Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hopeful homily from Mount Angel Abbey

I won't be posting a Sunday homily this week or next. I am just finishing a week of retreat and reflection at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon's beautiful Willamette Valley, and next weekend will be in Quebec City for a few days of holiday after the annual general meeting of the board of Catholic Christian Outreach in Ottawa.

But last week I heard a beautiful short homily from my old friend Father Paschal Cheline, OSB, and it is worth sharing here with his kind permission.

The readings on Friday were the prophet Ezekiel's stirring vision of the valley of dry bones, and the Gospel gave us Christ's teaching about the two greatest commandments, "You shall love the Lord your God with all all your heart... And your neighbor as yourself." From these texts, on the feast of the great reformer Bernard of Clairvaux, Father Paschal drew these simple but inspiring thoughts, particularly relevant in trying times for the Church:

My brothers and sisters in the Faith,

The scene is well known because of the great Negro spiritual: the dry bones on the plain come together and the Spirit of life comes into them. A people is renewed and restored by the power of God and the obedience of the prophet Ezekiel.

The scene is an image of the Church--often predicted to be dying or dead, and certainly to be ineffective. The Church, however, governed by the law of love of God and neighbor, as Jesus said, will always be renewed and reformed by the Spirit. New life and new energy will keep the Church a force for the building of the Kingdom of God among us, for the salvation of souls and for the unity of all peoples.

Ezekiel's image of the dry bones coming to life renews our hope in the Church and calls us--each of us--to be alive in the Spirit and to live the Gospel: to love God and our neighbor in sincerity and truth.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Assumption: Dogmas Help, Not Hinder

Until very recently, the author Anne Rice was mostly famous for three things.

First, she wrote a series of bestselling novels about vampires. I guess you won’t be surprised that I never read one.

Second, she wrote two books about Jesus. I have one of them but didn’t manage to read it either.

And third, she was famous for returning to the Catholic faith of her childhood. Her spiritual memoir, Called Out of Darkness, described how she came back to the faith she’d rejected in her youth.

Rice gave a moving account of her return to the Church: “In the moment of surrender, I let go of all the theological or social questions which had kept me from [God] for countless years. I simply let them go. There was the sense, profound and wordless, that if He knew everything I did not have to know everything, and that, in seeking to know everything, I’d been, all of my life, missing the entire point.”

Like many others, I rejoiced that someone so famous had found her way back to God and the Church, and that she was so public about it.

Last week, however, Ann Rice publicly rejected Christianity. She announced “Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity.”

I was, of course, both very sad and quite surprised to hear this. But when I went back and re-read some of the things she’d said about her conversion, her decision to reject Christianity—Catholic Christianity in particular—wasn’t all that surprising.

Because from the first days of her newfound faith, Rice did not accept a range of Church teachings, including those on homosexuality, birth control, and abortion. Her arguments are eloquent, as you’d expect from someone who has sold over 100 million books. She says, for instance, that “following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

I am sure that many of us have heard similar arguments, or even made them ourselves. They are not silly or ignorant or mean-spirited arguments like those in some current atheist bestsellers. They are, to some extent, the arguments of many devout and admirable Protestant Christians.

But they are arguments that the Church has answered centuries ago, and every Catholic should be able to answer them in his or her head and in his or her heart.

And they are arguments that we must answer to celebrate properly today’s feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Today we celebrate a truth of faith that you won’t find defined in the Bible. Yet it is a dogma—a belief of such importance that Catholics are obliged to give to it “an irrevocable adherence of faith.” (CCC 88)

Like all dogmas, the Assumption is not unconnected to our faith in Christ; on the contrary, the Catechism tells us that dogmas are either truths contained in Divine Revelation or truths that have a necessary connection with them. (CCC 88)

The Catechism adds that “There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure.” (CCC 89)

In Anne Rice’s “moment of surrender,” she says that she “let go of all the theological or social questions which had kept [her] from [God].” But letting go was the exact opposite of the Catholic response to theological questions. We don’t let go; we hang on.

We embrace the core truths that the Church proposes, even before our intellect may be fully able to work them out. Certainly we don’t turn off our brains, but we welcome dogmas even when we still have some ways to go before we understand or agree with them. We hang on to them.

What might have been different if Anne Rice had welcomed even the Church’s most difficult and currently unpopular teachings, hanging on to them like a lifeline in stormy seas?

I would venture this thought: if Anne Rice had taken to heart the dogma of the Assumption, she might still be calling herself a Christian today.

Because Mary’s Assumption shows two things very clearly: our human dignity, and our human destiny.

It’s easy enough to keep the teaching of Jesus in a “spiritual” box so it doesn’t interfere with our physical world. But the Church has always applied his message to both soul and body… and makes no apology for that. For the truth about the body is a soaring, glorious truth: the body, no less than the soul, is created in the image and likeness of God. It, no less than the soul, can draw us to Him. Does this seem far-fetched? Well, just try some time to get your soul to heaven without a body to see, to sense, to know.

What’s more, this body has a destiny—to rise as an eternal body. This truth is quite beyond imagining: but the Assumption helps us grasp it. In Mary’s journey to heaven, body and soul, we catch something of our own destiny. True enough, she was the most blessed of all women—but in order to be that, she had to be a woman: human like us, a body-person like us.

In the honour Christ gave to Mary we can anticipate “the resurrection of all members of his Body.”

