Sunday, July 28, 2013

Give us this day . . .

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time 
28 July 2013

Gen 18:20-32
Ps 137
Col 2:12-14
Luke 11:1-13

Importune is a word that generally appears in Sunday crossword puzzles, biblical commentaries and the kind of speech that the Cartwright boys on the Ponderosa would have called high faluttin’.  It is not used very often in conversation but, in this case, it is the ideal word to describe the interpersonal dynamics in the first reading and Gospel.

The verb to importune means: to beset with insistent or repeated requests, to annoy, to vex, to ask for urgently or repeatedly.  The adjective importunate means troublesomely urgent or persistent in requesting or entreating.  Some days it seems as if the sole function of a three year-old is to importune.  Can I have it?  What is that?  Can I have a cookie?  Why does . . .?  Every parent on earth has either given in at least a few times simply to stop the persistent requests for a Happy Meal or has said "Because! That's why" despite having sworn never ever to say that.  The picture of human nature underlying the first reading is fascinating.  The dialogue between Abraham and God suggests an aggressive poker hand:  Raise.  Call.  Raise.  Call.  Abraham raises God calls.  Abraham raises again.  Abraham goes all in. 

In commenting on this passage The Jewish Study Bible notes “Recognizing the sovereignty of God and his own subordinate status, Abraham speaks with great deference and scrupulously avoids chutzpah.”  I’m not so sure that Abraham avoids chutzpah.  Challenging God six times to decrease the critical number of innocent men needed to save the city from 50 down to 10 seems almost paradigmatic of chutzpah.  But perhaps not.  I’ll leave the fine points of defining chutzpah to the Yiddish experts.  The action in the Gospel is something of a contrast to the negotiations detailed in Genesis. 

In his commentary on the Gospel, Luke Timothy Johnson notes that “Luke understands God’s way of giving as exceeding that between friends.”  While our dialogue with God is conducted, for the most part, within the confines of human vocabulary and concepts, it does not—or should not—necessarily follow the conventions of typical human-to-human social intercourse or conversation.  Importune and chutzpah really have no place when one considers prayer.  Can there ever be too much prayer?  Can one ever annoy God with prayer?  These  questions could send a group of systematic theologians into a tizzy of speculation and pondering if not outright hostility toward each other.  In the real world answer is quite simple.  No.  There can never be too much prayer.  No one can weary God with prayer. 

Luke’s Gospel narrative is, like Abraham’s dialogue with God, typically human.  It would require no effort to act out this scene for a movie, to play it out on a stage.  The story is rich with human detail from the locked door and the comfort of being snugly in bed to the desperation of the one who is importuning his neighbor.  Please.  I must offer my guest something.  Just a few loaves of bread.  Please.

The message is simple; persistence pays off.  If a friend can be moved to respond through another’s importuning how much more will God respond?  How will He respond?  When we knock, when we ask, when we search—what should we expect? 

We should expect what we need.  Not always exactly what we ask for but what we need.  Johnson introduces a fascinating point in his discussion of Luke’s version of the Our Father, a stripped down version compared with Matthew’s.  The two versions share one phrase:  Give us this day our daily bread.  The word used here, epiousios, is not found anywhere in Greek literature.  The translation depends on the shaky grounds of etymology and context.  There are four options for the translation: supernatural bread, which is described as the least likely, daily  which is the usual translation, future which, to my mind, seems the most human, suggesting that we want to be certain of a steady supply, and finally, necessary.    This fourth makes a lot of sense.   Do we have faith sufficient to trust that God will grant us what is necessary?

Grant us what we need.  
Is there a better request with which to importune God?   
Grant us what we need.  
So that we can say with the psalmist,

"I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
with all my heart
For you have heard the words
of my mouth . . .
When I called you answered me
you built up strength within me."
Ogunquit Beach. 

I haven't gone on a vacation during the summer more than twice in the past 30 years.  Traffic.  Heat.  Humidity.  Crowds.  Swarms of children. Traffic.  Traffic.  Traffic.  And road construction.  Tuesday I went to see my sister and a long-time family friend who spent the week in Ogunquit, ME.  Lovely town.  But, the traffic resembled a two-lane version of the D. C. Beltway.  No trouble getting into town. I left Weston at 6:30 and got there a bit after 8:00 (coffee stop added ten minutes).  Driving through the town beyond mid-morning however, was a study in stop and go, mostly stop.  We drove to LL Bean in Freeport, ME, about 50 miles north.  No problem once we got out of Ogunquit.  Getting out of town and then back to the hotel was a study in frustration. I went on a photo expedition around 2 PM.  Stopped traffic everywhere crawling toward the beach.  Way too many people and cars crammed into a small space.  The only thing missing was the heat and humidity.  It was overcast and cool.  Hit some heavy rain on the way back to Boston that evening.  But, it was a photographically successful trip.  

The room opened out to the beach.  The beach was at low tide and empty when I arrived.  
Lounge chairs at the hotel overlooking the beach in the early AM.   

By about 1:00 PM the ocean was at high tide.  The beach was jammed.
Lifeguards on duty. 
The town has a small strip of stores.  Happily, few of them use the affectation of "Shoppe" (pronounced Shoppy.  None seemed to use the annoying Ye Olde Shoppe).  No one shooed me away as I took photos. 

The only adjective to describe these lollipops is lurid.
The blown glass bulbs suggested so many mini-hot air balloons without gondolas. 
A blown glass sun catcher.  Lovely.  Expensive. 

