Hungry

The following is the third installment of a seven-part lenten blog/video series sponsored by Franciscan Media. For the previous reflections, click here. For those subscribing by email, click here to watch the video.

Chinese food is one of the many gifts from God on this earth. Cheap, easily accessible, usually sold in enormous quantities, and basically uniform in quality across the country, it’s the sort of food that I absolutely crave from time to time. Who doesn’t love a towering supply of fried meat and simple carbs?

And yet, the very things that make Chinese food so desirable—price, quantity, convenience, greasiness/saltiness—are the very things that ultimately make it unsatisfying. As much as I have craved and even went out of my way to get it, I cannot remember a single occasion in which I felt great after eating it. Bloated, lethargic, and somehow still hungry, I immediately regret the decision and swear to myself that I will never eat the food ever again.

Until the next time I’m craving Chinese food and “just have to have it.”

Naturally, it is a bizarre situation that any sane person can see is unhealthy. Why would you continually do something that is not only unhealthy, but unfulfilling and unsatisfying? Why continue to look for new answers in the same wrong places?

Now there’s a powerful question for us with implications far beyond Chinese food…

In our Gospel this week, we find Jesus asking the woman at the well this very question. Having had five husbands, and currently with a man that is not her husband, we sense a potentially unhealthy pattern in her life. The fact that she meets Jesus alone at a well—a biblically symbolic place for romantic partners to meet (see Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and Moses and Zipporah)— indicates that even now, after so many failed attempts, she might be continuing to look for a new ‘lord.’

Again we might ask, Why continue to look for new answers in the same wrong places?

More than 1600 years ago, St. Augustine, a man famous for his own unhealthy behavior and failings, offered one of the great spiritual insights: in the opening chapter of his Confessions, he writes, “You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” For him, our hearts live in a constant state of uncomfortable longing, incomplete and yearning to be filled. We are so desperate to rid ourselves of this feeling that we look to the world for the answer. What will make me happy, we ask. What will make me feel complete and full and content with who I am? There’s always something out there that we need—if we just had that one thing… our life would be meaningful and fulfilling. Food, relationships, status, power, accomplishments, luxury, comfort, fun, stability. Whatever it is, our longing hearts longs to be fulfilled.

But it never happens, does it? Like an empty stomach seeking Chinese food or a five-time divorcee seeking another husband, we are never truly satisfied. There’s always something more we want. And then something more. And then something more. As much as we might find pleasure in the things of this world, and as much as some things may be quite good for our spiritual well-being, the fact of the matter is exactly as Augustine says: “Our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.

In His encounter at the well, Jesus is inviting the woman—and each of us many years later—to give up the constant search for things that cannot fulfill and to turn to the only one who truly can: Himself. He is the living water that quenches thirst. He is the true “Lord” that will never leave us. And He wants us to turn to Him.

This week, allow yourself to have a personal encounter with the Lord.

Yes, a personal encounter. A time when your phone is turned off, the door is closed, and your heart is open to hear his voice. A time when all the other fleeting and unfulfilling desires of the world are put on hold—even if just momentarily—and you can simply be with Jesus. A time when you can simply be you, without all of the masks and fronts and public niceties that we put on, and let the Lord meet you as you are—vulnerable, open, and restless.

At first, this may seem like a daunting task. In the beginning, it may seem difficult or overwhelming, something meant only for monks and mystics. But it doesn’t have to be. Jesus didn’t test the woman’s knowledge, make her perform amazing tasks, or question her worthiness. All He wanted from the woman was a chance to talk. He just wanted to fill her hungry heart.

If you have a hungry heart, a restless heart that continues to fill itself up with things that eventually fade, then this blog and video are for you. What Jesus asked of the woman at the well is no different from what He asks of us today. He just wants to fill our hungry hearts. All of ours:

“No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord’. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: ‘Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.’ How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 3).

 

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Keep Going

The following is the second installment of a seven-part lenten blog/video series sponsored by Franciscan Media. For the first reflection, click here. For those subscribing by email, click here to see the video. If you would like to subscribe via email, click here.

