Sunday, October 23, 2016

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sir 35:12-14, 16-18
Ps 34:2-3,17-18-19, 23
2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18
Lk 18:9-14

Each of the readings and the psalm for today's Mass could be the basis for a fairly long homily.  There is an overabundance of riches for preaching, for teaching, and for meditation.  As was true of last Sunday's parable of the woman and the unjust judge, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector in the Temple, is found exclusively in Luke's Gospel.  Both parables are about prayer.  Last week we heard about the need to pray without ceasing.  Today we are told how to pray and how not to pray.  This advice is confirmed in the first reading from Sirach.

Sirach is a unique book.  Though written in Hebrew before Jesus' birth it was translated into Greek by the author's grandson. It was known only in Greek  until the early twentieth century.  Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, is not part of the Hebrew Scripture.  Protestants do not recognize it as authentic or authoritative.  Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, however, do hold Sirach as canonical.  The non-acceptance of Sirach in the Protestant Church is a pity because Sirach, like the rest of the wisdom literature, is relevant to our lives in the present.  Though a bit long, it is worth reading in its entirety. And taking notes on the reading.  Like the Gospel, the reading from Sirach is a commentary on prayer. We cannot understand either Sirach or Luke without considering the nature and use of stereotypes. 

A stereotype is a general statement applied to a group whose members share a particular characteristic or set of characteristics.  Stereotypes may be used to judge and classify others negatively or to set some groups apart as special.  They can be used in jest or can be bitingly cruel.  The problem with a blanket condemnation of stereotypes, both positive and negative ones, is that they contain a kernel of truth.  One writer defined stereotypes as statistics in narrative form.  It is a very good definition.  All statistics have a degree of truth and a degree of untruth when applied to individuals.

For example a common stereotype is that Taiwanese men have straight black hair and are shorter than the average American man.  In statistical tables this is true.  But then, there is this photo from my ordination.  I am standing next to Ignatius Hung Wan-liu, a Taiwanese Jesuit priest who does, in fact, have straight black hair.  But he is 13 cm or a bit over three inches taller than my absolutely average American height, (or at least I was average height before I began old man related shortening, one of the joys of being on Medicare).  The stereotype is only partially true.  Thus, caution is necessary when hearing or making generalized statements about any group or individual.  Were all Pharisees arrogant egotists such as the one in the parable?  Were all tax-collectors, a marginalized group to be sure, humble?  There is only one answer:  No.  The stereotypes may suggest they are  but no stereotype holds when applied to every individual.  Thus the challenge of both readings. 
Poverty, marginalization, and oppression do not automatically confer universal virtues on an individual.  Wealth, intelligence, and power are not the marks of a sinner.  The poor can be, and are, sinners on the same plane as the wealthiest.  And the wealthy can be as virtuous as the tax-collector of the parable.  How would we understand this parable were the roles reversed?  How would we feel if the Pharisee acknowledged his sinfulness and the tax-collector boasted of his fundamental righteousness?  Or, to put it into contemporary terms, suppose it was the tax-collector who had grandiose self-esteem while the Pharisee was a man of humility? 

In his commentary on this Gospel passage Luke Timothy Johnson warns that: 'The parable . . . invites internalization by all readers because it speaks to something deep within every human heart.'  The love of God can easily become a kind of idolatrous self-love.  God's gifts can quickly be seized as possessions; what is given by another can be turned into one's own accomplishment.  Prayer can become bragging.  He concludes with the statement: "Piety is not an unambiguous posture.”   That is worth remembering.  The monastic literature contains frequent warnings about the sin of taking pride in one’s humility or boasting about one's prayer.  It is a common temptation.  Humility and exaggerated self-esteem are separated by the finest of lines.  

One is frequently advised in theology school to compare different translations of scripture when possible.  This is useful in considering Sirach.  The New American Bible translation we just heard reads: “though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”  The Revised Standard Version translates the same line differently: “He will not show partiality in the case of the poor, and he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.”   God's mercy does not depend on one's bank account.  God's mercy does not depend on being oppressed.  God's mercy is available to all who seek it in prayer.

Luke's Gospel is sometimes called the Gospel of Prayer. In Luke, prayer is not simply an exercise of piety. It is faith in action. Prayer reveals who we are. Prayer reveals the nature our relationship with God.  Prayer reveals our relationship with others.  When we pray, we are to come before the Lord in sincerity and truth.  In the Lord's light we are called to acknowledge that we are sinners.  And then we ask for his mercy and the gift of righteousness.

We heard a consoling truth in the psalm:

"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
The Lord redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him."

It is worth meditating on that for the rest of the day.

