Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Art of Listening

Practicing listening well in conversations
Matthew 11:11-15 Jesus said to the crowds: "Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear."

           The hard part of any conversation is listening rather than speaking. To be sure, speaking, too, has its own challenges and requisite skills, and it’s not easy either. But I am convinced that it’s harder to listen because people have a propensity to speak rather than to be silent. For example, some of you may already have stopped listening to this homily. Even though your eyes and ears are open, your mind may be wandering and wondering whether you will have sausage or bacon as a side for your scrambled eggs for breakfast after Mass.

            This past weekend, Fr. Matt Garrison celebrated the English Masses here. Several people said they enjoyed his homily, and they even quoted him saying that I had gone to Barling because I had tapped everyone for money here at I.C. That was a great line, but do you recall what else he said? We often don’t hear (or remember) the important things that someone says to us. Before I preach at Mass, I whisper this little prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit, help me to say what Thou woulds’t have me say. And help them to hear what Thou woulds’t have them hear.” Why? Well, because you have the harder part of the bargain of preaching; you have to do the listening. And I pray the Holy Spirit will help you hear well, not so much what I’m saying, but what He’s saying to you through me.

            In the gospel today, Jesus also knows the hard part of a conversation is listening. He explains that John the Baptist is Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, who all the Jews believed would return to announce the coming of the Messiah. But then Jesus adds this curious little line, saying: “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” Now, presumably everyone present that day had two good, functioning ears. But Jesus knows it takes more than ears to hear; it requires attention and effort to focus on what someone is saying and really catch what they’re saying. Jesus knew some of his listeners were wondering what to have for breakfast that day.

             In your conversations with people today, try to practice the art of listening well. Let me suggest a few skills that may improve your ability to listen better, and make it easier, and even more enjoyable. Listen not only to what people say verbally with their words, but also non-verbally, with sign language. When you pay attention to body language – a smile or a frown, crossed arms or nervous twitches – you are sort of “listening with your eyes.” We all know we can listen with your ears, but did you ever think you can also listen with your eyes when people speak to you? Another skill of good listening is asking probing questions, like “How did that make you feel?” Or, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “Is there anything I can do to help you?” That demonstrates to your interlocutor that you’re really listening and paying attention. Listening well is invaluable in conversations with your spouse, with your children, with your parents, with your friends, and even with God.

              Today is the feast of St. John of the Cross, the great doctor of the Church and the fearless reformer of the Carmelite Order. Carmelite spirituality is essentially one of a heightened and holy listening to God, to develop a spirit of deep silence so that we don’t miss anything God says, verbally or non-verbally. Carmelites follow the advice that Eli gave to the young prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 3:10, who said when God spoke to him: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And by the way, have fruit with your eggs, not bacon or sausage.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Best Rest

Loving the Lord and living easy and effortlessly
Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus said to the crowds: "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

           Are you ready for your Christmas break? I bet you are. You have worked very hard this semester, and I’m very proud of you. It’s hard to go to a Catholic school because our expectations for you are high – as high as heaven! – so I’m not surprised if you feel like saying, “Man, I need a break!” Today, I want to talk to you about taking a break, getting some rest, but also about how to find the best rest. First, I want to mention three places we try to rest but don’t always find real rest. Then, I’ll describe the only way to find real rest. And since this is a Catholic priest talking to you, you can already probably guess what I’m going to say, that real rest can only be found in Jesus.

           Now, a lot of people think they’ll find the best rest when they sleep, or when they’re on vacation or when they finally retire from their jobs. And of course people do rest somewhat in sleep and vacations and retirement; those are good things and give us some rest. But they’re not the best rest. How many of you love to sleep? But have you ever tossed and turned in your sleep? Sleep promises rest but it cannot always provide the best rest. Many of you will go on vacation during Christmas break. Raise your hand if you’re escaping from the Fort this Christmas. But how often after a vacation do you feel like you need a vacation from your vacation? Vacations can be exhausting, and so that’s not always the best rest. What about retirement? People can’t wait to retire from their jobs!  But then after they sit at home for a couple of weeks they go stir-crazy, and decide to come work here at Trinity Junior High! Isn’t that right, Mr. Hines, Mr. Charlton, and Coach Vitale and Coach Dickinson? In other words, you don’t find the best rest in sleep, or in vacations, or in retirement.

