Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A meditiation on Luke 14:25-33

         Jesus says that everyone who does not renounce all his possession cannot be his disciple.  Can this be true?  For that matter, can he really be asking us to hate our parents?  If our eye offends us, must we really gouge it out?  And how are we to pray without ceasing?  Christ, it seems, is constantly asking the impossible.
            I had a friend speak to my Ethics class many years ago.  This was someone I had met at Oxford.  He was working now in the world of high finance.  And by that I mean he had recently closed a deal to buy a business for nineteen billion dollars.  He was also—and still is—a devout Catholic.
            After his talk was over, one of my students (his name was Chad) asked him, “Are you rich?”
            He answered in the affirmative.
            “Really rich?” said Chad.
            He nodded. “I have a house on the beach in San Trope.”
            “But you are totally detached from that money.”
            Again, my friend nodded: “I try to be.”
            “Great!” said Chad.  “Can I have some?”
            There was a little gasp from the class. We all knew he wasn’t just going to give away his money to some high school senior he had never met.  But on the other hand, if he was truly detached from his money, maybe he would.
            My friend closed his eyes for a moment or two, and then he said, “No.”
            “But I thought you were detached from your money,” Chad protested.
            “When push comes to shove,” said my friend, “it is not my money at all.  It is on loan to me by God.  Everything is on loan to me by God: my money, my home, my life, my children…none of them, properly speaking, belong to me. Which is why I must be doubly careful how I treat them. If God was calling me to give away my money, I hope I’d be detached enough to do so; but it’s precisely because the money is not mine that I must dispose of it with great care.”
             I can’t speak for the wisdom of my friend’s fiscal decisions.  I haven’t paid income tax in twenty-two years.  But I like to think that he and I have this in common: each, in the context of our unique vocation has renounced his possessions to be a disciple.  One of us, however, has a four-bedroom house on the beach in San Trope.  The other has a twenty-five-bedroom house in Creve Coeur, Missouri.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Happy Feast Day to Nurses Everywhere!

It occurred to me after my surgery that the work of an angel and the vocation of the nurse are the same.  But it occurred to me today that in particular the vocation of the nurse is to be a guardian angel:  to communicate, to protect, to console, to comfort, and to give direction.

Which explains why angels always start with, “Do not be afraid!”   That’s a lot of power to have over someone.  Here’s what the catechism says about guardian angels:  From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life. Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God [CCC 336].

That sounds to me like the job of a nurse: watchful care and intercession…protecting the patient and leading him to life.  So today I offer this prayer for you and for your fellow nurses:
Angel of God,
my guardian dear,
to whom God's love
commits me here,
ever this day,
be at my side,
to light and guard,
rule and guide.
May god strengthen you in your ministry of light, guardianship, leadership and guidance.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Practice and Prayer

Homily to Saint Anselm Parish

As most of you know, I will be having surgery on my brain this Thursday to correct eighteen years reckless rugby, so I would appreciate the prayers. The prognosis is good. I met with the surgeon a month ago, and he told me it was entirely likely that the tremors in my right arm and leg might disappear entirely.  Of course, I asked him if I’d be able to play the violin.  He said that was entirely possible…which is strange, because I’ve never been able to play the violin.

I know this because the last term of my senior year of college, I decided that I needed to learn how to play a musical instrument. So I walked into the lobby of the Shephard School of Music at Rice University and signed up for violin lessons.  They handed me a $20,000 violin, appointed a tutor to give me lessons, and I was off.

It was a disaster.

No one starts the violin at 22.  It’s the kind of instrument you have to grow into.  And it can be years before you can begin to produce anything resembling a melody.  What’s more (and I learned this within the first few days) no one wants to share a dorm room with a beginning violinist.

By the end of the semester, I had alienated my roommates, my teacher, my guidance counselor, and cultivated a deep and visceral abhorrence for sheet music.  My recital was so painful, one of the three grad students compelled to be in the audience actually gagged.

