Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Annoying Guests

If a monk from another monastery comes to visit and is satisfied with the customs he finds here, and does not trouble the monastery with excessive demands, he should be welcome to stay for as long as he likes. Furthermore, if he has advice about how things might be done differently (and he makes his complaint with humility and charity) the abbot should consider carefully whether the Lord did not perhaps send him for that very purpose.
    No one likes to be told how to run his own house.  Still, a fresh pair of eyes might notice something that the abbot and his community have missed.  Ironically, one of the universal truths of human existence is that “birds of a feather flock together.”  It’s much easier to listen to people we agree with, so we favor the company of people who think like we do.  But this makes it difficult to have a balance opinion.  If we were truly open to new ideas and anxious to broaden our horizons, we’d seek out people we don’t agree with, and hang out with them instead.
In the fifth century, BC, there was guy who actually lived this way.  His name was Socrates.  He used to spend his days walking around Athens seeking out (and questioning) people he didn’t like.  He’d spend all day grilling them until he found a hole in their arguments.
     Socrates was a brilliant, charismatic, honest man.  But he did this all day every day, and pretty soon the Athenians had him killed.  After all, no one can handle that kind of interrogation on a regular basis.  It’s just too annoying.  But before he died, Socrates had time to teach his method of argumentation to a few young disciples, and they passed it on to others, and eventually, it became known as “The Socratic Method.”  It’s a really great way to argue, especially if you have the patience and charity to really listen.

It works like this:
    Before you start arguing with someone, you let them know that you are genuinely interested in their opinion.  This is harder than it sounds, especially if they’re wrong and you know it.  But understand that they will be much more interested in hearing your opinion if they think you understand theirs.
    Next, repeat what they have to say.  Repeat their own words back to them so that they know you really are listening.  This is important for you too.  Maybe you have been hearing something that they didn’t intend.  Maybe you’ve been reading too much into their argument.
    Lastly, ask questions.  Lots of questions.  Anywhere that you see a contradiction or an omission, instead of pointing it out, ask a question about it.  If there’s a point you’d like to make, keep asking questions until they make the point for you.
    I’ll give an example.  I once had an encounter with a Fundamentalist who told me I was sinning because, as a priest, I allowed people to call me “Father.”  At first, this annoyed me.  After all, I hadn’t asked this guy for his advice.  But instead of punching him, I took a deep breath and said, “So you say that I am sinning whenever I allow someone to call me ‘Father’?”
    “Yes,” he answered, “because Jesus said, ‘Call no man Father.’”
    “Well, you’re right there,” I said.  “That’s straight out of the Gospel of Matthew: “Call no man ‘father.’  There is but one Father in heaven” (23:9).
He nodded and smiled.
“But I’m a little confused,” I said.  “What do you call…uh…the guy who impregnated your mother?”
    “That’s different,” he said. “I can call him father.”
    “Why?” I asked.
    “Because when I you have a child, you participate in God’s fatherhood.”
    And just like that, he had made my point for me.  We had a good laugh,  shook hands, and went our separate ways.  I don’t think he changed his mind, but I think I learned something about his opinion, and he came a step closer to understanding mine.
    The Socratic Method is very Benedictine because it revolves around listening.  It also requires a great deal of humility because, no matter how stupid, arrogant, judgmental, or wrong-headed your adversary may be, you have to be willing to let him teach you.  After all, as Saint Benedict points out, it may be the case that “The Lord has sent him for this very purpose.”

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Don't Blame Martha

Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.