           In the gospel today, Jesus tells us that the best rest is found in him. And I love how he puts it. He says to his disciples (which includes us), these comforting words: “Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” Trinity students say: Hey, he’s talking to me; I’ve been laboring and feel burdened! But what kind of rest is he talking about? Will he let us lean our head on his shoulder and let us take a nap? No. Rather, he’s talking about loving him as our Lord and Savior, and when you love someone, nothing you do for them feels like work anymore. Have you heard the truism that goes: “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”? In other words, when you love Jesus, nothing you do for him will feel like work, discipleship will feel easy and effortless, and that’s the best rest.

           A friend of mine said to me recently: “Man, I could never be a priest. That’s too hard!” I replied: “That’s because I love Jesus more than you do.”  I was just kidding, because I’m sure my friend loves Jesus a lot, too. But I do know that when I love the Lord, the sacrifices of celibacy and so forth seem effortless to me. William Blake, the 18th century British poet, wrote: “How sweet I roam’d from field to field, / And tasted all the summer’s pride, / ‘Till I the prince of love beheld, / Who in the sunny beams did glide” (Blake, “How Sweet I Roam’d from Field to Field.”) That is, in finding and loving Jesus, (the prince of love), do we find the best rest. Why? Well, because when you love what you do - especially when you love Love itself - you’ll never work a day in your life. You’ll have found the best rest.

           Boys and girls, if you want to find the best rest, don’t be fooled by sleep and vacations and retirement. Those are sort of “false prophets” of true rest; rather, fall in love with Someone or something and you’ll never work a day in your life. If you want the best rest, look for love. Is there anything you love to do? I was so sorry to miss the Agatha Christie murder mystery you performed recently, “Murder at the Vicarage.” I heard rave reviews. Do you love acting? Last night the band performed a Christmas concert. You guys did great. Do you love to play a musical instrument? Several weeks ago, I mentioned to Zander Lelemsis that he was really fast in cross country, but he replied: “Yeah, but I’m really looking forward to basketball.” I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, Zander, but it sounded like he really loves basketball. Maybe your passion is history or science or writing. But my point is this: find something that you love to do, and you’ll never feel like you have worked a day in your life. Your life will have been almost effortless.

           So, boys and girls, I hope you get some rest on your Christmas break, maybe a vacation, maybe catching up on some sleep. But if you desire the best rest, then fall in love, especially with Jesus. Jesus says in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” When your life is led by love, it will feel easy and effortless. That’s the best rest.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Sacred Highway

Learning the name of the spiritual street we grow up on
Isaiah 35:1-10 The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song. The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. A highway will be there, called the holy way; No one unclean may pass over it, nor fools go astray on it. No lion will be there, nor beast of prey go up to be met upon it. It is for those with a journey to make, and on it the redeemed will walk. Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; They will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.

        One of the first things a child learns is the name of the street he or she lives on. I still remember the name of my home street, called “Dellwood Drive” in southwest Little Rock, that’s where I grew up. Can you remember the name of the street you grew up on? Now, why is it important to know that street’s name? Well, because if you get lost one day, one of the first things the police officer who finds you will ask is, “What street do you live on?” That way, they can get you back home safely. You should always remember the name of the street you live on so you never get lost.

        In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah also talks about “God’s Sacred Highway,” which is where all God’s people live, their home street, you might say. Listen to how lovely this road is. Isaiah writes: “A good road will be there, and it will be called, ‘God’s sacred highway.’ It will be for God’s people; no one unfit to worship God will walk on that road. And no fools can travel on that road. No lions or other wild animals will come near that road; only those the Lord has saved will travel there.” Do you know what road Isaiah is talking about? Well, he’s actually talking about a “spiritual street” where God’s people walk because that’s their home street, and that’s where they live. Boys and girls, I want you to think of this center aisle of this church as that main street of God’s sacred highway. When we walk down this street, we come to our spiritual home and we receive God’s blessings.

          Now, I want to see if you can guess two very important times when people walk down this spiritual street to get God’s blessings. First, I need two volunteers: a girl from first grade and a girl from sixth grade. The first grader will carry a basket with flower petals and toss them out, while the sixth grader will don this veil and carry these flowers while she walks behind her. When does someone walk down this spiritual street to get God’s blessing doing those things? It’s when they get married! That’s why we don’t get married on the beach or in a barn. God’s sacred highway is the spiritual street inside the church. Sadly, some people walk down the wrong roads in life.

