Sunday, November 24, 2013
I will attempt to write a theological reflection on the Beatitudes from Matthews portrayal of the Sermon on the mount(Matthew 5:1-12). I have chosen this particular passage from the list of options as I find it to be the one that is most unfamiliar to me. As a convert, I rarely if ever heard anyone discuss the beatitudes and if they did it was in a passing quote here or there. After converting to the Roman Catholic faith I found myself fascinated with this entire discourse, more especially since I had found some of them to be very difficult to comprehend from a human stand point.
First I always find it important for my own understanding to address the particular situation in which the author portrays this event. At the beginning of this section of scripture Mathew indicates that “he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.” The first major thing that I notice of this passage is that Jesus began by sitting down, assuming a position of authority, the position of the teacher. Then we see that the disciples climbed the mountain to receive his teaching. This leads also an interesting correspondence to the event that occurs when Moses receives the commandments directly from God. As God spoke from the top of the mountain, Moses climbed up to meet him. Our Pope Emeritus in one of his writings indicated that we should also look at scripture through a Christological lens, a hermeneutic of faith. When we examine this event from that understanding, we begin to see a very similar pattern in that the disciples climbed the mountain to receive a litany of commandments dealing with life with God and with mankind.
The beatitudes themselves almost seem to have an intricate dichotomy of meanings. On the one hand we have these positives, and with the others we seem to have almost a negative promise. It puts me in mind of the ten commandments themselves in which we find 'thou shalts' and 'thou shalt nots.' We find that we get a condition “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9) These seem almost to make a direct correlation, an understanding that easily presents itself. When we take the word blessed and examine it's root of makarios we find the word means in a sense happy. Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Sons of God. That we are truly only happy when we are like God. This I think gives me the key to my personal understanding of the Sermon, that to be happy we must be like God, to be more like Christ himself.
The second affirmation seems to me to be “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Another aspect that we clearly see, as maybe the most important aspect of our relationship with God, is that of His mercy. Scripture affirms consistently that God is a just and merciful God, “for the Lord your God is a merciful God” (Deuteronomy 4) reminds us that this all important attribute of God is also one that we must remember. Jesus himself reaffirms it again in another saying where he says “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:2) That true happiness comes from being merciful in our lives. In our relationships with others and with God; when we extend mercy to others they too will extend it back to us.
The third affirmative beatitude I'd like to address is “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Jesus reminds us that nothing impure can enter into the kingdom of heaven, that our heart must free of any attachment to sin. The gospel of Matthew repeats this theme again when he tells us that our “righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees” or we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This sort of thought prompts me to exclaim with the disciples, “who then can be saved”? Jesus seems to be saying we must be as righteous as He (as God himself) in order to be happy.
The fourth thou shalt of the favorable proclamation from the mount is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6) Again we see the pattern of those who seek earnestly the will of God, righteousness, will be given happiness. That true happiness comes from being more like God and seeking to be morally upright in all of our actions. This will provide us with a filling satisfaction of not only achieving that justification, but also a supernatural happiness.
That brings us to the other end of the scale, where we seem to have a more perturbing nature of promises or proclamations. Where as Jesus has been promising happiness for things that seemingly make sense to be happy about, now we find a different nature to the secondary half of the formulation. Jesus speaks of suffering and pain being the happiness. Things that we might perceive as negative, yet then follows with a reward for them. From my protestant background this almost seemed at odds with the God of the ATM, the God who gave you what you asked for and if you suffered it was simply because you did not have enough faith or had in some way sinned.
