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!

Sign Up

Understanding the sign language of God’s love
Luke 21:29-33 Jesus told his disciples a parable. "Consider the fig tree and all the other trees. When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near; in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near. Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."

       When our sixth graders graduate from I.C. school, a group of them sing a song entirely in sign language. It’s fascinating to watch because they don’t utter a word, and my favorite part of the graduation. But did you know that we are speaking sign language all the time, every day? For instance, every morning, you come to school and four students use sign language to keep you safe and not get run over by a driver who’s half asleep. They hold a long pole with a flag that says “STOP.” If that pole is sticking out into the street, what does it mean? It means you may cross safely because the cars should stop. But if the students tuck the pole behind their back, what does that sign mean? It means don’t cross; the cars have the right of way. Every morning, you are reading sign language and it is keeping you safe.

         Teachers use sign language in class all the time, especially when they are frustrated and perhaps a little irritated with you. Do any teachers give you the “evil eye” when you’re in trouble? I’ve given the evil eye and received it! Or, some teachers start counting very slowly backward: three…two…one. What does that sign mean? It means “be quiet,” and “pay attention.” Good teachers use sign language and they don’t have to use words to tell you important instructions.

          Many years ago I visited with Bishop Sartain at his home in Little Rock, while he was still the bishop of our diocese. I was a priest and felt privileged to spend time with him one evening, and just talked and talked.  It was getting late, and I was enjoying our visit, but every few minutes, the bishop kept yawning. I thought he was tired, so I better talk about something really interesting to keep him awake.  But what do you think he was trying to tell me by that sign language? He was tired, but he was also gently trying to communicate that it was time to wrap up our conversation and for me to go home. Even though I was a priest, I was still learning sign language. People often tell us things without using words.

          In the gospel today, Jesus tells us that God the Father speaks to us through sign language, rather than yelling at us from the clouds. He says we already understand some signs, like those in nature. When a fig tree sprouts leaves, we know summer will come soon. Obviously, Jesus never lived in Fort Smith. But then Jesus teaches them another sign, namely, the Temple, and its destruction, will mean the end of the Old Testament world. In the year 70 A.D. General Titus, the great Roman general, leveled Jerusalem and the great Temple, and effectively brought the Jewish religion of the Old Testament to a climactic conclusion. That was also the sign that the Kingdom of God would commence, the Age of the Church. God used a sign to tell us this tremendous transition was occurring, but we have to understand sign languages. God doesn’t always speak to us through words.

         Boys and girls, today I want to teach you how to read three signs so you can improve your knowledge of “sign languages.” The first is colors in church, beautiful signs of God’s love. Today, I am wearing “green,” but it is the last day for green. What time of the church year is “green” a sign for? That is Ordinary Time. This Sunday, the priests will wear “purple,” which is a sign for the beginning of which season? That is Advent. Does anyone know what color we will use at Christmas?  I’ll give you a hint: it’s not “red,” that’s for Santa Claus. The color for Jesus’ birthday is “white.” Pay attention to the colors in church and you’ll learn an important sign language. The Church does not always teach us through words.

         The second sign is tears, a very powerful sign. When someone sheds tears and cries, what does that mean, what is it a sign of? It often means that a person is sad, like I cry if an eagle swoops down and grabs one of my chickens. But do people cry when they are happy, too? People cry at weddings because they are happy; the tears are signs of joy. I cry when people give me giftcards for Christmas, so you might see me cry, too. Watch for the sign language of tears and see if you can understand what someone is trying to tell you, even when they don’t use words.

         And third, is signs of nature, which Jesus also talked about. When the world (our planet Earth) is sick, it gives us signs that we need to take better care of it. I have a cousin who lives in New Delhi, India, and he likes to run marathons. But sometimes the pollution is so bad he cannot breathe and he has to wear a mask like doctors wear in surgery. What is that mask a sign of? It usually means that someone is sick, and in this case it is our common home, the Earth. The world doesn’t use words, so it is speaking through us through sign language.

         Bishop Sartain taught me that a yawn means I need to stop talking and go home. When you yawn in my homily, I know that means to stop talking and finish Mass. Sign language is a powerful way to communicate.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Beautiful Feet

Walking in the footsteps of Jesus carrying the Good News
Matthew 4:18-22 As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.

