Sunday, February 5, 2023

SENT TO SHINE

 

You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before men in such
a way that they may see your good works and give God the glory.
Matthew 5:14,16

My fellow Catholic Christians, do you realize who you are? Did you catch those words from today's gospel reminding us of who we are? “You are the light of the world! Let your light shine! Let your good works be seen so God can be glorified!” The Scriptures tell us in other places that “from your mother’s womb, God gave you your name!” “You are God’s servant through whom God’s glory shines!” “From your mother’s womb God formed you for that task, the task of letting God’s glory shine through you!” “You are made glorious in his sight!” “He made you a light to the nations so that his salvation may reach to the ends of the earth!” Jesus tells us in the gospel reading today that “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world! You are a city built on a hill! Your light must shine before others! Your good deeds must be out there to be noticed!” Yes, we are “the light of the world!” However, we are like the moon and God is like the sun. The moon has no light of its own, the moon merely reflects the light of the sun. Just so, when people see our light and observe our good deeds, we must make sure that God, the true source of our light, indeed all light, gets the glory! 

My fellow Catholic Christians may we want to be who we are! May we want to be who we are! I am here to remind you who we are and what our mission is in this life! We were sent to shine! We were sent to shine so that God will look good in the eyes of the world and receive its praise! We should never put ourselves down! We should never underestimate our worth! We should never belittle ourselves nor play small! We should never let others put us down! We were sent to shine! To keep our lamps burning, we have to keep putting oil in them! Therefore, we need to take care of ourselves – take care of ourselves enough to do hard things for our own good so that our light will shine as brightly as possible! We should always resist the temptation to give into the biggest human temptation and that is to settle for too little! Our families, indeed the world, need us to be who we are and all that we can be!

I came across a Bruce Barton quote recently that has been rolling around inside my head for some time now. Others credit Benjamin Franklin.  It is not a new idea, but a life script that I adopted a long time ago. It goes like this! “When we are through changing, we are through.” We old people, when we were young, might remember Bob Dylan singing another version of this same idea. “He not busy being born is busy dying.” In other words, if you are not growing, you are not just standing still, you are dying!  If you are “sent to shine,” you absolutely need to keep putting oil into your lamp! You must keep stoking your own fire! 

Winston Churchill said, “Nothing gets better by leaving it alone.” In fact, when we “leave things alone” the natural process of entropy sets in – we start coming unglued, we start declining, we begin to rot!  Entropy is that spontaneous and unremitting tendency in the universe toward disorder unless there is an opposing force working against it. People, like homes, when they are left alone fall into decay. Even fruits and vegetables, unless something is done to “preserve” them, begin to rot! When we “leave ourselves alone,” we commit what I call “personal and spiritual suicide.” Personal and spiritual suicide is the result of constantly saying “no” to opportunities to grow and change.” 

As one who bought into this idea of “self-formation” a long time ago, I have concluded that there are two secret ingredients to becoming all that we can be as ‘the light of the world.” (1) The first ingredient in really loving oneself is a passionate commitment to personal excellence – to loving who we really are – loving ourselves enough to care about becoming our best selves. Really loving oneself does not mean papering oneself. Rather, it means doing hard things for one’s own good. One of the most critical needs here is the need for a capacity for critical and constructive self-awareness.  We must be able to know and understand what makes us tick. We must own my own personal histories and heal them if necessary. In short, we must be dedicated to becoming our best as quality human persons first. Let me put that another way. You cannot take a loser and ordain him and expect to have an effective priest! If he is not a quality human being to begin with, all you will end up with is a loser priest who can’t relate to people or inspire them to hunger for holiness. You cannot take two losers and put them through a wedding and expect to end up with a happy marriage and effective parents! If they are not quality human beings to begin with, all you will end up with is a miserable marriage and disastrous parents! 