I had a great deal of difficulty understanding these four pronouncements for many years, until I heard Father Robert Baron speak of them in his Catholicism series. I cannot pretend to do justice to what he gave in that series but I'd like to attempt my own understanding of it and hopefully in a clear enough manner to convey my thoughts. He speaks of Thomas Aquinas and the spheres of influence that typically get in the way of our trust in God. Those spheres are wealth, power, pleasure, and honor. Father Barron compares these to the four remaining beatitudes.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3) This beatitude seems to suggest that we must be detached from worldly possessions. That having or owning something is not as important as not being attached to wealth. Here we have a simple reminder that indeed for a 'rich' man to enter into the kingdom of heaven is nearly impossible, but with God all things are possible. It also reminds us that a poor man can have negative attachments to his wealth just as a rich man can be completely unattached to it. The widow who placed her two pennies in the offering was generous, but she also could have been stingy hanging on to everything she had left. That it is our spirit, our heart that determines where our hearts are.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4) In the same scheme of things it's important not to be attached or addicted to feeling good. In our society we often look for good feelings at all times. Our children shows flood us with the concept that love is feeling good and sex is relegated not to procreation but to what feels right. Feeling good is of course a good thing, and when ordered to God's will is indeed beautiful, but we also know that addictions can occur when we put this first into our lives. Only when we are unattached to those feelings can we truly follow the will of God and do even that which seems difficult or painful at the time to do that which is right. It also reaffirms that our hearts call out to God, and that the only place we find rest is in Him. We often try to cram anything we can into that God shaped hole in our heart, but the only thing that will fit permanently and comfortably is God himself.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5) I can only imagine how this must have seemed to those who believed Jesus to be the political and kingly Messiah that would overthrow the Roman government. Here he clearly sets a course that would not lead to any sort of world domination or overthrowing of any political regime. “Happy are those” who are not attached to political (worldly) power and fame.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”(Matt 5:10) Again we see a call to detachment from another sphere, that of honor. Jesus seems to indicate that by freeing yourself from the need to be seen in a position of honor that we can inherit the kingdom of Heaven and be the children of God.
I think that those four amazing statements can only be understood rightly when looked at while also gazing at the cross of Calvary. As Jesus hung on the cross he embodied all of these, more especially the four negative, in a fullness and a fulfillment of the words themselves. How much more poor in spirit can one get than to have nothing left, worldly at all? As he hung there with no clothing, no possessions, just a crown of shame and his own flesh ripped and torn in the wind. How much less honor can one have than to be the King of the Universe, but to be crucified alone. Matthew portrays Jesus as having no friends, no family, no disciples at his feet. Even the 'good thief' isn't present, only those who deride and mock him. How far from feeling pleasure can one be than to be suffocating under their own weight, their skin flailed to the point of falling off, their hands and feet pierced by nails and driven to a cross? The driving winds of the dry desert air parching and cracking your tongue and lips and the heat of the day blistering. How meek and humble did he appear when he allowed himself to be crucified for our sake? The master of legions of angels and king of the entire universe, placing himself into the hand of men to go to his own death. Yet, here is truly a happy man who lived for God, and did God's will in all things.
As I examine those thoughts and I image Jesus hanging on the cross in my place, I am struck by how the very sermon on the mount cried out to those disciples on the mount in a way that almost says “Blessed are they who are like Me.” I find that each of this statements directly corresponds to behaving in the way that Jesus behaved. His life itself lived out the beatitudes to a fullness that I am not sure any other human can or has lived them. A holiness so much more difficult to follow, but so much more practical and easy to understand. A call for each of us as disciples of Christ to emulate Jesus, who is our Sabbath and our rest.
I feel that this amazing understanding of the need for detachment calls me as a Christian in my own personal walk to begin to further analyze my life. I also find it particularly pertinent on this the feast of Christ our King, to again approach every aspect of my existence and ask myself, Who is my king? The old cliché “WWJD (What would Jesus Do)” seems even more relevant as we ask ourselves: Are we detached from those spheres of influence? Does the need for honor rule my life? Political, social, or economic power? Is it a need for things and money? Or a need for things that 'feel' good regardless of their spiritual significance? Should not my needs and wants be centered around Christ himself? To live this way, means reorganizing and restructuring every second and every breath, until I too can look down from own cross and say “It is not about me.” It reminds us that the things that are unpleasant in life are in a way, our cross.. and we are to look down from our cross and say "Its' not about me, it's about you." Jesus died on his cross for us, so we too must die on our cross for others. We often make it all about ourselves. The beatitudes, yes Christ himself, reminds us that the goal in life is to live for God first, and our neighbor as well. That we must be completely detached from everything, including our own ego, and say fully thy will be done.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Betty had been sick for a very long time. I was prepared for her death, and had spent time with her talking about it and sharing our faith together. I never knew how hard it was going to be. Today at the funeral the church where it was held had a special time for those who were there to share stories about her and her life. At first I had no intention of getting up and saying anything, but as I began to see that not many where moving to do so.. I began to arm myself with stories. I'm not shy about speaking even if introverted, so I began to pull stories out of my arsenal of time we had spent with her.
