The Eucharist and the Parish

One of the very special events in the life of a priest is his “first Mass.” This is usually celebrated at his home parish the day after his ordination. When I was preparing for mine, the line that kept coming to my mind was what Jesus tells his apostles at the Last Supper, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” (Luke 22:15). It was the fulfillment of many years of preparation, and I was so happy to celebrate it with the community where I had grown up (even though it was probably the most nervous I have ever been celebrating a Mass!).

Indeed, the last thing Jesus chose to do before going to his arrest and death was to institute the Eucharist. Jesus emphasized the desire he had for this celebration because it was to be the foundation for the new community he was founding. This communion with his Body and Blood was to be the lifeblood of his “mystical” Body: the Church. St Paul uses this image in a powerful way in Chapter 12 of the first letter to the Corinthians. He says that the Church is the Body of Christ. Each of us is a member of this Body with our own mission and gifts. The body is not a single part, but there is a unity within the distinct parts. Pope Francis speaks of this as “harmony,” which avoids the opposite errors of stale uniformity and destructive disunity (see his first homily for Pentecost as Pope, 19 May 2013).

I think it also teaches us something very important about what a parish is supposed to be. To use another phrase from Pope Francis, he speaks of the parish as a “community of communities” (The Joy of the Gospel, paragraph 28). This is similar to St Paul’s description of the Church as a unified Body with many parts. In our parish we have a variety of communities. Our goal is not to lose what is essential or unique about each of these communities, but similarly not to break down into isolated units. It is our unity in the celebration of the Eucharist that stands as an essential part of what we do together as a parish. We might think of this as the heart that pumps blood through the body. If a hand tries to separate itself from the heart it will wither. If we lose our connection here, we will not bear fruit. There will be events that fall mainly within one of the communities here, and we want to keep all of the distinctive life and gifts manifest in them. Our parish will be at its best, though, when we keep these parts connected in the unity of the parish through union with Christ in his celebration of the Eucharist.

Spiritual Thoughts on the Desert

The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert in preparation for entering the Promised Land, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before beginning to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God. In the early Church (as the threat of martyrdom waned) the desert became a place that was sought for spiritual renewal. As Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire and become more publicly acceptable there was a much greater temptation to mediocrity/lukewarmness. The early flame of lives transformed by the Gospel seemed to be less bright. Christians such as St Anthony the Abbot sought out the desert as a place to reconnect with this early fire. I think we face the same challenge today, and thought I’d share some thoughts about entering our yearly desert of Lent:

  1. The desert was a place where some of the noise and clutter of daily life was set aside. Therefore, it could be a special place of encounter with God in prayer. Jesus often prayed to his Father in the wilderness. We need this nourishment of prayer, too. Why do we stay away from it, or see it as a burden? Imagine someone that is a coffee drinker—coffee to them is seen as a source of life that helps them to enter into the day rather than a burden or obligation that must be laboriously accomplished. It is true that prayer at times includes an aspect of “spiritual combat” (petition, etc), but if this is our only experience of prayer then perhaps we are being called to include more relational prayer in our spiritual life. Find or make space for prayer, and spend time in conversation with God. Receive from his grace, and renew your desire for the life of Christ.
  2. However, the desert is also a place of trial, and this may be why we stay away from it. By stripping away distractions it brings us face to face with some of our difficulties and the challenges of silence. We become more aware of our unhealthy attachments or addictions. As we encounter these difficult truths, though, we can allow God to work to truly heal us. We invite the grace of God into this practice of discipline and seek freedom for love and fidelity. Why are we afraid of silence, or spiritual discipline? What might this reveal to us about what is in need of healing?
  3. Finally, the desert is a place of preparation. Christianity is not a religion that seeks suffering as a final goal, or the annihilation of self. Instead, as our freedom grows the love of God and neighbor reach more profound depths. We enter deeper into communion with others while becoming more fully that person we were created to be. The desert wasn’t the final stop for the Israelites, Jesus, or the saints. Instead, it was a step to something greater to come

God bless!

What are the traditional practices of Lent?

The traditional practices of Lent are drawn from Matthew 6: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Jesus warns about doing these for the wrong reason, but gives this instruction assuming that his disciples will be practicing these three exercises! I think they work together to complement each other and allow Lent to truly renew us.