I walked up to the castle again on Saturday.  Not quite as energetically as the first trip but Saturday had proven to be a long and busy day.  The day began with clouds but then the sun came out.  Fatigue or no fatigue, I wasn't going to waste the first sunlight of the week.   

The first shows the community in full sun.  When the sun is blasting through the skylights my room is brilliantly lit and warm.  Fortunately the skylights can be opened to allow ventilation. Love the room.  It is very small but fits my needs.  

The view north.  Snow arrived on the mountains the other day.  One of the older men in the house was to celebrate a Mass somewhere in the mountains.  However, more than a foot of snow resulted in cancellation.  I hope to get up to the castle on a day when clouds are not obscuring part of the hills so as to get a better photo of the snow.  I see the view of the mountains from the other skylight in my room. 

A telephoto (equivalent of 400 mm) shot of the mountains.

Tourists on the observation part of the castle.  I didn't go up as it required a ticket.  Cheap.  I am cheap.  I took this from the road while walking up to the castle.

The view of the castle from the other side.  The path is much farther below the castle than in the front approach.  

This last is not Ljubljana Grad.  I could not end this entry without noting Penn State's magnificent win over Ohio State yesterday.  The game began at 2 AM LJ time.  As I had the 11 AM Mass I didn't even try to watch it on ESPN (the subscription is only 20 Euros per month to watch either live or on demand).  I slept well last night, a notable event in itself, and woke at 7.  Grabbed the computer while still in bed and went to ESPN.  I blinked several times, wondered if these miserable drugstore readers (the new ones arrive in ten days) were screwing up my vision, and then went quietly insane.  I didn't watch the game until after Mass and lunch whereupon I pulled it up on the computer and opened a 16 oz. beer.  Absolutely glorious moment that brought back many memories of my years as a student and the many games I attended as season ticket holder of 27 years.  According to Fr. Jack Butler, SJ  I didn't go to a university.  I joined a cult.  I've never argued about the truth of that statement.   FOR THE GLORY . . . 


+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, October 16, 2016

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Ex 17:8-13
Ps 121
2 Tm 3:14-4:2
Lk 18:1-8

In the summer of 1969 The Doors released an album titled “The Soft Parade."  Critics do not list it among their best albums.  But Paul, one of my 'extended' roommates, brought a copy to Penn State in September of that year.  We came close to wearing it out.  Thus, for better or for worse, it is part of the soundtrack of my life, one that I still visit from time to time via the digital copy on the computer. (It is available on You Tube, I checked before Mass).  The title track, which is the last track rather than the first, begins with Jim Morrison saying in a deep, amplified, echoing, and sarcastic voice, “When I was back there in seminary school there was a person there who put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayer.”  He repeats, “petition the Lord with prayer” three times with more and more sarcasm dripping from each word.  He then screams in a hoarse voice, "YOU CANNOT . . PETITION THE LORD . . . WITH PRAYER.”  The sound fades into a beautiful melody.  By then the drugs had completely wrecked his brain and destroyed his soul.  Less than two years after the album release he would be dead of a heroin overdose.  Age twenty-six.  He was wrong.  He was very wrong.

You can petition the Lord with prayer. 
You should petition the Lord with prayer. 
You must petition the Lord with prayer. 

One rarely used English word comes to mind when considering the first reading and the gospel, both of which illustrate how to petition the Lord with prayer:  Importune.  To importune means to ask with urgency or persistence, to annoy, to beset with solicitations, to be troublesomely persistent.  Only the first of the definitions describes prayer: to ask with urgency and persistence.  One can never annoy or trouble God with prayer.  The entire psalter, from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150 is a long, continuous, and frequently importuning prayer.  The psalter is a model for how we are to pray.

The first reading is fascinating.  As long as Moses’ arms were raised in prayer the Israelites were winning the battle.  When they dropped with fatigue the situation changed.  But Moses had help.  Aaron and Hur supported his arms that were raised in prayer as long as was necessary.  So it is for us.  We cannot go it alone in prayer any more than Moses could.  That is why we are surrounded by a community of believers.  That is why we must ask for help with our prayer.  That is why we pray for others.  When others prays for us they are doing the same as Aaron and Hur, supporting our arms when we are too fatigued, too angry, too anxiety-ridden, or too overwrought to pray.  We do the same for others when we pray for and with them. 

The Gospel presents a different image.  The widow would not give up.  No matter what the unjust judge did she returned importuning until he gave her a fair judgment.  The judge’s motivations for giving that judgment, however, were less than pure.  He had no interest in or thirst for justice.  He gave the judgment because he feared that she might strike him.  His actions recall T.S. Eliot’s observation, “The final temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”  God can never be unjust.  Jesus asks the rhetorical question: “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?”  In the context of this Gospel passage we know the answer without it being written.    

