Sunday, November 8, 2020

Being There

Mt 25:1-25

(The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins)

 Sunday Nov. 7 homily to the Passionist Nuns of Saint Louis...and mass attendees

 

I was intending to read you some more stories from the lives of the Desert Fathers, but all week, my friends have been making apocalyptic prophecies, and this morning at 2am, I woke up thinking about them and decided to preach on that topic instead.  So if my sermon sounds like the sort of thing you would worry about in the middle of the night, you know why.

The key insight of our Gospel parable is this: that GOD WILL COME TO US—BUT WE HAVE TO BE READY.  Our salvation is assured, so long as we show up—and stay awake long enough to notice.

Easy enough.  

Well, in theory it is.  

For those of you who have had to sit around waiting for me to show up for mass, you understand that there are some among us for whom merely showing up is itself a struggle.  Twice already, I’ve failed to show up for mass here at the Passionists—and even when I do show up, I’m usually late.  My mother used to tell me, “You’ll be late for your own funeral” and it turns out she was speaking prophecy because as a priest, I’ve been late to several of my funerals. 

A few years ago, the father of one of my students asked to meet with me because she was worried.  “I drag my son, kicking and screaming to mass every Sunday, but he hates it.  When we get there, he slumps down in the pew like a convict and acts like he’s sleeping.  I wonder whether it’s even worth it, you know.  After all,” he said, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”  I thought about what he was saying.  He had a really valid point; and I for one, could understand his frustration.  But here’s what I told him: “It is true that you cannot make the horse drink.  But if you don’t lead that horse to the water, you can be certain it never will.”

           We are not saved by faith alone.  We are saved as part of a community of believers.  And to be part of the community, we need to show up, because you can’t have a relationship with someone who isn’t there.  The foolish virgins of the parable learned this lesson the hard way.  And if I may be a little bold here, I think perhaps we as Catholics have been a little too eager to skip mass on Sunday in favor of playing it Covid safe.  If Mass on Sunday is the single most important thing we do all week, and we haven’t been doing that, then maybe we shouldn’t be doing anything.

Anything at all.

Ever.

I realize I may be preaching to the choir here.  (Actually, come to think of it, I am, literally, preaching to the choir.) But again, it seems to me that if we really believed this was the incarnate son of God visiting us in the flesh…we’d be willing to risk everything.  But instead, we closed the doors of our churches.

            Now, it’s easy for me to say, because I’m not in charge.  The bishops know more than I do, and they say we can stay home if we’re scared of dying.  But I was under the impression that we come to Sunday Mass every week on pain of our immortal souls—and that, as far as canon law goes, there are only two exceptions: if we are actually physically sick or if we are traveling…BY OXCART.

And this is why Sunday mass is worth the risk.  Because this is the time we assemble as a community—as a complete community—to pray.  And more than that: because at this prayer, we offer Jesus as our sacrifice, and Jesus is perfect, which means this is the only perfect prayer we have to offer.  So even if we look bored or half-asleep…or even if we look completely asleep.  Even if we don’t want to be here in the first place, we come, because it is a well of grace.  A fountain of grace.  A spring of living water.  We come here to drink.

            And that’s all we need to do.  Show up and drink.  Personally, I find that to be an enormous consolation.  This thing we’re doing here—it’s goodness, it’s trueness, it’s merit—doesn’t depend on my eloquence or holiness or good judgment.  In fact, it doesn’t depend on anything we think or do.  I believe this with all my heart.  Jesus does all the work here.  And speaking as one who fails time and time again to love people the way I should, I see this as the greatest of God’s gifts to me.  This Eucharist will be truly, sublimely good…precisely because it doesn’t depend on me.

As I was writing this homily, I was reminded of a story my sister told me long ago about one of her children.  She has two daughters (at the time, they were four and six) and she noticed that the younger of the two would whisper to herself during the consecration at mass.  So she started listening very carefully, and discovered, to her dismay, that when the priest would lean over the host and say, “This is my body,” Mary would say, “Mmmm, no it isn’t.”  And when he’d say the words, “This is the cup of my blood,” she’d say, “Uhhhh, no it’s not.”

