Saturday, July 26, 2014

Of Headless Chickens & Restful Hearts

Solemnity of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Parish Feast)

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20;  Psalm 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Matthew 8:18-27

Sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed that we live in a society of headless chickens? Of restless people? Have you noticed how so many of us seem to be constantly on the move? Forever busy with many different things? Always working? Always multi-tasking? Always frantically rushing around like headless chickens? And, because we are so used to moving at this pace, many of us find it really hard to sit still. To take a break from everything. To do nothing. But simply to rest and relax. Or even to slow down. To focus on only one thing at any one time.

There is, of course, a price to be paid for this hyperactivity. It’s called stress. The sense of being burdened by something that we can’t quite identify. Of constantly having the weight of the world upon our shoulders. The feeling that, even though our lives may be filled with heated activity, our hearts are often left cold and empty. We lose touch with ourselves. We don’t know what we really want. What our deepest desires are. So we just keep on moving. From activity to activity. From event to event. From person to person. Without ever being able to settle on a single thing, once and for all. Isn’t this why commitments become so difficult for us to make and to keep? Why so many marriages break down? And vocations to the priesthood and religious life are so hard to come by?

Sisters and brothers, in a restless world like ours, settling down becomes a very difficult thing to do. For many busy and preoccupied people, simply falling sleep for the night is a great challenge. What more choosing a spouse, or a vocation, for the rest of one’s life? And yet, in the midst of all this restlessness, our hearts continue to cry out for rest. What can we do to heed this cry? To satisfy this yearning? How can we find rest in the midst of restlessness? What can the headless chicken do to stop running around? How can its head be reattached?

This, my dear sisters and brothers, is the question of the hour. It is also the question that our Mass readings help us to address. But to appreciate the answer they offer us, we need to ponder them very carefully. For, at first glance, it seems that, in the gospel, Jesus is only making the problem worse. Only adding to our restlessness. Notice how the gospel begins with Jesus giving orders to his disciples to move. To cross from one side of the lake to the other. And then, in response to those who say they want to follow him, Jesus seems to describe himself as someone who is always busy. Always on the move. The Son of Man, he says, has nowhere to rest his head.

And yet, contrary to appearances, Jesus is not calling his disciples to a life of perpetual restlessness. Of chronic busyness. His is not the life of a headless chicken. For notice how Jesus conducts himself while on the move. While crossing from one side of the lake to the other. Notice how, even in the midst of a storm so violent that the boat was being swamped by waves, Jesus is still somehow able to rest. His terrified disciples even have to wake him from sleep. And then, once awake, the Lord seems surprised at their panic. Their restlessness. Why are you terrified?, he asks them. Why are you unable to find rest?

But how is it that Jesus himself is able to rest? When surrounded precisely by such great restlessness. How does he manage to remain calm in the midst of such a terrible storm? Even in the face of certain death? What is his secret? The answer is really quite simple. Not easy. But simple. Jesus can find rest because he is able to do the same thing that Moses is asking the people of Israel to do in the first reading. Here, after having wandered in the wilderness for forty long years, the people have finally arrived at their destination. They are preparing to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. And Moses teaches them what they must do to settle down safely in this new place. How they can finally be at rest. Again, the secret is quite simple. It has to do with making a choice. A choice to be faithful. To commit their lives to God. And God alone. Once and for all.

And to do this is not the same thing as simply adding God to a long list of things we need to do. For God is not just one thing among other things. Rather, to choose God is to make God the centre of everything else in our lives. Much like how the sun is the centre around which the planets revolve. And, according to Moses, we do this by loving God. By heeding his voice. By holding fast to him. Or, in the words of the second reading, by making sure that in whatever we do, we do it for the glory of God. This is the only way by which the restless can find rest. By choosing to love God above all else. By deciding to surrender our hearts to God.