Such truths matter, in the long haul. As the Catechism says, they illuminate and secure our faith. Mary’s Assumption teaches without words the dignity and the destiny of each faithful Christian.

And the Church does the same, proclaiming other dogmas that may challenge and even confuse us, but which will eventually save us if we hang on despite our doubts, and seek with humility and patience the saving truths they contain.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Persevering in Faith (19.C)

How long is a good Sunday homily? In the book of Nehemiah, Ezra read the Book of the Law to the people "from morning until midday" (Neh. 8:3). In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul preached a sermon that went on until midnight (Acts 20:7). On the other hand, the Sermon on the Mount can’t be much more than two or three minutes long.

When people ask Protestant pastor David Padfield how long he preaches for, he answers “Until I get done.”

Today, I am going to preach both a short homily, and a long one. The short homily’s only three words long: “Don’t give up.” I could make it even shorter, by saying “don’t quit,” because that’s our second reading in a nutshell.

When things got tough, Abraham—our father in faith—didn’t give up on God. When hope seemed futile, Sarah did not quit hoping.

The Letter to the Hebrews presents Abraham and Sarah as models of faith, but we must try to understand what that means. Their lives weren’t smooth and untroubled just because they put their trust in God; they weren’t like little children whose trust in their parents takes away all anxiety.

Most of all, they didn’t get exactly what they expected. As the epistle today says, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. Or as William Barclay writes, “To Abraham God’s promise never came fully true; and yet he never abandoned his faith.”

How could Abraham accept this? One word sums it up: perseverance. The catechism says that Abraham's prayer was a battle of faith marked by trust in God's faithfulness and by certitude in the victory promised to those who persevere (2592).

The catechism also says that we need humility, trust, and perseverance in order to battle what we experience as failure in prayer: “discouragement during periods of dryness; sadness that, because we have ‘great possessions,’ we have not given all to the Lord; disappointment over not being heard according to our own will; … and so forth” (2728).

At the back of the church are copies of a booklet called “Don’t Give Up,” by Ralph Martin. His message focuses on persevering in the fight against sin, but applies to persevering faith in general.

Ralph Martin offers ten keys to perseverance. The first, not surprisingly, is to know how important it is! And that, of course, is the message of our first reading.

The second key is to ask God for it. If enduring all that we must endure was a purely personal effort, it would be too terrifying to think about. So we ask God for help; we not only ask for the strength not to quit, we even ask him for the grace to want to persevere.

Ralph writes that the strength to persevere isn’t something we naturally possess. “Strength to persevere is a gift that’s given, that we need to ask for and receive.”

The third thing is to break with sin. We need to know that perseverance means following Jesus without compromise. We can't pick and choose the areas where we want to persevere.

The fourth key is to learn from the saints. That’s what we’re doing today when we recall the example of Abraham and Sarah, but there’s a whole litany of saints who can inspire us by their patient endurance of every kind of trial, who can teach us by their lives and help us by their prayers.

Not that many Catholic homes have a copy of the Lives of the Saints on the bookshelf, which is too bad, but there are many Catholic websites that provide access to the inspiring stories of the heroes of our faith,

Fifth is endurance. Sometimes we just need to put our heads down and push ahead. Sometimes we just need to bear the yoke, knowing, as St. James has written, that “when your faith is tested this makes for endurance” (see Jas 1:2-4).

Key number six is to trust that we will never be tested or tempted beyond our strength. This is a promise straight from Scripture and we need to hold on to it like someone grabbing a life preserver in a stormy sea. Let me read the exact words from St. Paul: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength…” (NRSV)

“Along with the test he will give you a way out of it so that you may be able to endure it” (NAB).

If that promise could sink deep in our hearts it would bring about a trust greater than Abraham’s.

The seventh key follows from the last point: Look to the Scriptures as a source of strength. They are filled with encouragement for every sort of trial, warn us against turning back, and—of course—tell the story of Jesus’ own perseverance and the victory it won for us.

Key number eight is pretty obvious: pray. Don’t just pray for things to change—pray for strength to face what doesn’t change. And pray to persevere. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples to pray always and not lose heart. That’s fundamental. As St. John Vianney, the CurĂ© of Ars, said: “All saints began their conversion by prayer, and through prayer they persevered.”

Ralph’s ninth point is particularly marvelous: “Participating in the perseverance of Jesus is key.” St. Paul says “By the might of his glory you will be endowed with the strength needed to stand fast, even to endure joyfully whatever may come..” (Col 1:11).

“To persevere we need to draw on the strength and energy that comes to us as a gift from God.” This help is very specially available in the Eucharist, where “Christ himself is given to us as a source of encouragement and strength… The Eucharist is the fullest way of being united to and participating in the constancy and perseverance of Jesus himself.”

The tenth and final key to perseverance is to remember that the reward is heaven! St. Paul says that he considers “the sufferings of the present to be as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). “The joy of heaven,” Ralph Martin concludes, “is worth any price that must be paid. And any price that must be paid is as nothing compared to the glory and joy of heaven.”

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews ties this all together in the chapter that follows the one we’ve read from this morning, so we’ll close with those words:

“For the sake of the joy which lay before him, [Jesus] endured the cross, heedless of its shame. He has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Remember how he endured the opposition of sinners… (NAB) so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (NRSV).
- Heb 12:2