Tag Archives: love

22ND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2018

Have you ever been in a room that’s just too neat? It doesn’t invite, or sometimes even permit, spontaneous human interaction. It’s like a dining room in which eating and talking are not allowed.

Our passion for neatness and order is not an absolute right; it has to yield to greater, more important values like love and sharing and wholesome fun and responding to the needs of others.

A few philosophers and theologians maintain that we humans are to be only as charitable as the law permits, but Jesus seems to say the very opposite: that the laws we create are to bind us only as much as charity allows.

Love is the greatest, the overriding, the ultimate law. Some scientists have even suggested that the basic law of the universe, law that gives life and order and meaning to it all, is simply love. St. John says that whoever lives in love lives in God. Who can ask, who can be, more than that?

About today’s ancient scripture readings: in the gospel excerpt Jesus contrasts the reassuring neatness of our law-abiding religious lives with what he insists is true religion — the goodness, the love, the life-giving that comes from deep inside the person, the absence of which alone can defile a person.

In our personal relationships things are going to get messy at times; that’s practically unavoidable. Our humanly conceived laws and traditions and rules will not always be perfectly observed — not because of evil intent or malice, but because of human weakness and limitations.

While I was at my desk beginning work on this homily last Monday, I got a phone call from Georgia from the man on death row I’ve been corresponding with for the past 11 years. We were allowed 15 minutes for the call. It’s only the second time in all these years that I have heard his voice. The murder for which he was sentenced happened by accident, even though he was using the loaded gun only to intimidate his victim in a robbery. He knows and he admits that he is the only person responsible for that death, something for which he has been profoundly sorry every day of his life. And he has paid dearly for it for nearly a quarter of a century.

But he has become a good man despite the experience. He makes no excuses for the crime that must be attributed to him, and he lives with a growing awareness of the compassionate God.

What defines us as individual persons is what goes into and what comes out of the deep recesses of our hearts and souls. It isn’t primarily the sacred actions we perform in the various rituals of worship. Worship, including this Mass, is meaningful and helpful only when it is given by a person from whom good and loving deeds are coming all the time. Love, even without worship, will save us. But worship without love is useless.

So, maybe there are areas of your spiritual, religious or moral life that are a bit out of order. Be of good cheer if you are a person who cares for others, who always forgives and forgets, who respects, who brings peace, who shares, who consoles and comforts. There is nothing evil in your heart to defile you. The slight disorder, the messiness you have created will not condemn you. Be patient and kind with yourself as God is with you and as Jesus makes so clear.

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THE BIRTHDAY OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST

You know how there are certain moments and events in our lives that impress us so deeply that we never can forget them. One of mine was the Broadway play, The Elephant Man. It was the very moving, true-to-life story of a man who was horribly afflicted with a disfiguring abnormality. He is frighteningly ugly in appearance, hardly recognizable as a human being. He became a piece of property for an unscrupulous merchant, who displayed him in a carnival where people paid to see him.

A medical doctor, realizing how valuable the elephant man could be in scientific research, took him to a hospital, where he lived for about four years, all the time revealing the beautiful person that lived inside such a repulsive body.

A glamorous actress was brought to meet him — but only after she was carefully instructed on how to regard him, what to say and what not to say, and, above all, which of his two hands to grasp. (Of his four limbs, only the left arm and hand were normal.)

She met him face to face and found the sight of him to be as repugnant as she had been told it was. After a long conversation between the two of them, in which she already began to appreciate the warm person he actually was, she reached out to shake his hand and to tell him what a pleasure it was to meet him. He responded with the normal hand, at which she withdrew hers and simply waited. He understood and gave her instead the sorry lump of misshapen flesh that was his other hand. It was a touching moment of rare tenderness and human love.

Jesus often asked his friends what people were saying about him, who they thought he was. In answer, they told him that many people thought he was a kind of miracle, an ancient prophet who had come back from the dead as a sign of the power and love of God. Jesus dismissed the speculation quickly and asked a question that seemed more urgent to him: “You, my followers and friends, who do you believe I am?” Peter responded for them all: “You are the one we’ve been waiting for, the savior promised to our ancestors.”

It was the wrong hand the crowd and even Peter had been offering to Jesus. Nothing should have been concealed or denied or held back. Jesus wanted to identify with the worst of the human condition. His intention was to make its disfigurement his own and to suffer its pains, even its death. His true followers, he insisted, would have to do the same, taking up their personal crosses and following in his footsteps.

