Time to Declutter: 18th Sunday in OT

Below is an adaptation of the homily I delivered this past weekend. In case you need a refresher, the readings can be found here.

Compulsive hoarding Apartment.jpg

Not my clutter, thankfully!

Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity, so Qoheleth! We are called to always “seek what is above” and to keep our focus on things that really matter: namely, God and what comes after our mortal journey here on Earth. Yet, I think that we can have a lot of “clutter” in our lives that can keep our focus from being where it needs to be.

Decluttering definitely seems to be “in vogue” at the moment. There is no shortage of methods, books, and even T.V. shows that purport to reorganize your life and get rid of unnecessary attachments. One such method, created by the popular Marie Kondo from Japan, focuses on keeping only those items that “spark joy” in our lives. To some extent, this is true: we should closely examine those things that we have in our lives and take an honest inventory if they bring joy and happiness, and this rule of thumb can be applied not just to material things but to habits, relationships, and any number of different types of “clutter” we might have in our lives.

Our Lord, as always, challenges us to move deeper than to simply find those things that make us feel good. Our Lord challenges us to stay focused solely on what is above, rather than on Earthly attachments, and so we have the parable of the rich fool who simply could not let go of his earthly wealth.

Perhaps we have all stood in the place of the rich fool at one time or another. I certainly know I have – packing my room from the seminary was evidence enough that I was holding on to too many things! What does the rich fool do when he runs out of space? Somewhat comically, he decides to tear everything down and build a bigger barn, a bigger storehouse for all his things: “This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”

Now at first glance, it might seem that the rich fool does the right thing: after all, he is simply being responsible with his possessions, right? In fact, he even makes a resolution to enjoy his time, to rest, but being who he is, this is an empty promise. He will not rest, eat, drink, and be merry: eventually, his possessions will continue to grow, and he will run out of space again. He will have to rebuild again, and the cycle will continue. How often have we been stuck in similar cycles? Jesus teaches us, however, to separate ourselves from some of these attachments, to not be like the rich fool. If we follow the way of Jesus Christ, “Our detachment from worldly goods should mean we have no anxiety about our basic” needs (Didache Bible commentary). In order to live the life we are called to live as disciples of Christ, we must rid ourselves of these unnecessary things and seek things above.

Let’s go back to the modern “decluttering” method mentioned above. We now see that simply asking ourselves whether or not something gives us joy is inadequate. We must respond to the call of Christ to move deeper into our faith. We must ask ourselves whether or not something keeps us from seeking things that are above. We must ask ourselves if whatever it is we are contemplating ridding from our lives gives glory to God. That is the test we are looking for, the question we must ask ourselves: “Does this give glory to God?” If Jesus called me home right this moment, would I hang my head in shame over this thing or would I be joyful that our Lord could see what I have done with this particular part of my life?

Remember that we’re not talking simply about material things. We are talking about applying this rule of thumb, “Does this give glory to God?” to everything in our lives. Let’s look at a few examples: does spending time with a particular person give glory to God in what we say and do together? Will a desired trip to the coast give glory to God? Does buying a new car give glory to God? If you notice, all of these questions can have a yes or a no answer: does the friendship exist to support and encourage each other, or is it spent in gossip and using the other person for gain? Does the trip to the coast consist of spending quality time with family or enjoying God’s creation, or does it consist solely in gorging our mouths and emptying our pocketbooks? Does the new car represent a true need to support myself and family, or is it something that I am buying just so I can keep up with my next-door neighbor?

Glory to God in the highest…

And what is the most profound way that we can give glory to God? Of course in the Eucharist. There is nothing else on Earth so important than being in the presence of God Himself. When we come together in the Eucharist, we more fully become who we are created to be as sons and daughters of God. Our Lord tells us, “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”  In the Word of God in Scripture and the Word made present in the Eucharist we hear His voice – what more could we ask for than to give glory to God in what we do in the sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist?