             Do you have beautiful feet? What a strange question! But I believe it’s also a very spiritual question. How beautiful are your feet? Several years ago I was listening to a series of talks by Christopher West, a modern theologian who has popularized Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” At one point West abruptly declared: “I have beautiful feet!” That got my attention. He quickly explained what he meant, adding: “Yes, I have beautiful feet. Remember how Scripture says, ‘How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news’?” (Rom. 10:15). West went on to explain effusively that the Church’s teaching on human sexuality is very good news; indeed, it is some of the best news for a world deeply confused about the meaning of sex. The world has preached a lot of “bad news,” and West was bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

              But I would suggest to you that you do have beautiful feet, but they may not be spiritually beautiful. What do I mean? Well, how often and how enthusiastically have we shared all kinds of “good news” without hesitation or fear of rejection? After reading a gripping novel, we rush to tell all our friends and buy them that book for Christmas; we unreservedly recommend this or that restaurant and suggest items on the menu; we tell everyone, “Man, you have to go to this concert!” or “You’d be a fool to miss this art exhibit!” In all those instances, we, too, have beautiful feet because we are convinced we are carrying good news; only it’s not the Good News of Jesus Christ. Our feet are not spiritually very pretty.

              In the gospel today, we hear the footsteps of the two most beautiful feet in human history, namely, the feet of Jesus himself. Jesus’ feet carry him to share his Good News with the first apostles, Peter and Andrew, James and John. If those four apostles had looked down to glance at the Nazarene’s feet, they would have been blown away by their beauty. Why? Well, far more important than recommending a restaurant, or reading a book, or running to an art exhibit, Jesus brought the Good News of salvation. What the world is waiting for.

              The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes us to the heart of why we should share the Good News, that is, God’s love. We read: “The Lord’s missionary mandate is ultimately grounded in the eternal love of the Most Holy Trinity…The ultimate purpose of mission is none other than to make men share in the communion between the Father and the Son and their Spirit of love (Catechism, 850). In other words, Jesus’ traversed the infinite distance between heaven and earth to share the Good News of God’s love, so we might be partakers of that love. Those beautiful feet walked a long way for love of us.

              My friends, when you get home this evening and take off your shoes, and take a moment to examine closely your feet. Those hard working feet cover a lot of ground in a given day: to work or school, to the grocery store or hauling children to piano practice or soccer games, and maybe even to a hospital or to a cemetery or maybe even to church occasionally! As you study your toes and arch and ankle, also ask: “How beautiful are my feet spiritually-speaking?” In any instance or with any encounter, did I share the Good News of Jesus Christ? I don’t mean you have to walk around with a Bible or a rosary around your neck or always post spiritual ferverinos on social media. But does your life of piety, your penance, and your personal virtue make people stop and think of Jesus? Sometimes, the most effective evangelization occurs without ever uttering one word, because your feet do the walking and the talking.

              By the way, I was looking at my own feet the other day, and I thought, “Man, I really need a pedicure – I have some ugly feet!” But if you want really beautiful feet – as beautiful as Jesus’ feet – just share the Good News with the world.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Death Crawl

Trusting in God’s grace with a promise of perseverance
Luke 21:12-19 Jesus said to the crowd: "They will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives."

             Did everyone enjoy the retreat last week at St. Michael’s? One of the most moving parts was the short video Bryan Charlton showed from the movie, “Facing the Giants.”  In the brief clip, the players doubt they will be able to defeat a rival high school called Westview, and even Brock Kelly, the team’s captain, doubts the team. That’s when Coach Grant Taylor decides to demonstrate the team’s true potential with an exercise called “the death crawl.” Coach Taylor blind folds Brock and places another player on his back and challenges him to crawl on hands and feet (no knees touching the ground) and makes him promise to give his absolute best. The whole team is dumb-founded when Brock actually carries Jeremy the whole length of the football field, 100 yards. Brock was able to do more than he believed because he promised to give his absolute best.

