Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

26 November 2015

A Matter for Eating, Drinking, and Running

Though it has become a recent custom to take my annual retreat during the week of Thanksgiving, I give myself a "day pass" to attend the family dinner. While driving to my uncle and aunt's house, I listened to through my iPhone. The mini-reading of today's Morning Prayer (Thursday, Week II of the Psalter) confirmed how Providence often lines up the particulars of liturgy and life. How appropriate this sounded for the American celebration of abundance:

"The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of justice, peace, and the joy that is given by the Holy Spirit. Whoever serves Christ in this way pleases God and wins the esteem of men. Let us, then, make it our aim to work for peace and to strengthen one another" (Rom 14:17-19).

Earlier today I engaged in another sort of liturgy: I ran for six miles along the lovely D&L (Delaware and Lehigh Rivers) Rail Trail. Part of that route is used by the Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon, which I ran in 2013 as my very first marathon. The asphalt portions of the trail still display the painted mile markers.

One daily devotional resource for runners is, otherwise known by the application name of "MilePost." I am not sure whether every subscriber receives the same quote each day, but the one I got pointed once again to God's inscrutable and risible ways, as it well fit a day when we might not be so inclined to "listen to [our] body," especially when it declares satiety:

Background: Your Rev'd Blogger, with the medal he won earlier this week (Phila Half Marathon)
As I'm sure most of my readers did, I ate heartily today. I enjoyed the company of family and friends, with laughter and reminiscences of dearly departed loved ones (in particular, my maternal grandmother who would get visibly excited whenever we sat down to Thanksgiving dinners). As for many of my readers, there are fewer of us gathering around the table nowadays. The consumption is quicker and the conversation topics have changed, but the rationale remains: gratitude for the blessings we have given and received.

When I returned to my retreat location, I offered Mass, particularly mindful of Barbara K., the aunt of a longtime friend, who died earlier today. For years she was a sacristan at her parish, for which I used to play the organ during high school and on seminary breaks. Every day's Eucharist makes the day a time of Thanksgiving--especially for the gift of life, which Barb has just returned to her Creator after a long ordeal with that bastard, cancer.

I did not use the proper prayers for "Thanksgiving" in the Roman Missal (don't tell a liturgist on me!). Instead, I used the setting "In Time of Famine or for Those Suffering Hunger." I admit to giving "those who go without this day" a passing nod in pre-prandial prayers, such that even this Mass felt like a pitying gesture.

The Collect for this Mass reads: "O God, who, being good and almighty, provide for all creatures, give us, we pray, and effective love for our brothers and sisters who suffer hunger, so that famine may be banished and that they may have strength to serve you with free and untroubled hearts."

During the Mass my mind wandered to the purchases I have made for myself over the year, which far eclipsed my charitable giving. Yet I cannot downplay the time I have devoted to personal visits, telephone calls, and typed messages with people who, as my retreat master reminded me, are starving for recognition and care.

There are a diversity of gifts, St. Paul said, and a diversity of needs as well. The Holy Sacrifice covers all those needs with tailor-made divine mercy, with "justice, peace, and the joy that is given by the Holy Spirit." Every offering of service, insofar as it derives from the Liturgy and leads us back to it, is a "work for peace" and mutual reinforcement.

Dr. Sheehan advised me today not to be "a blind and deaf tenant" of my body. The same admonition applies to the soul. Retreats enable us to take stock of how we occupy our earthly abode, how we use our time, talent, and treasure for God and people (self included). Though I may take my retreat at a different time of the year in 2016, it will remain a privileged moment of gratitude for past, present, and future blessings.

Please pray that I continue to "work for peace and to strengthen" the people God entrusts to my care, for the banishment of their many and diverse hungers and for the liberation of their troubled hearts.

19 November 2015

Suffering Well

Patient Reader: Below you will find the article that appeared in a recent issue of the AD Times, the newspaper of the Diocese of Allentown (Allentown Diocese--Anno Domini--see what we did there?). Text in bold did not appear in the original article.

When I visit the hospitalized and elderly, I sometimes offer a prayer that I adapted from the Church’s Pastoral Care of the Sick and Roman Missal: “Father, Your Son and Our Savior Jesus Christ accepted our sufferings as a model of patience and strength in human illness. Hear the prayers we offer for [N.] and for all who suffer distress of body or soul. Help them to realize that You have called them to holiness by joining their sufferings to the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of the world.”

If you think such formalized prayers take a lot to say and a lot to live, I agree on both counts. For that reason, I like to say them slowly and live them slowly. I’m lying: I don’t like to live them slowly! A watched coffeepot never brews; an impatient patient never heals.

The word “patient” comes from the Latin pati, which means “to suffer, endure, put up with,” or the most basic sense, “to wait.” Pati also yields “passion,” the intensity that accompanies lovers toward love’s fulfillment. Suffering persons are also in love: they long for health and vitality, and cannot wait until they get there.

We draw only so many breaths in this life, and perhaps we pay little attention to the balance until more breaths are behind us than ahead. Meanwhile we have no guarantees that we shall retain the full use of our physical or mental faculties. 

Therefore it seems helpful to savor each breath as we draw it, each feeling as we feel it, each option as we ponder it, and each decision as we make it.