(2) After a passionate commitment to who one is, being the best version of ourselves, the second ingredient in really loving oneself is a passionate commitment to vocational excellence – a passionate commitment to what we do! In other words, if you are parents, commit yourself to being the very best parent you can be! If you are married, commit yourself to being the best husband or wife you can be! If you are a priest, commit yourself to be the best priest you can possibly be! Whatever you are, be good at it! If you strive to be the best at what you do, you will get better at it. If you choose the “good enough to get by” path, you will become known for your mediocrity. Tom Peters put it this way, “The idea of mediocrity scares the hell out of me!” Without a passionate commitment to vocational excellence, you will no doubt end up being a half-assed priest, a half-assed marriage partner or half-assed parent! The world is already overcrowded with mediocrity – people with no passion for personal or vocational excellence!  My mother used to call them “people who merely go through the motions,” “people whose hearts are not in it.” God says to us in Revelations 3:15-16, “Would that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” May God spare you from such "half-assedness!” May you become the very best version of yourself! May you become who you are! You are the light of the world! Let your light shine! Yes, let it shine! Let it shine!

Brothers and sisters! One of my biggest fears as a priest is not natural death, but spiritual and emotional death, being here and being not here at the same time – “dead on my feet,” if you will! My biggest fear is gradually turning into a priest whose heart is no longer in it! Chaucer’s Parson described such a priest as “a man annoyed at his own life.”

The word used by fourth century monks for this state was acediaAcedia is not a disease, it’s a temptation – the temptation to disconnect, the temptation to stop caring, the temptation to stop making an effort. It is a temptation that can grow and harden into a persistent attitude of apathy and cynicism which is deadly to any kind of personal or spiritual growth. I find it fascinating that acedia, in its root, means negligence - a negligence that leads to a state of listlessness, a lack of attention to daily tasks and an overall dissatisfaction with life, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s self-care or position or condition in the world. In other words, unlike clinical depression, it can be resisted. The sooner it is confronted the more success one has in turning it around.

We all know priests and married couples who woke up one day and found themselves in precisely that spot – with feelings of being stuck, with few options and little hope. Maybe we are, or have been, one of them! If we were to be honest with ourselves we would have to admit that we didn’t get there overnight. It happened because of extended neglect. We didn’t take the time to nourish our individual selves. Many marriages and religious vocations do not die of "natural causes." Too often, they simply die of "starvation!" Too many of us do not take the time to nurture our vocations. We just “let things go!”

Whether we are priests, marriage partners, parents, professionals, widows or widowers, we are all called to resist the temptation toward acedia, the neglect of our personal and spiritual growth. We are the light of the world and there is responsibility that goes with reflecting that light! As Mother Theresa put it. “To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.” Again, Bob Dylan put it this way. “If we are not busy being born, we are busy dying.”


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Saturday, February 4, 2023

WINNING IS NOT ALWAYS WHAT IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE

 THE DOWNSIDE OF BEING NUMBER ONE


OH, THE STRESS OF ALWAYS WINNING!
Surrounded by so many trophies, why is she crying?

Did she lose her last beauty pageant to the chicken?
Was she sad that a chicken was awarded as her prize instead of another trophy? 
Did the chicken think her frilly dress was a nest?
Maybe she is worried about that big gas tank behind her exploding? 
Exhausted from winning, maybe she just needed to hold her "support chicken" for a few minutes?

Thursday, February 2, 2023

I'LL BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW!

A long time ago I got tired of hearing the unfair jokes and exaggerated stories about "how nuns mistreated me when I was in grade school!" To judge the ministry of thousands of wonderful women because of the frustration of a few is plainly unfair! I am sure a few nuns here and there did "lose it" on occasion, but what is often left out of their stories is the hardships nuns had to endure because of us: overloaded classrooms, long workdays dressed in unbearably hot religious habits, extremely close and uncomfortable personal living quarters and very little notice, pay, relief or appreciation. As a pastor, I have seen first-hand and heard about some of the situations where some were sent to live and how much they were paid! I just hope they have forgiven us! 

What is not mentioned enough is the fact that most of the nuns had profound effects for good on many people including me! Just in my home parish of St. Theresa alone, ninety-seven Sisters of Charity served our community over one hundred and twenty-three years! One history book described their work in St. Theresa in the early 1900s this way. "In addition to their responsibilities in the school and parish, the Sisters cared for the small farm that helped to provide food for them and 39 boarders of which only 15 could afford to pay." Our school would have closed a few times during the early years without the subsidies of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.  We owe them so very much that I am here to defend them from generalized defamatory and slanderous statements that damage their reputations! To me, they were real heroes! I wish we had more of them today! 