          The second time we walk this spiritual street is when we’re actually carried down this street. I need some more volunteers: a second grader and six boys from fifth grade. The second grader will lie on this table and we’ll place a white cloth over him and the six boys will stand, three on either side, and roll him up the center aisle. When we get to the center aisle the priest uses incense to show that the soul is going up to heaven, just like the incense goes up to heaven. When does someone get carried down this spiritual street for the last time? That’s is at our funeral. It’s always so sad to me when people die and they don’t have a funeral in a church. They missed the turn to get on God’s sacred highway.

          Boys and girls, it’s important to know the name of the street you live on, so if you get lost, you can find your way home. But it’s also important to remember the name of the spiritual street where you grow up, namely, God’s sacred highway, here in this church. Why? Well, because it’s very easy to get lost in life, because you forget who you are, and where you came from and where you’re going.  But when someone finds you and asks you where you live, you’ll be able to say: “My home street is God’s sacred highway,” and you will return to church.

 Praised be Jesus Christ!

Water and Tears

Entering into the on-going conversion of Christian life
Mark 1:1-8 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. John was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. And this is what he proclaimed: "One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

           An elderly priest was speaking to his young associate priest and said: “You had a good idea to replace the first four pews with plush bucket theater seats. It worked like a charm. The front of the church always fills up first now.” The young priest nodded, the old priest continued: “And you told me adding a little more beat to the music would bring young people back to church, so I supported you when you brought in that rock and roll gospel choir. Now, our services are consistently packed to the balcony.” The young priest said: “Thank you, Father.” The elderly priest added, “But I’m afraid you’ve gone too far with the drive-thru confessional.” The young priest protested: “But Father, my confessions and the donations have nearly doubled since I began that!” “Yes,” replied the elderly priest, “And I appreciate that. But the flashing neon sign that reads, “Toot and Tell or Go to Hell” cannot stay on the church roof.”

             That young priest needed to work on his delivery a little bit, but his heart was in the right place. That is, confession forms a critical part of the Christian life, which is a life of on-going conversion, in order to become more like Christ. In other words, it’s never just “one-and-done” for a follower of Christ, but rather we must relentlessly beginning again and again. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts that young priest’s sentiments into more profound parlance, saying: “Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. The second conversion (italics in the original) is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church.” Then the Catechism includes this stupendous saying from St. Ambrose, adding: “St. Ambrose says of the two conversions that, in the Church, ‘there are water and tears: the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance’” (Catechism, 1429). In other words, confession is like a second baptism, but in this case the holy water is not flowing from a fountain, but the holy water is flowing from the eyes, signaling sorrow, contrition and conversion. You gotta admit: “water and tears” sounds a little better than “toot and tell.”

             In the gospel today, St. John the Baptist appears in the desert; he is the precursor of Jesus, but he is also the precursor of that young priest. Why? Well, because John the Baptist comes preaching two things: baptism and repentance, that is, “water and tears.” Listen to how he distinguishes his own ministry from the ministry of Jesus, he says: “I have baptized you with water; he (meaning Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In other words, John will baptize with water, but Jesus will baptize with fire, with the fire of the Holy Spirit, that fire that fuels the second conversion, that on-going purification that takes our whole life. And what conversion we don’t finish in this life, will be our homework when we face the fires of Purgatory in the next life. But it will be the same fire of the Holy Spirit that cleanses us there as it does here. Toot and tell, water and tears, baptism by fire of the Holy Spirit, all these things indicate on-going conversion of the Christian to be more like Christ.

             I’m very grateful to Fr. Matt Garrison and Fr. Peter Le for the opportunity to celebrate Masses here this weekend and speak about Trinity Junior High, and ask your help in a second collection. There are so many things I could say about how wonderful Trinity Junior High is, but I just want to highlight one thing, namely, Trinity students have to go to confession twice a year, in Advent and in Lent. And I gotta tell you, I’m never more proud of them than when they go to confession. That may sound like an oxymoron: why be proud of someone when they confess their sins and stupidity?? But how proud and pleased was the father of the prodigal son in Luke 15, who ran to meet him and hugged him and dressed him in royal robes before the young man could even utter his confession? Multiply that by a million and you get a glimpse of how pleased God the Father is when we go to confession. Why? Well, it’s simple: that is when we are experiencing the second baptism, the holy water of tears, the fire of the Holy Spirit purifying our hard hearts of pride and lust, of laziness and vanity, of greed and gluttony, of envy and jealousy and anger.