“I’ve made it.” In a moment of self-reflection, have you ever looked around at your life—all that you’ve done, all that you have, and all that the future holds—and realized that you were on a mountain? In this moment, you realize, this moment of sublime comfort and perfect confidence, all the pieces of your life have fallen into place and you are finally exactly where you want to be. “I’ve made it… and I don’t want to leave.”

I can distinctly remember this feeling three times in my life.

There was the spring of my junior year of high school, a time when, with the help of a driver’s license and regular paychecks, I began to develop my own identity and independence. Add that to having my first serious girlfriend, being a starter on the varsity baseball team, taking AP classes that counted towards college, and a faith that was beginning to mean something to me, not just my parents, and it was easy to think, at 17, that I’d “made it.”

I think also of my sophomore year in college, a time when the confidence I have in myself today  began to materialize. Beyond the awkwardness and doubt of being a freshman and over the heartache and disappointment of losing the dreams of my two high school loves (baseball and girlfriend), I found myself discovering an inspiring world of new ideas, developing serious friends who liked me for who I was, and enjoying an environment that, outside of some moderate work, was nothing but fun and carefree. It was quite easy to think, at 20, that I’d “made it.”

Most recently, I am reminded of my summer in Triangle, VA as a simply-professed friar, a time when I began to see myself as a public minister for the first time. Encouraged for four years to focus on my weaknesses and go to the places where I felt least comfortable, I finally found myself in a place familiar to my past experience, doing things that played to my strengths, with a brother that inspired me to be a better man. And I was appreciated for it. It was very easy to think, at 26, that I’d “made it.”

And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, I can clearly see now that I had not, in fact, “made it” in those moments. While each of one represents a “mountain moment,” a peak compared to what I had experienced before and not to be discounted, the continuation of life has shown me that there are often other mountains ahead greater than the ones of the present. Had I, at any of these moments in my life, decided to stay rather than continue on, remain in what was comfortable rather than risk the trek back down, I would have never experienced the amazing things ahead.

Such is the experience of Peter, James, and John on the mountain with Jesus. Separated from the other disciples, they are witness to what was probably the greatest sight in human history to that point: the Transfiguration. Right before their eyes, Jesus’ perfect humanity and sublime divinity shine like the sun, a visual representation of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Realizing they were on the most hallowed of grounds, they fall to their knees in prayer, overwhelmed with the reality before them: they are speaking to God made flesh. Nothing in their experience, or the experience of anyone else who had ever lived, could match what they were now a part of. They had “made it,” in a sense.

Naturally, Peter wants to stay. Why would they ever leave the presence of God on the mountain? What could matter more in life than this? He offers to build a tent for Jesus, to make the experience permanent for them all. But Jesus declines. While, yes, they find themselves in a proverbial mountain experience, Jesus knows that this is but a glimpse of what is to come; Jesus knows that there are other mountains to climb, other amazing sights to see. To stay on this mountain would be to forgo His entry into Jerusalem, His death on the cross, His resurrection from the dead, and the sending of His Holy Spirit.

They cannot stay on this mountain. They have to keep going.

In the second week of Lent, the story of the Transfiguration is a powerful encouragement to all Christians at the beginning of this long journey. Called into the desert and tested by the devil, there is often a part of us that feels overwhelmed by the task. The road ahead might be too difficult, we say. I don’t know if I can make it. Especially when we look around at our lives and find comfort in what we have, it can be easy for us to stay where we are and convince ourselves that we’ve reached the finish line.

But we haven’t reached the finish line, have we?

In showing the disciples the glory of the Transfiguration, Jesus offers them—and us—a glimpse of what they seek, not so that they will be content with what they have and stay, but to give them strength and inspiration to continue on ahead. As Christians, Lent is a time in which Jesus exhorts us to get off the mountain and continue our journey. Stepping outside of what is familiar and comfortable, He reminds us of what we lack and offers us a glimpse of what He offers those who walk with him.

Like the disciples, we have to walk down the mountain. We have to keep going.