On this day when we celebrate Word Day for Consecrated Life, I want to share just two stories you may not know about, knowing that there are thousands and thousands of similar, but unknown, stories of their heroism.  


BEFORE HE BECAME MUHAMMAD ALI

Cassius Clay charmed a nun who ran the library at what is now Spalding University, across the street from where the gym was. Sister James Ellen Huff of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth gave him a job dusting so he could make a little money. She said she liked his “zest.” Sometimes she would return from dinner with a snack for him before he went to train. Once she returned and found him asleep on a long library table. After the world came to know him as Muhammad Ali, she put a sign over the table that read, “Cassius Slept Here.”

That's her, Sister James Ellen Huff, on the left! I knew her when she worked at Spalding University and I admired her. I knew her as a capable, intelligent and loving human being, as well as a dedicated Sister of Charity of Nazareth very much like the same Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who taught me all through grade school. I am still a friend to many Sisters of Charity and a few from our other religious communities of women. 

Thank you, Sisters, for all you have done and keep doing for so many here in the United States and around the world (India, Belize, Nepal  and Botswana).  


Sister Mary Jude Howard, SCN, is pictured here nursing a leper in India in 1947. She was part of a group of 6 Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who were sent as missionaries from Nazareth, Kentucky, in 1947 to Mokama, India. They started what has grown into a large hospital and various other ministries today and that community of Sisters of Charity of Nazareth is still growing in India - so much so that the present President of the SCN community in the United States, and one of her assistants, both pictured below, are now Sisters from India. They serve from their offices at the original Nazareth Motherhouse outside Bardstown, Kentucky. It was Mother Ann Sebastian Sullivan, SCN, who made the very wise move to send SCN Sisters to India back in 1947. 


    Sister Sangeeta Ayithamattam, SCN President                   Sister Jackulin Jesu, SCN
 
Happy "World Day for Consecrated Life" to all our Religious Sisters, Brothers and Priests serving here and abroad! Thank you and God bless you! 








Tuesday, January 31, 2023

2,000 PIGS STAMPEDING OVER A CLIFF

 

GIVEN JANUARY 30, 2023 AT THE LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR

When Jesus got out of the boat, at once a man from the tombs who had an unclean spirit met him.
The man had been dwelling among the tombs, and no one could restrain him any longer, even 
with a chain. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside. 
And the demons pleaded with Jesus, “Send us into the swine. Let us enter them.” And he let them, and the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine. The herd of about two thousand rushed down a steep bank into the sea, where they were drowned.
Mark 5:1-20

This is one of those stories that always aggravated me growing up! It might be a minor point in the story, but for me the part about pigs rushing over a cliff to their deaths always reminded me of growing up as a boy down in Meade County.  Every time I heard this story, I identified with certain characters in particular. No, it wasn’t the main character, the possessed man in the cemetery, but the men who were tending the pigs that plunged over a cliff to their deaths.

I used to take care of pigs on one of my father’s farms and I can only imagine what hell would break lose if I came home one day and told my Dad that the pigs I was caring for had all just stampeded over a cliff and died because a crazy man had come out of the cemetery next to our pig lot and was screaming at the top of his lungs!  Instead of believing me, he probably would have had me committed to Our Lady of Peace….or worse, one of his major tongue-lashings when I got home! 

However, let’s not let my issue cloud the main character and the point of the story. First, Mark's Gospel paints a very scary picture here. We know from the chapters before that Jesus and his disciples had set sail “late in the evening” so it was dark on the lake. On the way across the lake, they had experienced a storm and had just landed in an area with many caves in the limestone rocks along the shore. Many of these caves were used to bury the dead. At the best of times, this place would have been an eerie place especially in the dark. They landed at a perilous place, at a perilous hour and then found themselves in a perilous situation - a dangerous man, a “possessed” man, who "could not be restrained even with a chain." 