             Robert Browning, the 19th century Victorian poet, wrote: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or, what’s a heaven for?” (from poem “Andrea del Sarto”). In other words, always attempt more than you think you can achieve, and you just might accomplish more than you thought possible. Indeed, if you go back and watch the whole movie, you’ll see that the very underdog Shiloh Christian Eagles win the state championship that year.

            In the gospel today, Jesus sounds a lot like Coach Taylor encouraging his apostles who are about to “face their own giants.” He says: “They will seize you and persecute you, they will hand you over to synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name.” But he goes on to assure them, like Coach Taylor did, that if they promise to give their very best, they will achieve more than they ever imagined. Jesus says: “By your perseverance you will secure your lives,” by which he means they’ll make it to heaven: to “secure your life” is to secure eternal life. Robert Browning wrote: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or, what’s a heaven for?” No one can attain the high hope of heaven without God’s grace and the promise of perseverance on our part, to give our very best.

            Let me suggest three areas where your reach should exceed your grasp, and where you should attempt what seems impossible. The first is in how you take care of your body. I have a friend who doesn’t believe in taking medicine for most of her aches and pains, but rather she teaches her children to eat healthy – plenty of fruits and vegetables! – because the human body has enormous potential, far greater than we often realize, just like Brock discovered he had greater strength when he carried a 160 pound man 100 yards. My nephew, Noah, who ran cross country and track at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, always said: “Your body will only perform as well as what you put into it. Eat well every day.” Noah ran on the Har-Ber track team holds the state record in the “four-x’s.” Your body can achieve more than you believe it can, but only with God’s grace and a promise of perseverance on your part, to give your very best.

            Secondly, your reach should exceed your grasp in academics. You may struggle in a certain subject, like math or history, or science or Spanish. But don’t give up on your mind and promise to persevere in your studies. Scientists universally agree that human beings only tap about 10 percent of their mind’s true brain power, which means you could do 90 percent more than what you’re achieving academically today. In high school, I hated studying French: “Sacre bleu!” I couldn’t wait to be done with it. But I’ve discovered God has given me a gift for foreign languages, like God had given Brock the gift of leadership, and now I pray the priest’s prayer book, “La Liturgie des Heures,” in French every day. Your mind has far more potential than you can imagine, and you can reach that potential only with God’s grace and a promise of perseverance on your part, to give your very best.

           Thirdly, in human relationships, especially as boyfriends and girlfriends. In the Bible, when God created the first person, Adam, he observed: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). But how to be “together” with another person is not so easy either; we often mess up relationships. But just like you have to learn how to take care of your body, and you have to learn a new language, so, too, you have to learn how to love others. Sometimes when a relationship fails to work out, we are tempted to say, “All boys are jerks!” or “All girls are drama queens! I’m going to be a priest!” But don’t give up on relationships; God did not create you to be alone.  Nevertheless, the great joy of a fulfilling friendship is only possible with God’s grace and a promise of perseverance on your part, to give your very best.

              St. Augustine said: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest  adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” Now that’s reaching for something beyond your grasp.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

World’s Oldest Profession

Letting the Good Shepherd take on the smell of his sheep
Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus said to his disciples: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

        Do you know what the “world’s oldest profession” is? The world’s oldest profession is shepherding, of course. What were YOU thinking it was? Shepherding goes back at least 5,000 years to the time before there was stable farming, to when people were nomadic, and therefore they lived with their livestock that traveled with them. Of course, we know that shepherding is a great Biblical motif for Jesus, the Good Shepherd. In the seminary, this motif taught us the difference between priests and deacons. One professor explained: “Well, if the priest is the shepherd and the people are like the sheep, then the deacon is like the sheepdog.” Sorry, Dc. Mike, I love you man!

         In 2013, Pope Francis said something surprising to us priests about shepherding the sheep. He wrote in his Holy Thursday Letter that year: “This I ask of you (meaning us priests): be shepherds, with the ‘odour of the sheep’” (“Chrism Mass Homily,” March 28, 2013). What did he mean by having the odour of the sheep? In ancient times and even today, the shepherds often slept with their sheep in small huts, they shared their own food with them, and they would carry the lame ones around on their shoulders. In other words, the good shepherds always smelled like the sheep they loved because they were so close to them. That intimacy shared by shepherd and sheep allowed them to recognize each other not only by “sight” and not only by the “sound” of their voice, but also by “smell,” and I would go so far as to say by their spirit. I once heard a theologian describe “intimacy” as “in-to-me-see,” to see not only the body of the one you love, but to see their soul. Going back to priests and people: human shepherds and human sheep share intimacy in the sense they see and love each other’s souls.