So my sister spent the next several days trying to explain to her the Catholic doctrine of transubstantion.  She wasn’t entirely convinced that she had succeed (and how could she have?  It took Thomas Aquinas five volumes, and he was writing for adults); but then there was an ecumenical prayer service at Mary’s preschool (a “non-religious” prayer service actually, if I remember the details correctly.  How such a thing is even possible, only God knows…)  And afterwards, my sister asked her how it went.  Mary thought for a minute and said, “Well, Mom, it was OK.  But you know, Jesus wasn’t there.”  It turns out, she was correcting the priest.  That was Jesus’ body, not Father’s! For all her lack of sophistication regarding sacramental theology, this child did have a sense of what Cardinal Ratzinger called “the dimension of the sacred in the liturgy.”

How exactly we will recover this dimension of the sacred is up to you, I think.  No doubt, it will entail a return to the catechism, a return to the scriptures, and a return, in a special way to Mass on Sunday.  But for now, I’ll simply leave you with a quote.  It’s from a book by a monk named Gregory Dix.  He wrote it in 1951, and his description of the mass one of the most beautiful ever written:

“ For century after century,” he writes, “spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; .... for the wisdom of the government of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die;… because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna…for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.”

 

 

NOTE:  But for God’s sake, take reasonable precautions.  Wear a mask, even if you don’t believe it is very effective.  If nothing else, think of it as an act of charity—to make the people around you feel more at ease.  And if you’re going to receive communion on the tongue, kneel to receive it…otherwise, you often wind up licking the priest’s finger, which is just plane gross.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Sermon to the Alliance of the Two Hearts On the Occasion of their Pro-Life Novena


   Firstly, I didn’t know when I agreed to come preach today that I would have to preach on the passage about submissive wives.  Lucky for me, I’m not married.  Don’t have a dog in that fight.  So I’ll just mention in passing that any time you are inclined to look at a passage of scripture and dismiss it as obsolete, then you need to take a much longer, much more thorough, far more honest look at that passage, because all Scripture is true.  Every single line.  Either you’re hiding from the truth or your misinterpreting it.  So…what does Saint Paul really mean when he says, “wives should be subordinate to their husbands”?  I’m not getting in the middle of that one.  Not why I’m here tonight.  You’ll have to figure it out for yourselves.

 

THE FUTURE

 

In 2005, Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, completed a twenty-year study on predictions.  “Tetlock interviewed 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends.” He asked them to assess the probabilities that certain events would occur in the not too distant future, both in areas of the world in which they specialized and in regions about which they had less knowledge. Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf? Which country would become the next big emerging market? In all, Tetlock gathered more than 80,000 predictions. Respondents were asked to rate the probabilities of three alternative outcomes in every case: the persistence of the status quo, more of something such as political freedom or economic growth, or less of that 

thing.

“The results were devastating. The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes. In other words, people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.” (Thinking Fast. Thinking Slow, Daniel Kahneman)

The reason I’m starting my homily with this disconcerting lesson in human error is because I’ve spent the last several weeks making my own predictions: when a vaccine will be found, what will happen if so-and-so gets elected, whether or not we’ll get a supreme court justice, where the next riot will break out…what will happen to my senior Theology students if they don’t start turning in their blasted homework…. None of this makes me feel any better.  Yet I keep doing it, because in “these uncertain times” making confident predictions about the future calms me. Admittedly, the calm doesn’t last long. I know deep down that human predictions are about as dependable as dart-throwing monkeys—and perhaps more dangerous.

Our gospel this evening offers a prediction of a different sort:  The Kingdom of God is at hand.  And we are to spread out through that kingdom like yeast in dough while Christ himself gently, quietly, imperceptibly transforms it.  And herein lies the difference between prediction and prophecy: that the first puts frail and fallible humans in charge of our future, while the second entrusts that future to God.  It’s very similar to the difference between magic and miracle; it’s a question of where we put our trust.

