. The truth is that our faith is both physical and spiritual – body and soul, heaven and earth. How does the wandering sheep counter the wily wolf? By knowing the faith intimately. By staying close to the flock and the flock's shepherd. By recognizing a wolf on sight and getting a whiff of its stench. So, do you know your faith well enough to battle a sheep-hungry wolf?

We could spend the rest of this year going through the thousands of lies the wolves have told about the faith over the generations. But there is one lie that stands above all the others for its effectiveness in capturing and killing the Lord's sheep. There are many paths to the mountaintop, little lamb. All those paths lead to the same place. IOW, Christ Jesus is not the only way to salvation. He is one of many possible options we can choose. This is an ancient trap that the wolves use generation after generation. It's appeal is obvious. If Jesus is just one of the many possible gates to heaven, then I needn't worry about being virtuous, charitable, forgiving, or holy. I can invent my own path – mix and match traditions from different religious sources and make-up my own moral system. My sins aren't really sins. My choices are automatically right and holy simply b/c I say they are. And best of all, I get to feel powerful when others applaud my inclusivity and open-mindedness. Heck! Even the wily wolves are clapping! And yet, and yet, “There is no salvation through anyone else [but Christ], nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

Here and now, the wolves aren't likely to tell the sheep that there are other, equally powerful religious saviors. They are more likely to ply the sheep with the lie that political ideologies will save them and create paradise on earth. These ideologies run the gamut from the extreme left to extreme right. The State is God. Race is God. Wealth is God. Politics is God. Self-Identity is God. Sex is God. Party is God. The Markets are God. Being a Victim is God. Diversity is God. Inclusion is God. Equity is God. What all of these boil down to is Power is God. Political, cultural, social, economic, medical power is God. Any one of these or all of them together – used aggressively against the right groups of people – will save you and establish heaven on earth. And yet, and yet, “There is no salvation through anyone else [but Christ], nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” Why is it so easy for the wolves to corner and kill good Catholics? Because we believe that economic, political, cultural, social power can and should be used in ways that bring true justice to the least among us. And the wolves know this. So, they do what they do best. They take part of the truth, exaggerate that part, and call it the whole truth. And b/c many do not know their faith as well as they should. . .they swallow the lie and find themselves a meal for wolves.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; I know mine and mine know me; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.” And he did. On the cross. And he rose on the third day. Just as he said he would. He is our Savior. Not the State. Not our race. Not our money or our politics or our gender. Christ Jesus alone died for his sheep. To save us from sin and death. Not a politician or an actor or an athlete or an activist. Christ Jesus is our Good Shepherd. Not a president or a SC justice or a governor or a talk-radio host. We are enlightened and brought to holiness by the Word of God. Not the words of self-promoting academics. Not the words of HR bureaucrats in mandatory training sessions. Not the words of gov't rent-seekers and career functionaries. We work for God's Justice and Peace. Not the justice and peace that comes with slavery to a worldly ideology or violent revolution. Our revolution begins with conversion from sin and a return to God through confession and contrition. There is one faith, one baptism, one Church, and one Shepherd. The wolves, they know your faith, and they know it well. Do you? 

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