Sunday, March 30, 2014

I Can See Clearly Now (Lent 4A)

Vancouver recently hosted the TED conference. TED, which stands for “Technology, Education, Design” has been called “the leading ideas festival of the digital world.” People paid $7,000 a ticket to hear speakers on a wide variety of topics, including solving the world’s problems. Following one of the "TED Commandments," the talks are only eighteen minutes long.

Checking the internet, I found three TED talks about blindness. True to TED’s mission, all three deal looked at helping the blind by means of technology or design.

Nothing could be further from the low-tech healing of the man born blind. Jesus barely speaks for eighteen seconds, and he uses saliva and mud to perform the miracle.

And St. John tells the whole story in far fewer words than a TED talk. Really, it’s a number of stories. The central one is about a man born blind who comes to see life in a new way and as a result gradually arrives at the point where he worships Jesus.

As the story unfolds in stages, the man sees more and more clearly. First, he recognizes Jesus as a prophet, then as a healer coming from God, and ultimately as his Lord. Along the way, he experiences opposition and rejection, learning the cost of discipleship.

The Pharisees head in the opposite direction, becoming more and more blind. The contrast between them and the man born blind increases at every stage of their journey. Certain that they alone know God’s will, they become more and more intolerant and vicious.

Jesus stands right in the middle of this intense and complex drama. He is the source of light to the blind, and he exposes the blindness of the complacent and arrogant.

(I 'borrowed' much of the above from a detailed Irish lectio divina reflection by Michel de Verteuil that you can read in its entirety here.)

Is it any wonder that the Church chooses to read this story as a lesson to those preparing for baptism? It teaches, of course, key truths about Jesus—he is the light of the world, the Son of Man come to remove the scales from our eyes so that we may see clearly. It invites us to see the world as Christians, but warns us of a great spiritual danger.

I came across a good name for that danger while looking at the TED website: “willful blindness.” A speaker told the story of a woman who discovered that people in a small town were dying at a rate  eighty times higher than elsewhere in the U.S. But when she figured out why—no-one wanted to know!

Willful blindness had set in. People had chosen not to know.

Jesus tells us today that he is the light, but elsewhere in St. John’s Gospel he says he is the truth. His disciples live in the light of truth—first of all, the truth about Jesus and the demands of following him. Secondly, Christ’s disciples live in the truth about themselves—about their weaknesses and their strengths, about their need to change and to grow.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus will reveal this truth to each of us in the course of our journey towards the light. If we are humble, like the man born blind, he will enlighten our hearts and minds. If we are overly sure of ourselves, like the Pharisees, he will have to leave us in sin.

Those preparing for baptism are faced with a concrete choice this morning. Will they face up to the conflict and criticism that becoming Christian may well demand? Are they ready to answer truthfully when angry people question them about Jesus?

But what about the rest of us? How should we respond to the example of the man born blind?

I have a concrete suggestion, in five words: come to the Parish Mission next week. Come despite the sacrifice and inconvenience four trips to the church might require.

Our Parish Mission this year is about spiritual healing. It is an opportunity for Jesus to heal spiritual and emotional wounds that blind us to truth—truth about God and truth about ourselves.

Dominican Father Emmerich Vogt comes from a family with alcohol and drug problems, and has used his own experience to discover Christ’s answers to the wounds we all suffer.

Check the bulletin this week: it asks each us some tough questions like “Do your good feelings about yourself depend on being liked by other people? Do you have difficulty in saying ‘NO’?”

If you can answer yes to some of the questions in the bulletin, this Mission is God’s gift to you. If you don’t answer yes to any of the questions, please come to see me after Mass and I will help you get a contract to write a bestselling book that explains your secret.

Seriously, none of us has 20/20 vision about ourselves and our spiritual life. Our Lenten Mission is a rare opportunity to see more clearly as we develop practical ways of dealing with the issues we face every day.

Even the very best of the TED talks can’t offer half as much—and the Mission is free!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Questions and Answers (Lent 3A)

Something that happened this week reminded me things aren’t always what they seem.