Isn’t this also how Jesus remains so calm even in a storm-tossed boat? He is able to lay down his head to sleep, because his heart is resting securely in the will of his Father. His whole existence revolves around the love of God. And this too is a basic principle in the spirituality of St. Ignatius. Whose feast we celebrate today. As you know, Ignatius referred to himself as the pilgrim. Someone perpetually on the move. Always travelling towards God. And yet, he could also say that should the Society of Jesus–which he worked so long and hard to establish–were to be dissolved, he would need only fifteen minutes of prayer to be at peace. He could find calm in such a terrible storm–the destruction of his life’s work–because, like Jesus before him, his heart was at rest in the will of God. His one preoccupation was the glory of God. His heart was set on loving God. Who, in the dying and rising of Christ, had loved him first.

This, my dear sisters and brothers, is the Good News that our readings are offering to us today. In a restless world like ours, we find true rest only by returning love for love. This is how the chicken gets its head reattached. By surrendering its heart to the One who allowed his own heart to be pierced for our sins.

I’m reminded of these words from that old love song sung by the late Nat King Cole:

When I fall in love, it will be forever.
Or I'll never fall in love.
In a restless world like this is, love is ended before it's begun.
And too many moonlight kisses
seem to cool in the warmth of the sun.
When I give my heart, it will be completely.
Or I'll never give my heart.
And the moment I can feel that you feel that way too,
is when I fall in love with you.

Sisters and brothers, in this restless world of ours, this society of headless chickens, how can we continue to surrender our hearts to God, and so to rest in his love today?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Truth In Troubleshooting

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Bible Sunday

Picture: cc Blake Facey

Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced an electrical malfunction? Say you switch on the TV set in your home. And find that nothing happens. No picture on the screen. No sound. What do you do? If you’re like me, you’ll probably wonder if there’s something wrong with the power supply. Is there a blackout? A short-circuit? Is the TV plugged in? Is the main switch on? If everything looks fine, then there must be something wrong with the TV itself. Maybe a fuse has blown.

Sisters and brothers, as you know, we call this troubleshooting. The steps we take, the questions we ask, to uncover the cause of a malfunction. But have you noticed that there is one thing we never check? One question we don’t ask? Something that we always take for granted? We never question the power of electricity itself. We always assume that electricity will make the TV work. And if it doesn’t work, then the problem must lie with the TV. Or with its connections. Never do we think to put electricity into question. Much less do we ever decide to give up using electricity altogether.

When troubleshooting electrical malfunctions, we never question the effectiveness of electricity. But what about when we have to troubleshoot malfunctions in the spiritual life? As you know, all our religious practices are meant to have a positive effect on us. When we gather for Mass every Sunday, for example. To be nourished by the Word of God and the Bread of Life. We expect to be changed for the better. And the same can be said of our other spiritual activities. When we maintain a habit of personal prayer and scripture reading. When we frequent the sacrament of reconciliation. We expect all these activities to make us more joyful and more loving. More peaceful and more caring.

But what if this doesn’t happen? What if, when we come to  Mass, we consistently feel bored out of minds? What if, just two seconds into the homily, we feel like reaching for our cellphones to check our messages? Or to send a tweet? What if we leave this worship space, after lifting our hearts in fervent prayer to God, only to find ourselves raising our voices in angry protest against the poor traffic assistants in the carpark? Or a fellow motorist on the road? What if our reading of the scriptures leaves us cold and uninspired? What if, even after saying many prayers, we remain wrapped up only in our own petty concerns? Instead of reaching out to care for those in need? In other words, sisters and brothers, what if we experience a spiritual malfunction? How do we troubleshoot the problem? What questions do we ask?

Our Mass readings help us by first indicating to us the one question we need not ask. Something that we can simply take for granted. And that something is the power of the Word of God. As God reminds us in the first reading, the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do. Much like electricity, the power of God’s Word is such that it is always capable of producing a good effect. So, if there is a malfunction, the problem must lie somewhere else. And it is this somewhere else that Jesus helps us to pinpoint in the gospel.

