Tuesday, May 21, 2013

St Christopher Magallanes and companions, martyrs

Be sincere of heart, be steadfast,
  and do not be alarmed when disaster comes.
Cling to him and do not leave him,
  so that you may be honoured at the end of your days.
Whatever happens to you, accept it,
  and in the uncertainties of your humble state, be patient,
since gold is tested in the fire,
  and chosen men in the furnace of humiliation.
                                                                 Ecclesiasticus 2

.          .         . 

It was the words 'humble state' that caught my attention. Humility is the most highly-praised virtue in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers, and in the theology of St Augustine and many others. But it is a slippery virtue to develop. By what standard might we measure our own humility? 

The very idea of a measurement seems somehow incongruous. Humility is more like flying, in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: you'll never fly by intending to fly. The only way to take off is to aim for the ground and miss. And the only way to stay in the air is not to call attention to yourself. One of my very favorite lines in the flying scene consists of the immortal words (every letter capitalized): do not wave at anybody. 

Flying, like humility, is a matter of the right sort of attention. Concentrate on the flying, and you'll fall; try to become humble, and you'll never achieve it. How then, do we do it? "Cling to him and do not leave him...Whatever happens to you, accept it." The attention is all important: attend to Jesus, and not to ourselves; amid the uncertainties and upsets of life, do not wave at anybody. Look to Jesus, and forget about the laws of gravity. 

The Mexican priests we remember today did that, and we honor them for their humility, for counting nothing so precious as the body and blood of Christ. For them, and for all those who have walked faithfully the path of discipleship, lighting the way for others to follow, I am grateful. 

Deo gratias. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Our Lady of Fatima

A father of the fatherless
   and a judge for the widows,
   is God in his holy habitation.
God makes a home for the lonely;
He leads out the prisoners into prosperity,
   Only the rebellious dwell in a parched land.

Psalm 68[67]: 5-6

.    .    .

In case any doubt remained about God's preferential treatment of the downcast and oppressed: in his holy habitation, God is the defender and protector of those in need. Holiness cannot be separated from care for the downtrodden; to be holy is to make 'a home for the lonely,' not to hide ourselves away somewhere, as God in his holy habitation is not secluded, but opens himself to all those who need him.

Deo gratias.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Tuesday of the sixth week of Eastertide

I thank you for your faithfulness and love, 
   which excel all we ever knew of you. 
On the day I called, you answered; 
   you increased the strength of my soul.
                                              Psalm 138 [137]

.     .     .

When I was pregnant with Anna, and we knew that something was not right, people would often ask me how I was doing. I had good days and bad days; I said that the bad days were the days I was worried that I wouldn't be up to the task of parenting in any case, and the good days were the days that I thought that whatever happened, I would be given the strength to see it through. I noted then that it was not that the good days were those when I believed that everything would somehow, perhaps miraculously, work out. The good days were hopeful in a far deeper sense, when I hoped in God's power to strengthen me for whatever might come. 

Looking back on that time, I ought to thank God for his faithfulness and love: I made it. And I made it through some pretty unpleasant times with a sometimes unsteady soul. I know that God can strengthen my still unsteady soul, and can draw it back from the brink of destruction. I know what it is like to have fresh hope breathed into my despairing heart, and to see the love of God in the eyes of my children. Today isn't one of those days. Today is more like the unsteady days, the days of uncertainty and exhaustion, of calling out to God, hoping for a speedy answer. 

Perhaps more than anything else, the dark and difficult days have taught me how to call out--as much an exhortation to my soul as a prayer, maybe, but I think God hears the prayer in these words: 

Why are you downcast, O my soul, 
  and why so disquieted within me? 
Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, 
  my help and my God. 

And so I shall. 

Deo gratias. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Sts Philip and James, Apostles

Day to day pours forth speech,
   and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
   their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through
   all the earth,
And their utterance to the end of the world.
                                                       Psalm 19 [18]: 2-4

Jesus said to him, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father."
                                                       John 16: 9

.       .       .

