Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lent Lite or Lenten Transformation? Lent 2

Life is full of challenges, big and small.

Anyone disagree with that?

Travelling with small children is one of life’s small challenges that can seem enormous. I had to fly down to Portland this week, and across the aisle was a couple with a baby who screamed almost non-stop.

At least the mother was a model of calm. She spoke very gently “Keep calm, Albert. No need to be upset, Albert. We’ll be home soon, Albert.”

As we were getting off the plane I gave the young parents an encouraging smile, and asked the husband how old little Albert was.

“Oh, no,” he said,“His name’s Michael. I’m Albert.”

On the surface, today's Gospel seems miles away from such daily challenges. That mountaintop is about as far away as you can get from my fears and my issues—obviously it’s about Jesus preparing his friends for the scandal of his crucifixion, arming them in advance with a preview of his glory.

But if that’s all it’s about, why does the Church present us with the transfiguration every year on the second Sunday of Lent? This year we read St. Luke’s account, next year St. Matthew’s, last year St. Mark. Obviously it’s important, but why? After all, we don’t need a preview of Christ’s resurrection; it has already happened.

I can suggest one good reason why: the transfiguration strengthens our hope that we will be transformed.

Let’s shift our focus for a moment from Jesus to ourselves. Do we believe that there’ll come a time when our faces will be changed, when our clothes will be dazzling and white?

There’s every reason to believe that: St. Paul writes “He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory...” (Phil 3:21a). We’re offered a personal share in that mountaintop experience.

Which leads to the big question: are we on our way up the mountain to share in Christ’s glory, or are we standing at the base of the hill scratching our heads? Are we expecting personal transformation during these days of Lent, or just ‘more of the same’?

Because the road to glory doesn’t start at the end of our days; it starts right now.

We all know how hard our Olympic athletes trained, and their discipline is an excellent reminder of the demands of Christian discipleship. In fact, in one of his most memorable passages, St. Paul uses running, and races, and even boxing to remind us that we need to train and discipline our bodies. (1 Cor 9.24-27)

But competitors know there’s more to winning than physical training: attitude and expectation are crucial. An athlete who expects to win has a much great chance of victory than one who doubts or fears.

What about us? Do we expect Lent to transform us? Are we really looking for visible changes in our daily lives? More patience, less selfishness; more insight, less anger; more generosity, less self-indulgence. Are we anticipating victories, large or small, over some of the things that enslave us or hold us back?

If we’re settling for “Lent lite,” today might be a day to think again. God offers real change and deep renewal to those who pick up the torch at Lent and run with it.

We’ve already talked about three ways to run the Lenten race—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We do these things to please God, certainly, but each of these aims at transforming our hearts: in other words, if prayer, fasting and almsgiving don’t change us, we’re not getting them right.

Ask yourself: do I expect to be the same old me at Easter? Is the journey from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week a Sunday drive or a bold climb up the mountain?

Your answer won’t come in words. St. Josemaria Escriva said “Love is deeds, not sweet words and excuses.” So what are your deeds?

Last week I proposed a practical way we might approach prayer, fasting and almsgiving on the Fridays of Lent. It should work for most people, but it’s by no means the only way of taking Lent to heart. (By the way, in last Sunday's homily I promised something more on fasting this week; you’ll find some wise words on the subject from Matthew Kelly in the posting below.)

This week, I suggest a different kind of fast: fasting from our plans and over-scheduled lives, and making space for things of the spirit.

A week from Wednesday, we will have a parish mission. For three nights our community will gather to hear Father Dan Mahan preach on the topic “More than Silver or Gold,” which you have to agree is a pretty timely title! His talks aren’t about becoming a better parish, or about feeling good about ourselves, or even about feeling bad about ourselves: they’re about personal change, from the inside out.

Father Mahan will be talking about stewardship, one of the most transforming themes in the Church today. He’s asking: do I want my Catholic faith to drive everything I do? He’s asking: am I ready to be a full-time and full-out Christian? And he’s telling us one way that can happen, if we make stewardship a way of life.

The mission is offering something more precious than silver or gold, because it’s offering a way of living life in Christ.

I am as busy as the busiest parishioner, new parents excepted. I understand the reasons you have for missing the mission. Soccer practice. Tennis lessons. Homework. Business pressures. Kids.