Prayer simply refers to conversation with God. It has times when it is done in common (for us, especially Mass or the other sacrament), and also in the silence of our hearts. We should have a plan for both. Furthermore, I think adult prayer needs to include some time of reflection/meditation. Spiritual reading (Scripture, a saint, etc) or devotions (eg the Rosary or Stations of the Cross) can help with this. If you are feeling discouraged at prayer I encourage you to seek out someone’s advice. I think we can expect the depth of our conversion to God to match the depth of our prayer!

Fasting means deliberately setting something aside, especially food. The Church gives the simple direction of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, along with abstaining from meat on each Friday. We can fast in other ways by setting aside other things (I think “screen time” is a good candidate here) and seeking a more simple life. I think a good practice is to always fast for a purpose. For example, Pope Francis has asked that our sacrifice on the Friday of the first full week of Lent be offered for peace in the many ongoing conflicts throughout the world, particularly those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. When we feel the absence of the thing we are fasting from we can be reminded to pray for this intention.

Almsgiving refers directly to giving money to the poor, but in general can include any of the works of mercy. The “great commandment” includes both love of God and love of neighbor, and so naturally I think both need to be included in a well-planned Lent. It is easy to focus primarily on ourselves even in our spiritual life. One way to approach this is to look for opportunities in the week ahead on Sunday (or even in the day ahead during the morning), and set some small resolution.

Finally, I want to mention a couple of things that I think can help with Lenten goals in general. First, if we can set resolutions as part of a group of family/friends I think that helps us to persevere. Second, I think we should check-up with ourselves occasionally and reformat goals if need be so that a bad stretch doesn’t de-rail us completely. The goal is to invite God into our lives in a transformative way, and to work with His grace to bear good fruit. God bless!

What is practical atheism?

In earlier posts I have discussed atheism from a theoretical perspective. However, I think the bigger presence of atheism actually exists in what might be called “practical atheism.” In other words, it means that we may profess belief in God in our words, but not show evidence of it in what we do. I sometimes call this the “alien test.” If an alien were to observe our life, what would they list as our priorities? Would they see an impact of faith on a practical level?

Pope Francis addresses this in his Apostolic Exhortation Joy of the Gospel under the name “practical relativism.” He writes, “This practical relativism consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist” (paragraph #80).  I think this disconnect is one of the biggest challenges for us personally as believers, and in fact one of the biggest challenges to passing on the faith. I am thankful to God for places where I can see that God’s grace has borne fruit in my life, but also am aware of many other times where I can fall into this attitude!

We admire the transformation that we see flowing from the lives of holy men and women. We want to be part of the good things that are happening in the Church. But, this asks of us a true step of faith to change priorities and habits. It requires discipline and encountering the Cross, but the alternative is slavery to the senses and a life that does not bear fruit. It is a joyful thing to encounter the truth of the Gospel, to let it transform our life, and to bear good fruit. Is there anywhere in our life that we see we might give a counter-witness against the Gospel? What change might we feel called to make?

God bless!

The Epiphany and Seeking God

My favorite reflection on the feast of the Epiphany comes from GK Chesterton. [Side note: the Epiphany is the day we commemorate the visit of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings to Christ. In the Church it represents in general the public revelation of the identity of Christ, so can also include Jesus’ baptism or the wedding feast at Cana, his first public miracle]. The reflection comes from his book Everlasting Man—a book that deserves a post in itself! I found it dense and a little difficult to work through, but very rewarding.

Chesterton writes about the way mankind has watched the stars. The panorama of stars at night has been an encounter with transcendence since time immemorial. It has spawned mythologies, stories, and legends. He sees the primordial myth as the belief in some “great sky god,” which over time becomes developed into a whole pantheon of deities, heroes, and the like. On the other hand, he points out that the night sky has also inspired the work of astronomers and physicists. The movement of the stars has been a fascinating mystery for scholars to puzzle out.

I think of this as an “Epiphany” reflection because he connects this with the two groups that come and encounter the infant Christ—the shepherds and the Magi. The shepherds represent a group that probably sat around the campfire at night looking at the stars, and can embody the first sort of seeker described above. In their stories and mythologies about the constellations there is an expression of a desire to encounter an otherworldly creature here among us. The mythologies bring the transcendent down to earth and make it tangible (even if only in imagination). The Magi are also star-gazers, but with a different desire. They have some study of the nature of the movement of the stars, but have been moved to a deeper question. Beyond just wanting to know *how* the stars are moving, they want to know *why.* What is the significance of this new star that they have seen? This inspires them on their journey.