         In the gospel today, Jesus describes his “Parousia,” his Second Coming on the clouds, flanked by his angels, when he will balance the scales of justice; everyone gets their just desserts, and chickens come home to roost. And what visual motif does Jesus use to describe the return of Christ as Judge? He uses the “world’s oldest profession,” of course. That is, Jesus will return as a shepherd. We read: “And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” But the Good Shepherd will not judge his sheep and goats (that means me and you) by external standards – if they are tall or short, handsome or homely, rich or poor, intelligent or slow witted, etc. None of that will matter. Rather, the shepherd knows our souls; he can “in-to-me-see,” and I cannot hide any imperfections from his loving gaze. Indeed, the shepherd will be able to tell his sheep not only by sight, but by their smell. In other words, at the Judgment Jesus will be able to separate the sheep from the goats with his eyes closed. That’s how well he will know us.

         My friends, let me take Pope Francis’ exhortation to the shepherds to have the odour of the sheep and turn it around. Let me ask you as the sheep – and here I need to include myself because I am also a sheep of Jesus’ flock – has our odour rubbed off on the Good Shepherd? That is, have we share intimacy – in-to-me-see – with him because we have shared our whole lives with him?

         Let me suggest three areas where it’s not very easy to share our lives with the Good Shepherd. We try to hide our odour from him. The first area is in sexual intimacy. I gotta tell you, when it comes to sex, Catholics have very little intimacy with Christ and his Church. I’m afraid there’s been a whole-sale abandoning of the Church’s teaching on contraception, and open questioning and criticism of her teaching on the whole array of issues dealing with human sexuality. When it comes to sex, we don’t want Jesus or the Church to “in-to-me-see,” and certainly not see into our bedrooms. The Good Shepherd cannot tell our smell.

         The second area that’s hard to share with the Good Shepherd is our finances. I don’t mean you have to give all your money in the collection – but I wouldn’t complain if you did. But do you give any money at all? I once heard a statistic that if everyone in a parish gave $5 a week in the collection, a church would never have any money problems or have to take up a second collection. But some people give nothing. How hard it is to share that aspect of our lives with Jesus the Good Shepherd; we don’t want Jesus to smell our money.

          And the third area off limits to Jesus is our politics, political power. Naturally, there needs to be a healthy separation of church and state, and frankly, I’m glad priests are not allowed to take sides in politics. But when we vote at the polls, do we make choices based on Christian principles or on personal biases and preferences?  I know the political landscape has gotten very messy and it’s true that conscientious Christians can end up on opposites of contentious issues. Do you vote more first and foremost as a Christian or as a Republican or a Democrat? Do you share your politics with Jesus; would your vote pass Jesus’ smell test?

           By the way, in case you don’t know what the so-called “world’s oldest profession” is, it’s prostitution. And it’s the embodiment of money, sex and power: the three areas of our lives we find hardest to share with the Good Shepherd.  Prostitution is the polar opposite of shepherding. Why? Well, because every shepherd, and especially the Good Shepherd, must be poor, chaste and powerless or obedient. This is what is at stake, my friends, for all of us: drawing near to one profession (because of its allure of money, sex and power) means distancing ourselves from the other. We’re always leaning one way or the other. Pope Francis told priests that they need to smell like the sheep. May the Good Shepherd smell like the sheep, and may the sheep smell like the Good Shepherd.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Final Flatulence

Looking forward to marriage with Jesus and perfect love
Luke 20:27-40 Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us, If someone's brother dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married a woman but died childless. Then the second and the third married her, and likewise all the seven died childless.  Finally the woman also died. Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her." Jesus said to them, "The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.