This is what happens when you make a life-changing decision without stopping to consider the consequences.  And yet, often this is how we approach the spiritual life.  Without training, practice, perseverance or guidance, we jump right in, expecting God to respond with gratitude.  And when we don’t see immediate results, we despair.  Granted, there’s nothing wrong with extemporaneous prayers, and you don’t need a degree in Theology to talk to God…but how often, and how quickly do we become frustrated when our early attempts are not met with spiritual consolations?  “I don’t go to mass because I don’t get anything out of it.”  Of course you don’t get anything out of it. You don’t put anything into it. I don’t get anything out of basketball; but that’s no surprise because I don’t practice.  “Prayer,” said Saint Teresa of Avila, “must be accompanied by reflection. A prayer in which a person is not aware of Whom he is speaking to, what he is asking, who it is who is asking and of Whom, I don't call prayer, however much the lips may move.”

I remember listening to my tutor play, and saying, “Golly, I wish I could play like that.”

“There’s really nothing to it,” he answered.  “Just keep practicing two hours a day for the next eighteen years.”

Why should prayer be any different?  Everyone understands that brain surgery takes practice and study; golf takes practice and study; plumbing takes practice and study; no one would just get up one morning and decide to rewire their home.  All these things., it is understood, require training and forethought.  Yet when it comes to art and prayer, suddenly everyone’s an expert.

Jesus warns us against this kind of presumption: Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost?  When it comes to your spiritual life, it’s your soul on the line.  The stakes are eternal, and the cost is everything.  So it’s worth investing some real thought and work in preparation.

As Catholics, we have an inexhaustible wealth of resources to draw on: sacraments, saints, scripture, and tradition.  “Are you making no progress in prayer?,” wrote Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque.  “Then you need only offer God the prayers which the Savior has poured out for us in the sacrament of the altar. Offer God His fervent love in reparation for your sluggishness. And unlike learning the violin, it’s never too late.  It’s all well within our reach.  All is grace. All is offered without charge and without limit; so we have only to reach out and take it.  But take it we must.

The deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans; but of this we can be assured: every prayer is heard.  Every hour spent in prayer is productive.  Thus are the paths of those on earth made straight.  And may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours; prosper the work of our hands for us!

Monday, May 27, 2019

Sermon to the Priory School Eighth Grade “Graduating” Class

Father Augustine Wetta, O.S.B.

Congratulations, gentlemen.  As of today, the Feast of Saint Bede, the Venerable, you are freshmen.  In two years, you will be driving.  In three years, you will receive a gold ring that bears a coat of arms registered with the College of Heralds of Great Britain.  You will take your SATs, write a thesis, go to prom, dig your very own mud pit…and exactly four years from today, your valedictorian will stand in this very church and give a speech that will sound something like this (I’ve edited out the boring parts, and will just sazy blah blah blah instead:

Parents, faculty, monks, and esteemed students of the Saint Louis Priory School, it is a great honor to be here blah blah blah we will always be brothers blah blah blah ups and downs, blah blah blah insert funny story here blah blah blah something about God blah blah blah never thought we’d make it blah blah blah but with a Priory education you can do anything so long as you to put your mind to it.  Blah blah blah Thank you.

I’ve heard a lot of graduation speeches.  And not all of them sounded exactly like that; but enough did that I finally sat down and wrote my own graduation speech. Predictably, I’ve never been asked to give it.

Until now.

So in leau of a sermon, here it is: my graduation speech to the class of 2023:

Parents, faculty, monks, and esteemed students of the Saint Louis Priory School, You are all going to fail.  Over the next few years, you will all, inevitably, have your hearts broken, experience loneliness, miss a major opportunity, lose a game, lose a job, lose some money, be abandoned and ridiculed, be humiliated and scorned.  You, my friends, are destined for failure.  And that is very, very sad.  But it’s also ok because your God had his heart broken and was ridiculed by his friends.  Your God was humiliated and scorned and abandoned.  And that means that your dignity is not bound up with your success.  You are a child of God.  You have been divinized.  And in the end, when you lie on your deathbed as we all inevitably do, without trophies or diplomas or accolades or even your bodily health to comfort you, ALL that will matter is your existence as a child of God, and it will be enough.  That will be more than enough.  That will be everything.