The church celebrates a birthday today, that of St. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and the one who first recognized him as God’s special gift to the human race. Jesus’ message was so simple: it consisted of just one word: LOVE — that we love our creator and love our fellow human beings at least as much as we love ourselves. That we accept each other with all our faults and forgive one-another as God always, without hesitation, forgives us. We are to forgive generously what we might call the ugliness in one-another, those qualities that we find distasteful, annoying, and sometimes hurtful.

When we are willing to lose our life, as Jesus puts it, by such personal sacrifices, we invariably discover that we have saved it, for our good and the good of others.

I wish you peace!

PENTECOST 2018

God doesn’t deal with us in some magical way from afar; rather, God works from within us and is limited by what we are willing to do. So, if someone who has offended someone else refuses to accept unconditional forgiveness, that person just doesn’t get it! He/she remains unhealed, unhappy, and sick in spirit. God in me can reach you only so far as I make that possible.

However, if we are willing to be generous life-givers to each other, we find that we have far more to offer than merely our own human resources: we recognize that we are also instruments of God’s own power of love and wisdom – love that soothes and heals, wisdom that guides and directs. We are channels of God’s power, which far exceeds our human limitations.

The people of Jesus’ day understood what was behind the description of fire and wind and clouds and angels and supernatural appearances that we just heard in the gospel for today. It all added up to an exciting and colorful way of celebrating unforgettably the fact that we are creatures of God, who lives with and in us always but who will force on us nothing, whether good or bad.

A spiritual person is one who lives his or her life always conscious of that divine presence, constantly trying to yield to its power and direction.

Our traditional devotion to the Holy Spirit and our one-time reception of the sacrament of Confirmation can imply that we Christians have been given by God an exclusive privilege denied to most of the other people of the world. That cannot be so. We are all creatures of the same loving God, whose Spirit acts in all who invite her to. From religion to religion we name that God differently, but, as the Scripture readings for today emphasize, it is the same Spirit in each and all of us.

It has been said that more wars have been fought over religion than over all other causes. We have seen many religious wars in our own lifetime, and we are tracking them daily right now. When will they stop once and for all? Not until we recognize that Pentecost is the Christian name for a phenomenon that is as old as creation itself: God acting everywhere in God’s beloved universe and in everyone who is willing.

Pentecost is regarded as the birthday of the church. In some ways, our church has been a shocking disappointment to us in the last 20 or so years. The crisis is not over yet, we can be sure. What feelings toward the church do we harbor today?

Carlo Carretto, whose works some of you have read, was a mid-20th century spiritual guide and mystic, something of a “diamond in the rough”. More than 50 years ago, he addressed the following message to the church. It is blunt, yet tender. It may well express some of your own sentiments. Listen carefully.

How much I criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you!
You have made me suffer more than anyone,
and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.
I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal,
and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false,
And yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face
And yet, every night I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms.
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.
Then, too – where would I go? To build another church?
But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects.
And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church.
No, I am old enough. I know better.

Happy Pentecost to all!

6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2018

When I began working on today’s homily last week, wondering first of all how this time I should approach the simple topic of Jesus’ central theme — love, I looked back over hundreds of my saved homilies and came across one that I thought would again be appropriate. It was based on something that had happened only the day before the Sunday on which I first preached it.

What happened was that a Sister friend of mine borrowed my car to visit her family in south Jersey. As she was returning on the Parkway, the car’s engine stopped completely. Sister Kathleen coasted off the shoulder of the road, tried without success to start the motor, and then, without success, to flag down someone who would help her. Frustrated and frightened, she got back in the car and simply wept.

On the seventh floor of an apartment building nearby, a young man was watching out his living room window. He quickly left his apartment and went to fetch his own car and drove to where Sister was marooned. He walked up to her open window and said, “What’s the trouble, Ma’am? No one would stop to help you? I figured you went back to your car for a good cry.”

The good man opened her hood, guessed correctly that the problem was a clogged fuel filter and went to a local auto parts store for a new one. When he returned and attempted to install it, he discovered that his wrenches were the wrong size and therefore useless. He said, “I think we can get it running at least for a few miles. So, if you drive slowly on the shoulder, I’ll follow you just in case there’s more trouble.”

And so he did, all the way to my home in Clifton, where I met this person, shook his hand and thanked him. He refused to accept the money I offered him, even for what he had spent. He would not give me his address, wanting nothing in return for his kindness. All he said was, “My mother and six sisters all drive. When they are on the road alone, I have no peace until they’re home. I always hope that if they ever have car trouble someone will help them. So I was glad today to be of help to someone else.”