       The past couple of weeks I’ve had people ask me questions about life after death. What will it be like in the next life? And this should not surprise us because our Scriptures the last couple of weeks of Ordinary Time are inviting us to pray and ponder over these final stages of human existence: heaven and hell, purgatory and judgment. I’d like to address three of these questions people have asked me. First, will we know our loved ones in heaven; will we recognize our family and friends there? Second, is purgatory really a fire that will burn and scorch us? And third, will there be marriage in heaven, and will I be married to my spouse in heaven?

         These are not easy or simple questions to answer, and as always, we turn to the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church for answers. Why turn there? Well, because there the Holy Spirit speaks to us. The Holy Spirit inspired the human authors of Sacred Scripture, and the Holy Spirit guides the Magisterium (pope and bishops) and the Tradition (saints and scholars) to speak to us through the Catechism. When we turn to the Bible and the Catechism, therefore, we turn to the Holy Spirit’s wisdom. But I also highly recommend you read a book by Scott Hahn called The Lamb’s Supper for reliable answers to really tough questions like these.

        First question: will we be able to know and recognize people in heaven, especially our loved ones? Some Protestant preachers teach we will not recognize them because it might diminish the happiness of heaven and distract us from Jesus. That explanation is understandable, but unnecessary. Why? Well, because when we love perfectly, we can love the unlovable, even those people who are hard to love will become easy to love. Scott Hahn observed: “Loving difficult people will refine us. Perhaps only in heaven will our love be so perfected that we can actually like these people, too.” Hahn continued: “St. Augustine spoke of a man who, on earth, had chronic gas problems; in heaven, his flatulence became perfect music” (The Lamb’s Supper, 154). So, you can look forward to that.

        Secondly, will there really be fire in purgatory that will burn and scorch our skin like an over cooked hotdog? The Catechism is clear on this point, teaching: “The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire” (Catechism, 1031). But I don’t think this means fire in a literal sense, but in a figurative, metaphorical sense. Hebrews 12:29 says, “Our God is a consuming fire,” but that doesn’t mean God is a huge bonfire and we can roast marsh mellows on his flames. Rather, God is a fire burning with love, a fire of love. Like the Doors sang, “Come on, baby, light my fire,” a fire of love. The fires of purgatory, therefore, are the fires of love that purify our love.

       And thirdly, will there be marriage in heaven? This was precisely the predicament the Sadducees raised with Jesus in the gospel today. A woman marries 7 brothers and after all die, whose wife will she be in heaven? She married them all. Jesus replies: “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age…neither marry nor are given in marriage.” So Jesus clear says “there will be no marriage in heaven,” right? Not so fast. Virtually the last lines of the Bible speak about the so-called “marriage supper of the Lamb,” that is, the marriage of Jesus. Revelation 22:17 reads: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come, [Lord Jesus]’.” If there is a bride, there must be a Bridegroom; and if there’s both bride and Bridegroom, there must be marriage. In other words, we won’t be married to each other in heaven; we will all be married to Jesus.
        With all due respect to Randy Travis, who sang, “I’m going to love you forever and ever, forever and ever. Amen,” that’s not exactly true. In heaven we will love Jesus first and foremost, and we will love each other (even our spouses) secondly. We will even love each other’s flatulence.

 Praised be Jesus Christ!

Gratitude with Promptitude

Adjusting our attitude of gratitude with
Luke 17:11-19 As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten persons with leprosy met him. They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, "Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!" And when he saw them, he said, "Go show yourselves to the priests." As they were going they were cleansed. And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, "Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?" Then he said to him, "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you."

        In the seminary our rector – the priest in charge of the seminary – taught us two rules of etiquette that we should following religiously. Unfortunately, I have failed miserably at keeping both of them. The first was a rule about correspondence. He said: “Never let the same letter hit your desk twice.” Now, you have to remember that I went to seminary in the last millennium, when people actually wrote hand-written letters to one another. But I would let these letters pile up on my desk for weeks. Why? Well, I was afraid to touch them a second time because I knew I would have to reply. So, my solution was just not to pick them up a second time.  Not a good solution.