We’re a part of it.  But we’re not in charge of it.  God expects us to be faithful, not successful.  And that’s what happens when you submit in humble docility to God’s will: you get peace and joy—but not necessarily comfort or happiness. “If I did not simply live from one moment to another,” wrote Saint Therese of Liseux, “it would be impossible for me to be patient, but I look only at the present, I forget the past, and I take good care not to forestall the future.”

ABORTION

Last week, in an interview with Elle Magazine, Sen. Gary Peters, claimed in an interview with Elle magazine that his then-wife (He has a new wife now, of course.) underwent an abortion 30 years ago and she nearly died "based on politics."  

In the late 1980s Peters' then-wife Heidi was in the fourth month of her pregnancy when her water broke, leaving the baby without amniotic fluid.  The doctor recommended an abortion because he said the child had no chance at survival, but hospital policy prohibited the procedure. 

"The doctor told her the situation was dire," the Elle story said. "She could lose her uterus in a matter of hours if she wasn't able to have an abortion, and if she became septic from the uterine infection, she could die."

To make a long story short, Peters' wife got to another hospital and had the abortion. "If it weren't for urgent and critical medical care, I could have lost my life," Peters' former wife said.

I’d like to counter that with a very similar story.  It will never get the sort of circulation that Elle Magazine has, but maybe you can tell it to someone some day. My friend is married with three kids.  About seventeen years ago, and sixteen weeks pregnant, her water broke.  Ultrasound revealed that the amniotic sac had completely ruptured, that there was no more fluid around the baby.  She was told that she would go into labor within the next forty-eight hours, and that there looked to be amniotic bands within the womb. These pieces of tissue would begin to wrap around the baby's limbs and amputate them. She was sent home after a two day hospital stay with instructions to return weekly to have an ultrasound so that they’d know when the baby was dead.  Weeks passed and still she had not gone into labor. At this point the doctors became adamant that she should—in the chillingly antiseptic language of the business—“terminating the pregnancy.” The diagnosis was that the baby, they told her, was severely mentally and physically handicapped , would be born with no lungs.  A second doctor informed her that there was a less than 1% chance of the baby's survival She also said that the baby had severe club feet.  The doctor said to her, and I quote, "You have a moral duty to finish what God has started."  Five different doctors told her to "terminate" the pregnancy. They told her that this child was a threat to her life. What's more, they assured her that the child was already mentally and physically worthless. Even if it could be brought to term, they assured her. It would die in her arms. Even if it could survive delivery, it would be crippled and profoundly retarded. "Have an abortion." they told her. One doctor even set up an appointment for her against her wishes. "Do it now," this doctor said, taking her by the arm, "Put a period at the end of this sentence."  So much for pro-choice.

            When my friend broke the news to her husband, this is what he said: "How lucky for this child that she would be born into a family which could love her for who she is! What better family than ours to raise a disabled child?"  I tell you, that is  the kind of courage that deserves an award.   I told my friend, if your husband leaves toilet seat up for the rest of his life, let it go, because he has earned it.

            For two months, my friend lived with the knowledge that she would, at best, bear a child who would die in her arms.  She decided to name the child Mary.  In the meantime, she prayed, her husband prayed, and Rachel, Mary’s older sister, she prayed too.  She didn’t entirely understand what was going on, but she knew her sister was in trouble, and I wonder sometimes if perhaps it was the profound innocence of her prayers that reached into the great well of God’s grace and extracted a miracle.  I 25th week of her pregnancy another ultrasound revealed something extraordinary.  "We need to call the Pope” said the doctor, "not only has the amniotic sack resealed itself, but all the fluid has returned." He called in all the interns, all the nurses, the assistants, random people standing the hallway. The amniotic bands had disappeared. The baby was in perfect health.

            By now, a few of you will have guessed that I’m talking about my sister.  Jessica Decker is her name, and Mary Decker, the Miracle Baby, is now an eighteen-year-old honor student at John Paul II Prep with a 4.2 GPA and has her heart set on being a pediatric surgeon.