In some sense, the rich fool was correct: I believe we are to “eat, drink, and be merry,” – God wants us to be happy, healthy, and holy, but the fool simply did not live out his promise to himself. The key, my friends, is to take what we have, and in the words of Saint Paul, “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” Our time on Earth is limited and we cannot take any of our riches with us, yet we are still called to be a joyful people. Perhaps it would be good to remember these words from Hilaire Belloc: “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, / There’s always laughter and good red wine. / At least I’ve always found it so. / Benedicamus Domino!” Live life to the fullest, stay focused on things above, and if today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts!

On the Journey: Spring Cleaning and Attachment to Sin

Augustine’s Confessions Book II, Chapters 4-5

“But our ambition to obtain all these things must not lead us astray from You, O Lord, nor must we depart from what Your law allows.” Confessions II.5

Pears

By Keith Weller – USDA, Image Number K5299-1., Public Domain

Moving has a way of forcing a person to evaluate his or her priorities. As I packed my belongings at the seminary in preparation for my language immersion trip to Mexico and my Pastoral Internship during the next academic year, I realized that I had a lot of stuff to weed out. Some of it were things that I no longer used, or old clothes, or items that I didn’t really need in the first place. Packing gave me a chance to focus on what should be my priority, namely, my formation and preparation for the priesthood, and so I was able to divest myself of quite a few belongings. Many items I kept too, such as those relating to what I consider “central” hobbies or interests in my life: theology, astronomy, or writing (and, of course, Star Trek and Star Wars). All in all, it was a very freeing experience, being able to take stock of everything and discern whether or not it was truly necessary in my life.

All of that said, I must say this: attachment to material things is no small obstacle to overcome!

In this week’s selection, Saint Augustine shows us the danger of attachment to material things. He relates what I consider to be one of the most jarring stories in Book II of the Confessions: when he and several friends stole an enormous amount of pears from a local orchard. This tale may not seem like much, but when one takes into account Augustine’s motivations, the reader can see just how dangerous material covetousness can be. He uses this moment to show how we can be attached to the material world for its own sake, and even more diabolically, how we can even be attached to sin for the mere feeling that it provides. Augustine even admits that he “had no wish to enjoy the things I [he] coveted by stealing, but only to enjoy the theft itself and the sin” (II.4).

We must remember, however, that material objects in and of themselves are not sinful. One does not sin by owning the best computer or the fanciest boat. Sin enters the picture when these items are loved for their own sake, rather than for the end of true joy in glorifying God and building up oneself and others in a positive way. After all, as Augustine notes, “The life we live on Earth has its own attractions as well, because it has a certain beauty of its own in harmony with the world’s beauty” (II.5). The beauty of God and creation as seen through material things cannot be denied! But what happens when we move into excess? Is the fanciest boat or best computer really that necessary?

The danger comes when we attach too much importance to material items, and again, Augustine leads the way in this thinking: “They are of the lower order of good, and if we are too much tempted by them we abandon those higher and better things, Your truth, Your law, and You Yourself, O Lord our God” (II.5). In other words, when we attach an importance to an item, a feeling, or even a person, that is outside of this proper order of things, then we lose our focus and we fall back in on ourselves, leading eventually to sin; we follow Augustine’s footsteps directly into the pear orchard.

camel_needle_gifThe pear orchard, however, is not an endless trap! We must work to reexamine our lives, and place everything where it belongs. We do not sin by possessing material items, but I do believe that it adds a greater burden on our lives, for after all, Jesus Christ tells us that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19.24). So let’s take a moment to examine our lives, our attachments, and discern where we can use a bit of spring cleaning.

Just don’t take away my books. Anything but the books!

Questions for reflection:

  1. Do I place inordinate attachment to anything in my life, outside of its proper order, whether that be a person, an object, or even an idea or emotion?
  2. How can I better re-order the priorities in my life so that my material possessions can help me become a better person, in terms of how I treat myself, how I interact with others, and how I relate to and worship God?