Distorted

The following is the first of seven weekly Lenten reflections written and produced by Br. Casey and sponsored by Franciscan Media. Each Friday, a new blog post and video will be published here and on Franciscan Media’s blog. Feel free to share these reflections on social media, and check out all that Franciscan Media has to offer! 

Pleasure. A delicious meal of our favorite food. . .  a beautiful symphony at the theatre. . .  a hot shower after a long day in the cold. With five senses and billions of nerves in the human body, there are an infinite number of ways to experience pleasure from the world around us. What a wonderful part of the human experience, am I right?

A little over a century ago, the prevailing moral norms of Victorian culture would not have agreed. Closely associating pleasure with sin, leaders sought to remove pleasure completely from normal life. If it felt good, they thought, it was morally bad. Pleasure was from the devil. Adherents avoided meat and filled themselves with bran and coarsely ground wheat flour; sleep was often brief and interrupted; exercise was regular and excessive; clothing was restrictive and covered as much as possible; and anything that might lead to carnal desire was removed from their routine. In every way possible, pleasure was to be avoided, repressed, and mitigated, and replaced with austerity and denial.

Now, far removed from these external practices (and arguably on the other end of the spectrum), I can’t help but wonder if the mindset of that age still has a hold on us. Even in the midst of a pleasure-seeking culture today, I get the sense that many people still associate pleasure with sin. There is a part of us, I think, that still feels guilty when something is too good.

Is pleasure really from the devil? Is it something that we should be concerned about?

For an answer to this, I look to one of my favorite books of all time: C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Imagining a corporate world of demons whose sole purpose is to lure people away from God, the book consists of 31 letters of advice from an experienced demon to his nephew, offering insight into the human experience and tips as to how the young demon can best tempt his assigned human. In one such letter, Screwtape, the experienced demon, offers a discussion on pleasure and how it might be used to exploit the human, but also warns against it:

“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God] ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, as times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence, we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable.” (The Screwtape Letters, Letter 9)

In other words, the purest form of every pleasure—that which is most original and most pleasing—is actually from God, and is quite good; what the devil offers us are easier, cheaper knockoffs that are only a distortions of the gifts we have been given, and eventually leaves us dissatisfied. Things like food, drink, reputation, power, money, authority, pride, comfort, and yes… sex, are all gifts that originate in God and are in fact good in themselves. But sometimes, rather recognizing that these great things come from God and have been given to us to share for the sake of the world, we can seek them solely for the sake of pleasure, separate from an experience of God and at the expense of healthy relationships. Nothing the devil offers us can ever be better than what we are already offered by God.

As we begin Lent and enter into a period of sacrifice and simplicity, often giving up some of the pleasures of our world, I think it is important to keep this truth at the center of our focus. When we sacrifice things during this season, we do not do so because pleasure is bad and we need to purify ourselves of it. We sacrifice things so as to restore what has been distorted in us, to strip ourselves of the bad habits we’ve created and the false truths we’ve accepted so we can return with perfect vision and utmost focus on the one who created the pleasures in the first place. For a moment, we give up all that is extra in our life so that we can truly know and rely on what, and who, is most essential: our relationship with God.

For the next reflection in this series, click here.

The following is a reflection on this week’s readings, the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year C.

Have you ever stolen something, lied to your parents, called someone a hurtful name, done something hurtful to yourself, or anything else you regretted enough to had to go to confession?

If so, have you ever been smote by God’s wrath, hit by a lightning bolt from heaven, or dropped dead immediately after doing something wrong? Probably not.

Or, after having done something wrong, something you regretted, did you later have an experience of God, a powerful prayer, a feeling of relief, or anything that made you know that God was still with you, that he had not abandoned you? My guess is that the latter experience is a bit more common…

You see, on the one hand, our God is a God of justice. He set a way that his people were to live and told them that if they follow it they’ll be rewarded and if they don’t they’ll be punished. Justice: people get what they deserve. Look at how he reacted to the Israelites in our first reading today: seeing that they built an idol out of gold to worship, his first reaction is to send down his wrath of fire to destroy them. Harsh? Maybe. But he gave them rules to follow, told them that death was the penalty for sin, and they couldn’t even handle the FIRST commandment. Justice meant paying them what they were due, and they were due punishment.