Here, Jesus compares God’s Word to the seed that always carries within it the power to effect growth. If growth doesn’t occur, the problem lies not with the seed, but with the soil into which it is sown. With the people to whom the Word is proclaimed. And the parable highlights what some of these problems might be: Hearing without understanding. Or understanding too superficially. Or being too distracted by other concerns. By the pleasures and the worries of daily life.

But that’s not all. If we are honest with ourselves, we must also admit that problems may lie not only with the soil. But also with the sower. Not only with the ones who receive the Word. But also with those who, like me, bear the responsibility for proclaiming it. Isn’t this why Pope Francis devotes such a large part of his recent apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, to the preparation of the homily? For just as a perfectly functioning TV set would not work very well if the connections to the power supply were loose. So too will poorly prepared proclamations of the Word be less fruitful. Even when received by well-disposed listeners like yourselves.

And this insight is important not just for priests like me. It is significant also for lay people like you. For we mustn’t forget that, like me, you too are called not just to receive, but also to proclaim the Word of God. In your own particular state of life. How fruitful are your proclamations of the Word? How well prepared are the homilies that you preach through the lives that you lead? At home... At work... In school...

Which is why, my dear friends, you and I–called as we are to be both listeners and proclaimers of the Word–need to pay careful attention to our scriptures today. In particular, we need to ponder what we find in the second reading. Where St. Paul reminds us that, along with the whole of creation, each of us is groaning inwardly. Yearning to be set free from our slavery to decadence. Hungry for the nourishment provided by the Word of God. Especially as we celebrate this Eucharist.

We need to allow ourselves continually to remain in touch with this inner yearning. Constantly to stay connected to this interior groaning. For this is the only location at which the Word of God is truly received. And from which it can be passionately proclaimed. It is only here, in this sacred interior space, that the power of God’s Word always finds a fertile resting place. Bearing fruit. Now thirty, now sixty, now a hundredfold...

My dear sisters and brothers, how are we, you and I, being challenged to do some spiritual troubleshooting of our own today?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Joy of Open Hands

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Riccardo Cuppini

Sisters and brothers, if I may, l’d like to invite you all to do something with me right now. At the count of 3, could you all please clench your fists as tightly as you can? And then try to pay attention to how you feel. Notice what clenched fists feel like. Can you do that? Good. Ready? 1-2-3, clench! And hold... Notice how you feel... Now, again at the count of 3, slowly unclench your fists. Open up your hands. And pay attention to how you feel. Ready? 1-2-3, slowly... open... How do you feel?...

So what was it like, sisters and brothers? What does it feel like to have your fists clenched? What does it feel like to open up your hands? Any difference? Of course there is, right? It’s the difference between tension and relaxation. Between stress and calm. Between exertion and rest. Between grabbing something and letting something go…

It’s helpful to keep this contrast in mind, because it can help us appreciate something that our liturgy is inviting us to consider today. Have you noticed what it is? Recall what we heard in the opening prayer just now. Remember what we prayed for. We asked God to fill us with holy joy. For, through the sacrifice of Christ, God has bestowed on us eternal gladness. And, remember also, how the first reading begins. Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!… Sisters and brothers, if there is one thing that our liturgy is bringing to our attention today, it is joy.

And I think we can all agree that joy is something that everyone desires. Something we all seek. Except that we have different ways of going about it. Different approaches to finding joy. Do you know what your own approach is? I’m not sure, but I think that, for many of us, the way we seek to be happy is the way taught to us by the world. By the society in which we live. And often this is the way of constant effort. Of repeated self-exertion. The way of stress and strain. Of the clenched fist and the gritted teeth. We push ourselves hard in order to be able to grab as many of life’s pleasures as possible. In the belief that the harder we work, the more things we grab, the happier we will feel.