Up next time: Confessions II.6-10

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

On the Journey: The Importance of Reflection

Augustine’s Confessions Book II, Chapter 1

For love of your love I shall retrieve myself from the havoc of disruption which tore me to pieces when I turned away from you, whom alone I should have sought, and lost myself instead on many a different quest.Confessions II.1

Mirror

By Cgs (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Self-reflection is, I think, largely a lost art in today’s world. So often we hear about people going about their daily lives, merely allowing the unrelenting pull of existence to carry them where it will, living without intentionality. We often fail to look at where we have been, and so miss where we might go, where the Lord is leading us, where the Spirit speaks to the still quiet recesses of our hearts. Our lives are filled with noise, and so we fail to hear not only the Lord, but our own inner voices as well, and simply allow ourselves to be swept away.

When I fist entered seminary, I received a it of advice from my mom: from the beginning, keep a journal. She recognized the importance of self-reflection, and encouraged me to develop this skill which, I eventually found, became indispensable in my daily life. The journal has ebbed and waned over the years: sometimes there are consecutive daily entries, and sometimes I may go several weeks without writing anything down. I have tried, however, to keep my mom’s advice, advice that has helped to shape not only my experience in seminary, but to shape so many other aspects of my life as well. Self-reflection, if we hope to grow closer to God and embrace our humanity to its fullest potential, is indispensable.

In his first chapter of book II, Augustine endeavors to show just how indispensable reflection can be. He realized that in order to move forward in his spiritual journey, he needed to look back as well: “I must now carry my thoughts back to the abominable things I did in those days, the sins of the flesh which defiled my soul. I do this, my God, not because I love those sins, but so that I may love you. For love of your love I shall retrace my wicked ways” (Confessions II.1) Here we see two main points regarding self-reflection which must not be forgotten:

  1. While we do indeed turn inward, at its core, reflection isn’t merely something to look back and see how good or bad we are, but it should in fact help us to turn outward toward God, giving Him thanks and asking for His grace and mercy.
  2. Sometimes self-reflection is not a pleasant process; in order to grow, we must accept both the good in our lives as well as those areas in which we have fallen in order to gain a true self-understanding of where we stand before God.

In the end, Saint Augustine did not take on this task because he loved his sinful past, or even to put on a show to display how great a sinner he was, and so how holy he had become after his conversion, but rather he took on the task of self-reflection to grow closer to God. He knew that in order to more fully unite himself to the Holy Trinity, he needed to reflect on the “different quests” of his life, seeing in those moments where God had been the entire time. So, too, can we look at those different quests in our lives, discovering the presence of the Lord in both the smallest moments and biggest breakthroughs, in times of failure, and in times of triumph.

This is the key: in everything we do, we must set as our goal to grow closer to Him, whether it is self-reflection, or daily work, or taking on some new adventure. In this way, we begin to truly “seek the things that are above” (Col. 3.1).

Questions for reflection:

  1. Do I undertake a daily examen, or even journaling,  in order that I may more fully reflect on my life?
  2. How can I live to be more intentional, rather than letting the tides of the daily grind sweep me away?

Up next time: Confessions II.2-3

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

+JMJ+

Social Networks, Nanobots, and the Dignity of the Human Person

We just recently took part in a two-day symposium here at the seminary looking at the place of technology and social media in our lives, what it means for our ministries, and the impact that it may have on our future. While I hope to write a longer post in the coming days regarding the symposium, I will say that we covered many topics with our presenters, Sr. Mary Timothy Fokes, FSE, and Fr. William Holtzinger of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, ranging from social networking to nanotechnology to artificial intelligence, and even the integration of technology and the human mind itself. I just stumbled upon this article focusing on a recent interview of Ray Kurzweil by Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the authors from which Sr. Timothy derived her research. Fascinating and thought provoking…

From the article:

When I talk about computers reaching human levels of intelligence, I’m not talking about logical intelligence…It is being funny, and expressing a loving sentiment… That is the cutting edge of human intelligence.