Laus Tibi Domine

Praise to You, O Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Friday, March 1, 2019


“Guide me Lord in the way of your commands”

            This was our response to the psalm this morning.  We asked God to guide us.  But how do we know that we really are following Him?  How do we to know where He is leading us?  When He calls, how can we be sure to hear Him?  After all, His voice is so very quiet; and life is so noisy, so complicated, so full of options and temptations.  Which friends should I choose?  Which college should I choose?  Should I stay where I am or go somewhere else?  Eat what I’m served or make a pizza?  Take a low grade or cheat on the quiz?  How do we decide?
            Last term, one of my Ethics students pointed out to me that I was teaching Catholic doctrine as though he had already chosen to believe it.  And that got me thinking about decisions.  How should my student go about making a decision like that? How could I help him decide?  Well, it turns out that there has been a lot of work done recently on the psychology of decision-making. And the consensus is that there really is no good way to make a decision – especially an important decision or a difficult decision. The reasoning goes like this: if it’s an easy decision, then bully for you.  Make it and get on with your life.  But if it is a difficult decision, then it’s difficult for one of two reasons: either both options are very good (in which case it doesn’t really matter what you decide—you end up in a good spot either way) or both options are very bad (in which case it doesn’t really matter what you decide—because you end up in a bad spot either way).  Therefore, the happy person is distinguish from the unhappy person not so much by his good decisions, but merely by whether or not he commits to the result.  So.  For example, you go out to eat, and you have to decide whether to order chicken or fish. After much handwringing and agony, you decide on the chicken; then you spend the rest of your dinner wishing you had ordered fish. But a happy person chooses to be happy.  He says, basically, “I chose the chicken and I’m going to enjoy it. Period. Tonight, I’m a chicken man, and that’s all there is to it.”
            This is, in a sense, is what Jesus says about marriage in our gospel reading. You choose a wife, you stick with her. Once you’ve made that decision, you’re in.  Period.  Because, “what God has joined together, no human being must separate."  But that still begs the question, how did you make that choice to begin with? Our first reading answers this question to certain extent by framing it in terms of friendship: here’s what to look for in friend, and here’s what to avoid. But again, the mechanics of the decision-making are left to us.
            Were you listening, though, when we sang the responsorial psalm?  The entire structure of a wise decision was hidden in the words of that Psalm.  I’ll read it for you again in case you were napping:
Open my eyes, Lord, that I may consider the wonders of your law.
Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous deeds.
Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart.
Lead me in the path of your commands, for in it I delight.

Open my eyes…Make me understand…Give me discernment… Lead me.  Four steps to a good decision:

STEP 1:  REPENT--Open my eyes, Lord: The first step in a good decision is to take a fearless, objective look at your weaknesses and subject them to rigorous interrogation.  Is there anything clouding your vision? Is there anything getting in the way?  Emotions, misinformation, sin…  The sacrament of confession is very useful at this early stage.
STEP 2:  REFLECT--Make me understand, Lord:  What are your strengths?  What are your options?  Are all of them virtuous?  What does your tradition teach?  What does the Law say?  Here you do well to reflect on the Scriptures and the writings of wise men and women.
STEP 3:  REFER--Give me discernment, Lord: Has anyone made this decision before?  What were their results? How did they do it?  Now is when you refer the decision to a wise elder.
STEP 4:  RESOLVE--Lead me:  You have made the decision. But does it comply with God’s will?  Now you pray in earnest. You’ve been praying all along, of course.  Each of these steps is itself a prayer. But in the fourth and final step, you take the whole decision and resolve to move forward, laying it at the feet of our Lord.