A priest friend of mine sent me a photo of himself beside a nice-looking man, with the caption “Look who I saw in St. Peter’s Square!”

I recognized the man right away—my old friend Corrado, who lives in Rome. I haven’t seen Corrado for a couple of years, but I thought he looked pretty good for his age.

Later that day I was looking at a news website. One of the stories was headed “Actor Fails to Meet Pope.” I clicked on it, and there was another photo of
Corrado at St. Peter’s—only this time he was correctly identified as the Academy Award winner Russell Crowe!

As soon as I got over the shock of my mistake, I remembered what I’d e-mailed back to the priest: “Who recognized whom?” When I called him yesterday, he complimented me on my great sense of humour. I was rather reluctant to tell him the truth!

This morning’s Gospel isn’t such an obvious a comedy of errors, but it comes close. The Samaritan woman confuses the life-giving water of divine grace with an easier way of filling her pail with H2O. We’re in on the joke, so to speak, and we have to smile as she looks to see if Jesus has a bucket, and as she gets excited about being able to avoid her daily trip to the well.

Since St. John isn’t trying to amuse us, I asked myself why he tells us about the confusion of the woman at the well.

The answer I came up with was this: Jesus wants us to know it’s okay to be confused--because he wants us to ask him questions about the things we do not understand.

During the weeks that some of us have met for Lectio Divina, a way of praying with Scripture, we tried to make our prayer more of a conversation than a monologue. We asked our questions and listened for God’s answers.

We all need to ask questions to grow in faith. Someone wrote that learning usually passes through three stages. First you learn the right answers. Next you learn the right questions. And finally you learn which questions are worth asking.

There are many questions worth asking about today’s long Gospel.*

Why did the Samaritan woman come to draw water at noon, the hottest time of the day? Did she want to avoid the times the other women in town came to the well?

What are the places in my life where I am embarrassed, where I avoid interaction with others? What are the noon day wells of my life?

Can I imagine Jesus approaching me there?

Why was the woman of Samaria so dense in her dialogue with Jesus? Was she trying to keep him at a distance?

How do I put Jesus off? With excuses, with my problems? “I don't have time; I haven't done this before; my stuff's too complicated; I don't know how to find you in this mess”?

When Jesus shows the woman that he truly knows what’s going on in her life, she knows she's in the presence of someone special—perhaps the one she has thirsted for all her life.

Do I let Jesus show me that he knows and understands me?
Can I find the words to say he is the one I have thirsted for all my life?

And if I can’t, do I ask him why? Do I let him guide me along the steps through which he took the woman at the well?

Over-confidence is not a Christian virtue. One of the first paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic tells us why: “By love, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. He has thus provided the definitive, super­abundant answer to the questions” we ask ourselves about the meaning and purpose of our lives. (n. 68)

Today’s Gospel teaches that we must say we’re thirsty before the Lord can offer us the water that flows all the way to eternal life. We have to admit what we don’t understand before he can gently lead us to the life-giving waters of truth.

*The questions are "borrowed" from a fine reflection from Creighton University that you can read here, which also has interesting commentaries on the Gospels for the next three Sundays, during which we celebrate the "Scrutinies" with those preparing for baptism.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Letting the Word Speak to our Hearts (Lent 2.A)

When I was at university, I heard about a French professor who told his class they wouldn't really know the language until their dreams were in French.  

Towards the end of the term, a student came up to him all excited. “Professor,” he said, “last night I dreamt in French!”

“That's wonderful,” the teacher replied.

“Not really,” said the young man. “I didn't understand a word they were saying.”

I’ve never forgotten the story, because it’s a reminder that I can sometimes listen to what Jesus says without understanding what he means. It’s a risk that the Lord himself points out. More than once he exclaims “Let anyone with ears listen!” (Mt 11:15).

After the miracle of the loaves and fish he asks the disciples “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (Mk 8:18) Whether we are spiritually near-sighted or hard or hearing, we risk missing what St. Paul describes as things “no eye has seen, nor hear heard, nor the human heart conceived”prepared by God for those who love him.

These thoughts brought me to a basic question this week: how do we grow in understanding the Word of God? How do we use our eyes and ears to truly see and hear what God has revealed to us in Christ?