But I also understand—as I know you do—that the disciples had to go up the mountain to see Christ’s glory and the promise of their glory. I’m sure when they came down the mountain their friends were full of stories of all the fish that got away while they were away being dazzled by the Lord.

A second way to make space for the spirit is to enter into the kind of personal prayer that can transform us. One of the most ancient forms of prayer is making a big comeback nowadays—it is called lectio divina, Latin words that mean “sacred reading.”

Lectio divina uses a text, usually from Scripture, as a doorway to a conversation with God. It’s a four-step approach to prayer: reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating.

In his Lenten letter, Archbishop Prendergast of Ottawa makes the great suggestion of using the Sunday readings of Lent—or even the daily ones—for this kind of prayer. He also offered a very helpful and uncomplicated guide to lectio divina, using last Sunday’s readings as an example; I have made copies of it that you can pick up as you leave church today.

We have it on good authority that sacred reading has the power to transform us: Not long after he was elected, Pope Benedict told a group of biblical experts that if lectio divina is effectively promoted, it will bring “a new spiritual springtime” to the Church. In fact, he added “I am convinced of it.”*

You don’t need to be any kind of an expert to know that a prayer that can change the Church must be able to change each member first. So give Lenten lectio a thought if you’re prepared to make the commitment.

In the end, it’s about expectations. Those who ask, receive. Those who seek, find. Our Lenten program, whatever we’ve chosen, should give us fresh hope of meaningful personal change here and now, the beginning of our glorious transformation in the life to come.

* Address to participants in the international congress on “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church,” September 16, 2005.


In my homily last Sunday I promised to say more about fasting this Sunday. But I've been working on my homily and it's going in another direction!

Accordingly, I decided to run with an excerpt from Matthew Kelly's excellent book Rediscovering Catholicism: Journeying Toward Our Spiritual North Star. He has a lengthy section on fasting, including its biblical basis, from which I have digested the following:

"I pray we can rediscover the value of this ancient spiritual practice as modern Catholics. Not for God’s sake, but for our own. I am utterly convinced that if we are to develop the inner freedom to resist the temptations that face us in the modern world, we must learn to assert the dominance of the spirit over the body, of the eternal over the temporal. If the spirit within each of us is to reign, then the body must first be tamed. Prayer won’t achieve this, works of charity won’t achieve this, and power of the will won’t achieve it. This is a task for fasting, abstinence, and other acts of penance.

There is great wisdom in the Christian practice of fasting. Though Christian fasting has been largely abandoned, the one penitential practice that seems to have survived the turmoil of this modern era is that of Lenten Penance. Although, I suspect it is hanging on by a very thin cultural thread, which will break unless we can make people aware of the great beauty and spiritual significance of these acts.

There is a war taking place within you. It is the constant battle between your body and your soul. At every moment of the day, both are vying for dominance. If you wish to have a rich and abundant experience of life, you must allow your soul to soar. But in order to do that, you must first tame and train the body. You cannot win this war once a week, or once a year, or even once a day. From moment to moment, our desires must be harnessed.

Penance, fasting, abstinence, and mortification should be a part of our everyday lives. For example, if you have a craving for Coke, but you have lemonade instead. It is the smallest thing. Nobody notices. And yet, by this simple action you say “no” to the body and assert the dominance of the soul assisted by the will. The will is strengthened, and the soul is a little freer.

Or, your soup tastes a little dull. You could add salt and pepper, but you don’t. It’s a little thing. It’s nothing. But if it’s done for the right reasons, with the correct inner attitude, it is a spiritual exercise. You say “no” to the body. In doing so, you assert the dominance of the spirit. The will is strengthened, and the soul is a little freer.

It is these tiny acts that harness the body as a worthy servant, and strengthen the will for the great moments of decision that are a part of each of our lives.

Beyond these moments of mortification, we should each seek encounters with fasting and abstinence if we are serious about the spiritual life. Not because the Pope says to or because our local bishops conference advises it, but because it will help us to turn away from sin and turn to God. Fasting helps us to turn our backs on the-lesser-version-of-ourselves and embrace the-best-version-of-ourselves.