My mind began to remember the pinochle games till late in the evening, where we would sit together laughing and telling stories. Betty would have a beer or two and Julie and I some wine or what have you, and we'd just share our lives. Or we'd sit on the back porch as the sun went down and she would tell us stories of her family and friends, of her boys and their antics growing up. Or the time that I went out of town for two weeks after my back surgery unable to mow my yard, and someone called the police on us to report tall weeds in the back. They police came and Betty not only took time to tell the police the situation, but then she and my other neighbors proceeded to take care of my yard so there would be no fine. Or the many times she gave us food to make sure my kids had plenty to eat, or just to make sure that we knew we were loved. It was her way. Or when we stood together in the driveway as she told me she was ready to die, that the pain was getting to be too much and she just didn't know how much longer she could go... as we held on to each other and just cried.
Yes I went to that podium armed with stories to regale the finest of kings, and greatly overestimating my ability to speak to a crowd. I looked up and looked into the eyes of my friends. The eyes of her children and their children, their spouses and families, their friends and relatives. A lump formed in my throat that could not be moved. Tears formed in my eyes and threatened an ocean of misery. I do not know how I got out the few words I did, but I can only say that the Holy Spirit in that moment spoke for me, though I had not the words to say, with groaning that cannot be uttered.. this time the groaning was my own and in my heart.. words that could not be expressed.. feelings that were deeper than I had ever imagined.
In that moment I realized that all the stories I could fathom could not encompass the beauty of who Betty Ann Walker was. So I simply stated that Betty was more than my neighbor, she was my friend. She was like a mother to us, always caring for us and watching over us and our children. We can never thank her enough or repay her for that.
Yes, I will miss my friend. Till we meet again in Heaven, dear one, pray for me.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
This morning was absolutely horrible. Do you know the kind of day I'm talking about? Where everything seems like it's out to get you and even the furniture is on the attack? It all began with a nice alarm blaring in my ear... apparently for over 30 minutes. As I groggily hit the snooze button I happened to glance up and see that it was closer to 7 than it was to 6. Oh no, the kids aren't up! So I quickly rush down the hallway knocking on doors as I go, and move in to wake up Moira who still needs help getting ready. No one seems to be moving. Another round of knocking 3 minutes later as I look for breakfast, snacks, getting together my clothes, planning my shower etc.
Finally after 3 tries I hear movement in the rooms and Moira is stirring enough to start getting dressed. I run downstairs to find the clean clothes I had washed the night before, pull out my outfit and a shirt for Mo and back up the stairs I go. (by run I mean a fast hectic walk that reminds the stair well that if it moves up an inch, it can stub my toe with the best of them.) So here I am stumbling with a toe that's sure to be broken, trying not to drop the clothes, when a magical lego appears out of no where and embeds itself into my flesh. Score 2 for the inanimate invaders and nothing for the dad who is running late.
My head begins to overwhelm me as I remember all things I'm supposed to do today. I need to get Moira ready, I need to get her to the bus stop, I need a shower, the dog needs to be walked before I leave, the clothes need to be put into the washer, the dishes need to be started, I need to help Butch at the church rewire some lights, it's almost time for Mass, then the prayer group, then I need to work on some homework for class, a meeting tonight for the building and grounds... we gotta get moving I remind them in a voice that's entirely too loud, entirely too angry.