The question with which we will be faced: how do we maintain the dignity of the human person in this rapidly evolving world and what can we personally do to achieve this goal, no matter what the technology? I am certainly not saying there is no answer to this question, I am simply saying that we need to keep it at the forefront as we develop these technologies!

Be sure to check out the article and accompanying video of the interview with Kurzweil and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson!

Pax.

On the Journey: The Folly of Children

Alas, it’s been about three weeks since my last post. Studying graduate-level theology will do that to ya. Let’s move on in Augustine shall we?

Augustine’s Confessions: Book 1, Chapters 19-21

I was blind to the whirlpool of debasement in which I had been plunged away from the sight of your eyes. For in your eyes, nothing could be more debased than I was then, since I was even troublesome to the people whom I set out to please. –Confessions I.19

When I was a young boy, my mom would often call my sister and me in from playing by a loud whistle. You know the type: forefinger and thumb in the mouth, piercing blow, and heard through the entire neighborhood. When we heard that whistle, we knew it was time to come home.

Dunce

By Unknown engraver [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But like all children, I didn’t always obey that whistle. In fact, one evening my mom gave the signal and I left my friend’s house but I didn’t go home. I’m not sure why; there certainly wasn’t any reason that I shouldn’t. I simply did not want to go home, and thought that I would stay out a little longer. I was already late, and I saw my mom outside our house down the street looking for me. I immediately hid behind a bush; like all children, I was real sneaky and not at all obvious. Well, what seemed like an eternity passed, and then I saw my mom ride by on her bike with a look of worry across her face. It was in that moment that I knew I was in big trouble. I’m not sure how long I had stayed out, but I knew it had been far too long.

Well, that was the first time I had ever been grounded. It wouldn’t be the last.

My point here is that as kids, we often think we know best, and so it was with Augustine: like many typical children, he wasn’t the bastion of innocence that many people see kids to be: he lied, he cheated, he got away with things, and when he didn’t, he threw temper tantrums (I.19). Augustine did not fully understand the gifts which he had been given in life.

So it is, except in rare and blessed circumstances, with us. We’ve all experienced selfishness. If there is one thing that we have learned reading Augustine thus far, it is that the saints are all human. They made mistakes, they sinned, they at times turned from God. While this may seem like a depressing reality, it should be one that gives us hope.

We have hope because while we draw breath, we can always turn back towards Him. Even when we carry some of these childish behaviors into adult life, when “commanders and kings may take the place of tutors and schoolmasters, nuts and balls and pet birds may give way to money and estates and servants” (I.19), there is always a hope, and a call, to respond to God’s grace and to embrace love. For if there is one defining characteristic of the saints, it is this: when they fell, when they committed sin, when they were turned in towards themselves, they got back up and turned back towards God, and they never stopped striving to live in His love, no matter how difficult it became. Let us too strive for sainthood and follow in Augustine’s footsteps:

“I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in Him but in myself and in His other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error. My God, in whom is my delight, my glory and my trust, I thank you for your gifts and beg you to preserve and keep them for me. Keep me, too, and so your gifts will grow and reach perfection and I shall be with you myself, for I should not even exist if it were not by your gift.” (I.20)

Questions for reflection:

  1. In what area of my life have I remained selfish, turned inward toward self, rather than outward toward God?
  2. What do I need to do in order to get rid of childish habits (cf. 1 Cor. 13.8-11) and grow more fully in love, both towards God and toward others?

Up next time: we will begin Book II, which goes into more detail regarding Augustine’s younger and teen years. We will go through the next several chapters at a faster pace so as not to get too repetitive, and some of them may be skipped, although the main ideas will still be expressed. That said, even if I don’t post about every chapter, I will be reading them (as should you). Pax.

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

+JMJ+

On the Journey: How have you used your gifts?