              Here’s the really beautiful thing, though, about Trinity. We welcome students of all religious traditions to our school, and even those who may profess no faith at all and don’t believe in God. But sometimes even those students who are not Catholic feel the need to tell someone about something weighing on their hearts. That desire, too, is prompted by the “fire of the Holy Spirit,” and they, too, want to “toot and tell.” In other words, confession is not some exclusive property of Catholics, but rather a healthy part of any honest and genuine spiritual life. No wonder the “confession of sins” is the fifth step of the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. That step states: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Trinity students are not alcoholics, but they go to confession because it is simply sound spirituality, healthy for the human heart. I would be remiss if I didn’t add we’re blessed with three Catholic elementary schools – Immaculate Conception, St. Boniface and Christ the King – where this same baptism by the Spirit occurs because they, too, have to go to confession.

              As we enter more deeply into the Advent season, remember that it is never simply “one-and-done” for Catholic Christians. One baptism is not enough. Yes we are baptized with water at our birth, but we must also be baptized with tears in a second conversion, a conversion that takes the rest of our lives.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

All Generations

Loving Mother Mary because she is absolutely lovable
Luke 1:26-38 The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, "Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.

         Today, I want to tell you why all Catholics love Mother Mary: why we pray the Rosary, why we walk in processions with her, why we name churches for her, why we name our daughters “Mary” and “Maria,” and why no Catholic church is without at least one statue or painting of her. Mary even predicted in Luke 1:48, that “all generations would call me blessed,” that is, from the age of the apostles to the aborigines in Australia, absolutely all Catholics love Mary. Why?

           Well, there are two basic reasons. The first is because Mary is our spiritual mother, and everyone loves their mother, right? Raise your hand if you love your mother; I’ll raise both my hands because I really love my mother. I recently came across two definitions of “mother,” the first a little silly and the second a little more serious. The first definition read: “A mother is a person who does the work of twenty. For free.” And then it said below: “See also, masochist, loony and saint,” meaning all moms feel that way at times, too: masochistic, loony and saintly. The more serious definition read: “A mother is a person who loves unconditionally; a character builder and heart healer; the maker and keeper of wonderful memories; a person much loved and greatly admired.” Raise your hand if that describes your mom. Mine, too. That’s the first reason Catholics love Mary: those two definitions fit Mary to a “T” because she loves us like that on a spiritual plane, as a spiritual mother.  Catholics love our Mother Mary.

             The second reason we love Mary is based on the feast we celebrate today, the Immaculate Conception. What does that mean? It means that Mary was “immaculate,” without stain of sin, from her conception in the womb of St. Anne, her mother. Now, let me be clear: this is not because of anything she did on her own, but rather because of what Jesus would do on the Cross. In other words, the Immaculate Conception was a sort of “retroactive grace” that saved Mary before Jesus was even born. When you’re God, living in eternity, you can do things outside the normal sequence of time and history.  It’s good to be God!

            You might be thinking: big deal! Who cares if you’re immaculately conceived? Well, here’s the big deal and why this matters: sin has a sort of double-whammy effect: sin makes it hard for you to love others and sin makes it hard for others to love you (you become less loving and less lovable). That’s why sin is so bad: it is the polar opposite of love. So, if you are sinless (like Mary), that means you are absolutely lovable: you can love others perfectly and others can love you perfectly. That’s why Mary said, “All generations will call me blessed.” I am immaculately conceived, and sinless, and therefore, I can love you and you can love me. That’s the second reason all Catholics love Mother Mary because we can love her and she can love us perfectly.

              Let me give you a taste of how “all generations will call Mary blessed,” by sharing how I pray the rosary. I pray each decade of the Rosary in a different language, and today, I would like you to hear the Hail Mary in five languages: Greek, Latin, Spanish, French and Malayalam.

            First Greek: “Χαίρε Μαρία, κεχαριτωμένη, ó Κύριος είναι μετά Σου, ευλογημένη Εσύ μεταξύ των γυναικών, και ευλογημένος ο καρπός της κοιλίας Σου, ó Ιησούς. Αγία Μαρία, Θεοτόκε, παρακαλει για μας τους αμαρτωλούς, τώρα και στην ώρα του θανάτου μας. Ααμήν.”  That’s how Greek Catholics love Mary.

             Second, Latin: “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.”  That’s how Catholics in the Roman Empire loved Mary.
Third, Spanish: “Dios te salve, Maria. Llena eres de gracia: El Seńor es contigo. Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres. Y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre: Jesús. Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”  That’s how Catholics in Mexico love Mary.

              Fourth, French: “Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grâces, le Seigneur est avec vous; vous ętes bénie entre toutes les femmes, et Jésus le fruit de vos entrailles, est béni. Sainte Marie, Mere de Dieu, priez pour nous pécheurs, maintenant, et a l'heure de notre mort. Amen.”  That’s how Catholics in France love Mary.

