Sunday, July 26, 2020

Charism of Choice

Solemnity of St Ignatius of Loyola
Priest & Founder of the Society of Jesus

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 34; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Luke 14:25-33
Picture: cc Bryce Bradford

My dear friends, if I were to tell you that you are very important to me, how would you know whether or not I’m telling you the truth? I’m not sure, but I believe Covid-19 has actually helped some of us discover the answer to this question. For example, when a young couple is forced by safe-distancing regulations to choose no more than twenty people to invite to their wedding, their friends and relatives discover rather quickly, don’t they, just how important they are. Isn’t this a more reliable indicator of the things we consider more important, the people we hold more dear? Not so much what we say, but how we choose, especially when we are forced by circumstances to do so.

Perhaps this is what Jesus is getting at in the gospel, when he says that, to be a true follower of his, one must go so far as to hate not just the closest members of one’s family, but even life itself. The point is not that I must detest the very people I’m supposed to love. After all, the scriptures tell us that God is love (1 Jn 4:8). But rather, in the event that I have to choose between the Lord and anyone or anything else, my choice must be the Lord. The Lord must be the single most important reality in my life. More important than life itself.

Isn’t this the experience of Jeremiah, in the first reading? Called by God to preach an unpopular message to the people, the prophet remains faithful to his mission, even though it results in him being laughed at and persecuted and thrown into prison. By choosing in this way –  by choosing God over his own popularity and wellbeing – Jeremiah gives us a reliable indicator that he lives his life just as the second reading says we should. He does everything for the glory of God. Or, in other words, he truly worships God alone.

And it’s no surprise that these readings are chosen for this feast. For it was St Ignatius’ particular gift, not just to live in this way, but also to help others do the same. To choose God above all else. Truly to worship God alone.

I’m reminded of these lines by novelist, David Foster Wallace: There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship…. If you worship money and things… then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you…. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out…

Sisters and brothers, if our choices do indeed indicate what’s truly important to us, then what or who is most important to you? What or whom do you worship, today?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Meaning in the Mess

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Jason Wun

My dear friends, imagine for a moment that you’re visiting someone’s house for the first time, and you find that the whole place is in a big mess. How do you feel? What do you think? Speaking for myself, I think even though I may try very hard not to judge, it’s quite likely that I’ll find it difficult to resist drawing certain not so charitable conclusions about those who live in that house, or about its owner. Maybe these people are untidy, or careless, or just plain lazy…

But what if it’s not just any single family’s house that is messy, but the whole wide world? How do I feel, for example, over these days and months, as people everywhere continue to suffer the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic? The poor much more than the well-off. What crosses my mind when I hear about some global leaders squabbling for political gain, instead of working together for the common good? What conclusions do I draw, not just about my world, but also about the One whom we Christians believe created it? Is our common earthly home hopelessly lost? Is God simply too callous or cruel, too vindictive or incompetent, to do anything?

My dear friends, if you’ve ever struggled to find meaning amid the madness of our world, if the messiness of life ever upsets your peace of mind, then perhaps you’ll be happy to know that today’s Mass readings offer us some guidance. For what do we find in the parable of the weeds and the wheat if not a very messy situation? And notice how this situation is intended to be a description not just of any untidy home, not even of the secular world. The distasteful sight of a wheat field overgrown with weeds is meant to signify nothing less than the current condition of the Kingdom of heaven itself.

In presenting us with this surprising image, what the Lord is perhaps teaching us is how to look at the often heartbreaking condition of our world, and to recognise there the workings of God. The subtle activity of the same powerful yet gentle and merciful God described in the first reading. A God who cares for every thing, who governs us with great lenience, teaching us how we too must be kindly to others.

Nor is the extent of God’s power limited to simply tolerating the weeds of sinfulness, in order to allow time for the seeds of virtue to sprout and to grow. For, as the gospel of John reminds us (12:24), in the person of Jesus, God actually enters into the field of our world, actually becomes a grain of wheat, which falls into the earth and dies, so as to bear the precious fruit of our salvation.

Even more, the second reading tells us that, in the person of the Spirit, God enters also into the chaotic and contradictory desires of our own often divided hearts, helping us to pray honestly and effectively, in a way that truly expresses the very mind of God.

Sisters and brothers, when you gaze at the messy sight of our troubled world, what do you see, how do you feel, what will you do today?

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Power to Be Ugly

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc marco

My dear friends, do you know what it’s like to be an ugly duckling? To feel as though there’s something wrong with you, simply because you don’t look like those around you, or because you have different attitudes and values, different  hopes and priorities than they do? It’s not easy. Even if you may have been told that someday, in the distant future, you will grow up into a beautiful swan, it’s still not easy to accept your apparent ugliness now, in the present. Indeed, the temptation can be very great for someone in this position to do whatever it takes simply to fit in. Even to submit to plastic surgery of some kind. To deny, disguise, or deform oneself.

I wonder if this kind of experience is something like what we find in the second reading today… From the beginning till now, St Paul writes, the entire creation… has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free. To groan together with the rest of creation, because we have not yet reached our true destiny. Have not yet become the beautiful swan that God intends us to become. Have not yet attained the full measure of justice and peace and joy that characterises the Kingdom of God.

To embrace the role of an ugly duckling. Feeling painfully out of place in a world that values superficial pleasures and passing comforts, often at the expense of human dignity and solidarity, of mercy and compassion. To groan for the coming of God’s Kingdom in all its fullness, and to do so not just with one’s voice, but also in one’s actions. Through the choices we make everyday, as individuals and families, as a society and as a church. Choices about what we watch or read, or buy or eat. Choices about whom we choose to interact with, or allow our hearts to be moved by… Yes, and also the choice of which candidate to support in an election…

It is not easy to groan in this way. The temptation is great to be silent and simply to blend in. And yet, the willingness to be different, perhaps even detested – the ability to groan – is also what distinguishes the two groups of people to whom Jesus speaks in the gospel today. On one side, there are the crowds, who flock enthusiastically to the Lord, but ultimately neither understand nor heed his urgent call to conversion. On the other side, are the disciples who, for all their shortcomings, persevere in following Jesus. And from him they receive the power that is described so beautifully in the first reading. The power of the rain and the snow, which come down from the heavens and do not return without watering the earth, making it yield and giving growth…

The power to groan and to grow towards the glory of God. This is what sets apart the true disciples of Christ. They are the ones who receive the seed of God’s Word in rich soil, and yield a harvest through their suffering, their willingness to embrace the difficult role of a baby swan in a world of ducks.

What shall we do to welcome and to wield this gentle yet insistent power in our world today?