Saturday, February 23, 2013

Pass over to greater realities

2nd Sunday of Lent Year B
24 February 2013
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
Daily Readings

To borrow another metaphor from KU basketball, when the crowd gets wrapped into a frenzy in the Fieldhouse, it's like an out-of-body experience.  It's almost like a drug.  It's entering into a new reality.  There is a loss of control.  Passion takes over, and you enter into a new dimension of human experience.  It's pandemonium.  It's fun.  You feel like you're in a place you've never been before.

We are wired sexually to enter into a new dimension of human experience as well.  So powerful is this wiring, that it alters human experience in even more profound and permanent ways than drugs do.  There is once again passion and a loss of control.  The sexual experience is a fire that can create amazing good and fruitfulness if channeled in the right way, and incredible damage in the wrong circumstances.

Our experience of Mass can also be a passing over from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the real to the more real.  Going to Mass can be like exiting the matrix of ordinary life, and waking up to a reality that is always there but one that we are not always aware of.  Certainly for the priest saying the Mass, the Holy Spirit makes available the reality of the Lord's words and presence in ways that the priest himself doesn't normally experience.  There is a waking up, a super-reality, that is mysteriously entered into.

Lent is not about making slight adjustments in our lives with the final goal being self-improvement.  No, it is waking up to greater realities.  We all vacillate between being asleep and waking up.  We go back and forth between experiences of the super-real, which when they happen cannot be doubted, and the daily grind, which when we are in the middle of it, seems more real, and causes us to doubt our experiences of more.

Just as we once passed over from our mother's womb into the light and drama and greater reality of this world, so also for the Christian there remains another passing over, from the sleepiness of our daily experience to the glory foreshadowed by the Transfiguration.  This passing over can take many forms - committing to the things we are passionate about, the things that get us outside of ourselves.  It comes from trusting the inspirations of the Holy Spirit that are beyond reason but are not for that reason any less true.

Most of all, however, for the Christian, this passing over takes place through prayer.  Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain because it is there, from a high spot, that we are able to see more.  Prayer is always a greater seeing, because it is allowing God to give us his vision.  Prayer is always a waking up from less to more, by asking ourselves what is most real, most necessary and most eternal, and then listening for the answer.  Christianity is impossible without prayer.  Without it, we will always settle for less, and allow the less real to become our ultimate reality.

The Transfiguration shows us that the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus is not just something that happened temporally at the end of his life, after his work was done.  Jesus' passing over from this world to the Father was something he was always doing. It was made manifest at the end, but also in the middle.  This is a great lesson for the three blessed apostles.  They learned on the mountain that the passing over from less to more is not something just for later, it is something to be rehearsed, something to be experienced even now.

They learned as well that this passing over is accomplished most of all through prayer.  Lacking the faith demonstrated by Abraham, Peter and James and John fear this change, this passing over, this death to self.  Desperately seeking control of the situation, a way to manage it to fit their readiness, they neglect prayer and come up with no better idea than to build three tents.  Yet Jesus tells them the key for passing over, the key to entering into the greater reality, is nothing more but nothing less than prayer. The three are told instead to listen to him.  The ideas was not to capture the Transfiguration, but letting that experience give us the greater confidence in the greater coming of the Holy Spirit, which will teach us how to listen to Him.  It is in listening to him, that we are transfigured not from the outside in, but from the inside out.  Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Love tests the self

1st Sunday of Lent Year C
17 February 2013
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas

Life is a journey.  Life is a battle.  These are the two great metaphors for story-telling.  You can't tell a story without these metaphors.  Today's Gospel presents third metaphor, which is related to these two and has the ability to join them.  Life is a test.  Now I'm not saying that God created people in order to test them.  Humanity is neither God's experiment nor his entertainment.  We are neither robots nor pawns.  God created out of love, not because he was bored or had to create, but because love gives of itself, love shares of itself, love desires the good of another.  So God created us because he loves us.  Yet he further loves us by training us, allowing us to be challenged and chastised, by testing us  For as we learn in the Gospel of temptation, there is cheap love, and then there is real love.  The testing that God allows does nothing but purify love, and keep us from settling for imitations.  We might not like testing, but it is easier than the alternative, which is the pain of living without real love.  

So Jesus is led not by the devil, but by the Holy Spirit, to be tested in the desert.  Jesus had just emerged from his baptism, and had just heard in a human way the voice of the Father say - this is my beloved son.    Jesus goes to the desert, then, to show us what this status and dignity as a beloved son looks like under extreme circumstances.  The testing of the desert makes love more visible and real to us.  He goes to the desert to be tempted, to show us even when we think we are most alone and vulnerable, we do not lose our status as God's beloved son.  Jesus goes to show us that we are never alone, and so never have to act apart from our dignity as God's beloved.  He goes to show that the world can offer us nothing that we do not already have.