                Fifth, Malayalam: “Nanma Niranja Mariyamme, Swasthi. Karthaavu Angayodu koode, Sthreekalil Angu Anugrahikka pettaval aakunu. Angayude Udharathin Bhalamaaya Eesho nugrahakkipettavan aakunu. Parishudha Mariyame, Thamburante Amme, Papikalaaya Njangalkku Vendi, Epozhum Njangalude Marana Samayathum Thamburanodu Apeshikaname. Amen.”  That’s how Catholics in India love Mary.

            Now you know what it sounds like when “all generations call Mary blessed,” she who is immaculately conceived and therefore absolutely lovable.  That’s why all Catholics love Mary.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Justice League

Living in a society of possible gods and goddesses
Matthew 7:21, 24-27 Jesus said to his disciples: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. "Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house.  And it collapsed and was completely ruined."

       I love a good superhero action movie, like Superman or Batman, or Wonder Woman. But what I have never understood is why you need more than one superhero to save the world, like in the recent movie, “Justice League,” which teams up five superheroes. Clearly, Superman can defeat mankind’s enemies single-handedly, and so can Batman and so could Wonder Woman. So, doesn’t it seem like overkill to have a movie like “Justice League” where we need Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman to save the world? These are the things I stay up late ruminating on and cause me to lose sleep.

        And I’m not alone. Do you recall that memorable dialogue between Hurley and Charlie in the television series LOST where they argue over who’s faster, Flash or Superman? Charlie states: “You’re insane mate, Superman can fly around the plant in the blink of an eye!” Hurley retorts: “Dude, if we’re going by a pure footrace, Superman would get dusted by the Flash.” Charlie counters: “Well, why would the Man of Steel agree to a sodding footrace?” To which Hurley matter-of-factly answers: “Uh, for charity, and Flash would totally win, cause he can vibrate through walls and stuff.” How can you argue with logic like that? Nevertheless, the one question superhero movies never address is: Why do you need more than one superhero? Isn’t Superman enough? People like me (and Hurley and Charlie) just instinctively answer: the more the merrier.

          Today is the feast of St. Ambrose, the holy and wise bishop of Milan, Italy. And we might pose the same question to our Catholic faith: isn’t one saint enough, or to raise the stakes even higher, we could probe: isn’t Jesus Christ enough to save mankind? Indeed, I would suggest to you that this question is precisely what lurks behind many Protestant objections to Catholicism. Why more than one Superhero, namely, Jesus Christ? Why do Catholics insist on the veneration of Mary and the Saints? Well, to be sure, Jesus’ work of salvation is alone sufficient and enough. But like a master painter does not stop with one masterpiece, but displays his genius in countless works of art, so Jesus’ grace and glory are displayed in countless masterpieces called the saints up and down the centuries. Or to change the metaphor: just like we see how beautiful light is when it is refracted through a prism, emitting a rainbow of colors, so the saints refract the love of Jesus in every age. You can love the Lord more when you see his legacy in the life of his saints.

           St. Ambrose lived between 340 and 397 AD, but like the Justice League, he was surrounded by other superhero saints. Ambrose taught and mentored St. Augustine (one of the greatest minds of the Church), Ambrose counseled and comforted St. Monica (Augustine’s mother), Ambrose debated with St. Jerome, the fiery translator of the Bible. And it’s not any different today, because we are surrounded with spiritual superheroes like St. Teresa of Calcutta, Pope St. John XXIII, Pope St. John Paul II, and Blessed Stanley Rother. We might ask: why all these saints? Isn’t this a little overkill? Isn’t Jesus enough to defeat all the enemies of mankind? Indeed he is. But deep down Christians instinctively know it is precisely Christ’s glory and greatness that’s refracted in the lives of his saints; and the more the merrier.

          By the way, I am convinced that C. S. Lewis must have been a superhero action movie fan, too, when he wrote his famous essay, “The Weight of Glory.” He said: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.” My friends, it is not only in the movies that we meet superheroes; they are all around us, if only we had the eyes of faith to see them. Then, we, too, might say, the more the merrier.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Look, Deer!

Giving our full attention to God and getting to heaven
Mark 13:33-37 Jesus said to his disciples: "Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!'"

         Look, deer! Have you ever used that trick to distract your children when they are being quarrelsome? I’ve done that as a joke while driving my nieces to school and I point out the window and yell, “Look, deer!” They stop fighting and arguing because another novelty has grabbed their attention. How hard it is to truly get someone’s full attention today with all our daily distractions.

