Monday, August 21, 2017

Sermon to the Priory School Faculty on the First Day of the Academic Year

When I read this passage from the old testament, I can’t help reading it as a prophecy of the upcoming school year:

He allowed them to fall into the power of their enemies round about
whom they were no longer able to withstand.
Whatever they undertook, the LORD turned into disaster for them,
as in his warning he had sworn he would do,
till they were in great distress.

            We live in a community, a culture, a country that seems to be in a state of crisis.  We live in a tumultuous age. An age of great distress. And our students will bring this burden with them when they arrive.  Like the young man in today’s gospel, they come to us asking, “What good must I do?  What do I still lack?”
            The answer is easy enough: Obey the commandments. Sell what you have.  Give to the poor.  Follow Christ.  “But when the young man heard this statement, he went away sad,
for he had many possessions.”
            It’s going to take more than just teaching to save these kids.  They need more than answers.  It will have to be our job to make this place a sanctuary for them.  A refuge.  A place of joy.  A place of peace.
            But we can’t give what we don’t have.
            Or maybe we can.
            Isn’t that, after all, what the priest does at every mass, in every confession—gives what he himself does not have?
I remember asking my father once when I was very young whether it was really necessary to love one’s sister (even loving one’s enemy seemed more reasonable at the time).  My father, of course, insisted that it was.  And I recall explaining to him at length that this would be very dificult—even impossible—given the current circumstances, and that perhaps we should consider giving her up for adoption.  My father said to me, “Jason, you may find this hard to believe, but some day, you will discover that you do love your sister.  And when that day comes, you will actually want to be nice to her.  In the meantime, however…fake it.”
            At the time, this sounded like awfully cold advice, but if we are to put into action what Christ demands of us in the gospels—if we really are to love our neighbor as we love our own selves—then there are going to be times when we don’t feel very predisposed to that emotion.  Because let’s face it, some people are very very difficult to love, and even God can seem awfully distant at times.  But if you think about it, those times when we must force ourselves to “fake” this love for our neighbor are often the most sincere instances of love, because those are the times when we can give love without hope of recompense.  And if the wise ones are right, then the curious result of all this feigned affection is that an unfeigned affection begins to grow out of it.
            So here’s what we need if we are going to be what our students need: unhesitating apologies and preemptive forgiveness…and if all that doesn’t work, FAKE IT.

*August 21 was the day of the eclipse.

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Every year, when my English class begins the section on poetry, I read them this poem by Billy Collins:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means. 

    I think sometimes we treat our faith the way Billy Collins’ students treat poetry. We tie our faith to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of it.  We shine a light in its eyes and shout unanswerable questions at it: “Why is the Church so corrupt?  Why is the Church so intolerant?  Why is the Church so irrational?”  We ask all these questions at once and without waiting for an answer so that our poor faith, which we've been keeping in the basement for years, malnourished and isolated (and now beaten senseless), blurts out incoherent answers to our impossible questions. Then we throw up our hands and declare that we can't possibly take faith seriously when that’s all it has to say for itself.
    That, or we beat our faith into submission until, weary and confused, it begins to say pretty much whatever we want it to.  Then we lead our poor faith back down to the basement, lock the door, and march out into the world, coerced testimony in hand, smugly doing whatever we darn well please.  (Years later, in a moment of weakness or loneliness, we might wonder whatever happened to our faith and why it died.  But by then, we don't miss it much.  We've learned to live without it.)
    The truth is, if you objectify your faith, it will become an object.  But if you treat faith like a person—if you make dates with your faith and keep them, if you sit down and converse with your faith, listen to your faith, question and challenge your faith—if you smile at your faith first thing in the morning, and kiss it good night before you go to bed…then your faith will begin to respond in kind: it will amuse you, challenge you, teach you, infuriate you…charm you.  To know your faith, therefor, you must treat your faith as a living person.
    But this relationship takes work.  Once the initial infatuation passes, the long labor of love begins.  Which brings us to today’s readings.  We are nearing the end of Easter.  The honeymoon is over, as they say, and to make matters worse, Jesus tells us in the Gospel that he is leaving.  “In a little while the world will no longer see me…”
    “…but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.”  Do we see the Holy Spirit?  Do we know him?  He is, after all, the soul of our faith.  Our duty for the next two weeks is to prepare for the coming at Pentecost of this unseen friend.
    What will happen then?  That’s up to you.  But try to remember that the Holy Spirit is a person—a friend, who perhaps you haven’t seen in a while.  By then it will be Summer.  Waterskiing is not out of the question.

Sunday, March 26, 2017


Lætare Jerusalem!  Laetare et conventum facite omnes: gaudete cum lætitia.