   I can't help feeling a little sorry for Martha.  Saint Luke tells us she was “burdened with much serving.”  Hadn’t Jesus himself said: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened”? Well, she did.  And look what she get for her efforts.
  “Martha, Martha,” says Jesus in a tone that even in writing seems a little condescending, “you are anxious and worried about many things.”  Well, who is she doing all the serving for anyway?  And if you’ll think back to our gospel reading from a few weeks ago, you might remember what Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee when he dined at his house: " When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet…you did not give me a kiss…you did not anoint my head with oil…”  Here’s Martha washing and oiling and everything else.  And for that, she’s scolded while Mary gets all the credit for being a loyal disciple. I wonder what would’ve happened if she had said to Jesus, “Fine. I’ll just sit here next to Mary. You can feed yourself.  Make your own bed.  Eat off dirty dishes.”
  Would some of the other disciples have gotten out of their seats and pitched in?  Would Jesus have changed his mind?   Or would he have multiplied some loaves and fishes, changed the water into wine and had some angels do the washing up?  We’ll never know, of course, because Martha said what she said and all we have is Jesus’s response.
  Still…I can’t help wondering if she was really at fault.  There are, of course, many different ways to read this passage.  The traditional way is to think in terms of lower and higher vocations: Martha is the ‘active’ Christian worried over the things of this world, and Mary is the contemplative, already enjoying the beatific vision.  That’s not a bad way to interpret it.  Saint Ambrose read it this way.  But notice also that Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to stop working—or even to stop worrying—only to leave her sister alone.
  Saint Bernard read the passage a little differently.  “let Martha welcome the Lord into her house,” he wrote, “since to her is entrusted the direction of the household… Let those who share her tasks also receive the Lord, each according to their particular service. Let them welcome Christ and serve him, helping in the person of his members the sick, the poor, travelers and pilgrims.  And while they are undertaking these ministries, let Mary remain at rest.”  Mary gets to rest while Martha works,
But without Martha, Mary loses her place at the feet of Jesus.  You can’t have contemplation without action.  So there wasn’t anything wrong with Martha’s service per se.  What was it, then?  Her resentment?  Again, we can’t blame her for being frustrated.  She’s the only one doing the chores.
  No, what’s lacking in her service is obedience.
  When I was working on the Beach Patrol, I was told a story about a boy who slipped off the 53rd Street Pier.  Instead of signaling to the lifeguard (who was no more than twenty yards away), his father jumped in after him, and pulled him to shore by the hair. As it turned out, the child had broken his neck in the fall.  He might have survived, but his spinal cord was severed when his father tugged on his hair.  So you see, even good works can do harm if they are done in the wrong way.  And the only safeguard against making this kind of mistake is the virtue of obedience.
  We can’t blame Martha for wanting to help.  But maybe we can blame her for not asking first.  Let us pray that when we choose to serve, we do so in obedience; when we give a gift, we give what is truly needed; and when we act, we do so in a manner that is consistent with God’s Will.  But most of all, let us pray for the good sense to ask Jesus first.  Because we can smile a little at Martha’s resentment, but we have to give her this much credit: she had the presence of mind to bring that resentment straight to Jesus.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Ascension

“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
On the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, we celebrate the beginning of the end of the fifty-day Season of Easter.  The last surge of joy before it all erupts into a blazing fanale at Pentacoste.  With the apostles, we stand at the summit of the Mount of Olives and watch as Our Savior ascends to heaven on a cloud.  Floats up to heaven on a cloud, no less!  Personally, I always thought that was a little dramatic.  And also a little selfish.  I mean, why didn’t he just stay here with us?  Why didn’t he just hang around for another couple thousand years, just to make sure that we got all the doctrinal fine points straightened out?  We could have avoided the Reformation altogether.  The Great Schism.  The Inquisition.  Maybe some of the nastier bits of the Crusades.  Why didn’t he just stick around a little longer?
            These are the sorts of thoughts I always have when the Feast of the Ascension comes around.  And I like to think that they’re the sort of thoughts that were going through the apostles minds as they stood, bewildered and abandoned, looking up at the sky.  “Is he really gone?”  “Is he coming back?”  “Should we just wait here?”  “Maybe he just left something up there and he’s coming right back down again.”
            These thoughts, of course, miss the entire significance of Christ’s act.  But they’re not unreasonable in lieu of the fact that Pentacost has not yet arrived.  The apostles do not yet have the spiritual insight that they will have once they are baptized in the Spirit.  They don’t see—as we do (or should)—that Christ had to leave us FOR OUR OWN SAKE.  He had done what he came to do.  Born his witness.  Founded his Church.  Now it was time for us to take over.
            Yet the apostles stand limp-handed and stoop-shouldered staring after Him.  The angels, it seems, can’t resist a little joke at their expense:  “What you looking at?  What are you staring up into the air for?  He’ll be back.  But staring at the clouds won’t bring him back any faster.”
            No, he has returned to the Father.  And while, understandably, we feel a touch of melancholy at seeing him go, still, his departure is a two-fold blessing.  First because we now are given the magnificent vocation of being his witnesses to the world—of being, in fact, HIM to the world.  Secondly, because we now are assumed with him into heaven.  Our own human nature is assumed into the Father’s Divinity.  Ad thirdly, because we now are ready to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, May 6, 2016


