Reflection: Can you answer the question?

27 August 2017: Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

questionOne of the primary questions of our lives, whether we are converts or cradle-Catholics, active in our faith or if we haven’t practiced in a while, remains “Who is Jesus Christ?” Or in the words of Jesus Himself, “Who do you say that I am?”[1] Each and every one of us at some point must answer this question! Who do you say Jesus is? What place does He have in your life? Can you answer that question? I imagine that many of us would say something to the effect of, “He is my savior” or “He is the one who redeemed me by taking up the cross.”

Does the question end here with our verbal answer? Sure, we use words to explain our beliefs, to profess our reliance on God and to exclaim the truth and love of Jesus Christ, but at the risk of sounding trite, do you put your money where your mouth is? No amount of words, no matter how eloquent or well-thought, can make up for a lack of action on our part. Yes, we may answer with words, but we must answer with deeds as well. Peter answered this question by saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” but he also went out into the world, imperfect as he was, and lived the Gospel message, sometimes failing, but always turning back to Christ. Christ gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven because Peter responded and believed, allowing the Spirit to lead his words and actions to carry the Gospel to the world.

So is Christ a simple teacher or perhaps a just a mystic? Or is He much more that? Is He someone you turn to just when times get tough? Or does He inform your every action? Do you follow the Son of the living God in everything that you say and do? Let us pray that “our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found”[2], in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, because one day, whether it is now or later, you will hear the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

How will you answer?

Questions for reflection:

  • Does my verbal answer to the identity of Christ align with my actions?
  • How can I better reflect Jesus Christ in my words and actions?

References:

  • [1] Matthew 16.15
  • [2] Collect Prayer, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Purpose of Beauty and the Great American Eclipse

Something strange was happening – the sky darkened and took on an eerie character, almost like twilight but something different altogether. A cool breeze picked up, the temperature noticeably dropping. 10:15 in the morning and stars started to twinkly forth along with objects in our own solar system, the planet Venus clearly visible just above us. The sun, that once constant companion in the sky, never-failing and always life-giving, was losing it’s hold, disappearing behind the transient moon. For a moment, one could almost say that a diamond ring hung in the sky, beckoning for someone to come and grasp it.

Then it happened: totality was upon us.

eclipse 1

Total Solar Eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Photo Credit: NASA

Twilight surrounded us on all sides and night seemed to descend right above us. The glowing ring that was the eclipse stared back as if an eye peered down from the heavens. Through my binoculars, shots of hot plasma sprouted from the surface of the sun, reaching out into space for 100,000 kilometers or more, enough to engulf our small place in space in flames if the Earth were right next to it’s normally life-giving star. White wisps of the sun’s corona danced around and seemed to envelop the moon itself, putting on display a sight that unaided eyes rarely get to see, all at once fleeting and fragile yet demonstrating the power and energy contained within the burning-hot heavenly body. The world was silent, focusing on this strange phenomena which hadn’t been seen in this part of the world for 38 years and would not return for another 28 years. Mesmerized by the sight in the sky, I was moved to prayer, thankful for God’s creation, the beautiful intricacy of His universe, and the blessed opportunity to witness this awe-inspiring event, which for many people, may be the only chance they have in their lives to see it.

eclipse 2.jpg

Time-lapse of total eclipse over Madras, OR. Photo Credit: NASA

No words can adequately capture the moment of totality during the 2017 Great American Eclipse. No pictures or video can do it justice if you didn’t have a chance to see it in person, although I still highly recommend finding those pictures and watching some of those videos (being wary, of course, of some social media photoshop fakes that are floating around). Viewing a total eclipse is a life-changing event, with the potential to alter one’s view of the world.