One way is by using a simple two-step process, borrowed from the method of prayer called Lectio Divina (which we’ll talk more about in a minute). The first step is the easy one: we ask the question “what does the Gospel say?” We do that every Sunday if we listen to the reading and stay awake for the homily.

Figuring out what Jesus is saying and why is obviously important. Today, for instance, we saw the Lord transfigured before his apostles, in the company of the two greatest figures of the Old Testament.

What we see and hear on the mountain of the Transfiguration leads to important conclusions. One of them is historical: Jesus wanted to strengthen Peter and James and John to face the scandal and the terror of the crucifixion. Other conclusions are timeless: Standing with Moses and Elijah, Jesus is revealed as the very center of God’s revelation. And we are commanded to listen to him by the words of God the Father himself.

This first step—figuring out what the Gospel passage says to everyone—is important. But it is not enough. There is a second question we must answer: what does the Gospel say to me? This is a very different question. The first question might be called objective—you can answer it with your head. But the second is subjective—you can answer it only with your heart.

In the very first words of his Rule, St. Benedict tells monks to listen to God with the ear of their hearts. The ears of our hearts seems to be a mixed metaphor—a bit like the time ad admiring politician said that the late Premier W.A.C. Bennett was a man who could walk a straight fence and keep both ears to the ground—but it’s actually a lovely image for the second step in understanding God’s Word. We listen with the ears of our heart: we ask the question “What do Christ’s words mean to me?”

Not what they mean to everyone, not to history, not to scholars, not even to the Church—what is the Lord saying to me? What does the Gospel I have just read or listened say about my life, right now?

As you know, we’ve been promoting Lectio Divina—prayerful reading of Scripture. This week we gathered twice to pray with today’s Gospel. It was a very good experience, because the story of the Transfiguration is packed with phrases that can open our eyes and ears to the word God is speaking personally to each of us.

  • Peter said to Jesus, “Lord it is good for us to be here.” As I prayed in the church together with parishioners, I thanked God for the grace of being the pastor of this wonderful community. I thanked him for the men and women who had taken the time to share prayer with me and others. I was reminded of the goodness of life in the parish despite all its challenges.
For others sharing that time of prayer, these words might have led in an entirely different direction. Perhaps someone needed to know that it is good to be alive, despite old age and failing health. Perhaps someone else was simply encouraged to stay with Lectio Divina even though they were bored.

  • God the Father spoke through the cloud. “Listen to him,” he said. For me, this was a command to be more faithful in meditation on the Gospels. Someone else in the pews might have realized they were ignoring Christ’s teaching in some way. Someone else might have been helped to know that even the apostles needed a reminder from time to time to stop talking and listen.

  • Jesus touched the trembling disciples and told them “get up.” For some, those were the words they needed to hear to climb back from a fall.

  • He added those memorable words, found so often in the Gospels, “do not be afraid.” All of us have different fears, but Jesus speaks a word of power to each. The radiant and transfigured Christ, showing his divinity like never before, says even to the half-deaf: do not be afraid. For some of us gathered in prayer this week, those were the only words we needed to hear from this Sunday’s Gospel.
This homily may seem like a commercial for Lectio Divina, but it really isn’t. There’s more than one way to listen to what God says to us. But each of us must find some way to make the Word of God what the psalmist calls a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105).

I want to leave you with a wonderful sentence from Pope Emeritus Benedict. He wrote “The word of God draws each of us into a conversation with the Lord: the God who speaks teaches us how to speak to him.” (Verbum Domini, 24)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Thought Conditioners: Practical Use of the Word of God (Lent 1.A)

I didn't write out this week's homily, but I promised the congregation a link to a helpful resource that I mentioned.

Many years ago I came across Thought Conditioners, a small booklet from the Protestant preacher and author Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993).  Dr. Peale had assembled forty texts from Scripture and added a brief comment on how each could be applied to help Christians cope with the challenges of life.