Augustine’s Confessions: Book 1, Chapters 17-18

This very day you are ready to rescue from this fearsome abyss any soul that searches for you, any man who says from the depths of his heart, I have eyes only for you; I long Lord, for your presence. -Confessions I.18

We all have gifts. Some of us are writers. Others are singers. Still others are skilled at working with people, while others have an innate ability to solve complex mathematical problems. Some peoples’ gifts reside in the area of interpersonal relations, others are gifted academics, and still others have gifts in their spiritual life and practice. We have all met people with an abundance of gifts, and yet we often overlook our own. We all, however, have our own special unique gifts, given to us by God. How do we use those gifts though?

If I was pressed to give an answer, I would probably consider one of my own gifts being

writing

One of my favorite pastimes – writing. I just wish I had more time to do it (and more opportunities to do it by hand). Own work, copyright 2014.

that of writing. I don’t have any great talent in it, but I enjoy it and it brings contentment, whether I am writing in my own journal, working on an academic paper, or crafting a letter to a close friend. But like most of us who are struggling on this path of holiness, seeking to grow closer to Him, there have certainly been times when I haven’t cherished this gift as I should.

One example comes from my pre-conversion days in high school. I was in the library at lunch with my then-girlfriend and we weren’t doing anything in particular, just hanging out. I then remembered that I had a paper due in English the very next period. I immediately went over to the computer and started typing away. My girlfriend was a bit incredulous I suppose, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I then continued on, finishing up the paper just as the bell was ringing. I looked it over once, corrected a couple of things, and prepared to turn it in.

I got an A on the assignment. In fact, it was one of the few I actually turned in – I wasn’t the best student in high school.

My girlfriend was upset and gave me a bad time about the assignment – I basically just popped the paper out right there without really spending time on it.. What’s worse is that I knew I would get an A on it. I don’t even remember what the topic of the paper was, but boy was I arrogant and prideful!

Saint Augustine experiences the same sort of pride in his childhood too: “Let me tell you, my God, how I squandered the brains you gave me on foolish delusions” (I.17). Now granted, the great saint was a much better student than I was, but he still experienced the same issue, an issue that I experienced and that we all experience at one time or another: he was “so much smoke without the fire” (I.17), squandering his gifts, rather than using them to give glory to the Lord.

So what are we to do with these gifts? How do we keep from letting them fall to the wayside, or worse yet, how do we keep from using them for unworthy purposes? After all, too often in our world, we are taught to “get ahead” and “be successful.” This is usually done when we utilize one or another of the gifts God has given us. Why not turn the focus from ourselves and towards God? This doesn’t necessarily mean that every other word out of your mouth has to be religious; it just means that everything we say and do can be oriented toward His glory, whether implicitly or explicitly, so that we do not “waste in dissipation all the wealth” which the Father has given us. This orientation toward the Lord can be as simple as saying a short prayer before undertaking a task,  or as involved as explicitly reflecting on how our actions serve the Lord and serve others. Remember the words of C.S. Lewis: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” So whether your are a singer or a teacher, an administrator or a writer, an astronomer or a florist, a business executive or a stay at home parent, seek out how you can use your gifts to glorify Him.

As Augustine notes in this week’s reading, the Father, the one who gave us these gifts, is there waiting for us, just as the father of the prodigal son waited. All we have to do is turn around and return to Him.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What gifts has God given me whether material, intellectual, relational, or spiritual?
  2. How can I better utilize those gifts to serve Him and those people around me?

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

+JMJ+

Gaudete Sunday: Finding Joy in Unexpected Places

Well, I suppose it has been a while since I have posted to these pages, and for good reason too: I simply have not had the time to post! Back in late July/early August, I accepted a full-time position teaching Middle School English at a private Catholic school in Northern California. The transition from seminary life back into working in education has not always been easy! Finding a place to live was probably the most difficult, and commuting for two+ hours a day before I found that place to live was almost as hard. I have found, however, particularly as I reflect upon the lessons of Advent, that in the times when there are many unknowns, there are also the most profound graces.