 

In closing, I’m going to give you a homework assignment.  A provocative, controversial homework assignment: but probably not controversial the way you’re expecting.   I’m going to ask you to do something that’s going to make you uncomfortable.  The Carmelites here are doing battle one-on-one with Satan right here in the cloister, but if you want to be part of this fight, then you’re going to have to be willing to be that leaven that Jesus was talking about in the Gospel—to go out into the world, mix in with the dough, and quietly cause the bread to rise.  And in preparation for that, I want you to go onto Planned Parenthood’s web site, and find something you agree with.

Now I’m not suggesting that you open your heart to evil.   Make no mistake: Planned Parenthood is a genocidal, racist, bastion of evil.  But I am not convinced that everyone who supports Planned Parenthood understands this.  And the next time you wind up in a conversation with one of these people, I want you to be able to say to them something along the lines of, “You know, I was on the Planned Parenthood web site the other day, and I thought they got this exactly right.”  And maybe—just maybe—they will then visit a Pro-Life web site and find something they agree with.  And maybe—just maybe—if we don’t dismiss them offhand as murderous, godless barbarians, they won’t dismiss us offhand as closed-minded, bible-thumping rubes.  But we have to model for them the behavior we want to see.  As hard as it is, we have to come to them with open hearts.  And maybe--just maybe--there will be an alliance of two hearts that we never expected.

 

 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

EVIL


    I like to joke with my Junior Ethics class that it is my job as a priest to make sure that none of them ever have fun. As with most jokes, there is some truth in it. Being bad is often fun. Otherwise, everyone would be good wouldn’t they? However, it’s only fun in the short term.  In the long term, being bad makes you miserable.  So while it may appear that I am trying to keep my students from having fun, in fact, I am trying to teach them what I (and countless other stupid people before me) have learned from experience, namely, that every evil choice we make costs us some of our God-given freedom—and it is precisely “for freedom [that] Christ set us free”.  

    The truth of this, however, is hard to get our heads around.  Ever since Adam’s fall, we have thought of our freedom as the ‘power’ to choose between good and evil.  But that power is an illusion because every evil choice makes us a little less free. 

Saint Augustine used this riddle to explain the enigma of evil’s fake freedom:  “What,” he asked, “was the motive for the very first sin?”  [Not the sin of Adam, mind you (we know his motive) but the sin of Lucifer—what was the motive of that very first evil deed?]  Bear in mind that Lucifer, in his pre-fallen state was perfectly happy, perfectly content, perfect in every way that a perfect creation can be.  Because everything God makes is perfect and good.  The answer, reasoned Saint Augustine is that the motive for that very first evil act was…wait for it…nothing!  Evil is a vacuum.  It’s something that should be there, but isn’t.  So that makes sin is a “misdirected good.” 


As Saint Thomas Aquinas was fond of pointing out, when people do bad things, they are, in fact, pursuing a lesser good at the expense of a higher one. I like candy.  Candy is good.  I steal candy so I can taste that goodness—but if I steal that candy from a baby, I lose some of my humanity in the process.  And the more babies I steal from, the less human I become.


That’s not a good example. My point is—and I’ll say it again—that with every sin, with every evil choice we make, we actually lose some of our freedom. “So stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”  Confess your sins, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.”

 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Predictions and Prophecies


    In 2005, Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, completed a twenty-year study on predictions.  

“Tetlock interviewed 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends.” He asked them to assess the probabilities that certain events would occur in the not too distant future, both in areas of the world in which they specialized and in regions about which they had less knowledge. Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf? Which country would become the next big emerging market? In all, Tetlock gathered more than 80,000 predictions. Respondents were asked to rate the probabilities of three alternative outcomes in every case: the persistence of the status quo, more of something such as political freedom or economic growth, or less of that 

thing.