Sarah and Hannah run out the door, their bus is running in less than a minute. Moira points to the basket and says "uh oh, Sarah forgot her project." Another thing in my head, a new object crams it's way into things to do... How am I going to get that to her at school? Someone is blowing their horn in the driveway, and I call back (by call I mean yell irritatingly that someone has invaded my introverted space again) 'Your ride is here!' This is followed by a slowly shuffling teenager who takes her time and calls out as if they can hear through the closed door 'I'm coming.' I begin to get irritated and mention that she should hurry, which is followed by a 'I am' as the shuffling sloth like creature begins to put on her shoes.
It all begins to bubble over as she has left and I look to see where Moira is.. and she's in the bathroom. So I knock and remind, we gotta go your bus is going to run. Followed by another 3 knocks in what seems like 10 minutes of time.. when actually it was probably about 10 seconds apart. Finally she opens the door and I notice in horror she doesn't even have her shoes on, her hairs not brushed, and I have less than a minute for the bus to run. I tell her "MOVE!" and she does, she runs into the living room, dancing around in all four cardinal directions as if she was a compass out of control, trying to find her shoes. Dear God help me, she doesn't even know where they are! So we frantically look, and my phone rings. My wife is on the other end reminding me that 'Sarah needs her project for school she left it.' I snap at her, she doesn't deserve that. I hear the air break release on the bus.. we missed it.
Ah, how wonderful a day eh? You may think I'm complaining, and maybe in a way I am. Actually, this morning was beautiful. I didn't realize that when I woke up. When my toe was throbbing I was angry. When my kids weren't moving fast enough, I was irritated to no end. When my phone rang and sang 'Oh Happy Day' to me, I was angry that it interrupted my space. When the horn beeped in the driveway I was irritated for the occupants in the vehicle who kept beeping every few seconds to remind someone they were here. How do we miss all the things in there that are from God? As I was 'stomping' my way on foot to take Moira to school, a small wind blew through my mind and God reminded me in that still small voice "It's not about YOU."
Dumbfounded. That's the word I would describe me as I stopped mid track. As I stood there on the sidewalk and Moira caught up to me and I realized I had made my day all about me. I apologized to her for being frazzled and we walked together and she began to talk to me. She began to point out this house or that, this flower or that, this bus and where it was going, etc. I realized she hadn't been talking.. how could she? We were walking at the fastest pace my broken body can handle, and I wasn't really giving her a chance to see anything.
I took her to school, and we got there before the bell rang and I began to walk on towards the other school to drop off the project. At this point I'm not in a hurry anymore. A friend stops and asks if I need a ride, my mind for a second says 'you can still make it to mass, you can make it to work on the lights, forget the project, get in and go!' I realize quickly that in doing that my friend who is lector for daily mass today would miss it if she gave me a ride. Thanks, but I'm gonna be a while I say, and tell her to go on. It's not about me. It's now about God. I need to spend more time listening. So I walk on.
So I open my eyes around me. The barking dogs yapping at me, the squirrels and their nuts, the trees and their blossoms and fading flowers, the elderly gentleman walking his pup, the birds in the trees, and the wind in the leaves. I walk on and back home, all the while thinking what a blessing I had this morning. The bible warns us in sacred scripture that our tongue has the power to curse and bless, and it should only be blessing. Jesus also reminds us that what comes out of our heart is what makes a man unclean. With that in mind, our thoughts can be a blessing and a curse too, they can take a moment in which we can see the finger prints of God... and instead we see only the dust. (Think of a CSI show, how they dust the surfaces to find finger prints.. our lives are dust... but if we look at where the ashes fall, we can find the finger prints of God on the surface.)
Curse: I woke up this morning to a blaring alarm clock.
Blessing: I woke up.
Curse: No one is up yet.
Blessing: Everyone was soundly asleep and resting.
Curse: having to get clean clothes from downstairs
Blessing: we have clothes.
Curse: Moira doesn't have her shoes on.
Blessing: We get to walk together and chat this morning.
Curse: Sarah forgot her project.
Blessing: I get to serve my family by living my vocation, I can take it to her.