And the process is complete. You made a searching and fearless moral inventory of your weaknesses…you considered all your options and all that your tradition has to offer. You sought out the advice of a trusted elder, and you submitted all of it to God in prayer and humility.  Decision made, right?  Now what? How do you know that it worked?

You don’t.  You can do all of this and still make the wrong decision. But here’s catch.  Here’s what ultimately distinguishes the happy, the holy, and the peaceful from the miserable, corrupt, and anxious: COMMITMENT.  Until it becomes clear that you made the wrong decision, commit to the decision you’ve made. Resolve to move forward.  The last step is the most important.  Don’t put your hand to the plow and keep looking back.  There are times when you have to quit, when you have to give up on your dreams or choose a different path. But no one—NO ONE—wants to hang out with the guy who orders chicken then spends his whole meal wishing he’d ordered fish.  Make your decision, pray your decision.  Submit it to God’s will.  Commit to the outcome:  Repent, Reflect, Refer, Resolve.

Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes.
Open my eyes, that I may consider
the wonders of your law.
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
Give me discernment,
Lead me in the path of your commands,

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

OUR LADY (Sermon delivered at EWTN on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception)

    “I will put enmity between you and the woman.”  We rightly festoon Our Lady with terms like gentle, loving, merciful, and sorrowful.  Dom Augustine Delatte writes of Mary’s “heroic docility”.   And these are all beautiful signs of her perfect love for us.  But how do we reconcile such titles with a word like enmity?  The word suggests a blood feud—even hatred.
     I teach at a boys’ school in St. Louis Missouri, and when I read this passage to my students, they latched right onto it. Mary is no wimp. Her immaculate Conception guarantees that she will hate evil—and hate it with a perfect hate.  She stares down Satan himself.  In ancient Greece, the early Christians use to depict Mary with the same iconography as Athena Parthenos, the warrior goddess of wisdom, bearing the storm shield and shaking her spear at evil.   Mary goes to war for us.  And Satan is terrified!
A few summers ago, when I went home to visit my family, we watched a really awful movie starring Macaulay Culkin called “The Good Son.”  Surprisingly, it turned out to be a movie about a really bad son.  In fact, this particular son was a homicidal maniac; and at the end of the movie, his mother ends up holding him by his hand off the edge of a cliff.  In her other hand is someone else’s son who is not a homicidal maniac and is in fact quite a nice kid.  She can’t hold on to them both. So she has to make a decision.
After the movie, I turned to my mother and asked her, “If it was Dad and I hanging off that cliff, which would you choose?”  Without hesitation, she said.  Oh, YOU!” What really surprised me was that she didn’t have to think about the answer.  “I would choose my children,” she said, “over anything and anyone in the world.”
So I’ve done a sort of informal survey over the past few years, and you know what? I have never met a mom who would answer otherwise.  I’ve never met a mom who even hesitated with her answer.  That is a terrible—a, terrifying—kind of love.
There’s a painting in my home in an out-of-the-way spot in back of the house, that my mother did when I was a child.  My mother is a professional artist.  It was Halloween, and my sister and I went trick-or-treating, and some of the bullies on our block stole our candy.  I was thirty-five years old—no just joking, I was eight, my sister was six.  Anyhow, my mother is an artist, and a few days later, she went into the studio and painted this picture of us.  It’s a dark painting of my sister and me in our Halloween costumes walking through a forest.  In back of us, hanging from the trees are all those bullies.  Dead.  Suspended by their necks.
That is a terrifying kind of love.  And while it may surprise my students to hear that a mother could have such deep and violent emotions, I’ll bet it doesn’t surprise their moms at all.  A mother understands this formidable bond between mothers and sons.  This is why the most powerful prayer in the world is that of a mother for her child.  All we sons can do is be grateful and try to respect it.  Try to respect them.
The love of a mother for her son, after all, is an icon of God’s love for us. It’s not a perfect icon—and that’s why we pray to God as Father.  His is a more detached sort of love. And that’s a theological/exegetical issue I would have to explain in another sermon. Suffice to say that this love—this formidable love, this fearsome love…a love so powerful that Satan himself trembles in its presence—this love of a mother for her son… Mary has this love for us: her adopted sons and daughters!   And precisely because she is The Immaculate Conception, she loves us with a purity and intensity that even our own earthly mothers cannot hope to rival.  Mother Mary, Conceived without sin, pray for us.