Both find the answer in Bethlehem. The Shepherds encounter God-with-us, Emmanuel—not just in the imagination but in the flesh! Likewise, the Magi encounter the deeper meaning to which their study has led them. Both groups have moved from an experience of wonder (the stars of heaven), to a search (one by imagination and another by study), and finally to an encounter.

This presentation by Chesterton always reminds me of the saying, “atheism began with the invention of the street light.” In other words, as light pollution in cities blocked our ability to see the stars, we lost the sense of the transcendent. The deeper questions don’t matter as much as we are consumed with everyday things. This isn’t to say that the astrology/mythologies inspired by the stars are a sufficient argument for God left to themselves, but they are a spark to the search. The awe that they inspired led the Magi to the *search,* which led them to the encounter. The Magi had real questions, and wanted to search for the fullest answer. I think this teaches us that having questions about God/faith/etc is not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t something that we just have to hold without thought or reflection. Instead, those questions can lead to encounter. Too often, though, we let the questions die on the vine. We don’t follow them far enough. Often “questioning my faith” means at best reading a couple of Facebook articles or something (I recognize the irony of writing that on a blog that links through social media!). What we need is the search of the Magi, that followed the question. We need to spend time with the best and most profound explanations available—whether by speaking with a knowledgeable person, reading a book, listening to talks, etc. This is how we truly engage the question.

What about us—what questions do we have? How have we followed them? Through them, may we seek an encounter with the Lord.

What is my favorite Christmas movie?

There are plenty of Christmas movies that I enjoy and highly recommend, but with no doubt my favorite is the Muppet Christmas Carol. I have watched it every year for quite some time, and it is always as good (or better!) than I remember. It has become part of our family tradition. At some point, after the Masses and dinner, we gather and watch it together. I love the songs and humor. I love the joy of Fozziwig’s party (and excellent commentary by Statler and Waldorf). But, what I think sets it apart is the way that it combines these elements with the spiritual depth of Dickens’ original work. The narrator (Gonzo) and Scrooge (Michael Caine) largely follow the words of the book, which adds a seriousness that blends very well with the fun. It continues to inspire me to conversion of life and to the joy that comes from living the Gospel. If you get chance, check it out. God bless!

What is reconciliation?

Reconciliation is a name given to one of the seven Sacraments (also called Confession or Penance), but this post is actually about the concept that underlies the name. The concept of reconciliation is about putting things back in right relationship. The fruit of this is peace—St Augustine calls peace “the tranquility of order.” In other words, when our relationships are ordered correctly it brings a joy into our life. This is a key part of the “peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27), and goes much deeper than mere comfort or pleasure. Likewise, it isn’t the illusion of peace that comes from ignoring problems. The joy of reconciliation comes from truly encountering and resolving the source of division. We can speak of this in three different levels: reconciliation with God, with others, and with self.

Reconciliation with God is both the first step in our relationship with God, as well as a continuous part of the process. Union with God is a true relationship, and therefore has a necessary connection with the truth. It involves seeking to encounter the real God with our real self. This is part of why the Sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation is such an integral part of our relationship with God in the Catholic faith. It is so easy to let our own preferences or rationalizations to dominate when left to ourselves (both in regards to the truth about God and our own self!). Setting aside other arguments for the Sacrament, one of the basic reasons it can bear such a powerful experience of peace is this objective character. Do we want a completely honest reconciliation with God? If so, then don’t stay away from this Sacrament.

Second, Jesus constantly connects reconciliation with God with the need for reconciliation with others (e.g. in the Our Father, we pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”). Again, it is very important to bring in the aspect of truth. The first steps of resolving a conflict with another person are often establishing good will and exploring both sides of the issue. Truth requires humility in regards to our own part and patience on behalf of the other. What is really driving the source of the conflict, both from our perspective and theirs?

Finally, reconciliation with our own self is in fact an essential part of both of these processes. By this phrase I mean healing of spiritual, psychological, or emotional wounds that we may have personally. If we can’t confront the truth about ourselves then our reconciliation with God or others will be superficial. Counseling or spiritual direction can help this healing to happen more easily/profoundly, or in some cases even make it possible at all. Unfortunately many people still think of them as only reserved for extreme cases or “crazy people.” Instead, it is a good and healthy thing to talk to others! Self-knowledge helps to flow back into deeper union with God and others.

Where do you most need reconciliation? What will you do to find it?

God bless!