Curse: the phone rings interrupting me
Blessing: the phone serenades me with 'Oh Happy Day' followed by the melodic beauty of my wife's voice.
We forget that everyday life sanctifies us. Living our vocation, our calling, can be the most holy thing we can do.. if we allow it to be such. We parents are called to serve. We often think of service as only when we go to church to wire a light, clean a floor, or lector at the Ambo. But service includes those at home as well. We often treat them worse than we would a complete stranger. We are hypocrites. Everyone of us. But we can do better. We can do it one day at a time. One blessing at a time. One walk at a time.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
During the process of my conversion, I was uninterested in the Catholic faith. Coming from the particular protestant background that I was raised in, the Catholic faith was not only foreign, but looked down upon if not looked at with outright contempt. My wife and I had married with the understanding that we were of different faiths, but after a while I began to seek to convert her to my own protestant stance. I was convinced that the Catholic faith was wrong and I set out to prove that to her. As time went by I would approach her with more and more questions, I guess more accurately described as confrontations. “Why do you believe this?” “Why do you Catholics do that!?” To which she would always reply, “find out.” She refused to argue with me, which of course infuriated me!
At this point I was really fooling myself, because my heart was not really into finding answers. I would do some reading of course online, mostly from protestant and Anti-Catholic websites to try and find answers. Then a major event happened in our lives: the baptism of our biological daughter, Moira. As the time drew closer, my wife informed me that we were baptizing our daughter Catholic. We really didn't discuss it further other than when, where, which priest would baptize her, etc. As a protestant I didn't really care what religion she was baptized into, as long as she was baptized.
As the day finally arrived I stood with every person in the congregation of the church at St. Mary's in Sycamore Illinois. The priest walked us through the process, renewing our baptismal promises and then asked us if we would raise our daughter according to the Catholic faith. I responded in the affirmative and as I did, it dawned on me that in order to teach her what the Catholics believed I would have to know myself! I could no longer simply dance around the issue, I had to actually delve into this so that I could teach her as I had just given my word before God and man that I would do so.
I began to search earnestly for answers, not just reading the protestant side of things but going to Catholic sites, speaking to Catholic apologists online, and even spending a great deal of time talking to the priest at our home Parish in Genoa. I had many questions and someone eventually suggested that I join the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program at our parish. I was ensured there would be no commitment required and I could go there and find answers to all of these questions that I had. I signed up and began to attend, but I must admit that this first trip through RCIA was one filled with a bad attitude and hostility. I wanted answers, but not for the right reason. I came to class to argue, or to find ways to prove to my wife and eventually my daughter that the Catholic faith was wrong.
The sweet lady who taught the class would look at me sometimes and simply say, “It's part of the mystery.” Then she'd move on to another topic or further into the topic we were discussing. This made me so angry at the time. I had been taught my entire life that there is no mystery! Every answer you want or need was supposed to be right there in the Bible. I eventually quit going to RCIA and simply studied on my own, convinced that the teacher simply didn't know enough about scripture to be able to answer me. I was so convinced that I had already known God and his Word that I knew there was no mystery to him.
As time went on I found answers to many of my questions. An astonishing thing happened along the way, I began to find that every single time I found the answer I was looking for, I found a new question. Another astonishing thing happened as well, I began to find answers that weren't in scripture, but were in writings from the early church fathers, documents from the Church itself, even in just talking to other members of the Catholic faith. My beliefs about God were not really changing, but my understanding of God was growing in a way that began to show me that not only did my beliefs fit in with the Catholic faith, but that the faith was so deep that it really was a mystery, because God himself was beyond our understanding. The word that had so exasperated me in the beginning, became a word that I embraced and clung to as I again enrolled in the RCIA program. This time not to argue or look for ways to convince others of how wrong the Catholic faith was, but to help me understand just how right it was. Not just for them, not just for my daughter, but for me.