The total eclipse is a reminder, however, that no matter what beauty we behold here on Earth, it is all a foretaste of that ultimate beauty, love, and truth for which we strive to be with for eternity in Heaven. While the eclipse was wonderful, it is a reminder that just as it was fleeting, our own lives are fleeting as well, and we must remember that we should be preparing ourselves for something so wondrous, so fantastic, that nothing we see here on Earth, not even a total eclipse, can ever approach the magnificence of residing forever in it’s presence: I am of course talking about that beauty and truth which we will experience in the Beatific Vision. With all of the excitement surrounding an event such as the eclipse, we need to remind ourselves that all of it, no matter how wonderful, should be used to glorify God, who gave us His only Son, and leaves His Spirit with us always, to guide us and draw us closer to Him.

The Great American Eclipse inspired millions to learn and grow, but it’s primary purpose in this writer’s opinion? To serve as an example of the beauty of His creation and remind us that He remains with us always, whether in the celestial heavens or here on our Earthly home. May God be praised in all we do.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his love endures for ever;

who alone has wrought marvelous works,
for his love endures for ever;
whose wisdom it was made the skies,
for his love endures for ever;
who fixed the earth firmly on the seas,
for his love endures for ever.

It was he who made the great lights,
for his love endures for ever;
the sun to rule in the day,
for his love endures for ever;
the moon and the stars in the night,
for his love endures for ever.

-From Psalm 136

The next total solar eclipse to hit the United States, although on a massively different trajectory will occur on April 8, 2024. Personally, I wouldn’t mind heading to Argentina in 2019. Anyone want to go?

On the Journey: Prayer, Work, and Cookies

Augustine’s Confessions Book II, Chapters 6-10

“I long instead for innocence and justice, graceful and splendid in eyes whose sight is undefiled. My longing fills me and yet it cannot cloy. With them is certain peace and life that cannot be disturbed. The man who enters their domain goes to share the joy of the Lord. He shall know no fear and shall lack no good. In him that is goodness itself he shall find his own best way of life. But I deserted you, my God. In my youth I wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.” –Confessions II.10

Rocket01

CC BY-SA 3.0 by TimmyTruck via WikiCommons

What is the first time you remember you felt guilt from knowing you did something wrong? If you are anything like me, it was probably pretty early on in life. At my great-grandmother’s house up in the mountains, she used to have this wonderful cookie jar sitting on the counter. She always kept it filled with fresh cookies, and if for some reason it was empty, you could be sure that a fresh batch was soon to be ready, the sweet smell of chocolate chips wafting through the house. After all, what’s Grandma’s house without cookies?!

When I was 5 or 6, I remember thinking that I could get to that cookie jar. I had asked earlier if I could have one, but for some reason (probably due to an upcoming meal), I was told no. So, as many a small child will do, I took matters into my own hands. When no one was in the kitchen, I quickly pulled a chair over to the counter. If you know me, you know how short I am; well, I was short for my age then as well, so you can imagine the sight!

In any case, there I was with the chair at the counter, my objective in view. I climbed up, and reached as far as I could, just barely grasping the jar. I pulled it over, and opened the lid, seeing the forbidden objects of my desire: those precious chocolate chip cookies. I quickly took one out, replaced the lid, climbed down, put the chair back, and took the first bite into that delicious morsel.

It was probably the worst cookie I’ve had in my life.

Don’t get me wrong, the taste was absolutely wonderful! But I knew that I had done something wrong. As I finished the cookie, I realized that I had taken the cookie without asking, betraying my grandmother’s trust. Even though no one ever found out (or at least no one ever told me they found out), I felt absolutely horrible. In the words of Saint Augustine, “it brought me no happiness, for what harvest did I reap from acts that make me now blush?” (II.8)

And so it is with sin in our life. In these last chapters of Book II in Augustine’s Confessions, we find him reflecting on the mistakes of his youth, something which I think is common to almost every person. One of the constants of human existence in our fallen life is that of sin: we fall constantly, “for the soul defiles itself with unchaste love when it turns away from you and looks elsewhere for things which it cannot find pure and unsullied except by returning to you” (II.6). Often in life we seek fulfillment and pleasure in things that are not of God. Pick any of the seven deadly sins, and you find that they are all about replacing God for something of this world. Sometimes, this longing can even twist good things into bad, whether it is a good hobby, work in the Church, or love for another person. When we take our focus from God, everything starts to fall apart.