Homily to the Saint Louis Priory School
May 6, 2016
Father Augustine Wetta, O.S.B.

So the end of school is just around the corner and that means…stress.  Stress and worry and short tempers and…well…more stress.  This is the last school mass for our seniors, which means that they are about to enter the world of adult stress (which is just like kid stress but there’s more of it).  Yet here is what Jesus has to say to you today: “You are in anguish now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.”  You hear that?  You may be in anguish, but you also have a joy which no one can take from you.  How is this possible?
 First we have to distinguish between happiness and joy.  Happiness is something you are lucky to have.  The word actually comes from the middle English word for luck, hap, from which we get the words happen and perhaps.  Luck is what makes you ‘happy.’ 
So.  You find $20 on the sidewalk…that makes you happy.   You make an A on the test…happy.  You’re accepted at your first choice college…happy.  You win your rugby game…happy.  Now, hard work is likely to have had some influence on this.  But bad luck can take it all away in a second.  Your $20 slips out of your pocket; you studied the wrong chapter for the test; the college interviewer just didn’t like you.  Bad luck.  It can ruin your day—it can ruin more than your day—BUT only if you let it.  Because real happiness is yours for keeps.  In theological language we call it blessedness or beatitude or joy.  No one and nothing can take it away from you.  This is what Socrates meant when he said, “No one can harm the good man.”  You can take away his money and power and influence, but you cannot touch the things that make him a man: you cannot take his virtue, his courage, his joy, his beatitude.
Let me put it another way: there are a lot of miserable people in the world.  And some of these people are that way because they are suffering serious oppression and have been pushed beyond their strength; others are miserable because they’re struggling with their own brain chemistry; but for most of us, we’re unhappy because we choose to be. You say, “That guy makes me angry!”   But he doesn’t make you angry.   He did something inconsiderate and you made you angry.  Dorotheos of Gaza, the great 6th century abbot, wrote in his conferences, “If your brother provokes you, don’t blame him for your anxiety.  You were a pile of dry leaves.  He was just the breeze that blew you over.”
 Two days ago, I saw something that made me unhappy.   A kid in the lunch line dropped his plate and it broke into about a dozen pieces and everyone laughed at him.  Even I laughed because, frankly, it was nice to see someone else look stupid for change.  But then I realized that everyone was laughing and no one was helping him clean up the broken plate.  Oddly, that made me angry… but it didn’t seem to make the kid angry.  In fact, he laughed along.
 And at that very moment, I learned the secret to real happiness.  And I’m going to share it with you now: the secret to real happiness (by that, of course, I mean joy/beatitude) is to be kind to other people when they don’t deserve it.  That kid—and I honestly don’t remember who he was because I was too busy judging everyone else in the lunch room—that kid could’ve turned around and yelled at the people who were laughing, but what good would it have done?  Instead, he laughed while I yelled at everyone.
            Now which of the two of us brought more joy to that room?  A few weeks ago, I was talking to one of our assistant rugby coaches.  His name is Randal.  He’s got two kids and he just discovered that he has a third on the way.  He and his wife didn’t exactly plan for this third kid, and he was explaining to me that he was a little worried.  They just moved into a new house, the timing is all wrong, he just switched jobs, etc. etc.  I said to him that I probably wasn’t the best guy to come to for advice on this because I don’t like babies; but that I could tell him this one thing: Coach Randal is a good person and good people tend to have good kids and as a twenty-year veteran of the educational system, I can say with real confidence that one good kid can make a very big difference.  And with that, as if on cue, Tony Kraus walked up.  He’s got the coach’s sunglasses in his hand.  “Hey Coach,” he says, “You left these on the bench.  I picked them up because I was afraid someone would sit on them.”  I couldn’t have planned it better.  Coach Randall actually got choked up. It was a small gesture for Tony, perhaps, but it had a profound effect on Coach Randall.
            Now maybe your life really does feel like it’s going down the tubes.   Maybe you are lrgitimately stressed out.  Maybe your teachers are giving you too much work.  Maybe you’ve got a teacher that doesn’t even like you.  Maybe there’s some kid in your class that doesn’t like you.  Maybe you’ve been mistreated, pushed around, taken for granted, bullied.  Maybe you’re dealing with all these things at once.   Or maybe none of them.   Maybe you are perfectly content.  If that’s the case, then I’d ask you to spread that happiness around today.  And if it’s not the case then I’d ask you to fake it. Just today as a kind of social experiment.  So I have some homework for you.  Actually no, it’s schoolwork. I have a list of assignments.  I want you to choose one. And I want you to finish it by the time lunch is over.  In fact, I want you to finish it during lunch. I’m going to post these lists all over the school so you won’t forget.   I’ve even posted lists around the lunchroom.  Let’s see if we can make lunch today the best lunch so far this year.  Just choose one of these six assignments and make sure you complete it by the end of lunch.  Here they are:
At lunch today…either
1.     Let someone pass you in the lunch line.
2.     Help yourself to the least attractive piece of lasagna.
3.     Serve someone else in the lunch line.
4.     Clear someone else’s dishes.
5.     Volunteer to wipe down a table.
6.     Clean up someone else’s mess. Bonus points if it’s on the floor.