         The second rule was hard, too. He said: “When you return from dinner at a parishioner’s home, write the thank you note that same night before you go to bed.” Well, I’m always worried what I might write after a martini or two – in vino veritas! – so I put off the thank you note until later, and sometimes I just never get to it, as life interrupts what’s truly important. In other words, nothing says “gratitude” like “promptitude” – saying thank you promptly and sincerely.

         In the gospel today, Jesus meets ten lepers who also need to learn the lesson of gratitude with promptitude. Jesus travels through Samaria – a non-Jewish area – on his way to Galilee and comes across ten people with leprosy. He cures all ten of the people, but only one returns promptly to say thank you. To add insult to injury, it was the Samaritan who showed gratitude, while the other nine - presumably Jews - failed to say thanks. The Jews should have been the most grateful. But the other nine thought like me after the gift of a great dinner, “I can say thank you later,” but later never comes. Sometimes, if there is not gratitude with promptitude, there is no gratitude at all. And sadly, that was the case with the other nine lepers.

           My friends, may I suggest two people with whom you should practice gratitude with promptitude and not be negligent like the nine? First of all, give thanks to God. And by the way, this is the fundamental reason we come to Mass every Sunday. We shouldn’t go to Mass just when we need something: a miracle from Miracle Max (remember him from “Princess Bride”?). But rather, we go to Mass to say “Thank you, God!” for all the miracles we have received the previous week: the miracle of life, the miracle of breathing, the miracle of food, the miracle of friends, and mostly the miracle of faith. Everything is a miracle and a grace, meaning it is completely undeserved and totally unmerited, flowing freely from the generous hands of God. But most of put off saying thanks, thinking: “We’ll start going to church more when we’re retired.” And I’m glad you go to church after retirement, but isn’t that a little like the negligent nine lepers? St. Augustine regretfully wrote in his Confessions, “Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new. Late have I loved, Thee.” We love the Lord late in life, and we thank him even later.

        The second is a pair of persons to thank promptly, namely, your mom and dad. Do you know when we finally get around to saying “thank you” to mom and dad? It’s when we’re forty years old, and our children have become teenagers. Why? Well, we finally realize what we put our parents through when we were teenagers, and we are profoundly grateful they didn’t kill us. It’s easy to see what a gift our children are; but it takes a years to see what a blessing our parents are. We, too, are like the negligent nine lepers and often fail to say “thank you” to the two people without whom we simply would not exist.

          This Thanksgiving, don’t just worry about injecting your turkey with beer and butter; but also inject your gratitude with some promptitude. Thank Almighty God, whose miracles are measureless, and thank the parents whose patience is limitless. And do that today.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Feeling the Faith

Using the sense of touch to reach Jesus and others
Luke 18:35-43 As Jesus approached Jericho a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging, and hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what was happening. They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by." He shouted, "Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!" The people walking in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent, but he kept calling out all the more, "Son of David, have pity on me!" Then Jesus stopped and ordered that he be brought to him; and when he came near, Jesus asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?" He replied, "Lord, please let me see." Jesus told him, "Have sight; your faith has saved you." He immediately received his sight and followed him, giving glory to God. When they saw this, all the people gave praise to God.

        Let me tell you a little about the life of Helen Keller. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of her. She has an amazing story of overcoming insurmountable odds. She was born in 1880 in Tuscumbia, AL. She was born with the ability to see and hear like you can, but at 19 months old, she contracted a rare illness that left her both blind and deaf.

          I want you to step into the world of Helen Keller by doing two things this morning. First of all, stand up and close your eyes; no peeking! Can you see the darkness? You can still hear the sound of my voice, but all colors and people and places are vanishing. Touch the pew in front of you to steady yourself. That’s how blind people experience the world. Keep your eyes closed and now the second thing I want you to do is take your two hands and cover your ears. Don’t just cup your ears, but press down on your ears so you shut out all sounds as much as possible. You might not be able to hear my voice very well, and can probably hear the sound of your own breathing.  Can you image how scary the world would be to someone who could neither see nor hear? That was Helen Keller’s world. Okay, you can uncover your ears and have a seat.