Perhaps you can fast one day a week—two small meals, one full meal, and nothing to eat between meals. Perhaps you can fast one day a week on bread and water. Or maybe all you can manage at this time is to give up coffee for one day. Maybe you can’t even give up coffee for the whole day, maybe just for two hours. Friday has always been a traditional day of fasting, and I would encourage you to employ this tradition in your own way. Only you can decide what is right for you in this area.

Try not to be prideful about it. Come humbly to God in prayer, and there in the Classroom of Silence, decide upon some regular practice of fasting and abstinence. Then, from time to time, review this practice. If you feel called to add to it, add to it.


It is also important to recognize that not all forms of fasting and mortification involve food. You can fast from judging others, or criticizing, or cursing.

Two powerful forms of mortification that helped me to grow tremendously were the practice of silence and stillness. Sit in the silence for twenty minutes. It isn’t easy. That is why so few people pray. After you have become comfortable in the silence, be still for twenty minutes. Completely still. It is difficult. Yet I am convinced that silence and stillness are two of the greatest spiritual tools.

Fasting is a simple yet powerful way to turn toward God. If there is a question in your life—fast and ask God to lead you. He will. If you have a persistent sin that you just cannot seem to shake—fast. Some demons can be cast our only by prayer and fasting together.

Fasting is radically counter-cultural, but so is true Christianity."

From Rediscovering Catholicism: Journeying Toward Our Spiritual North Star, by Matthew Kelly.

Church Scandals: An OT Perspective

Way back in December, I promised some thoughts on scandal in the Church, particularly that caused by clerical sexual misconduct. It’s something I have been reflecting upon since such scandals erupted in Canada in the late 1980s, and current events in Ireland (and elsewhere) have brought the tragic subject to the fore again.

I promised more than I can deliver—January and February have turned out to be almost bewilderingly busy—but I want to honour my promise with a few reflections at least.

For some reason, I view these tragedies through an Old Testament lens. Israel has a deep sense of collective sin and collective shame that is eclipsed, understandably, by the New Testament's vision of the Church as the spotless bride of Christ. But since the Church remains sinful in her members, even though not in her Head, I think we can make the laments of the Psalmist and the prophets our own prayer of sorrow.

The Psalms are particularly appropriate because they recognize three aspects of the crisis of clerical misconduct: the sins of individuals, the sins of leaders, and the exploitation of these by those who wish harm to the People of God. To recognize the last is not to shift blame to the media, or to blame the messenger, but to acknowledge truthfully that sin in the Church weakens our witness and is artfully used by enemies of the Gospel, both on earth and elsewhere.

Consider Psalm 35. The Psalmist acknowledges that he has stumbled, even if without the element of remorse shown in other psalms. But he also laments that his fall has caused his enemies to rejoice, and he asks the Lord to rescue him from the destructive attacks that his failures have permitted.

Other consequences of sin are detailed in Psalm 38, which conveys the full effect of sin: the Psalmist’s whole body is sick from it; he is dazed and humiliated. While Catholics need to mount legitimate defences against unjust and malevolent attacks, where they exist, we need first to mourn what has happened.

Psalm 44 helps us to admit that some aspects of the current disaster, though not God’s will, have been used to chastise and purify His Church. Psalm 44 says “you have made us an object of ridicule among the nations; all day long...” God has permitted this even though the one who prays protests his fundamental faithfulness.

In all this, the psalms offer hope. “Our record of sins overwhelms us,” Psalm 65 admits, “but you forgive our act of rebellion.”

To conclude: these and other texts can lead us to pray for healing in these painful moments with truthfulness about the sins of others, our own sins, and the deep collective wounds of the Church as the new People of God, all the while begging God’s mercy.

Historically, they can place this crisis within a broader context—the plan of salvation, which continues to unfold against all the odds.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Penance a Christian Duty: Lent 1

The goal of this homily is neat and simple. I would like to convince you of one fact, and to invite you to act on it.

Here’s the fact: penance is not an option for any Christian.

I’m not going to argue the point, at least not today, because the popes have declared it with authority. The shortest statement comes from Paul VI, who declared “By divine law all the faithful are required to do penance” (Apostolic constitution Paenitemini, I. 1).

The fact that the duty to do penance is God’s law, not just the Church’s, is clear enough in the Scriptures. Jesus tells us to pick up the cross and follow him, and gives us an example of penance by his fast of forty days recounted in today’s gospel.