For many of us, joy is something we win for ourselves. Through sheer force of will. Through steely strength of determination. No one makes us happy. We earn it for ourselves. This is what we learn in society. And, more often than not, we assume that this must be true in our spiritual lives as well. Whether we realise it or not, we think that happiness in the spiritual life is also only about effort. How to be more joyful? Well, spend more time in prayer. Give more money to the church. Get involved in more ministries in the parish... More time. More money. More effort. Must mean more joy. Right? I’m not sure. Perhaps for some this approach does work. But, then again, isn’t it true that, it can also have the opposite effect? Very often, the demand for more only serves to make us more discouraged. More stressed out. More unhappy. Or, what’s worse, it can also make us more prideful. More arrogant. More self-righteous. More pharisaical.

Which is why it’s important for us to pay attention to the different approach to joy that our readings are offering us today. Notice the reason why Zion is asked to rejoice in the first reading. It’s not because of anything that she herself has done. Rather, Zion is invited to rejoice in the victory won for her by her king. Her joy is less something she earns than something she simply receives.

Not only that. Notice also the very curious way in which her king is described. He rides not on a war-horse. But a baby donkey. His is an image not of power and might. But of humility and gentleness. Indeed, some of us may remember that this is the very passage of scripture used by the gospel writers to describe Jesus. As he rides into Jerusalem on Passion Sunday. Quite clearly, the approach to joy being taught to us here is very different from the way of the world. It is less the way of exertion and grabbing. Than of resting and receiving. It is less the way of the clenched fist. Than that of the open hand.

And this is also the same approach that Jesus teaches in the gospel. Notice first how Jesus begins by speaking not of our joy, but of the joy experienced by God. Yes, Father, for this is what it pleased you to do... God rejoices in revealing Himself to mere children. And isn’t this the only true Source of our own joy? If we are able to rejoice, it is only by sharing in the joy of God. By humbly receiving God’s self-communication to us. Especially in the Mystery that we celebrate at this Eucharist. The Mystery of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. And isn’t this why the learned and the clever fall short? Not so much because God doesn’t reveal himself to them. For the responsorial psalm tells us that the Lord is good to all, compassionate to all his creatures. If the learned and clever fail to rejoice, it is only because they are too focused on themselves. Too full of their own expertise. Too wrapped up in their own efforts. Too busy clenching their fists.

In contrast, Jesus issues a moving invitation to those who labour and are overburdened. Those of us who find ourselves desperately struggling to meet the demands of the clenched fist. And perhaps often failing. Jesus invites us to come to Him. To approach Him. The victorious yet humble King. The King who is victorious precisely because he is humble. Humble enough even to let Himself be nailed to a cruel cross. To set His people free. We are invited to come to Him with open hands. To receive the joy that He has already won for us through His sacrifice. The joy of realising how much God loves us. How much God cherishes us. Takes pleasure in us. Wants to give us joy. Without our having to do anything to earn it.

And, quite paradoxically, it is when we do this. It is when we open our hearts and our hands to receive God’s love. Especially in this very Eucharist. That we find the energy to do what needs to be done. No longer out of an oppressive sense of obligation. But, instead, out of a deep and enduring gratitude. As the psalmist says, all your creatures shall thank you, O Lord, and your friends shall repeat their blessing. Isn’t this also what St. Paul is writing about in the second reading? When we open ourselves to receive the love of God in Christ, our interests begin to change. We turn away from the unspiritual toward the spiritual. Away from the ungodly toward the godly. Allowing the Spirit of God to make his home in us. Giving us the strength gradually to put an end to the misdeeds of the body. To pray more devoutly. To give more wholeheartedly. To serve more selflessly. To experience, even here on earth, something of the joys of heaven.

Sisters and brothers, if I might just invite you now to, once more, quickly clench your fists... And then to slowly open them up again... How do you feel?... Two different postures. Two contrasting approaches to joy. One grabbing. The other receiving. One anxious. The other trusting...

Which one do you choose today?