Dr. Peale was a controversial figure--like many Protestants of his era he was no friend of Catholicism--and there are weaknesses in his bestselling book The Power of Positive Thinking. But recently I happened to find my copy of Thought Conditioners and was once again edified and helped by using a few verses in the way he had suggested.

And when I read today's Gospel, where Jesus defeats Satan by wielding the two-edged sword of the Word of God, I was struck by the value of memorizing Scripture verses and using them not just to "condition" our thoughts, but to defeat temptation, as Jesus did. (Some years ago the Catholic evangelizer and minister to men Steve Wood advocated this approach in a book aimed at helping those troubled by pornography called Breaking Free.  It includes a collection of suitable verses to memorize.)

In any case, I had trouble ordering copies of Thought Conditioners, but discovered the booklet is available online for free as a downloadable .pdf.  While there may be a few spots where the theology does not fully harmonize with Catholic thinking, the basic approach is sound and offers a starting place for more frequent and practical applications of Scripture to the concrete circumstances of our lives.

You can download the booklet here or at

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Spiritual Olympics Begin (Ash Wednesday)

Preached at St. Thomas Aquinas High School 

How many of you watched the Olympics?

It was hard to stay away from the TV. Sometimes it was hard to believe anyone could skate so fast, or ski so high. It seemed almost impossible athletes could be so good.

How do you think those Olympians managed to do such amazing things? What was the key to it all? Natural ability? Great genes?

You can bet on that. But it’s only half the story. The other half was sacrifice and countless hours of tough training. Every athlete had devoted years of hard work and fierce competition to their sport. And for what? To win a couple ounces of gold, silver or bronze.

Lent is like a spiritual Olympics–we do more, we try harder, we become more ambitious for the things of heaven. Only we’re after a far greater prize than the medals of glory worn by the Olympians–we want to become saints.

St. Paul says the same thing in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.”

And the apostle adds some good coaching advice: “Run to win.” I’m no athletic expert, but I’m 100 per cent certain that someone who shoots for silver doesn’t even take the bronze.

Today’s the beginning of Lent. Today’s the day to ask ourselves whether we’re running to win. In the Gospel, Jesus uses the word “reward” four times. He’s talking, of course, about the imperishable crown of victory that St. Paul mentions—eternal life.

But if we have to wait until we die to receive that reward, many of us—especially young people—might think it’s not worth the work, at least not now. But if not now, when? That’s why the second reading today shouts out “now!” “Now is the acceptable time: see, now is the day of salvation!”

Deciding not to start reaching for spiritual goals until after high school is like waiting until graduation to start training for the Olympics. There are virtually no elite athletes who didn’t start making serious sacrifices in their early teens, if not before.

At the same time, God is kind to late starters who are willing to make a real push. In the first reading, God says “even now… return to me with all your heart.” The prophet Amos says that those who return to God with real sorrow for sin can trust in his mercy, and hope for a blessing instead of punishment.

Ash Wednesday is a great day for smart people. Smart people live by their priorities; they put first things first. Today we can decide, like athletes do, whether the prize is worth the work. We can decide to take training seriously, with the sacrifices that will require.

Those decisions are positive and negative—they determine what we’ll do, and what we won’t. Positively, we will turn to God with sorrow for sin, expressed by the ashes on our foreheads, and start planning a Lenten confession. Negatively, we will turn away from sin, especially what the Letter to the Hebrews calls the sin that clings easily to us—in other words, the sin we most like to cling to and which draws us away from God.

Most great victories come as a result of some simple decisions, faithfully followed. Our spiritual “Olympics” is no exception.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

What? Me Worry? (Sunday 8.A)

The opening lines of today’s Gospel made me ask myself whether my parishioners would like to hear a homily about their attitudes to money from someone who has a recession-proof job, no kids, and who lives in a house that someone else owns.

I didn’t think so.

Anyway, money is not the whole story here. Certainly money can be a spiritual problem—St. Paul tells Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” and that “in the eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Tim 6:10)

That’s a reading our liturgy could have paired up with this Gospel, if the Church wanted to shine the spotlight on money. Instead, the first reading, in which God responds with a tender reassurance of his care and concern to people who think he has forgotten them, hints at a different focus: worry.