“The results were devastating. The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes. In other words, people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.” (Thinking Fast. Thinking Slow, Daniel Kahneman)

The reason I’m starting my homily with this disconcerting lesson in human error is because I’ve spent the last week making my own predictions: when a vaccine will be found, what will happen if so-and-so gets elected, whether or not we’ll get a supreme court justice, where the next riot will break out…what will happen to my senior Theology students if they don’t start turning in their blasted homework…. None of this makes me feel any better.  Yet I keep doing it, because in “these uncertain times” making confident predictions about the future calms me. Admittedly, the calm doesn’t last long. I know deep down that human predictions are about as dependable as dart-throwing monkeys—and perhaps more dangerous.

Our readings this Sunday are predictions of a different sort. “The LORD of hosts will provide…” says Isaiah, “he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples… he will wipe away the tears from every face…he will remove the reproach of his people…on that day it will be said: Behold our God…” (IS 25:6-10A).  The Psalmist too makes predictions: “I shall not want” he says, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (PS 23:1-3A, 3B-4, 5, 6)   And Saint Paul makes a prediction for the Philipians: “My God will supply whatever you need” (PHIL 4:12-14, 19-20)

Herein lies the difference between prediction and prophecy: that the first puts frail and fallible humans in charge of our future, while the second entrusts that future to God.  It’s very similar to the difference between magic and miracle; it’s a question of where we put our trust.

Jesus himself, after all, makes a prediction in todays gospel: “There will be wailing and grinding of teeth,” he says.  Jesus, you see, is more concerned with keeping us good than keeping us calm.  And that’s what happens when you surrender to the uncertainty so as to live the present moment.  That’s what happens when you submit in humble docility to God’s will: you get peace and joy—but not necessarily comfort or happiness. “If I did not simply live from one moment to another,” wrote Saint Therese of Liseux, “it would be impossible for me to be patient, but I look only at the present, I forget the past, and I take good care not to forestall the future.” 

So let’s stick to the present moment: “Many are invited, but few are chosen,” says Jesus (Mt 22.14) You are invited.  I am invited.  Here we are in the sacrament of this present moment.  “There is not a moment,” wrote Jean-Pierre de Caussade, “in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action.”

We are here at the wedding feast.  Many are invited, but we are chosen.  “May the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ enlighten the eyes of our hearts, so that we may know what is the hope that belongs to our call.”

“In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Feast of Saint 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.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Umar Lee and Me

Umar Lee, Father Augustine Wetta, and Moji Sadiqi (Thanks to Tony Rice for the photo!)
Umar Lee, and Moji Sadiqi, and Me
(Thanks to Tony Rice for the photo!)


            For the last two weeks, I have been driving over to Forest Park in Saint Louis, Missouri to pray the rosary beside a statue of our patron saint, the thirteenth century crusader king, Louis IX.  I’ve been going there to pray because Umar Lee wants to tear it down.  He says Saint Louis was antisemitic and Islamophobic, and there appear to be more than a few people who agree with him.  I don’t know much about thirteenth century religious sensibilities, so I leave it to historians to sort out Louis IX’s culpability, but I get nervous when people start defacing artwork.  So too, I saw the videos online of old men being punched and priests being shouted down, and I figured that if dialogue wasn’t an option, at least I could be there to pray.

When I arrived at the statue around a quarter to seven last Sunday, there were over a thousand people already there.  Most were praying their rosaries, but there were also banners and flags and armed security.  It felt more like a rally than a prayer.  I have nothing against rallies.  But I wasn’t there to protest, so I found myself on the fringe of the group.  One person I talked to mentioned “a line in the sand,” another spoke of “standing up for ourselves,” so I backed further and further away.  I had about a hundred copies of the Prayer of Saint Francis, and I resolved to read the prayer quietly to myself: “Make me a channel of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love…”

            I backed so far up that by time the rosary ended, I looked around and noticed that no one around me was praying.  These didn’t feel like “my people”—they were a strange mix of hipsters and Muslims and inner city youth: blue hair, piercings, long beards and hijabs.  Dressed in full monastic habit, I felt out of place.  I turned to the kid on my left.  He had long dread locks, and his arms were covered in tattoos. “So…what do you think?” I asked.

