Sunday, June 28, 2020

God, the jealous lover?

Today's gospel reading (Matthew 10:37-42) starts with one of those really challenging passages that priests and deacons must dread having to preach on. Actually, Matthew's version is not nearly as tough as the parallel in Luke, who requires us to go so far as to hate father and mother, spouse and children, brother and sister, and even our own life, if we want to be counted as true disciples. Matthew just says we mustn't prefer them to Him.  Still ... where is Jesus coming from with this? It's pretty strong stuff. 

Earliest monastic tradition certainly took it seriously. Monks and nuns were meant to renounce their family relationships along with their property and position. Why, what's the point? I mean, I (with the agreement of my spiritual director) explicitly refuse to do that, as a hermit, among other reasons because family relationships go both ways. I can't deprive myself of my family without depriving my family of me, and I don't feel that I have the right to do that. I honor my father and mother, sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces, and I'm not about to cut myself off from them. Granted, I live at least an hour away from them all, and even before the pandemic, we never got together more than a few times a year. Still, the principle remains -- but what is the principle, then, behind the ancient monastic tradition? 

There's something in John Cassian's Conferences of the Desert Fathers (late 4th-early 5th century, about 100 years before St. Benedict and a major influence on his thought and Rule). He and his fellow monk Germanus, who have travelled from their home monastery in Palestine to learn from the famous desert fathers in Egypt, start to think that maybe they should return to live with their families. They think, with their families' support they could devote themselves to spiritual study and holy living, and in return they would surely be a good influence on their relatives.... Fortunately, they have grown enough in humility and wisdom by then to run their idea by one of the elders, who shoots it down. Why would their families want to support them as idle monks, and what makes them think their families would be grateful for their wise teaching? I think there is something about the way families and land are connected in agrarian economies (just about every economy, ever, except our modern post-industrial ones) that means family ties come along with real, concrete rights and responsibilities that might not be obvious in our modern capitalist system.

OK, then, but there is still, I think, an important value in today's gospel reading, and it has to do with what we call "tough love." It has to do with a homily I heard about 30 years ago, preached by the late Cardinal Hickey. The parish church was packed with mostly Central American war refugees, among whom domestic violence was epidemic. Cardinal Hickey read his homily in Spanish, and it was obvious that he must have spent hours and hours rehearsing. It was obvious that he really cared about what he was saying, and what he said was this: "you men, never for one minute think that because you are married in the Church, the Church is going to tell your wives to stay with you if you beat them. If you beat your wives, sacrament or no, the Church is going to tell them to leave you!" Disgracefully, that has not been the Church's universal message. But it is the message of today's gospel. 

Today's gospel says, you must do the right thing, choose God, even if it means breaking the most intimate family ties. Even if it means pressing charges against your (temporarily, if sincerely) contrite husband or lover for beating you or your children. Even if it means evicting and/or testifying against your own beloved child for dealing drugs. Even if it means participating in having your sister or brother involuntarily committed to a psych ward when they're having a psychotic episode and, lacking insight as a symptom of the illness itself, rage against you for locking them up. Or just tolerating a terrible two-year-old's tantrums without letting yourself be manipulated by them.

You know, there is only one God, and my God is your God, too, and also the God of the abuser and the drug addict, and of every one of us whose thinking and behavior is at times slightly or massively distorted, manipulative, dishonest, wrong, unacceptable. It is not up to me to try to figure out what is the best thing I can do for you. It is up to me to maintain my own prayer life and my own integrity, to examine my own conscience frequently and rigorously, and to make amends whenever I start to go wrong. If I do that, if I do what God leads me to do, it cannot possibly be good for me and bad for you. We have one God, who loves me and you and all of us together, equally. Some choices may seem selfish to us, we may feel guilty for saying "no" or walking away from someone close to us, but if I'm really following God, He cannot possibly lead me to take care of myself at your expense. 

Tough love is not just self-love, it's a more effective way to love its object. Enabling, the opposite of tough love, is crippling. We, and those we sometimes have to be very brave to say "no" to, cannot grow strong and healthy without some struggle on our own behalf. Letting someone get away with bad behavior, even rewarding bad behavior, prevents the person behaving badly from the harder work of confronting their own demons and growing into goodness. Nor does tough love guarantee healing and redemption, but that's not my job. God loves you, and God loves your manipulative child or spouse, but you are not your relative's God. You, I, must learn to "listen with the ear of the heart," and then trust in God to take care of us and of one another, in His own way. 