So what is the answer? To turn back to Him of course! We can do this through the sacraments, most especially through Confession and the Eucharist. We find through the Sacraments that “no caress is sweeter than your charity and no love is more rewarding than the love of your truth, which shines in beauty above all else” (II.6). In His love, beauty, and truth, we find true fulfillment, rather than in those things of the world, no matter how good they may seem. We must realize that everything we do, no matter how mundane, needs to be directed back toward God.

Mt._Angel_Abbey_(Marion_County,_Oregon_scenic_images)_(marDA0213)

Mount Angel Abbey Church, by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

I find this especially present in the maxim of Saint Benedict, “Ora et Labora,” or Prayer and Work. Everything we do can be turned toward God and sanctified. In the Benedictine sense, this takes the form of the daily prayers as “ora” and each monastery’s particular work, such as teaching in the case of my seminary, as “labora.” But from what I have seen in the various monks I’ve met over the years, it also means making the work itself a prayer. Why not offer up your daily trials and triumphs to the Lord, sanctifying every moment of every day? Of course we must set aside some time specifically dedicated to prayer, but all those other times can be directed to the Lord as well.

As we strive to direct our lives towards God, we begin to realize the limitless grace and mercy that is the Lord’s. Despite our past mistakes and current failings, we see that He is boundless, and so can repeat the words of Saint Augustine, “I avow that you have forgiven me all.” For God’s mercy is infinite; all we need to do is to turn back to Him.

These past few chapters have focused on the adolescence of Saint Augustine and the mistakes he made in his life. Next we head into Book III, where he will take us through his time of learning rhetoric and the beginning of his quest for truth, even if at first he was not looking in the right places…

UPDATE: 31 July 2016, 2215

Having just read Pope Francis’ final homily from World Youth Day, I think these words are especially appropriate:

That is our real “stature”, our spiritual identity: we are God’s beloved children, always. So you can see that not to accept ourselves, to live glumly, to be negative, means not to recognize our deepest identity. It is like walking away when God wants to look at me, trying to spoil his dream for me. God loves us the way we are, and no sin, fault or mistake of ours makes him change his mind. As far as Jesus is concerned – as the Gospel shows – no one is unworthy of, or far from, his thoughts. No one is insignificant. He loves all of us with a special love; for him all of us are important: you are important! God counts on you for what you are, not for what you possess. In his eyes the clothes you wear or the kind of cell phone you use are of absolutely no concern. He doesn’t care whether you are stylish or not; he cares about you!  In his eyes, you are precious, and your value is inestimable.

At times in our lives, we aim lower rather than higher. At those times, it is good to realize that God remains faithful, even obstinate, in his love for us. The fact is, he loves us even more than we love ourselves. He believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves. He is always “cheering us on”; he is our biggest fan. He is there for us, waiting with patience and hope, even when we turn in on ourselves and brood over our troubles and past injuries. But such brooding is unworthy of our spiritual stature! It is a kind of virus infecting and blocking everything; it closes doors and prevents us from getting up and starting over.  God, on the other hand, is hopelessly hopeful!  He believes that we can always get up, and he hates to see us glum and gloomy. Because we are always his beloved sons and daughters. Let us be mindful of this at the dawn of each new day.  It will do us good to pray every morning: “Lord, I thank you for loving me; help me to be in love with my own life!” Not with my faults, that need to be corrected, but with life itself, which is a great gift, for it is a time to love and to be loved.

You can read the rest here.


Up next time: the beginning of Book III

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: Childhood

Augustine’s Confessions I.7-12

“You are the one and only mold in which all things are cast and the perfect form which shapes all things and everything takes its place according to your law.” -Confessions I. 7

One of the most profound experiences that one can have, in my opinion, is holding a newborn child in their arms. The beauty and innocence in the eyes of an infant can reach a person to the very soul, putting him or her in touch with the God who created us all, who at one time formed us in the womb so that we might be held by our own fathers and mothers.