Specifically, Jesus shows us that sensual pleasure adds nothing to who we already are.  Not that sensual pleasure is bad in and of itself.  It is a good and natural part of the human condition.  But when it replaces God, it leaves us weak and empty.  For man lives not from sensual pleasure to sensual pleasure, but upon spiritual words that create real and lasting relationships. (Rom 10:8-13).

Next, Jesus shows us that having control of some part of the world or of our reputation is also an illusion.  We can fight so desperately against vulnerability and dependence, and yet these are the true language of love, and going away from them means going away from our true dignity and security.  Jesus shows that security comes from being known and desired by God, and no kingdom of the world, from the presidency of  a superpower to the wealth of billionaires, to the smallest man-cave, can give a security that God alone can give a person.  We see Jesus alone in control, even though he is completely vulnerable, poor and alone, because his power rests in nothing but God alone.

Finally, Jesus shows us that there is no security in making ourselves the most important person in the world, nor in thinking the world revolves around me.  We either see the world around us through our ego or through our mission.  There are only two ways.  We either judge the world by how it affects me, or we judge it by the opportunity it gives me to focus radically not on myself, but upon God and others. My life is either about me, or about others.  There are only two ways.  Ultimately, love doesn't make itself God by testing God.  Love always tests the self.  The Lord certainly goes before us in this - in the desert he was testing himself to give us an example, out of love for us.  That's what love does.  It even welcomes testing, because it detaches us from ourselves and orients us toward our mission in life.

Pleasure, control, ego.  These are the enemies we are fighting this Lent.  Let us not be afraid to allow ourselves to be tested, not because God told us so, not because the Church says we have to, but because we're not ready yet to give up on ourselves.  Amen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Family over everything

Ash Wednesday
St. Lawrence Catholic Center at the University of Kansas
13 February 2013
Daily Readings

It is so much more fun to put on purple for the first time when KU just destroyed K-State in basketball a couple of days ago.  Purple means penance.  Think about that.  Yet even though Catholicism is bigger than sports rivalries, and we have no choice but to don the purple beginning today, it's a bit easier than thinking that wearing purple is our punishment for losing to the Cats.  Didn't happen.  Rock Chalk.

I like whoever made the Withey for Pope sign.   Monday was quite a day not only for KU basketball, but also for Catholicism. If there is one thing the Catholic Church knows how to do, it is how to grab headlines.  Pope Benedict shocked the world on Monday!  An 84 year old man caught the whole world off guard by his resignation.  We hear all the time how the Church is less relevant and out of touch with modernity, yet there was the old guy rocking the twitterverse with his announcement.  Why?  Because Jesus Christ matters.  The Church matters.  Catholicism matters.

We are here today because our membership in the family of Jesus Christ matters.  At KU, the acronym FOE means a lot.  It's popularity reached a peak when the mother of Thomas Robinson died his junior year, and led by the Morris twins, the term Family Over Everything reminded everyone of what's important in life.  In the same way, if our membership in the Church is not about being family to each other, we should just go home.  As the Gospel says clearly, if there is anything showy or superficial, anything fake or insincere about our checking in to get our ashes tonight, then for God's sake, we might as well go home.  Joel says unless you are here to rend your heart, not your garment, then go home!  If the Church is anything less than the most important family to which you belong, a family that you are willing to die for, then we should not eat and drink judgment on ourselves through the Eucharist, we might as well just go home.

But I invite you to stay, and to never stop coming back, because the Catholic Church is your family.  It is your home.  It is where God wants you to be.  It is where you deeply want to be.  We don ashes today to proclaim that we are no better the ordinary sinners, no more deserving of God's love than anyone, but to also proclaim that God's mercy is the most powerful force in the universe.  We pledge prayer, fasting and almsgiving not as a superficial self-improvement project, not like the Pharisees, but because we need change from the inside out, the kind of change that comes from radical dependence upon God.  We abstain from meat on Fridays not because it's a gimmick, but because families do things together, and because we need to stick together for the fight and journey ahead.  Family over Everything.

Bill Self challenged his team this week to play with freedom.  Funny thing, coming from a basketball coach, because in saying the word freedom he did not mean for his players the license to do what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it.  That is how the world thinks about freedom - freedom as license to have things my way as long as I don't hurt anyone else.  That is not what Bill Self meant. That is not the full definition of freedom.  Bill Self meant that his players shouldn't play tentatively or fearful of making mistakes.  He meant that the tradition and discipline of KU basketball was meant for players to flourish - for their full talent and personality, their utmost joy and virtue, to shine forth.  They should take the court with confidence that everything is ordered to their playing their very best  They should play free.