          Young people often have one “ear-bud” in their ear, while the other one hangs limp over their shoulder, meaning they’re giving you only half their attention (if that much!). Marketing experts say a customer has to hear your message at least seven times before they’ll remember it. Why? Well, because people are bombarded with advertisements and we’ve grown deaf to them. That’s why television commercials have louder volume than the television shows, because the commercials are yelling, “Look, deer!” to get us to look at their products instead of others. Our attention is a precious gift and we should give it fully to those whom we love, but everyone clamors for it.

          Let me share three ways to get people’s attention, spiritually-speaking, namely, by silence, solitude and suffering, and this is especially helpful during Advent. First, silence. When I say the words of consecration at Mass, I say them very slowly…and…deliberately. This…is…my…Body… The long, silent pauses peaks people’s attention better than yelling does. Second, solitude. Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century American philosopher, wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived (Walden, 59). Thoreau sought solitude so he could give his full attention to nature and learn her lessons, and not be distracted. And third, suffering. C. S. Lewis, the 20th century Oxford professor, said, “Suffering is the megaphone God uses to rouse a deaf world” (The Problem of Pain, 91). Do you know some of the best times for a priest to talk to people about God? It’s when they are suffering, in the hospital, or in prison, because God has finally gotten their full and undivided attention. They’re lying in bed looking up to heaven.

          In the gospel today, Jesus is fighting the same battle to grab people’s attention, and awaken them to spiritual realities. We read: “Jesus said to his disciple, ‘Be watchful! Be alert!’ You do not know when the time will come.” And indeed, most of the people at the time of Christ did not know the Messiah was walking in their midst already, standing right next to them. Why did they miss him? Well, because they were distracted by the cares and concerns of daily life: waking and sleeping, buying and selling, marrying and divorcing, living and dying. But I would suggest to you that it was really their lack of silence, solitude and suffering kept them from giving their full attention to spiritual things. By the way, that’s precisely why St. John the Baptist hung out in the dessert: there in the dessert you find plenty of silence (no cell phone service), tons of solitude (except rattlesnakes), and untold suffering (it’s hot!). John’s whole life was designed to grab people’s attention and direct them to the Messiah, Jesus. John’s prophetic purpose, you might say, was to say to the world, “Look, deer!” But in this case, the deer was actually a Lamb, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. How hard it is to get people’s attention spiritually-speaking.

          I’m very grateful to Fr. Patrick Watikha for the chance to celebrate Masses here at Sacred Heart, and to share a little about Trinity Junior High, and ask your help in a second collection. If you want to know the toughest group of people’s attention to get, it’s 12, 13 and 14 year olds! I feel a lot like Jesus and John the Baptist and have to yell, “Look, deer!” a lot. And by the way, you guys have done a superb job here at Sacred Heart with your youth program: you’ve gotten their attention.
There are so many things I could say about the value of Trinity, but I think I can summarize it all in one sentence. The goal of Trinity Junior High is to prepare our students not only for Harvard but also for Heaven. In effect, we want to turn their attention not only to earthly success but to ultimate success by obtaining eternal life. We want to say, “Look, heaven!” We do this by helping them experience a little silence, solitude and suffering.

            This past week our students went on a retreat off campus, one class at a time. The retreat was conducted by Bryan and Karena Charlton, who have a long history of youth ministry. They inspired the students, they laughed with the students, they helped the students to sing and do skits. But they also brought them into the chapel and told them to spread out far from each other and to listen to the meditative music. In other words, they experienced a little of Henry David Thoreau’s solitude and silence, because they “front the essential facts of life” and they began to hear the voice of Jesus.
We also teach our students suffering every day because we make them wear dreaded uniforms instead of designer clothes, and they have strict rules about no cell phones, and haircuts, and clean language, and respect for teachers and adults, and they have homework, and they pray in Latin! This suffering is not going to kill them, but it is going to make their life harder. Maybe like Lewis predicted: “Suffering will be a megaphone and rouse a deaf teenager!” Our Evangelical friends like to remind us: “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” Through silence, solitude and suffering we prepare Trinity students for Harvard and for Heaven.

            Let me conclude with one of John Donne’s popular “Holy Sonnets,” a poem called “Batter my heart three person’d God.” Donne wrote: “Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you / As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend; / That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.” In other words, Donne was distracted by the thing of earth, and needed God to use stronger and louder means to get his attention. He needed God to yell, “Look, dear!” – spelled “d-e-a-r.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!