And I am very well-qualified to speak on the subject of worry. You don’t need a job, kids or a house to worry about—there’s always something.

I heard about a priest who had a sign over his office door that said “If you have worries, come in and let’s talk them over. If you don’t, come in and tell me how you do it!”

Jesus knows human nature. He lists many things we worry about—starting with money, he moves on to food, drink, clothing, security, and the big one, physical health. About the only thing he misses is the family, a source of worry for many.

In Our Lord’s time, worrying about food probably meant worrying about getting fed; today it’s more likely about diet, allergies, and antioxidants. But I’m sure we feel insecure a lot like people did two thousand years ago, and that health problems preoccupy us as much or more, despite the advances of modern medicine.

If I haven’t caught your attention yet, maybe I need to add to the list. It’s true that the young don’t worry as much about health as older folks, and that older folks worry less about money. But every person in church this morning is worried about something—getting into university, getting out of university, finding the right person to marry, having a baby, not having a baby.

We worry what people think of us. We worry about the future, and we worry about the past.

This morning, Jesus invites himself right into the middle of all this anxiety—right into our worried minds and hearts.

First of all, he gives sound and basic advice. If you are going to worry, he says, stick with today’s worries. Don’t try to sort out tomorrow’s problems today. Why? Because it’s a waste of time and energy. The farther away the worry, the more likely it will never happen.

A recent study of 1200 American seniors asked what they most regretted looking back over their lives. Many answered “I wish I hadn't spent so much of my life worrying.”

Of course we don’t need Jesus for that kind of advice; you can find it in a self-help book. Where today’s Gospel really leads us is to God the Father. Even today’s worries are enough to overwhelm us: are we going to deal with them on our own, or take them to our heavenly Father who knows our needs?

St. Peter’s first letter has a wonderful line that every worrier should memorize: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Pet 5:7) I’ve spent a lot of time praying with this advice, and the word that really sticks with me is “cast.” I even looked it up in the dictionary: to cast is to throw, especially deliberately or forcefully. Casting is throwing something outward, like a fishing line.

To cast our anxiety on God, we need to send it flying away from ourselves. We need to abandon self-reliance and to trust in God’s love and care for us.

A friend drew me a clear picture of this last week. He reminded me about the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie.” I’m not quite old enough to have seen it in the paper, but the story of the abused orphan who meets a generous and kind millionaire was turned into the musical “Annie,” which St. Thomas Aquinas high school produced a few years ago.

He said that dealing with worries on our own, instead of turning to God our Father, is like Annie heading back to the orphanage when her benefactor wants to help her. The choice between self-reliance and trust in God is the choice between being an orphan or a beloved son or daughter.

Orphans who have no-one believe they must make their own way in the world. Beloved children know that they have someone to turn to in any crisis.

Jesus asks each of us today whether we want to make it on our own, or to cast our worries on the God who cares for us. He invites us to reject the false security of self-reliance and to choose the peace that comes from trust in God.

And that’s where I thought I’d end my homily. Not letting self-reliance turn us into orphans seemed a fine conclusion. But I felt something was missing: the answer to the question, “so how do we put our trust in God?”

The short answer, of course, is in prayer. As St. Paul says to the Philippians, “Do not worry about anything, but in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil 4:6) Only through prayer can we build a relationship that lets us hand over our worries to our Father in heaven.

But I found a longer answer in a book that Father Xavier brought me back from India. It quotes the late Herbert Lockyer, a distinguished Protestant evangelist. Worry, Dr. Lockyer says, produces doubt in three ways:

First, “God’s love is doubted.” Worry implies that he doesn’t care for his children. Second, “God’s wisdom is doubted.” Worry indicates that he is not able to plan for us, that he does not know what is best for those who belong to him. Third, “God’s power is doubted. Worry says his grace is not sufficient for our needs.”

A powerful antidote to this three-fold doubt can be found in chapter eight of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It may be my favourite verse in the whole Bible: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…” (Rom 8:28)

God’s love, wisdom and power are summed up in those words. If we take them to heart, we can find trust and peace even amidst the worst of worries.