In whatever condition we currently find ourselves, while we have our faculties, we can decide to suffer well. What a curious choice! For the sake of clarity, let’s unpack it:

First, to suffer well is to recognize Jesus as the Son and Savior of Man, who alone accomplishes “universal and definitive redemption from sins” (CCC 432). He does this by taking on our human nature, entering completely into the joys and sorrows of human experience.

Did you ever consider that, by virtue of the Incarnation, Jesus accepted not just every single sin, but also every single human suffering: every pain, disappointment, and inconvenience? Upon the holy and life-giving Cross, Our Lord endured that twinge of diabetic neuropathy, the sting of that insult, that hour-long traffic jam, and that fear of perpetual infertility. From His vantage point—the best seat in the house—it’s all under control.

The problem is, we can still slog through life without necessarily considering the real-time presence of Christ in our sufferings. As a result, we begin to complain. We begin to compare our perception of how our lives are going with how we think it should be going, or how someone else’s life seems to be going—or how they want us to think it’s going. 

Practically speaking, God becomes less real and relevant in those dreary moments, and our suffering loses its value.

We can regain the value of our suffering by keeping Jesus’ Passion foremost in our minds, in weather foul or fair. Practicing in the fair may make it easier in the foul.

With the onset of each unwelcome experience, we can pray in groans to this effect: “I unite myself right now to You, Lord Jesus. As You suffered for me and with me, so I suffer for You and with You. Please accept this offering, Lord, as small it may seem, and please share it throughout the world and throughout the ages [accounting for the Holy Souls in need of post-mortem purgation] so that it may benefit whomever You will.”

I say, “pray in groans,” because you probably might not be inclined to formulate such a pious formula in the midst of pain and distress.

A couple of months ago, I was in an accident that landed me in an emergency room for most of that day with a wide laceration on my left heel and lots of deep bruises in the foot. In those first hours the thought “Thank God, it could have been far worse,” mingled with fears that I would hardly be able to walk straight, let alone run, by next year’s Boston Marathon. 

On that ER bed I did my awful best to unite my pains and anxieties with those of Our Lord upon the Cross, with the hopes that my offering could help facilitate someone’s repentance and conversion.

I am happy to report that I am recovering appropriately, although it’s not as fast as I’d prefer. At every turn in this process I have noticed how impatient a patient I am. 

But Our Lord is so patient with us! He lets us go, gives us the freedom to gripe until we return once again to our senses. In the meantime, the experience has been an opportunity to grow in compassion for the people I visit in the hospitals and nursing facilities I serve.

Even as the human race exists in a sort of “communion of sin,” joined by our profoundly wounded human nature and its self-seeking tendencies, the Church incorporates men and women into the Communion of Saints, forgiven and redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ. 

If anything could be said about any of the saints, they suffered well, uniting themselves with their Lord for the salvation of souls. How I long to be in that number!

14 November 2015

Your Time Is Gonna Come

These readings are taking us to the “end times”: in one sense, the end of a liturgical year, but especially the end of all time when Christ comes again. The prophet Daniel foretells Archangel Michael’s great harvest of just and unjust. In Mark, Jesus seems to bypass angelic involvement in favor of His own surprise soul-sifting. Either way, to quote Led Zeppelin, “your time is gonna come.”

But that sifting time doesn’t completely and convincingly materialize this side of heaven. Meanwhile we have the perennial “problem of evil,” or as the Church’s Catechism calls it, the “mystery of evil.” Why and how does evil occur in the world—more precisely, why and how are people allowed to commit evil—sometimes seemingly without consequences, and without divine intervention?

While it remains a great scandal that God allows us to do evil, it is that very gift of freedom based on understanding and virtue that enables us to do good. Take away the possibility of evil from us, and you thereby take away the possibility of good. How incredibly powerful and complex has God made us! The fire that can, in one moment, drive people along the warpath of rage, also can drive people in the commitment of marriage, holy orders, and consecrated life. It depends on where we allow our hearts to roost.

I began to put my thoughts together before all this stuff in France happened! In case you haven’t heard it: on Friday militant Islamists killed over 120 people in Paris. The day before, it was Beirut. Not long before, a Russian airliner. Pope Francis aptly referred to these terrorist actions as a kind of drawn-out Third World War.

At the same time, wars happen, to our minds, outside of us. We are tempted to distance ourselves from them and objectify them. Beyond the initial fear and outrage, we must remember—and we do remember—that there’s the solidarity of grief and prayer; but also there is the renewed battle call to personal holiness and mission.

We might say, “Let’s hear it for children and for saints,” as they seem so enviably single-hearted in their pursuit of happiness, goodness, and faith. But a sappy love of children, or even saints, will not make us childlike or saintlike. Suddenly, having become adults, we renew our maturity again and again by harnessing of our passions for beauty, our understanding for truth, and our freedom for goodness; in so doing we pay the best homage to childhood and sanctity.

All of this is rooted in Jesus the Christ, who, Hebrews reminds us, “offered one sacrifice for sins, and took His seat forever at the right hand of God.” “Now,” the letter continues, “He waits until His enemies are made His footstool.” Are the men and women of ISIS “His enemies?” Is God’s inspired Word accomplished in their elimination? Or is the one sacrifice of Christ the means to accomplish even their salvation and consecration...even ours?