        In 1887, Anne Sullivan was hired by Helen’s parents to tutor her, and Helen was only 7 years old, living in a world without sight or sound. So, can you guess how Anne Sullivan taught her? Helen couldn’t see a smart board, nor could she hear Anne’s voice talking to her. So, Anne used Helen’s sense of touch and feeling. For example, to teach her about water and its name, Anne would run cold water over Helen’s left hand and spell the word “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s right hand with her finger, and suddenly Helen made the connection between the “word” and the “world.” In other words, the things in the world have names.  The word in her right hand referred to the reality in her left hand.

        By the way, have you ever noticed how in the National Scripps Spelling Bee, all the smart Indian kids spell the word in the palm of their hands? They not only hear the word the announcer says, and they not only see the letters of the word in their hand, but they can also feel the word in the palm of their hands. They engage 3 senses – sight, sound and touch – to spell better. And that’s why the Indian kids always win!

        It was through her feelings, therefore, that Helen Keller found the world. But her sense of touch and her feelings helped Helen do more than that.  Helen could also feel her faith as a Christian. She once said: “I knew Jesus was always present; I just never knew his name!” She could finally feel his name written in the palm of her hand. Boys and girls, spell the word “J-e-s-u-s” in the palm of your hand. That’s the feeling of faith. Can you feel the faith?

         In the gospel today, a blind man also experiences the feeling of faith. To enter into his world, I want you to close your eyes, so you can feel what he felt: blindness. For a few minutes, just listen to the sound of my voice, but don’t fall asleep! He is sitting by the roadside begging when he hears a commotion of people passing by. He asks who it is and they tell him it’s Jesus. He yells out, “Jesus, Son of David,” have pity on me!” And when Jesus approaches, he asks him to heal his blindness. In most cases, Jesus touched the person he healed. Why would Jesus do that? Well, like Helen Keller and the National Spelling Bee champions, Jesus wanted people to feel the faith. It’s almost like Jesus knelt down and spelled his name in the palm of the hand of the blind man. The blind man could say like Helen Keller, “I knew he was always there; now I know his name.” Sometimes we have to feel the faith. Now you can open your eyes again.

        Boys and girls, we’ve talked a lot about family in this retreat, and I hope you have experienced being a Trinity family today. But more than seeing family or hearing about family, I hope you started feeling like family: that you are truly brothers and sisters to each other. I want you to write the word “T-r-i-n-i-t-y” in the palm of your hand, and feel the word Trinity. Sometimes a feeling - a feeling in the palm of your hand - gets you closer to the reality than sight and sound do, like it did for Helen Keller.

        Do you know who feels the most like family at Trinity? It’s our graduates, our alumni. Have you noticed Northside and Southside students at Trinity football games? They love to come back and watch you compete. Do you see them at in the stands at basketball and volleyball games?   They cheer the loudest.  Did you see how they loved to return for Quiz Bowl tournaments? They really feel like family at Trinity, and they see you as their little brothers and sisters, and they love to spend time with you.

         Boys and girls, you know how much it hurts when families separate and divorce. Some of you know that personally and painfully.  Well, try to avoid doing those things here at Trinity that hurt our family unity, like forming clicks or making people feel like they don’t belong. Some students may find it hard to spell “Trinity” or “family” in the palm of their hands because they don’t feel like part of our family. They don’t feel like siblings, but more like strangers.Just like you have to feel the faith, so you also have to feel like family.

         Now, I want you to do one final exercise. Take you left hand and extend it to the person sitting on your left. If you’re at the left end of the pew, you don’t have to do that. Now, take your right hand and with your pointer finger write the word “family” in the palm of your brother or sister’s hand that’s extended toward you. I pray you will always feel like family here at Trinity. Now, hold that hand, and let’s pray our family prayer, the Our Father, in Latin. Pater noster, qui es en caelis...