So too for us Catholic Christians.  We should play the game of life with freedom.  We should know and live our faith not with fear and timidity, but with freedom.  For the practice of our faith gives us confidence that we are ready to play our very best, at the highest level.  St. Paul says we are all chosen to be ambassadors for Christ; God, as it were, appealing to the world through us!  Each one of us is to live out the incredible story of what it means for God to choose a sinner to be transformed into a saint.  Our Church exists for one purpose only - to provide the tradition and discipline that produces championships, first-round draft picks - in other words, SAINTS!  That is the genius of the Church to which we belong, the Catholic Church, and if we are here for any purpose less than to pursue the sanctity that represents the very best of who we are, and who we always promised ourselves we would be, then we should just go home.  Isaiah was right - why should the world look at the family of God and say -  those pathetic Christians.  If that is the kind of Christian we are - pathetic, private, scared of the world and fearful of becoming saints - we might as well go home.

But I invite you to stay.  And to keep coming back.  And to never give up.  Being a Catholic is the most adventuresome, extreme, and alternative lifestyle you can imagine, and it's also incredible fun.  If being a Catholic is not fun, trust me, you're not doing it right.  Instead of taking ourselves too seriously, and shooting anyone who makes fun of Catholicism, we can make 'Withey for Pope' signs and it's all good.  We are the most diverse group of people the world has ever seen, and yet we enjoy a mysterious unity that can never be understood nor destroyed.  We are the Church of celibates, who also stands up for the true meaning of marriage.  We are always fighting against evil, but celebrating the good at the same time.  We are most active in politics, but will always transcend politics.  We are the Church of the greatest fasts and the greatest feasts.  We are the Church of the greatest sinners and the most extraordinary saints.  We are the Church of chastity before marriage, so that we might have the most children within marriage.  We are a Church whose male leaders act in the person of Christ, but who celebrate the example and power of our mother Mary, who is also the mother of God, more than feminism has ever celebrated women in human history.  We are the Catholic Church - the greatest tradition the world has ever seen, and today that Church proclaims a fast, so that her members can return to God with all their hearts, all their minds, and all their strength.

So live your Catholic faith today in a way that will bring you this freedom, this chance to be all that you are, all that you promised yourself you would be, all that God has called you to be.  Keep coming back.  Put family over everything.  And be not afraid.  Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Extreme Christianity

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time C
10 February 2013
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
Daily Readings

Record breaking.  You love it.  I love it.  We all love it!  When Felix Baumgartner jumped from his balloon in what looked like a spacesuit, from the very edge of our atmosphere, in order to set a record for the highest jump, and to break the speed of sound, the whole world was mesmerized.  Nothing gets attention like going where no one has gone before, and doing what heretofore seemed impossible.

Attempts to break records show us human nature in a new way.  They show us human calculation and genius - figuring out how to do things that have never been done.  It also shows the human heart.  Just because you can calculate the odds of breaking a record, doesn't mean you will have a volunteer with the courage to try it.  Record breakers often have a unique combination of genius talent and a fearless heart.  

I'll never forget what an impact the World Youth Days in Denver had on me.  In 1993, after my freshman year at KU, I was able to be on stage with the St. Lawrence choirs for the final Mass, which had just shy of a million people in attendance.  Talk about a catch of fish.  Talk about being a fisher of men.  It was true that there were so many people that the place was chaos, not unlike the tearing of the nets in today's Gospel.  Yet the Lord himself had set the stage and there was incredible unity and meaning in the scene as well.  The Mass forever changed what it meant for me to be a Catholic.  For me being Catholic was about being part of a record-breaking church, a record-breaking catch of fish.  Christianity became for me that day an extreme sport, a quest to build with Jesus the largest and most unified and most powerful family the world could ever know.

Saints are those heroes of our game, those record-breakers, who cooperate with the grace of Christ when he gets into their boat.  Most of us relativize what it means to be a Christian, always trying to manage how God might be a little bigger part of my life.  Saints instead lose their life within the mystery of God's life.  Saints allow the scene of today's Gospel to play out in their lives. They realize that Christianity can be about nothing else than taking Jesus at his word, than about allowing him to pick for you a bigger life than you could pick for yourself.  Sainthood is about putting out into the deep.  This is the only way that Christianity survives and thrives - the only way it was meant to exist in the world - as an extreme sport.  Saints understood this.  The saints of today understand it.