But God didn’t end up doing that, did He? While our God is a God of justice, He is also a God of mercy. Even though He was very clear of the rules, and even though they immediately broken a really big one, God chose to show mercy to His people and give them more than they deserved: a second chance, new life, safety from death.

It’s the same story with St. Paul in our second reading. While we all know Paul as the great missionary that built up the Church after Jesus, sometimes we forget that he was a great sinner prior to his vision of Jesus. In our second reading today he even says himself, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated.” Even though he tore down the church, imprisoned and killed Christians, and denounced Jesus, God did not give him the punishment he was due, He gave him mercy… He gave him forgiveness; God was able to transform something terrible into something great.

Why? Because God loves those who love Him and are perfect, right? God loves those who help themselves, right? Quite the opposite, actually. Time and time again we hear that God loves the outcast… the sinner… the weak… the lowly. The very reason that Jesus tells the parables in our Gospel today is because the Pharisees were complaining about who He was eating with: “This man welcomes tax collectors and sinners and eats with them!” He was eating with the lowest, most detestable people in society. But why? Because no one outside of God’s mercy, there is no length that God won’t go to bring them back.

Jesus asks them, “Who among you, losing one sheep, wouldn’t leave the 99 behind to find the one?” The correct answer is everyone! The idea of leaving behind 99 sheep to find just one is ridiculous! But that’s what God does for all of us. He’s like the woman who completely overturned the whole house to find just one coin and threw a major party over it. He’s like the father who didn’t care that his son disrespected him, took half of his wealth, defaced himself, and then came crawling back for help. No one is outside of God’s mercy… no matter who they are… no matter what they’ve done.

God doesn’t treat us fairly, He doesn’t give us what we’re due… he gives us so much more than we deserve. Even tax collectors. Even sinners. Even people who lie and cheat and say mean things to their parents, who don’t feel connected at mass, or don’t even think they need God. Even them, you, and me. Even… Even terrorists.

On this the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on our country, we will be inundated with a simple, two-word message: Never forget… Never forget… Never forget. It’s a powerful message, a catchy message, an important message. But what does it mean? What exactly is it that we never want to forget as long as we live?

For some, it is an opportunity to focus on justice. What we should never forget is the horror of the day: the deaths of so many people and the hatred of the people that did it to us. This was an objectively evil act, and we need to take it upon ourselves to give them what they’re due: punishment. Never forget what they did.

When we go down this road, fueled by hate and anger and fear, we have a tendency to take horrible, sinful acts and give them back even worse. More than 300,000 middle-Easterners dead, torture, regular acts of distrust, name-calling, and violence against completely innocent Muslim citizens of this country. If all we remember is the terrible acts of the day, if all we remember is the sadness and anger we felt when it happened, that is likely all we are going to be able to give back in return.

Is that the Christian response?

In light of our readings today, I want to suggest an alternative, that the thing we should “Never Forget” is not the evil of that day… but rather the mercy of God who continues to be with us all… even the sinners. The God who turns evil into good and never tires of chasing after us…even the terrorists. The God who doesn’t give us what we deserve, because he gives us so much more. Instead of remembering the deaths of so many, let’s never forget the lives that God touched, the saints and sinners in those buildings for whom God waited on patiently their whole lives. Instead of remembering the destruction and turmoil, let’s never forget the heroic acts of first responders risking their lives for others, how the whole city, an entire nation united together, moving beyond our differences to be one. Instead of remembering the terrible things that others have done and how they need justice, let’s never forget that we are all sinners and yet all of us have been treated mercifully by God.

When people hurt us, they betray our trust, inflict pain… our first reaction is almost always to get even; we want justice. And there’s room for that: a world in which no one is accountable for there actions and sin is okay is not a world that our God wants. But we never need reminding of this; our instinct to fix this comes naturally. What we do need from time to time, though, what we must never forget, is that God has treated with his mercy, and wants us to do the same for others. Never forget.

For those receiving this post by email, click here for the short video reflection related to this post.