It is especially interesting and inspiring to know that Sister was not wearing a religious habit and was, therefore, in no way identified as a nun. He wasn’t doing this extraordinarily good deed for a “special” person. Interesting and inspiring also to know that Sister was white and this man was black.

I had the feeling that I had met the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ immortal story. Change a few details and all the essential elements were the same.

There are many kinds of love. I can’t help but think that the kind this gentle man had in his heart was one of the rarest. All these past many years, especially as I have passed that building hundreds and hundreds of times, I recall the incident with fondness and gratitude and hope. I also feel the expectation that in the end love will win out.

I wish I could have told my nameless friend that he would be the Christ figure in my homily way back then and now again. But maybe it’s better that I couldn’t, because the very suggestion of reward or honor seemed to displease him.

“What I command you is this:” Jesus said, “that you love each other as I have loved you.”

HOLY FAMILY SUNDAY, 2017

I was born and raised as the first of four children in a typical American home in North Jersey. We don’t know much at all about the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. What we say about them is largely drawn from the little that we know about them from their later years. But I do know a lot from the home of my origin. What I learned and experienced there, as you have learned from your own background, has given me insight into what Jesus and Mary and Joseph very likely were to each other.

The one incident that always comes first to my mind occurred when I was 16 years old, a car-crazy kid who couldn’t wait to drive. On one Sunday afternoon, I took my father’s car on a brief jaunt, no matter that I was unlicensed. I struck another vehicle, badly injuring the elderly woman in the front passenger seat. We drove our cars to my home, no police having been around to take over. With the very kind Jewish stranger whose car I had damaged, my father quietly settled the financial issues involved, saying not a word to me – right through to the day he died 23 years later.

My now-deceased sister said to me a few years ago, “When you consider all the pain we endured with Dad’s disease and Mother’s reaction to it, don’t you think that it was love that saved us?” She said, “I mean the love they had for one another, the love they had for each of us children, despite the hell that we were all going though.”

Of course she was right. What else could it have been?

Who knows what personal problems the Holy Family might have struggled with? We have at least a couple of hints in the Gospels that there were times of crisis, worry, confusion. One was when Jesus as a pre-teenager was lost for three days in Jerusalem, where his parents feared he may have been kidnapped and sold into slavery. I know that my mother could never have survived those days had that happened to her child. The panic would have killed her or driven her mad. And then there was the advice given to Mary and Joseph later on when Jesus was becoming known as an increasingly popular and challenging, though unorthodox, preacher: “Why don’t you consider putting him away? Don’t you realize that he’s out of his mind?”

What was conversation like at their table? It could not have been all pious sweetness and light. There was too much going on in their lives that could not be ignored.

I cannot imagine that his boyhood indiscretion was the subject of parental nagging for the rest of his life, or even that it was ever mentioned except possibly in the context of love. They might have said now & then, for example, how his reunion with them that day was one of the greatest joys of their lives. However Mary and Joseph handled the incident, and perhaps a few others like it, they must have done it in such a way that Jesus was encouraged to think over the decisions of his young life and to develop gradually into the secure, self-possessed, clear thinking, highly motivated human being that he became.

We all need such compassionate acceptance, and we are all capable of giving it. Now that our Christmas gifts have been unwrapped, and some of them successfully exchanged for the right size and color, let’s resolve to give one more: the gift of allowing everyone in our lives to be the best they can be, to accept their flaws as fully as we welcome their virtues, to hope that we’ll get the same charity from others (especially from those persons who know us best!), and to enjoy the greater peace that this will bring to all.

6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2017

In Francis’ first homily as pope four years ago, he said, “Don’t be afraid to love. Don’t be afraid to be tender.” Can you imagine a simpler, more basic message than that? And from one of the world’s greatest leaders, whose Jesuit education alone marks him as an intellectual of high standing?

But the counsel he gave us in that short homily encourages us to believe that the power to transform our dangerously troubled world lies, not with the leaders of states and kingdoms, but with us. The world will change for the better, not by command of a president, a prince, or a parliament, but by the little acts and the little words of love and tenderness that we, the people, are capable of giving to others all day long, every day. Sounds too basic to be true, I know, but it is true. Jesus said so, Pope Francis said so.