            “I think there are some racists in that group,” he answered.

            I looked back at them.  “Well…there probably are,” I said.  “But then again, I think you can find bad people in just about any group.”

            He nodded.

            I smiled, though I doubt he could tell because I was wearing a face mask.  Pretty much everyone was wearing face masks.  No one wants to get sick.  “You’re not here to pray the rosary?”

            “Nope.  You some sort of religious person?”

            “Well now,” I said, “are you stereotyping me just because of the way I’m dressed?  A man can’t wear a black hoodie in public any more without being judged?”

            He laughed, and the kid on his left laughed, and just like that, we were talking about racism and religious convictions and white privilege and police brutality and Ferguson and Black Lives Matter and Marxism and class warfare...  He admitted that he had never been roughed up by the police, and I admitted that his dread locks and tattoos kind of frightened me.  “I’m not a Marxist,” he said, “and I don’t really care whether that statue stays or goes.  I just wanted to be here in case some of these white nationalists get out of line.”

            “This Umar Lee character, though…he’s kind of a bad guy, though, right?”

            “Ask him yourself,” my friend with the dreadlocks answered.  “He’s standing to your right.”

            “Nice to meet you,” said the burly, bearded, megaphone-wielding man to my right.

I figured at this point, I had nothing to lose.  “Mister Lee, I read online that you are a violent, evil man.”

            “And you believe everything you read online?”

            “You were in the news.”

            “And the news always gets the Catholic Church right?”

            He had a point.

            “Do I seem like a violent, evil man to you?”  He looked surprisingly calm.  Not quite the ‘radical Islamic extremist’ I had read about.

            “Honestly, the beard scares me a little,” I said, “but you seem okay to me.”

            He nodded, smiled, and moved to pat me on the shoulder, then thought better of it.  Coronavirus.

            “I’ll pray for you,” I said. 

            “You can pray with us,” he answered, and before long, I was handing out copies of the prayer of Saint Francis.  The Muslims in the group were particularly enthusiastic.  Moji Sadiqi handed me a bottle of water.  Then a megaphone.  I looked around.  There were photographers present.  I could imagine the look on my abbot’s face if my photo made the news the next day leading a protest.

            “Honestly,” I began, “I don’t think I agree with most of what you stand for, so I came here expecting to be yelled at or spit on—or worse.  And even now, I’m a little scared.  But Jesus told his followers ‘whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is a disciple… he will surely not lose his reward.’ And a few minutes ago, you offered me exactly that.  So if you’re here to pray, then I’m honored to pray with you.  Because I do believe that black lives matter.”  Then we all prayed together:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy. 

 

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive, 

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

            I still don’t particularly like a lot of what Umar Lee has to say.  I’m guessing he’s not a big fan of Catholic theology.   But next Thursday, just outside my hermitage, he and I are having coffee.   So maybe there’s room for dialogue after all. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Feast of Saint Benedict

If you ask me (and no one has, but that won’t stop me), I’d say there are three things our society needs right now:


In the midst of all the noise and distractions, we need Silence

In the midst of all the uncertainty and disorder, we need Stability

In the midst of all the anger and confusion, we need Obedience

In the midst of godlessness and  self-righteousness, we need Conversion


Our civilization appears to be teetering on the edge of a great decline.  But even a cursory look at history, shows us that this has happened many times before.  And every time it does, the Benedictines (monks, nuns, and oblates alike) heave a great, collective sigh and save civilization.  

And somehow, this surprises everyone.

But saving civilization comes at a cost.  The symbol of the Benedictines is the word, “peace” surrounded by a crown of thorns.  The monks, and all the good people who stand beside them, are at war.  And there has never been a war without casualties.

So today, on the feast of Saint Benedict, we pray especially for his sons and daughters:


Where there is noise, may they bring silence.

Where there is uncertainty may they bring stability.

Where there is confusion, may they bring obedience.

Where there is godlessness, may they bring conversion.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.