The responsorial psalm, Psalm 121, is among the most beautiful and poignant in the entire psalter.  Over seventeen years ago, Jesuit Father Paul Harmon was speaking to New England Province scholastics, young Jesuits still in studies.  This psalm was the topic of one of his talks.  Fr. Harmon's explanation, one I’ve not seen elsewhere, put this psalm into a new and deeper context.  He noted that when the psalmist looked up to the mountains he did not find comfort.  Rather,  he saw that he was surrounded by the fires of sacrifice to the baals, the pagan gods.  And he asked  “Whence shall help come to me?”  He had been abandoned by his people who followed not the God of the covenant but the au courant gods, the gods it was socially expedient to worship, the gods of money, power, influence, and fame.  The gods of political power.  And then the psalmist remembered,

My help is from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.” 

When the psalmist looked up into the mountains he did not have comforting visions of angels, pretty sunsets and cottony clouds.  He saw treachery. He saw betrayal by his own people, a people who had abandoned the God of their fathers, the God of the covenant.  He had to look interiorly, he had to pray, to realize that help did not come from the baals or from power.  He would not find his help in money, social status. or any of the other false gods of today.  His help would come only from the Lord, the Lord who created both heaven and earth.  It is an exquisite psalm. 

“I lift up my eyes toward the mountains;
whence shall help come to me?
My help is from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.”

Stay with that thought for the rest of the day.

Another busy week has ended.  A minor cold did not help matters at all.  On Wednesday I have an appointment with an optometrist to get checked for new glasses.  Apparently one cannot simply copy progressive lenses.  The good news is that while I am stuck with these reading glasses (I cannot describe how much I hate having to look over the top of them and how much I loathe being looked at over the top of a pair of glasses) when the new ones are ready I will have a back up pair.  Two for one sale.  I think I found the Slovenian equivalent of ForEyes. 

It was a week of mostly rainy damp weather, the perfect time to have a cold and not necessarily feel like going out anyway.  On Wednesday I went for coffee with a friend.  It was an interesting experience.  When we took a table at the outdoor cafe the waiter set an ashtray in front of us.  And ASHTRAY?!?  Haven't seen one of those in an eating establishment in years.  Even outdoors.  More surprising, however, was watching a number of young women at several different table, I assume students at the university, rolling their own cigarettes.  And they were tobacco cigarettes as evidenced by the smell.  Overall there seems to be more smoking here than in the U.S. despite large print black and white warnings on the front of cigarette packs as opposed to on the side as is true in the U.S.  While I still occasionally miss the physical action of smoking (I quite 38 years ago) I've no desire to actually light up or even take a drag.  I suspect the nausea would be overwhelming.  

The photos below are the result of some nocturnal wandering. 

The Butcher's Bridge at night.  I did not know that the walkway near the bridge was glass when I was here in January and February.  It was covered with wood.  Apparently what seemed like a good idea at the time resulted in very dangerous conditions in the winter when the glass became icy and slippery.  Alas, it isn't too easy to walk on when wet either.  And wet is a common condition in LJ.

An outdoor cafe along the river.  It was a fairly comfortable night.  However, even now, when the temperatures are dropping into the forties at night, Slovenians are sitting outdoors, bundled up, drinking beer or coffee. 

This street is limited to pedestrians.  The only way to differentiate the cafes is by the tables and chairs.  They are distinct for reach place

The cafe nearest our house.  I took a photo the day before Valentine's when there were several inches of snow on the tables and chairs. 

Ye Olde Tchotchke Shoppe.  I cannot describe how I much I loathe seeing the faux Olde Englyshe spellings in tourist traps.  My niece and I got close to hysterical laughter in Newburyport, Mass. many years ago when it seemed as if every store had that kid of sign.  We still call them:  Ye Oldee Shoppee.

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, October 8, 2016

28th Sunday Ordinary Time

3 Kgs 5:14-17
Ps 98 1-4
2 Tm 2:8-13
Lk 17:11-19

The first reading and the Gospel both turn on the disease leprosy as it was understood in the Ancient Near East.  It is critical to remember that when it is mentioned in any biblical readings leprosy does not mean the chronic disfiguring infectious disease known today as Hansen’s disease.  While Hansen’s may have been in the population during Jesus’ time, it did not exist during more ancient times, such as that in which the first reading is set some six centuries before Jesus' birth. In addition, the descriptions of leprosy in the Old Testament, are inconsistent with Hansen’s disease as described in Harrison’s Textbook of Internal Medicine, the standard textbook of medicine in the U.S. Walls, clothing, and other inanimate objects could also be considered leprous if they had a certain appearance.