The essential character of penance is also stated in the Catechism, which teaches that the People of God can extend Christ’s reign only by way of penance and renewal, the way of the cross (n. 853).

But somewhere along the way we’ve suffered a disconnect. We’ve put penance in the category of ‘optional extras,’ partly by connecting it exclusively to the Lenten season. I’ll be honest with you if you’ll be honest with yourselves: I do very little penance outside of Lent and not enough during Lent.

A young parishioner asked me on Thursday what I thought he should do for Lent. Since there was another young adult standing close by, I turned and asked him what he was doing this Lent. He answered very simply “I gave up red meat, hot showers, and I am doing good to my roommate without being detected.”

I very quickly said a prayer: “Dear Lord, please don’t let him ask me what I’m doing!”

The reason I’m not doing enough penance is probably the same reason you’re not doing enough penance: I didn't quite make the jump from the practices of my childhood to adult self-denial.When the Church stopped telling us exactly what penance to do, sometime in the sixties, many weren’t quite ready to take on the responsibility. We interpreted the end of mandatory abstinence from meat as the end of Friday penance; the end of legislated fasting meant no fasting at all.

No-one’s to blame for all this—the change in the law was a serious invitation for Catholics to grow in personal responsibility. But the results are obvious. Even the most devout people think nothing of heading to the Keg for a steak on Friday, and meaningful Lenten penances are seen as something rather quaint.

I can’t turn this around in a single sermon. I said at the beginning that my goal was simple: to convince you that penance is a duty of each and every Christian, and to invite you to act on that.

I’d like to make that invitation concrete by suggesting that everyone who hasn’t chosen a meaningful Lenten penance should choose one before leaving church today.

There are many forms of penance. Certainly one must admire those who undertake tough penances like that committed young man. A parishioner closer to my own age practices a form of self-denial that I admire even more than giving up hot showers: he abstains from both coffee and alcohol, and buys nothing at all for himself during Lent. I could manage two out of three, but I almost shudder at giving up coffee.

And for some people, prayerfully accepting present trials or health problems, uniting them to the sufferings of Christ, is more than sufficient penance.

Penance is therefore very personal—indeed, the Code of Canon Law adds something to those words I’ve quoted from Pope Paul. Canon 1249 states that “The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way.”

But I would like to offer one specific choice for those who want to take the divine command seriously, but who can’t quite figure out what’s too much—and we can indeed do too much penance, although it’s not been a problem for me!—or too little.

I’m going to propose a Lenten resolution that involves all of the three most traditional ways that Christians have used to express their spirit of penitence: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Ideally, a Lenten program should involve all three of them, because fasting helps convert us in relation to ourselves, prayer in relation to God, and almsgiving in relation to others (see CCC 1434).

Here’s the proposal. Every Friday for the rest of Lent, do these three things: observe a simple fast, pray the Stations of the Cross, and give a small sum of money to the poor.

And here’s how it could work some Fridays: Eat your usual breakfast and a slightly smaller than usual lunch. Then join us around 6:15 for “Soup and Silence,” a hearty meal of soup and bread served by members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Believe it or not, that’s all that fasting demands—eating at three meals what we would usually eat at two. The “Soup and Silence” fare is extremely tasty, but it’s modest enough to fit into a Friday fast, without undue hunger.

“Soup and Silence” is free of charge, but the St. Vincent de Paul Society provides an opportunity to make an offering to the poor. That, of course, is almsgiving.

The meal is followed by the Stations of the Cross, the most popular of all Lenten devotions. Obviously, it’s a real time of prayer.

How much simpler could it get? Fasting, prayer and almsgiving—on Fridays, the most penitential of days. All rooted deeply in Catholic tradition.

You’re a traveler or otherwise unable to spend an hour at the church on Fridays? No problem. Fasting is never out of reach when it is understood in this moderate sense of eating a normal meal plus two smaller than usual ones. We have Stations of the Cross prayer booklets you can buy for a dollar or two, allowing you a truly Lenten time of prayer wherever you are. And almsgiving is never out of reach for anyone, rich or poor.

I hope you’re convinced: penance is a Christian duty, year-round. And Lent’s the perfect time to take that duty seriously, with a serious but simple plan.

Next week I’ll try to say a bit more about fasting, the most ancient of our penitential practices. Unless, of course, I decide to turn off the hot water instead!