I think that this is what Jesus meant -- or at least, it's one way of understanding His hard statements in Matthew, and even harder in Luke, about placing God before family. We have to put God, and that still, small voice with which He speaks to us in the depth of our conscience, ahead of absolutely everything and everyone else. It's for our good and for our loved ones' good, too, because the God who speaks lovingly to my heart loves them just as much. We don't have competing Gods, or duelling guardian angels ... we have one God. Trust!

Sunday, June 14, 2020


Today is the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi -- the Body of Christ. I was lucky enough to be able to go to Mass. This feast celebrates the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is that the bread and wine at Mass actually become, literally, the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, with only the external appearance of bread and wine remaining. It looks like bread and wine, and it tastes like bread and wine (actually, the bread doesn't taste like anything much), the wine smells like wine, but on a mystical level, in its inmost reality, it IS God incarnate. I can't really come up with a metaphor for this ... the closest that occurs to me is what happens sometimes in a dream, when someone looks and talks and acts like your Aunt Mabel, but you know, somehow, that it's really your late husband. You know? 

Anyway, I wanted to riff on something from my last blog post a few days ago, and I'm going to keep this quick and try to post it before Compline tonight. I said something like, "seen with the eyes of faith and love, this world is my home." I mean my heavenly home. I mean, seen with the eyes of faith, not only is Jesus in "the least of these my brethren," and not only do I see all the power and glory and grace and divinity and love of God in the tasteless little wafer at Communion, but God is all around me. The Rule of St. Benedict says that we should treat all the tools and property of the monastery as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. What would it be to treat the work of our hands, the work we do with those sacred tools, as if it were all sacramental? What if God incarnates every day, every moment, in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in all "the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands," as the priest says it at the altar? 

What if He were speaking to you, right now? Can you be quiet long enough to hear? The priest this morning said that when he was an 11-year-old altar boy, he heard his name spoken from the tabernacle behind the altar in church one morning, "Jimmy ... Jimmy ...." Do I believe it? Yeah, I do. I've heard too many similar crazy stories, and I have my own. Listen. See. Feel. Wait. Invite God in, and wait for Him to come. Make time and room enough for Him to move you. And the world will open up, this world will become magical, divine, glorious. It's so real, more real than the world we're used to seeing with our everyday vision. Open the eyes of faith, and rejoice!

Peace be with you.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

At Home in the World

There's a gospel hymn that says "this world is not my home," and indeed it's a familiar theme. We're pilgrims in this world, just passing through, with our eyes and our hearts on Heaven. But I want to turn that around, and say that unless we make our home in this world, we can't reach the eternal home later on. I don't mean to contradict that other sentiment, just to point out what it really means and where it falls apart if misinterpreted or taken too far.

So what does it mean, properly, to say that "this world is not my home?" I think it means that we shouldn't get too hung up on worldly prosperity, security, or status. We should be willing to sacrifice everything for our conscience's sake, confident that there are consequences beyond what we can see in front of us. But where it can fall apart is in a tendency to spiritual selfishness. We want to climb the mountain and then stay there. We want to live the ideal holy life, and we want to "keep ourselves unstained by the world," as St. James put it (Ja.1:27).

But this world IS our home, and we can't get to Heaven by cutting ourselves off from it. I think that both the monastic vow of "stability" and the marriage vow of "for better or for worse" are meant to push back against the tendency to blame other people and circumstances for our own shortcomings. Once that vow is taken, we're stuck with each other, and that is where spiritual growth has to take place, not in some imaginary ideal world with imaginary ideal people. There are no shortcuts to Heaven. Jesus isn't going to beam me up.

In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about what is right behavior: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me." He means, of course, that "whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me." I'm going to extrapolate a little, and add, "I was annoying and you were patient with me, weird and you didn't make fun of me, weak and you accommodated me, wrong and you didn't gloat." 

And, of course, I'm not walking on water, either. I am no perfect specimen of humanity. I have to put up with myself, too, and love myself just as I am, even as I try to become better. Every time I sit down to write in this blog, I seem to come back to the same thing: the need to 1) see myself as I really am, here and now, in order to 2) love myself as I really am, in order to 3) become more like I want to be. Again, there are no shortcuts.

This world may not be my home, ultimately, but it's the only way home. Lift up your eyes to Heaven, by all means, but then bring them back down to earth again. Jesus said, "whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me." St. Benedict said, "receive all guests as Christ." St. Teresa of Calcutta saw Jesus not only "in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor," but also in the distressing disguise of an unfair or incompetent mother superior. We are made in the image of God, we are temples of the Holy Spirit, and as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, "the world is charged with the grandeur of God."

The problems and shortcomings of this world and its people are not impediments, they are exactly what we need in order to reach that happy home. Seen with the eyes of love and faith, this world IS my home.