The amazing thing that I am finding is that despite all of this journey that I have been on for many years, from the days when I sat beside my grandfather in the pews of a Baptist church, to the day when I went forward and confessed my love for God at an altar call, through the days of my baptism, prayer services, and eventually my confirmation in the Catholic faith; I never noticed the pattern of repeating that was going on in my life. Even when I began to read this wonderful document about the six stages of development my mind wanted to compartmentalize it into single stages, as if we could graduate from one into another.
Throughout life we have been taught that each event is a stage to move to another, and that eventually we will get where we are going. Working a job leads to a promotion, after which you no longer have to do the things before. My approach to this document was very similar in that in attempting to analyze where I am in those stages, I quickly began to quantify if I had moved through one stage to the next. I checked off my list through imagination, quickly moving past literal, to group faith, into personal, and hoping that I might actually be able to write myself down as someone who had gotten to the mystical stage.
As we discussed this in our small groups, many of the others did the same with their analysis of themselves. We each found ourselves hovering between stage 4, Personal Faith, and stage 5, Mystical faith. In fact, I felt a little ashamed as if I was failing because I could see that I didn't stay in the Mystical area. I saw parts of my life where I felt I had achieved that for a time, where I had acted in those ways, even from time to time I could honestly say I had achieved the Sacrificial faith that I so desire to have at all times. Yet, when I was honest with myself; I wasn't there all the time. I felt as if I was failing God and even was concerned about coming to class, that maybe I was the only one who wasn't able to stay in 'the zone'.
Then we began to discuss it at length and the light began to dawn on each of us, more especially when our teacher began to talk about the cyclical nature of faith, that we were walking along that normal path. My eyes began to open to a new understanding of the imaginative faith. Where as before I saw it as something that only children do, even having clever anecdotes prepared in my head of how my nephew talked about God's mom, aka Mrs. God, or how that my daughter had once thought that God put on a costume so he could look like a ghost; to where I now see that we each have to reach the stage of imagination in order to move forward and learn. That once we grasp on to a concept, some part of the mystery, we must begin to delve it in our mind before we can begin to ask questions. We must imagine what God is like, because he is beyond us. That once we reach a point where we have begun to even glimpse the mystical aspect of the truth that is being revealed to us, another question appears. We then begin to use our imagination again to try to fathom this new truth, and the cycle begins anew.
How relieving it was to find that simple eye opening truth, that all of this time that I had been seeking answers and only finding more questions, that I had been truly following the nature of revelation and faith. God was calling, and I was responding. I wasn't failing, but I was growing in faith. I still hope that some day, I can be in the stage of sacrificial faith at all times; until then I will be content in knowing that I can glimpse those moments without trepidation but simply realizing that when I do have a moment of pure sacrificial giving, a moment in which I am no longer concerned with my self at all but only with 'other', that in that moment, I will have opened another stage of the mystery. That in opening another stage of the mystery I will have drawn that much closer to God.
Sunday, September 1, 2013
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger
The book of James is quick to remind us that part of our Christian duty is to listen to another. It's strange though to think that the average thought of what it means to listen, is not to hear what they have to say.. but to quickly find out their problem, and fix it.
We so often sit hearing another person without actually listening to them. Our mind is often filled with our own preoccupation of what it is that they are speaking about and we wait with some sort of anticipation to interject what we agree with or what we disagree with, or even to say 'here is the answer' to their dilemma. I was reading a very interesting book and in it there was this astounding thought to me, when my listening becomes a point where I am going to interject something of my own experience, to tell them here is what I agree with of what you said.. or here is what I disagree with.. we have made it no longer about them, but about me.
How much more powerful and resulting would a conversation be if we spent that time actually listening, putting ourselves in their shoes, and attempting to understand fully what they are conveying? Not simply looking for where they are wrong, or where we are right, or trying to scientifically categorize an answer to their problem; but simply listening and making sure they know we are listening. Not systematically dissecting the situation with questions, but simply commenting on their feelings "You were feeling quite betrayed by their actions. That makes it very hard to trust them again." Is much more about them than "I'd never talk to them again!" which as become about you.
So do we have it in us? To listen? Not just to hear, but to listen.. unconditionally? Or are we stuck as a society that is about the I, and not the you?