Today’s Gospel reading at mass was the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). What I offer to you is the reflection that I gave to my brothers in formation this evening.

“I didn’t do anything.”

That’s what I said to the principal when I was called into her office in 4th grade. (I’m not entirely sure if my parents actually know about this story… so… surprise!) You see, there was a kid in my class that no one really liked. He was loud and immature, often dressed inappropriately and had bad hygiene, and was known for acting out,  bullying others, and saying inappropriate things to the girls. He was a bully that no one liked… a very bad combination.

One day, things boiled over. At morning recess, he apparently touched one of the girls in our class and said something to her, and my friends didn’t like that. Enough was enough. They planned to teach him a lesson. At lunch recess, they were going to corner him and “beat him up” as they said. When lunch came, we all went out to recess, and three of the guys in my class started pushing him, calling him names. I think one of them even kicked him.

The kid didn’t sustain any major injuries, just a scraped knee and a scratch on his eye,  but it was a big deal in the school. The three students who had orchestrated the whole thing were called into the principal’s office, but so was I and a few other students. “I didn’t do anything,” I said. “It was ____ and _____ and _____. They were the ones who beat him up. I did not even touch him.”

In my mind, I was innocent. My principal didn’t think so. As she saw it, I knew something bad was going to happen, but I didn’t stop it. Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I intervene? Why didn’t I help him? Even though he was weird, even though he might have even brought it on himself, even though I may have suffered a bit myself for defending him, no one deserves to be treated that way. I had the power to do something, but didn’t do anything.

In our Gospel passage today, the rich man finds himself in a similar situation. No doubt shocked to find himself in a place of torment while Lazarus is in the place of honor, you can almost hear him say, “But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t make him poor. I didn’t steal from him. I didn’t make him unclean.” And maybe he didn’t. But just like me in the fourth grade, the rich man knew Lazarus. He knew that he was suffering. I mean, cmon, he was lying at his door! He probably needed to step over him to go out! Even though Lazarus was not the most desirable person in town, even though he was probably unclean and the rich man may have suffered for helping him, no one deserves to be treated that way. The rich man had the power to do something, but didn’t do anything.

I think that is what’s so powerful for us to remember today: Not doing anything is not amoral. Doing nothing does not free us from guilt; in life, there is no “pass”; we can’t just opt out of acting… even doing nothing is something. It’s why in the confiteor, the act of contrition we say at mass, we pray for God to forgive the sins of “What I have done, and what I have failed to do.” Sometimes, what we don’t do can have a tremendous effect on others, and can absolutely be sinful.

It doesn’t take much to see so in our world. When we look at the world’s problems, global epidemics of poverty, climate change, human trafficking, and so on, it’s easy for us to say, “Well I didn’t do that.” And maybe we didn’t (I think we are complicit in much more than we realize, but that’s for another post). But what we often don’t realize is that we are in a position of privilege. If you are able to read this post, it’s likely that you find yourself among the wealthiest 25% in the world. Wealth. Education. Civil liberties. Social status. Even just the knowledge that there are problems in the world that need fixing and the time to think about them is a privilege. In so many situations, we are the rich man facing Lazarus each day.

But it happens much closer to home. What about our friends and families. Here in this house as brothers. We often know what our brothers are going through. We know that they need help at times. Sometimes, it can be very easy, especially if it’s a brother that we don’t particularly like or even annoys us, to write them off and say, “He brought it on themselves” or “He’s not my responsibility,” or “I didn’t do anything.” And likely we didn’t. But that’s not what’s important here: there is a situation in which we are able to do something to build up the kingdom of God.

Because, in the end, whether it’s our brother, Lazarus, or that poor boy in my 4th grade class, it is not up to us to determine who is worthy and who is not. It is not us that grants dignity, and so it is not up to us to decide who we should care for and who we shouldn’t. We may face a lot of people in need in our life, a lot of which are very difficult to be around—you might even think about some people in this room. Who knows. One day, though, we will have to answer to Jesus for what we did and what we did not do. On that day, will we be able to say that we did something for our brothers and sisters in need, or will we be left with nothing to say except, “I didn’t do anything”?