Monday, February 18, 2019

A HARD YEAR TO BE A PRIEST (Homily for Sunday, February 10, 2019)

Today’s first reading was also read in this church on Saturday, January 1, 2000.  I remember it well because that was the mass at which I took my solemn vows.  I remember it vividly because the lector at that mass left out the crucial last sentence.  He left out, “Here I am, send me!”
            Fast forward 19 years, and I find myself smiling condescendingly on that young monk who would dare make such a demand of God.  And there have been times when I questioned the wisdom of the decision I made that day.  Knowing how hard the life of a prophet can be, why would anyone volunteer for it? 
            Well, it happens that today’s Gospel reading also played a large part in my discernment of my vocation.  At a crucial moment during my novitiate, when I was certain this monastery was not for me, I had a very vivid daydream.  This is not in itself unusual.  I spend most of my life daydreaming.  But on this occasion, I had been reading about the call of Peter; and I imagined that I too was on the beach that day at Gennesaret.  I too was packing up my fishing nets and tackle, when I looked up the beach, and…there was Jesus.  He was walking along the shore in my direction.  He was choosing his apostles.
            So on he came.  He was walking toward me.  As he drew closer, I could see the determination in his eyes…and he was walking straight toward me.  He came closer.  Closer.  And just as he got to my boat, he stopped, turned around, and chose THE GUY IN THE BOAT NEXT TO ME.  Then walked away.
            Was this a sign that I was not called to the priesthood?  Had I felt relieved, I’d say yes; But instead, I became quite convinced of the opposite.  I rebooted the daydream and ran after Jesus calling out, “Wait!  Wait!  You forgot me!  Choose me!  Here I am, send me!”
            Now, this has been a hard few years to be a priest—a hard few years to be a Catholic.  And…well…the last week has been the hardest yet for the Abbey Family.  But I knew when I signed up that we might have a hard go of it. I was told that we were likely to lose men. I was warned that the life of a Christian was not easy, and that I would find myself on the front lines of a war for souls. I was told that every soldier, when he comes face-to face with the enemy, questions his decision to fight; but a good soldier knows that, for the sake of his brothers-in-arms, he must stand his ground.
            I was sharing this with some students on Wednesday. One of them said, “The monks may be the Green Berets of the Church…but this is like Blackhawk Down or something.”  It sure feels like that.  But you know, there were guys who deliberately parachuted into that fight.  Knowing the odds, they deliberately put themselves in harms way.  They wanted to be there.  And I believe those men were heroes.
            Well, here we all are, monks, priests, and laypeople alike--in the thick of it.  The pressure is unbearable, the enemy has us surrounded, and some of us are very discouraged.  Some have run away.  And some have simply cracked under the pressure of it.
            But I told my students, and I’ve told my brother monks, and I can surely speak for many of us here today when I say: there is nowhere in the world I would rather be right now.  You all parachuted in this Sunday, and we are grateful.

            Lately, I’ve been thinking about Winston Churchill.  Not a great theologian, and probably not a saint, but a great soul nonetheless.  A steadfast soul.   A soul who, when it looked like his people were likely to lose heart, gave a speech which steeled their resolve.  And I find myself reciting his words in a new context: 
            "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat…we should prepare ourselves for hard and heavy tidings. And I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemy.
            …And when we see the originality of malice, the ingenuity of aggression, which our enemy displays, we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of brutal and treacherous maneuver…but at the same time, I hope, with a steady eye.
            For even though many have fallen or may fall into the grip of the enemy and all the odious apparatus of his rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength…we shall defend our home, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landings, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

To put it in more biblical terms, “Do not be afraid; from now on you’ll be catching men."