The parent of a toddler running around the house may not be so keen on seeing that innocence, and the parent of a teenager may outright deny it!

We are all born in this wonderful state, but then again, we are also human. We are not born perfect, and we will grow to make mistakes, fall, both proverbially and actually, and by God’s grace, we will get up again.

I remember when I was a young child, probably middle elementary school and I was out playing with some friends. I did not want to come home, only because I wanted to play longer, and ignored the calls of my mother. (And when I say calls, I mean verbally, from the front porch. Well, whistles actually. Cell phones weren’t so common then. Man, I feel old all of a sudden…)

This obviously didn’t end well.

From Wikimedia Commons - Unlimited License

From Wikimedia Commons – Unlimited License

She kept calling, and I kept ignoring, and finally it came time that I had to leave my friend’s house so he could eat dinner. I proceeded out his front door, said goodbye, and waited. And hid behind a rather large bush. And waited some more. I mean, I knew I was in for it, so why not, right? I saw my mom ride by on her bicycle, looking frantically for me. I’m not sure how long it had been; it seemed like hours, but it was probably only 15 or 20 minutes. Eventually, I knew I had to make my presence known, and so I stepped out so she could see me.

That was the first time I experienced what it was like to be grounded.

Lord knows it wouldn’t be the last, and that I have probably given my mother and father a fright or two or ten since then!

But my point is this: even at that young age, we struggle with the right thing to do, what choices we make, and this is where we find Augustine in this week’s reading. He recounts what he must have been like as an infant (whiny) and what he was like during his early school years (a brat who didn’t want to concentrate on school work):

“I was disobedient, not because  I had chosen something better than they [my parents] proposed to me, but simply from the love of games…My eyes shone more and more [with curiosity]…[and I] wanted to see the shows and sport which grown-ups enjoyed.” –Confessions I.10

The Carpenter's Shop, by Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Somehow, I don’t think our Lord ever got in trouble… Painting entitled “The Carpenter’s Shop”, by Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Augustine sought to follow his own desires, seeking what he considered the “wealth of this age” (I.9). But even at this point in life, even though he  had a lot of growing up to do, and many more mistakes to make, he still had an inclination of the presence of God, taught  to him by his mother Monica.  At one point, he even pleads with his mom, appealing to her own devotion, “Give me the baptism of Christ your son, who is my God and my master” (I.11).

I wish I was as eloquent as Augustine at that age!

There is a two fold lesson that we can learn from our own lives and from Augustine in all of this. First, we must grow up. Second, we must remain children. Scripture even supports this: in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ tells his followers, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18.2-4). In one of the Apostle Paul’s letters, he speaks of “put[ting] away childish things” (1 Cor. 13.11).

Of course there is no contradiction here. In one sense, we must strive to return to the humility of childhood, seeing ourselves how God sees us, trying to better ourselves, get aways from the distractions of the “wealth of this world.” We must seek refuge in Him as the Father that He is, accepting the mercy of His Son, allowing the Spirit to penetrate our hearts. At the same time, this movement of child-like faith and humility will cause us to grow up, to see the world how it truly is, to see the emptiness of worldly wealth and to see how His truth and beauty permeates all things. We discover that we can either allow ourselves to be swept away by that beauty, or turn our backs on it as we would a cold wind.

The Father has cast us in His image; let’s rediscover the mold from which He made us as little children.

For reflection:

How can you become more like a child to grow closer to God?

What things do you need to put away in order to grow closer to God?

Up in two weeks: Confessions I.13-15. Normally I try to post weekly, but I am taking this short hiatus to focus on enjoying vacation and studying for finals. There will be other posts on the blog before then, I am sure, but the next one in this series will be on Dec. 9.

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.