Growing up, the man would have believed what many Jews at that time believed – that no man would survive if he realized the number of demons with which he was surrounded. Probably mentally ill, he had convinced his wandering mind that a mass of those demons had taken up residence inside him! He was so convinced that Jesus had to make more than one attempt to heal him.  (1) First, Jesus used his usual method – an authoritative order to the demon to come out.  (2) When that didn’t work, Jesus demanded to know what the demon’s name was. It was believed that if a demon could be named, that would give the healer a certain power over the demon. (3) When that didn’t work, Jesus understood that the only way to cure this man was to give him a dramatic demonstration of deliverance - a convincing sign that his demons were indeed gone.

It doesn’t matter whether we believe in demon possession, the poor man believed in it. This is where the pigs come in! The poor man had been screaming and shrieking so much that he caused a herd of local pigs to stampede over a sea-side cliff and drown in the sea. It was the proof that the poor man needed that his demons had gone out of him and into the pigs. 

Later, those tending the pigs came to Jesus and saw the poor "mad man" that they feared so much, fully clothed and in his right mind. They were so freaked about the whole event that they asked Jesus to leave their area!

There is a part of all of us that is haunted by our own “demons” - our negative assumptions, our irrational fears and our bad memories. Many of us need external signs to be able to let go of them. There is also a part of us, like the swine herders, that even when good things happen to others, we cannot celebrate because we do not want our status quo upset. We would rather things will be left the way they were!  

We all need deliverance, whether it be from literal demon possession or an all-powerful delusion. Whatever it is, Jesus is willing to help us let go of whatever is holding us back from a life to the fullest!  This must be true because I was thankfully "delivered" from a life of pig farming!

 


Sunday, January 29, 2023

DON'T SETTLE FOR "GOOD ENOUGH TO GET BY"

 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Matthew 5:6

One of the things Bellarmine University is famous for is its Merton Library - the official papers of Kentucky's most famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, whose religious name was Father Louis.  There is a statue of him in front of Bellarmine's science building. I ought to know! I was the longest serving campus minister in its history at 14 years. The Merton statue was installed during my early years there and moved to its present location right before I left. 

One of my favorite stories about Thomas Merton involves an exchange between him and his friend Robert Lax. Lax asked Merton what he wanted to be. Merton answered, "I don't know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic." Robert Lax shot back, "What do you mean you want to be a good Catholic? What you should say is that you want to be a saint!" In defense, Thomas Merton responded, "How do you expect me to become a saint?"  "By wanting to," was Lax's response.

With that, Thomas Merton realized how often people say they cannot do the things they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach, the cowardice that says: "I am satisfied to do enough to get by, but I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments." 

How many of us really want to be saints, "to be in that number when the saints go marching in?"  Most of us are like St. Augustine when he prayed, "Lord make me pure, but not yet!" Most of us wouldn't mind being a saint, if we didn't have to change anything, especially if we didn't have to let go of our sins and destructive attachments

A "saint" is not a "perfect person." A "saint" is a person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, a person with a drive for improvement - both in who they are and what they do - a fierce commitment to their own lifelong formation, an unflinching quest for personal excellence. This does not mean we earn our way to sainthood through personal growth and good deeds. It means that we realize to the depths of our being that we are so loved by God that we want to respond to that love by trying to become all that we can be.

In his book, The Pursuit of Excellence, Tom Peters says about himself, "The idea of mediocrity scares the hell out of me!" "The fear of mediocrity" may be the secret ingredient in becoming a saint. Thomas Merton famously said that the "biggest human temptation is to settle for too little."  

We are in truth "saved by grace."  We are called to sainthood and we are given the help we need to respond. We do not come to that help, that help comes to us. We cannot make that help come to us, but we can open ourselves to its miraculous arrival. We can certainly cooperate with God in the process of becoming saints "by wanting to," by "hungering and thirsting for righteousness.”

I have started this homily by quoting from one of the most beautiful passages in the Gospels. We call these words “the beatitudes.” What they are, really, are descriptions of a truly “holy person,” a person who truly loves God. In reality, they are a set of talking points on Christian holiness, a checklist of the qualities a person possesses who seriously loves God.