Just do one of these seven assignments and lets see if it has an effect.  Or better yet, see if you can do them all!

I’d like to close with a quote from Saint John Chrysostom.  He gave a sermon back in 399AD, entitled “No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself” and he ended it like this:
People today say that the earth is a frightening place.  They say that the world has turned upside down.  That the human race is confused and doomed.  Well I say this is not true.  Because even if a man loses everything at the hands of gossips and miscreants; even if he has been attacked by his own friends, what harm can this do to his virtue?
If you keep in mind that nothing can hurt your soul, then neither loss of money, nor slander, nor gossip, nor banishment, nor disease, nor torture, nor even death can harm you.  And if these things are harmless, how can you be harmed at all?  No, even if all the creatures who inhabit the whole earth and sea teamed up to attack you, they could do you no harm so long as you took refuge in Christ.  Very well, then.  I beseech you, be sober and vigilant in the Lord at all times, and let us endure all painful things joyfully that we may obtain those everlasting and pure blessings in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power, now and ever throughout all ages. Amen.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Being Evangelical

    Last Friday, for the first time ever, I watched an episode of Pokemon, the animated television series.  Please God, I will never watch another episode so long as I live.  But I was willing to sit through twenty-two minutes of screechingly dubbed Japanese animation because Pokemon is inexplicably dear to my Seventh-Grade English students.  And I promised them that if they would finish reading The Odyssey with me, I would watch an episode of Pokemon with them.
    In short, I was willing to do something I hated, and they were willing to do something they hated in order to share something we each loved.  Frankly, I’m not sure what was accomplished, but it impressed me that my students so cherished a television show that they were willing to endure hours of suffering at the hands of Homer in order to share it with me.  And this, I think, is a clue to the mystery at the heart of today’s gospel: when we find something we love, our first instinct as social creatures is to share it.
    “You’ve got to see this movie!” we say.
    “You’ve got to read this story!”
    “You’ve got to hear this song!”
    “You’ve got to!”
    Funny, though.  We’re aggressive enough when we’re talking about pop-culture.  Why then are we suddenly so shy when it comes to sharing our faith? 
    Throughout the history of the Church, countless Christians have suffered for the sake of spreading the gospel, from Saint Paul who was beheaded in Rome, to Saint Jean de Brébeuf, who was boiled, branded, and eviscerated by the Iroquois, to Saint Paul Miki, who was crucified in Japan.  Last year alone, twenty-two Catholic missionaries died for the sake of the gospel.
    And yet…as modern, educated citizens of a secular democratic nation, doesn’t the whole concept of evangelization strike us as vaguely…condescending?  Does the message not smack of arrogance—or worse yet, intolerance?  As one popular agnostic polemicist recently wrote, “I [don’t] want to be a missionary or an apostle... I [don’t] want to be an imperialistic colonizing Westerner, bringing the good news to a nation of Godforsaken heathen hordes.”  Well…you put it that way, and all of a sudden I do begin to doubt my so-called “missionary zeal.”