      “Rejoice! Rejoice with joy! Exult!”  We are exactly half-way through Lent and the Church orders us at the very start of Mass to rejoice.  This is not a request.  You are commanded to rejoice.  If you don’t feel it, then fake it.  Because few things give more scandal than a churlish, ill-tempered Christian.  We have twenty more days of Lent, and maybe in the midst of all the fasting and abstinence and penance we find ourselves inclined to indulge in a bit of melancholy—even sorrow.  That’s good.  But the end-goal is joy, and today we are ordered to put all that aside for a moment and celebrate.  This is why I am wearing rose vestments (not pink, by the way—rose).
     Truly, at any given moment any one of us can find at least a thousand excellent reasons to be miserable.  Our lives never turn out exactly the way we’d hoped.  But if we stick to the facts—if we resist the temptation to lust after fantasies, if we resist the temptation to eye with longing some world, some work, some wife other than the one we actually live with—we will see that happiness is an act of the will.  It’s a choice.  In the monastery, we have an expression: we say, “He has been looking over the wall.”   An unhappy monk will always be casting furtive glances out of the cloister and into other men’s lives, imagining that they dwell in halos of unremitting bliss.
     Abbot Luke liked to tell a story about a sermon he gave on the glories of the married life.  He was interrupted halfway through by an elderly woman in the front row who said to her neighbor in a stage whisper: “I wish I knew as little about marriage as he does.”  I have my own similar story: shortly after my ordination, I was approached in a gas station parking lot by an elderly man who stepped out of a black BMW and handed me $100. I was in my habit.  He said to me, “You know, I thought about being a priest, but decided that I couldn’t handle the celibacy. Then I got married and found out I could.” No matter where we find ourselves, it seems that we have this tendency to glamorize someone else's life. 
     But hidden in today’s gospel is the antidote to that temptation.  Our reading from Saint John focuses on one of the bible’s more unlikely heroes: a man born blind—unlikely not because he was blind but because in the course of the story, he shows himself to be lazy, obstinate, disobedient, disrespectful, and irreverent. Interrogated by the authorities concerning his miraculous cure, he answers, “You’re not listening to me, or is it that you people want to be his disciples?”  He’s a real smart Alec, and I am convinced that he is a teenager.  (After twenty years in the classroom, I consider myself an authority on laziness, obstinacy, disobedience, disrespect, and irreverence. Plus…why else would they go to his parents?  And why else would they need to point out that he was old enough to speak for himself)
     At any rate, Jesus appears to be the only person in the story who isn’t annoyed by him. But this kid has one redeeming quality—redeeming in the theological sense of the word. He may be disrespectful and obstinate, but he sticks to the facts.
     “How did you get your site back?” they ask him.
     “I dunno.  He stuck in mud in my eyes and now I see.”
     “But that man is a sinner.”
     “Maybe so.  I dunno. I was blind and now I can see.”
     “But we have no idea where this guy is from.”
     “Who cares? I was blind and now I can see!  How many times do I have to tell you?”
      Notice that he makes no profession of faith.  And only after relentless interrogation does he finally acknowledge that this man Jesus (whoever he is) must be from God.  He doesn’t even thank Jesus afterward.  Jesus has to find him.
     "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" says Jesus.
     "Who’s that?”
Jesus says, "You’re talking to him."
      Now I can imagine an alternative ending to this story where the teenager says, “Oh. Right. Thanks a lot for everything.  But you know, maybe it wasn’t you who actually healed me.    Maybe that was just a coincidence.   Maybe my blindness was all psychological to begin with.    Maybe there was something in that mud.   Maybe I’d better go think about this for a while before I make any rash decisions.”
     But remember: this kid is a pragmatist.  For better or for worse, he sticks to the facts.
     Saint John tells us that all he said was, "I do believe, Lord," and he worshiped him.
     I once asked Abbot Patrick Barry if there was any way for me to know if God was really calling me to be a monk.
     “Well,” he said, “you’re not somewhere else.”
     We’re all here and we’re not somewhere else.  This is cause enough for rejoicing.
     Lætare!  Laetare et conventum facite omnes: gaudete cum lætitia.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

CHAPTER 72: The Good Zeal of the Monk


There is a good zeal which separates from vice and leads to God and everlasting life. The monks, therefore, should practice this good zeal with the most fervent love; each should ignore what is best for himself, and instead do what he thinks will most help the others.   In fact, the monks should compete with one another in showing respect.

Yesterday afternoon, I was approached by one of the maintenance staff.  She told me that one of you came up to her yesterday while she was working in the senior lounge.  And you bought her a soda.  And you thanked her for making the place look so nice.  That is what Saint Benedict means by good zeal.  That is what it looks like when one of you ignores what is best for himself and instead, does what he thinks will most help someone else.

I can’t remember ever being more proud of this community.