The readings for today are full of puzzles, or so it seems to me. I have always loved the paradoxical character of the words from Psalm 19: "day to day pours forth speech" yet "there is no speech"? How can that be? (If we read on in the psalm, it becomes even more puzzling, I think, since the speech-that-is-not-speech somehow is also a "tent" for the sun...) And then, there is Jesus' response to Philip's question: if you have seen me, says Jesus, you have seen the Father. Yet Jesus himself says he is going to the Father, so there is some distinction in the unity between the Son and the Father to whom he is going. I don't blame Philip for asking, because the whole thing seems far from obvious.

What stands out for me in these puzzles, though, is the way "knowledge" of God comes. There is the knowledge that somehow is revealed in the night, in the way "speech" comes forth in the day; and there is the knowing Jesus by knowing his relationship to the Father--and conversely, the knowledge of the Father by seeing the Father in (through? with?) Jesus. That is, the knowledge of God isn't like the knowledge that we acquire through reading books, studying nature, or hearing lectures (or even homilies). My friend John Swinton describes the knowledge of God as being known by God. God knows us independent of our senses or our faculties, and God indwells us by the Spirit. If our senses seem to fail us (as Philip's sight seemed to fail him), or our minds fail us, God does not fail us. We know God by God's initiative and power, not by our own initiative and power.

That seems to raise more questions than it answers, and doesn't solve any puzzles. But it does remind us that, in the end, it's all grace. And that's good.

Deo gratias.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wednesday of the fifth week of Eastertide

But some...were teaching [that] 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'
Acts 15: 1

to which the tribes go up,
     the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
     to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
Psalm 122 [121]: 3-4

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself,
unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him,
he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
John 15: 4-5

.         .        .

I teach theology, and I can't quite leave my day job behind when I approach the Mass readings. Still I am the theology teacher, thinking in terms of the Big Questions. And these three passages seem to shout out answers to the question, 'What must I do to be saved?' (A) Be circumcised. (B) Go to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. (C) 'Abide' in Jesus.

The thing about (A) and (B) is that they are so straightforward. Each could even be construed as a mark of (C), abiding in Jesus. Because, to be honest, to 'abide' in Jesus is not especially well-defined. Being a disciple of Jesus is about being joined to him, connected to him;  and it is also to take part in his work, the mission for which the Father sent him: the salvation of the world. If we want to be saved, we have to become a part of Jesus. This is a radical claim, and one I do not pretend to understand fully. The body of Christ is not a metaphor; it is the reality of our existence as Jesus' disciples, and it is a very great mystery.

Because it is such a great mystery, we have a lot of argument about what constitutes Church, and what marks Christians as Jesus' disciples. It is tempting, on the one hand, to claim particular features that identify Christians--circumcision was useful that way. Either you're circumcised, or you're not. It's a nice, clear marker. The temple in Jerusalem is equally handy--if you want to be sure you're worshipping the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, go to Jerusalem. That's where he hangs out. We Christians have some similar, but not so obvious ways of recognizing those who belong to our 'tribe'. The other temptation is to deny any such markers, to say that Christian faith and practice can look different according to history, culture and person--infinitely so. The Spirit (who keeps us joined to Christ's body) moves where it wills.

It's a tricky business, this being the body of Christ. How do we know we're still attached to the vine? How can we trust that others are a part of the same vine? 'Abide in me' sounds good, but it's impossible to quantify. Here's where I can't stop being a theology teacher. I think that the two questions about the vine are very different ones. In discerning our own hearts, I think we have to be ruthless in 'taking every thought captive to Christ'. Hold on, and don't let go; and when you can't hold on, ask Jesus to hold you. (Colossians 1: 17 says he's doing just that.) In our relationships with others, we have to trust God and pray. It's not up to us to tell the wheat from the tares, but to pray for the harvest. And to remember that the One whose body we are came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.

Deo gratias.