    Just this last Friday, a long-time friend mine described his approach to religion as “live and let live” which struck me as rather unimaginative, but now seems strangely appealing.  “Live and let live” means that no one has to be wrong.
    Still, I don’t quite see the sense in going to church on Sunday if that’s all your faith adds up to.  I believe in letting people live, of course.  But is it fair or loving to let someone live in ignorance or darkness or illness or cruelty?  And it makes even less sense when you think of Jesus Himself who said, “Go out and make disciples of all the nations.”  And to be sure, he practiced what he preached.  “Let us go on to the nearby villages,” he told Simon this morning, “that I may preach there also. For this very purpose have I come.”  Jesus seemed to think his message was worth spreading—that people weren’t really living till they heard it…and if we are to be followers of Jesus, then we are obliged to help him spread it—to live and help live.
    “An obligation has been imposed on me,” wrote Saint Paul, “and woe to me if I do not preach it!”  Or in the daunting words of Saint John Chrysostom, “There is nothing colder than a Christian who has no concern for the salvation of others.”
    So we have a most solemn obligation spread the Good News.  “Everyone is searching for you,” said Saint Simon to Jesus.
    The World hungers and thirsts for him.  And the fantastically good news—good with a capitol “G”—is that Jesus is searching for them too.
    “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs,” wrote C.S.Lewis, and “if we are not doing that, then all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, is simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.”
    Everyone is looking for Him.   Whether they know it or not, they’re looking for him.  So…to the weak let us become weak, to win over the weak.  Let us become all things to all, to save at least some.  All this let us do for the sake of the gospel,
so that we too may have a share in it.

In the name of the Father…

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Reflection by Priory Senior, John Russell

A monk should desire eternal life with all spiritual longing and keep the day of his death always before his eyes.

            —Chapter 4: The Tools of Good Works
There is a legend, written by the Persian poet Attar of Nishapur, of a great Eastern king who gathers a conference of wise men to produce something for him. He says that he wants something that will give him hope when he is in despair. After discussing it, the wise men commission a jeweler to make a ring inscribed with the words ‘nothing endures’ – a phrase we usually render in English as ‘this too shall pass’ – and they then deliver it to the king. The king is pleased. He pays the wise men, but, happy with their work, he looks at the ring, and realizes that it is a curse as much as it is a blessing. It may make him happy when he is sad, but it also has the reverse effect. And so the first mood ring was invented.

I’d like to believe that this Eastern monarch’s ring looked similar to another ring, one the juniors received just last Friday. And even without the humbling inscription, the message is the same. It is only for so long that the Priory crest will point inward. Sometimes that will make you happy, and, others, sad. But whatever it makes you, remember that time is not cruel. Because time is not money and it is not stagnant. It’s two things: changing, and of the essence. It is in this transitory time and place that we have the opportunity to grow mentally and spiritually. And that is really the beauty of time – we’re not the same person we were or are going to be, but with even one moment we’ve been given we can improve.