Unlike the Ten Commandments, which stress the things that one who loves God should not do, this is a list of things that a person who loves God does do. It is important to remember here that Jesus is not saying “do these things and God will love you,” but rather “if you love God, these are the things you will do!” We do not do these things to earn God’s love, rather if we love God, we will do these things. So, what, then does a serious lover of God look like? How many of them describe you as a “saint in the making?”

(1) He or she is first of all “poor in spirit.”  What Jesus is talking about here is not merely economic poverty. Even the dirt poor can be greedy in their hearts. What it means, really, is the deep-down knowledge that when it comes right down to it, we own nothing and everything can be taken away from us in an instant. Every material possession, every blessing we have ever had, is a gift from God that was given to us, not to hoard, but to share. The more we have been given, the greater the responsibility we have to share.” “Poverty of spirit” is a basic knowledge that we are all poor, when it comes right down to it. No matter how rich we are, we are a heartbeat away from total poverty. We can’t take anything with us, when this is all over! As they say, “There are no pockets in shrouds!” A person who loves God, a person who is poor in spirit, never forgets that fact!

(2) A serious lover of God is able to mourn. One who loves God seriously knows that we are interconnected human beings and therefore never loses his or her ability to feel the suffering of others. A cold-hearted, self-centered, disinterested person is not a friend of God. A friend of God shares the compassion of Christ who was moved deeply by the horrible suffering of simple human beings and is never far from “the gift of tears,” as the saints called it.

(3) A serious lover of God is meek. A “meek” person is not a person who lets people walk over him or her. A “meek” person lives with the knowledge that he is never “a god,” but nonetheless always a “child of God.” In other words, he neither inflates his own worth on one hand, nor does he allow others to deflate his value on the other hand.  Being meek means to know who we are in God’s eyes- nothing more, but nothing less!

(4) A serious lover of God hungers and thirsts for righteousness. A serious lover of God does not dabble in religion, placing religion somewhere outside the realm of his daily living and daily choices.  Rather, he or she is a serious spiritual seeker, always trying to align his everyday life with Christian principles.  He or she strives always to close the gap between being a Christian in name and being a Christian in fact, while being totally free of religious fanaticism and doing spiritual violence to others in the name of orthodoxy.

(5) A serious lover of God is merciful. Being merciful means letting God be the judge of other people. It means giving people the benefit of the doubt, giving them a break, wishing them well on their path, knowing that with God, it isn’t over till it’s over, and with God there is always another chance. Yes, it also means living the maxim, “There but for the grace of God, go I!” Thomas Merton said, "The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all livings things, which are part of one another, and all involved in one another."

(6) A serious lover of God is clean of heart. A serious lover of God doesn’t just do good things, he or she does them for the right reason and with the purest of motives.  I tried to remind the seminarians at Saint Meinrad that it is a good thing to want to be a priest, but one must go into it for good reasons – to serve people, not for what priesthood can do for them. It is a good thing to give to the poor, but one can give to the poor, not because they love the poor, but because they will get their name in the paper or will have a building named after them. A serious lover of God always does good things, but he also does them for the right reason.

(7) A serious lover of God is a peacemaker. War is getting more and more irrelevant. We need to become as good at peacemaking as we have been at building sophisticated weapons. There will always be misunderstanding between people. One who truly loves God has the ability and the credibility to prevent disagreements from becoming a reason for violence. We need not think globally only. Families, marriages, neighborhoods, siblings and churches desperately need these peacemakers. When enough of us really love God, we will have enough peacemakers to move us closer to universal peace.  If you love God, you love his people! If you love his people, you will do what you can to bring them together.

(8) A serious lover of God will be persecuted, insulted and lied about. The brighter the light the fiercer the attack! Evil does not like goodness. Evil cannot tolerate the presence of goodness and so it attacks. One who seriously loves God is more than willing to take persecution, insults and lies, knowing that personal integrity is more important than comfort or approval.

So, the bottom line is this – you will know that you are on the path to sainthood if these "beatitudes" describe you! If these eight characteristics don't describe you, make a u-turn while you can, because you're headed in the wrong direction!