It’s a cellular process – person to person — that Jesus himself very much believed in and practiced. I recall in that connection a funeral I presided over several years ago. It was for two sisters, Eileen and Jayne, siblings and also members of the same religious community, the Sisters of the Presentation. They had died together in a car crash. The younger one, Jayne, had sent me her written reflections on life, love, God, the Church – some of which I used at her funeral Mass. One of her ideas was that Jesus never intended to establish a new religion, a “church”, according to our understanding of the word. No, she wrote, Jesus simply started a person-to-person movement – one person influencing, touching, another with a word or a gesture of love – even a thought or a prayer. I quote from her now. She wrote —

Jesus began his mission with friendship, not only because it is powerful but also because it is hopeful. It is the key, the only key, that can unlock the door to a worthwhile future in love. Jesus saw the truth of that twenty centuries ago. Instead of organizing institutions, he started a movement based on friendship, on love. That is the only solution to the problems of the human heart. People can live together under almost any conditions if they are friends, if they are in love.

In our own time we have seen the murderous destruction that fanatical members of other religions have done, claiming that they were carrying out the will of God. But aren’t they doing what George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did — praying and then acting on the direction they feel they have been given?

No, absolutely not. Why? Because Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word.” Jesus situates his teachings about the Spirit in the context of love. In other words, the key — the lens — that reveals the true word of God to anyone is love. It is impossible that those whose hearts are filled with hatred and evil intentions toward others can recognize what God would have them do. Such persons are morally and spiritually blind. It is only when love is the primary driving force that anyone can discern and yield to the “will of God.” And only when love motivates can human beings enter into sincere dialog with one another and together make progress toward better life for all.

Don’t be afraid to love, Pope Francis says. Don’t be afraid to be tender.

13TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2016

Getting accustomed to looking beneath and beyond the words of bible readings to find their real meaning, what would you say is the message of the three we just heard – the first from the Hebrew bible, the next from a letter of St. Paul, and the third from the gospel, this particular excerpt from St. Luke’s version?  The word urgency came to my mind from all three: that we resolve now to remain conscious of the presence of the Spirit of God in whatever we are doing, saying or thinking.  That’s a fairly good definition of a spiritual person: not a holier-than-thou fanatic who goes around in a daze of personal devotion that makes everyone uncomfortable, but a person who views life and all its parts through the lens of the Spirit within and around him or her.

I recall in this connection that it was Pope Celestine the First who, in one of the earliest centuries of the church heard that some priests were dressing in distinctive ways to distinguish them from ordinary people.  He wrote to them and said he found this disturbing because priests should be distinguished not by what they wear but by their conversation and their love.

But, we all ask, where is God when a bloody war is raging, as is still happening today all over the globe?  Where is God in the drug-abuse scene?  Where is God when conflict tears a family apart?  Where is God on Death Row?  Where is God in AIDS or cancer?  Countless millions of persons have found reason to say, “I turned to you, Lord, but you did not answer me.”

It’s our concept, our image of God that is the problem.  God is not a person like us, however bigger and better.  God is pure spirit; God is force; God is energy, God is love.  When we deliberately align ourselves with that benign force, with that energy, that love, our own human powers are enhanced, they are magnified.

How God “answers” and when God answers are not for us to say or even to know.  Our part in the pact is to maintain unyielding faith in the goodness and the love of God.

A high school classmate of mine, at the funeral of his young daughter many years ago, said to the overflowing crowd of mourners assembled in the church that day, “My wife and children and I thank you for being here today to celebrate the life and mourn the death of our beautiful daughter.  It must be that God loves her more than we do, because God gave her to us in the first place for these too-short 19 years.  At this time of sorrow, God asks of us only faith and love.  In this tragedy, too, God is only good.”

Who would dare to limit the power of God especially in the troubles of our life?

There may be no time or circumstance in our ordinary lives when we more need that awareness of Jesus’ presence than when things are not going well for us or for those we love.  He says to us, “Come to me, you who are burdened, and I will refresh you.”  The “refreshment,” by that or any other name, may be just the vision of light at the end of the tunnel, and restored confidence because Jesus is leading the way — Jesus, who called himself “the way.”

Faith can falter even in the most convinced and loyal believer.  There’s no shame in that.  We are, after all, only human and very limited.  We live in a kind of darkness, a shadow in which not everything is perfectly clear.  To trust in a Jesus we have never seen is no small challenge at times.  But, if we make the commitment, no matter how feeble it may occasionally be, our faith in him will grow by experience.  We will increasingly sense his real presence in and with us and we will be only the stronger and the more at peace for it.