Many of you will wear more rings over the course of your life. High School, possibly college, engagement, wedding… and every time you look at those rings, know that you’re proving our old friend Attar wrong. These are bonds that can never be broken. We can never go back and undo those vows, unmake those choices. Yes, those moments can’t endure, but we do and time does. And, if I can shamelessly steal from a speech I recently heard, this group of people here is like the body of Christ. They’re quickly rising up and out of here and they will never come back in the same way again. But it is the fact that we were here that makes all the difference.

Mother Theresa once said “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

Let us begin.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Christus surrexit

            When I was in college, I took a friend with me to mass one Sunday morning, and when we entered the church, he took one look at the crucifix and groaned “Awe, man.  It is too early in the morning for that.”  Which insulted me at first, until I realized that, without faith, all one sees in a crucifix is a man being tortured to death.  But Christians spend their lives meditating on the holy cross…because it isn’t just an instrument of torture.  If it were merely that, then we the followers of Christ would truly be the most miserable of all creatures.  No, the cross is not merely the tree upon which our savior died.  Through the lens of the resurrection, we perceive that the cross itself, the crown of thorns, the whips and scourges and nails are Christ’s trophies of victory.  In his resurrection, Jesus has become the Lord of the Kingdom of the Living, and has revealed himself as the Author of Life—the center, cornerstone, alpha and omega of God’s new plan for humanity.  And so we sing Alleluia, which means “Praise God!” or, if you prefer to sound more evangelical, “Praise the Lord!”
Early in the 5th Century, Saint John Chrysostom delivered a sermon on Easter Sunday.  So wonderful was this sermon, that, in the Eastern Catholic Church, it has been read every year for the last sixteen hundred years on Easter Sunday at the start of the Divine Liturgy.

        If there are any pious people here today who love God, let them enjoy this splendid and radiant Feast. If any of them have been wise servants, let them blissfully enter into the joy of their Lord. If any of them have worked hard at fasting, let them now receive their reward. If any have toiled from the very first hour, let them now receive their just wage.
               But if any people showed up late for this feast.  If anyone came at the third hour…well…let them join in the Feast.  In fact, if anyone waited until the sixth hour…they should not be afraid, for they will not be deprived of anything. But…if any of them procrastinated and dallied until the eleventh hour, they shouldn’t worry. For the Master loves to grant honors and will receive the last just as the first. He gives rest to the one who came at the eleventh hour, just as He does to the one who toiled from the first.  To the one He gives; on the other, He showers gifts. He accepts good works, but he also accepts good intentions. He honors labors and praises resolutions.
               And so, let everyone enter into the joy of their Lord, and let the first as well as the last receive the reward. Let the rich and the poor celebrate together. Let the hard workers and the lazy workers honor this Day.  Let those who fasted rejoice on this day…and those who did not fast…oh, let them rejoice too. The Table is overflowing with food; let all be satisfied. The Calf is fattened; let no one go away hungry. Let everyone enjoy the Cup of Faith. Let everyone receive the richness of Grace. Let none grieve at their poverty, for the Kingdom that belongs to all people has been revealed. Let none weep for their sins, for forgiveness shines forth from the Tomb. Let no one fear Death, for the Savior's death has set us free.
               The One Whom Death imprisoned has extinguished Death. The One Who descended into Hell made Hell his prisoner.  He caused it anguish when it tasted His Flesh. When Isaiah foresaw this, he exclaimed: "Hell was all distressed by encountering You in the underworld." It was distressed because it was abolished. It was distressed because it was mocked. It was distressed because it was slain. It was distressed because it was overthrown. It was distressed because it was chained. It seized a Body but discovered…God! It grabbed hold of the Earthly but encountered…the Heavenly! It seized the Visible but was conquered by the Invisible. O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are abolished! Christ is risen, and the demons are cast down! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and Life now reigns! Christ is risen, and the Tomb is emptied of the dead! For in rising from the dead, Christ became the First-Fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. Alleluia!