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Feminine Fascination

Holding womanly hands to learn the feminine genius
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30 When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls. Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize. She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life. She obtains wool and flax and works with loving hands. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle. She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy. Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

      Let me tell you the story about a young bishop who lived in Rome many years ago. This bishop had the unusual habit of walking around the Vatican with a rosary wrapped around his hand. Whenever people saw him, his rosary was wrapped around his hand. One day an archbishop’s curiosity got the better of him and he stopped the young bishop and asked him about his habit. It takes an archbishop to question a bishop. The young bishop smiled and said: “The rosary makes me feel like the Blessed Virgin Mary is holding my hand and guiding me and leading me through life.” Later that young bishop became an archbishop himself, and a little later he was promoted to cardinal. In 1978 he was actually elected as the pope, and took the name “John Paul II.” On his papal coat of arms, John Paul had the golden letter “M” for Mary in the bottom corner. She was still guiding him through life, even though he was the pope!

        Pope John Paul II had a tender love not only for Mary, but for all women, because he believed they possessed a particular “feminine genius.” Think of it like woman’s intuition on steroids. He explained this once saying: “Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them” (Letter to Women, no. 12). By the way, that’s why women are adept at remembering birthdays and anniversaries, and they know who is related to whom in Fort Smith, and they watch soap operas, because all those things highlight persons and their inter-relationships. Many men, on the other hand, just see people as cogs in a machine to make money, whether they’re a good head football coach or not. Women immediately and instinctively see the spiritual side of a person, and that’s their feminine genius.

        The first reading today is a kind of “ode to women” taken from Proverbs 31, the great chapter describing the “ideal wife.” I believe Proverbs 31 could easily have been written by Pope John Paul II because both the pope and Proverbs are fascinated with the feminine. The lines I like the best from this chapter read: “She reaches out her hand to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy. Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Notice how the ideal wife-woman “reaches out her hand,” which is how John Paul II imagined the Blessed Virgin Mary reaching out her hand to guide him through life when he held the rosary. And when the Proverbs wife-woman takes us by the hand, she teaches us not to be deceived by external charm or beauty but to see the spiritual side of people. That’s the genius of women.

       My friends, let me suggest three areas where we, like John Paul II, need the feminine genius to lead us by the hand. First of all, in not putting an inordinate emphasis on physical beauty and appearance. Obviously, we need to take care of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, but we shouldn’t obsess over them. How many teenage girls suffer from bulimia or anorexia believing they are overweight when in reality they are underweight? Have you ever heard the expression, “He has a face only a mother could love”? Maybe so.  But if so, then we need a mother with her feminine genius to “reach out her hand” and teach us how to love all faces, not just the charming ones or the beautiful ones.

         Secondly, let the Church provide her feminine genius when you are facing complicated issues in life. How do we understand or think about same-sex marriage, or capital punishment, or immigration, or pro-life, or racism, or any number of other issues deeply divisive and difficult to discern? Turn to Holy Mother Church, to the feminine. Do you know what pronoun is used throughout the Mass to refer to the Church? The Church is not referred to as an “It” and it’s not “He,” and it’s not “They” and it’s not “All of y’all.” Rather, the Church is always “She” and “Her.” Why? Well, because the Church is the Bride of Christ, and she longs to teach us her feminine genius that she has learned from the Holy Spirit. Read what Pope Francis and Bishop Taylor write on these issues, and you will learn the feminine genius of the Church.

          And thirdly, do what that young bishop did walking around Rome: pray the rosary and hold Mother Mary’s hand. I’ve gotten into the habit of walking around the church offices while I pray the rosary each day. Sometimes I startle the staff as I suddenly appear around the corner, but I tell them, “Don’t worry, I’m praying for you.” By the way, I don’t suggest you pray the rosary while driving your car because it may cause drowsiness and a wreck. Some people pray the rosary while lying in bed, and if they fall asleep, their Guardian Angel finishes it for them. The important thing, though, is to see in Mary the epitome of the feminine genius, and let her “reach out her hand” to take yours and guide you. This should be the root of all sound Marian devotion.

          When our school children cross Rogers Avenue on the way to Mass, we teach them to hold hands, because it’s dangerous. My friends, we cannot make it through life without holding other people’s hands as well, because life is dangerous. But when you hold the hand of a woman, you also begin to learn their feminine genius, whether that woman is your wife, or Holy Mother Church, or the Blessed Virgin Mary. A woman’s hand can help you across Rogers, and across the Vatican, and across life, and she will guide you all the way to heaven.

Praised be Jesus Christ!