Leprosy comes from the Greek root LEPI that means scales of a fish. Thus,  psoriasis, with its characteristic scaling lesion, would have been called leprosy, along with many other diseases that are not related and are not infectious. Infectious is the key word. The fear of leprosy was the fear of contagion, the fear of transmission of disease. That contagion, several millennia before antibiotics and so on, was a threat to the ongoing life of the community. Much of the fear was related to a different understanding of illness then compared with our understanding today.

We understand living and disease as part of an unbroken line. That line is interrupted only by death.  One may be ill but one is still living until the moment of death.   In the Ancient Near East disease was understood as a “mild form of death”  or “a living death.” The break, the radical interruption, was not between life and death but between health and illness.  Lepers were thought to be losing life’s vital force from their bodies.  Lepers were seen as the living dead, as already inhabiting sheol.  

Adding to the stigma was that, like other illnesses in the Ancient Near East, leprosy was understood as punishment for sin.  It was visible evidence that the afflicted was a sinner.  The lepers who approached Jesus were suffering from social exclusion. They asked Jesus for compassion and healing.  In his compassion for their suffering, for their isolation from society, and their alienation from themselves, Jesus healed them of the visible cause of their suffering.  He removed the "leprosy" that visibly marked them as sinners.  Jesus returned them to society and gave them back to themselves.

Jesus did the same for us.  He continues to do the same for us.  Jesus took upon himself the burden of our sin.  By his obedience to the will of the Father, he freed us from sin and death.  In the sacrament of confession he offers us the opportunity to be made clean again and again, as often as we may need to be cleansed of the internal marks of leprosy.  And thus He returns us to the right relationship with God and with ourselves. The readings and the Gospel also highlight the interdependence of gift and thanksgiving.

The story of Naaman in the first reading began with verse fourteen, in which he descended into the water of the Jordan seven times and emerged healed of his lesions.  We didn't hear the important verses that come immediately before this. In those verses, Naaman was told by the Elisha's messenger, not the Prophet Elisha himself, to bathe in the water of the Jordan seven times.  Then we read, "But Naaman was angered and walked away.  He said, 'I thought he would surely come out to me and would stand and invoke the Lord his God by name and would wave his hand toward the spot and cure the affected part.'"  Naaman continued to rage until a servant asked, "if the prophet told you to do something difficult, would you not do it?" The servant then pointed out that the prophet had suggested something easy.  Logic triumphed over fury. Naaman's gratitude was total, immediate, and sincere.

The gospel adds a twist.  Only one of the ten lepers Jesus healed returned to express his gratitude.  Only one gave thanks when he realized that he had been healed.  The response of the other nine lepers is an important point. It highlights the unfortunate disconnection between faith, gift, and thanksgiving that characterizes most people at least some of the time.  The ten lepers obviously had faith in Jesus.  Otherwise, they would not have set out to present themselves to the priests.  But only one, a Samaritan, a foreigner, returned to give thanks. 

Faith cannot exist, it cannot grow, without thanksgiving.  Faith needs to be nurtured with prayer, the Eucharist, and meditation upon scripture.  Prayer is not just for petition in times of trouble.  Prayer is thanksgiving. It is conversation between us and God that expresses our gratitude for what God has done, for what He is doing, and for what He will do for us, even if we don't understand it at the moment.  The psalm explains it all.  First, the psalmist instructs us in the way of faith when he sings:

"All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation by our God."

And then he tells us how to express our gratitude:

"Sing joyfully to the Lord, all you lands,
Break into song; sing praise."
Went to Maribor last Sunday for a concert that included several pieces sung by Father Damjan Ristič. Damjan possesses a rich baritone voice that he used beautifully.  The other performers on the program were a French horn quartet.  They played beautifully.  I never realized a French horn could play such low notes.  

This morning I wandered down to the market place and the Franciscan Church around 7:30 AM.  It was fascinating to watch the market coming to life.  I can't imagine setting up and taking down my wares every single day.  

A French horn on a chair before the concert

There was a reception afterwards.  Students were setting out the glasses and food well before the concert began.

Reflections in the river.  

Ljubljana Castle dominates the view from many areas of the city.  

A detail of stucco, a lamp, and red flowers.

A tour boat on the river.  This was from Friday midday rather than early Saturday AM.

Chairs locked up for overnight.  The outdoor cafes were very active as staff set out tables and chairs.

A coffee shop overlooking the river.

Salty snacks including pizza.

A merchant working in the colonnade carrying good to his area.