Jesus gets into the boat of our lives to show us what is really possible.  As was the case with Isaiah, the purges our sins so that we no longer make excuses with our lips, but we begin to proclaim the Gospel instead.  Jesus gets into our boat to activate those deeper parts of us that we would never have the courage to explore ourselves.  Jesus gets into our boat to take us to that line near death where life truly begins.  He gets into our boat to show us that self-abandonment is the key to self-discovery.

Christianity as an extreme sport is not always safe.  The martyrs show us that.  Yet what is really reckless and irresponsible is not that we have the courage to live our faith to the utmost, but that we relativize the one who believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.  

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Love tests the self

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time C
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
3 February 2012
Daily Readings

You can't be a Christian without a prophetic dimension to your life.  You can't be a Christian without embracing the truth with all your heart, mind and strength, but perhaps most importantly, you can't be a Christian without proclaiming the truth and living the truth by what you say and do.  Like Jeremiah in tonight's first reading, each one of us, especially by virtue of our baptism, has a truth placed in us, a word of truth that comes from God, that must be spoken and lived.  It is a truth as unique to each one of us as our personhood itself.  We neglect this proclamation to our own peril, and all of us know this too well.  It is no fun to be false or duplicitous, to pretend to be something we are not.  Joy is found in authenticity, and in not being afraid to be truthful.

Still, the temptation to be popular or look better than we really are can easily take over our lives.  Most of us  confess our tendency to lie, or to gossip, mostly for the trivial reason of wanting to look better.  We know that this sin particularly gains momentum.  The adage that each lie needs seven more to cover it up rings true.  Most of all, we fail to speak up for the truth and for our faith particularly, when it is maligned.  Whether something blasphemous, immoral or untruthful is said, we are not usually ready to stand up. We can use the excuse that we do not know how to defend every inch of our faith, but not knowing everything does not excuse us from not saying anything.   The disdain for faith that we sometimes encounter can be discouraging, but we need to keep learning our faith, especially in this Year of Faith, and keep fighting.

The Lord encourages Jeremiah in today's first reading in his prophetic fight.  He reminds Jeremiah of something very simple.  He is not alone.  Neither are we.  In our prophetic witness, we should always remember that it is the Lord himself who wishes to speak through us.  It is he who has planted his word within us, who has given us this prophetic dimension of our lives, and who stands with us always.  Not only him, but the hosts of heaven, and the tradition of the saints, encourages us not to cower as if we are outnumbered.  At all times, we are on the winning side, and we should act like it.  Take courage, the Lord says to Jeremiah, and know that I am with you.

St. Paul in the second reading correctly tells us that this prophetic dimension of our lives, while essential, is not fundamental.  The vocation to love is fundamental to the life of a Christian.  Love is the reason there is something rather than nothing.  As we say in the Mass preface, love is our origin, love is our constant calling, and love is our perfection in heaven.  Compared to love truth is nothing.  Truth belongs to God, but love is his most central reality.  God is love, and he is nothing more and nothing less than love.

Pope Benedict XVI followed the lead of St. Paul when he released his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est.  Archbishop James Keleher, the bishop who ordained me, always told his priests that there is one thing you must never fail to say in every homily.  That one necessary thing is to tell people that God loves them.  It is necessary because we have such a powerful sinful tendency within us to equivocate what love is.  Love for french fries and love for God cannot be more different, yet we use the same word.  We have a powerful tendency to replace love with indirect egotism, and this must always be purified within us. Christians must never stop purifying how we understand and speak about love.

The Holy Father traces in that first encyclical the movement from eros to agape, from the addition of good things in one's life to the full maturation of love, which is addition by subtraction, for a falling in love that is agape is finding something worth dying for.  St. Thomas Aquinas says the ultimate definition of love is an act of the will, precisely willing the good of the other as other.  Love is falling so far so as to forget yourself, so much so that St. Paul says love can bear all things and suffer all things and endure all things.  Love allows a person to truly find himself through a disinterested gift of himself.  In the end, as St. Paul teaches, this is all that matters in life.  Falling in love and staying in love determines everything about human personhood, human dignity and human destiny.  The two essential questions that every person must answer at each moment of their lives are these:  who loves you the most and who do you love the most?  St. Paul is right on that nothing else matters.

Through the gift of his son God has shown himself madly in love with us.  God is so in love with us that if we dare compare the love of Christ to any human love, we are the most pitiable people of all.  There is no point in being a Christian if the love of Christ is not the most unique and powerful love in the universe.  Yet if it is, we have to stop playing games with God, like those who encountered Jesus in Nazareth.  Love doesn't measure what's in it for me.  True love does not play childish games with another person.  You can't fall in love if you're still thinking like a child and acting like a child.  Love doesn't test the other, it tests the self by serving the other with all one's heart and mind and strength.