Often, we are called to simply wait, and that my friends is precisely what Advent is about. We wait for the coming of the Christ child, and sometimes that waiting bears with it unknowns which unsettle the soul. Where is God calling us? Why does this or that happen? What are we supposed to do in the present moment? Remember, Advent, at its core, is a penitential season, infused with joy as it is, and so we are called to reflect on these questions, and how we can invite Jesus into our lives.

It is no accident that I am writing this on Gaudete Sunday, as the answer to all of these questions resides within what we remember today: joy. Where does God call us? Joy. How do we encounter the various ups and downs of life? With joy, for even in the difficult moments, He is there. What are we supposed to do in the present moment? Live out a joyful life in the Lord. I am not trying to express some rose-colored view (pardon the pun for you liturgical nerds) that everything is always perfect and we are bright-eyed and happy in every moment. What I am saying, however, is that it is in joy we must live, and the joy of a life in Christ Jesus radiates outward, touching our hearts and the hearts of those around us. Joy moves beyond mere happiness, beyond temporal satisfactions, and into the heart of Christ Himself.

Live a life of joy; be sure to have some fun along the way.

Live a life of joy; be sure to have some fun along the way.

Joy is precisely what I have found in this small school and community. Yes, it is difficult. The hours can be long, I have sooooo much to learn, and as any teacher at a Catholic school will tell you, the pay isn’t the best. But money isn’t everything; if it was, I would be an IT person, and not a teacher or writer. I did not expect to find the joy that I have discovered, but the Lord has a habit of blowing our expectations out of the water. Sure, I have dreamt of being an English teacher since I was in high school, but I was skeptical about moving to this little town. I have found, however, the joy of the people here is a joy truly reflected of those who follow in His footsteps.

I’m not sure what the future holds; none of us can be, even if we have strong inclinations to where He leads. I have hopes and dreams, especially of teaching, having a family, and, as another short person I know would be fond of, living a simple life with good tilled earth. All of this, however, is up to Him, and I only hope and pray that I will follow Him wherever He may lead. I am sure, however, that joy resides in just that, following Him, and that we can find this joy if we just trust and wait, inviting Him into our lives.

Please pray for me, that I follow His will alone, and know that you remain in my prayers as well! A blessed Advent to you all!

Pax et bonum.

PS: Now that things are finally calming down, I hope to post here more regularly (haha – we will see about that), including my promised Bad Poetry series, and another idea I am working on about the lessons of a new teacher…

Patience

what-is-love

“Have patience with all things, but, first of all with yourself.” -Saint Francis de Sales

Time seems to go by so fast. How in the world did an entire month pass since my last entry here on these pages? It may have something to do with the new job, school starting in a few weeks, life. Anyways, on to the point.

Patience. Boy do I have a tough time with patience! All throughout my life, I have been impatient. I want everything to happen NOW. The test results, the visit with a close friend, the results of the interview, the answer from the Almighty.

But alas my dear friends, this is not the way things are, and it’s a good thing too! Think about all the opportunities and growth we would miss out on were we to receive all the answers immediately, rather than enduring the pain, and gift, of waiting!

This patience, however, must also reside within, as the kind saint so directly points out in the above words. Are we patient not only with the world and those around us, but with our very selves? The daily struggles, the ups and downs of life, can be harrowing at times, and we may want to throw in the towel. Some of these struggles may even be due to our own fallen nature. Even though we want to move beyond these struggles, no matter where they originate, sometimes the Lord just tells us to sit.

Wait.

Be still.

Know that He alone is God.

In the end, He is the one in control. My dear friends, let us pray for patience. Let us give in to His love and grace, and be content with that. He knows what He is about, and how all of this will work out. Patience.

After all, God is love, and along with being so many other wonderful things, love is also patient.

Prayers for all of you. Say a prayer or two for me and some special intentions as well, will ya? Thanks.

Pax et bonum.