Wind chimes.  It is amazing what people will buy when on vacation. 
Some sea kayaks were stored in the bushes.  The color caught my eye. 
The Blue Door.
Patriotism.  Not terribly fashionable among the Hollywood and literati crowds but nice to see. 
A cool day at the beach.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Monday, July 22, 2013

Memorial of St. Mary Magdalene

Songs 3:1-4b
Jn 20:1-2, 11-18

Mary Magdalene is a unique and important character in the gospels.  Unfortunately, she is also a mysterious one about whom very little to nothing is known, a situation that has not prevented volumes of books about her and acres of canvas filled with paintings depicting her. 

The tradition in the West is that Mary Magdalene was one of the group of women to discover the empty tomb and, as we heard in today’s gospel, it was to her that the risen Jesus first appeared.  However, the tradition in the West holds that she is also “the woman who was a sinner” as well as the sister of Martha.  That seems like a lot.  The tradition in the East holds that they were three different women.  Considering that Mary, or the Hebrew equivalent Myriam, was a common name, the tradition of the East, makes the most sense. 

But, just as nature abhors a vacuum, human nature abhors a vacuum of evidence about an historical personage.  Thus, many legends and cults have grown up around Mary Magdalene.  She is seen as something of a feminist icon upon whom all sorts of ideas are projected.  Some of those ideas, oftentimes advanced by "theologians" desperate for attention, are truly bizarre, revealing more about the writer than the saint.  Are her relics in France?   Established "tradition" is no better.  Are her relics somewhere in France?  Unlikely. 

In the end we are left with a cipher, a woman who was present at some, though we are not certain which, historical moments in Jesus’ life.  Beyond that we know little else.  We are not even certain about the reason for the name Magdalene.  We have to become comfortable with that lack of knowledge rather than trying to create a persona who isn't there; a persona constructed almost entirely of projection mixed with liberal doses of Hearst tabloid journalism "data".  Once we admit that we don't know, and what we don't know, we can return to what we do have from scripture.

Today’s gospel tells us a great deal.  Like the apostles on the road to Emmaus and like us today, Mary failed to recognize the Risen Jesus when she first encountered Him.  Only when he spoke did she realize that this man was not the gardener but rather, Jesus.  Thus, she is a model for us.  We do not always recognize Jesus when we encounter him in prayer, when we encounter him in others, and when we encounter him in the Eucharist.  Our task is to imitate Mary Magdalene by seeking the Lord where we may find him, by seeking the Lord even when he seems to be absent.

Mary could say with the writer of the Song of Songs in today's first reading:  “I sought him, whom my heart loves.  I will rise then and go about the city in the streets and crossings I will seek Him whom my heart loves."  We are called to nothing less.
Black and white photography.

There are some photos that do not work well in color.  The corollary, that some black and white photos are very much enhanced by color, is also true.  An article in this morning's paper touted a way of transforming old sepia, and I assume black and white photos, to color.  In the given example there was something wrong with the color.  The colorization of old black and white movies is very jarring.  

My first camera was a Canon AE-1, one of the first automatic cameras.  I gave it away some time during novitiate.  However, one turned up in the minister's office recently.  It weighed a relative ton.  The first roll of film I ever shot, while driving Rt 45 West between Danville and State College, was black and white.  Of course one was committed to b&w images until the roll ran out.  In the spring of 1977 I spent six weeks in England, working as a visiting registrar at St. Christopher's Hospice.  Several of the b&w photos from that trip hung in my officer for years.  Thus, I have a particular affection for that medium.  

I picked up a digital photography magazine during a very long layover in Charlotte last year.  The feature article was about b&w photography.  Given the ease of moving from color to b&w along with the ability to finely adjust the result, the author suggested shooting all photos in color and then converting rather than using a b&w filter, something available on many digital cameras.  I've no argument with the reasoning or in doing so.  All of the photos below were taken as color and then converted and adjusted to achieve a particular look.  

Gerroa Beach, New South Wales Australia.  This is from early in tertianship.  The sun was blazing and the photo was quite hazy as a result.  Switching to b&w, polarizing and increasing the contrast massively improved the result. 
San Francisco.  Steps at my niece's condo complex.  Lots of contrast applied resulting in a graphic-arts effect.
Penn State.  A similar approach to a photo of a bridge between the two parts of the (stunning) new life sciences building. 
Plymouth, PA.  The organ at St. Mary's Church.  This was taken on Holy Saturday afternoon a year ago as sun, filtered by the stained glass, streamed into the choir loft.  Added a bit of contrast.
Campion Center.  The sacristy has been a source of photographic material.  Ignatius did an amazing job arranging what was beginning to look like hoarder heaven.  The chalices belonged mostly to men who are now dead. 
The candelabra used for Holy Thursday.  Ignatius removed all the melted wax from the holders and polished everything. 
A self-portait taken while looking into the elevator shaft for the small elevator in the health center.  I have keys to the roof.  Talk about a great perk.  Added some contrast, darkened some shadows and highlighted some brighter areas.  
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, July 21, 2013


16th Sunday in Ordinary Time  
Gn 18:1-10a
Ps 15 2-5
Col 10:24-28
Lk 10:38-42

Dick Clifford notes in his commentary on the responsorial psalm that Psalm 15 verses 2 to 5 contains ten descriptors of the ideal worshipper.  One could say that these verses contain ten descriptors of the ideal behavior for all persons.  This very short psalm--we are only missing the first verse--is a description of authentically religious individuals whose actions reflect their belief.  It describes those who fulfill the admonition attributed to Francis of Assisi, "Preach the Gospel at all times.  Use words only when necessary." The psalm ends with the promise, "One who does these things shall never be disturbed" or, in another translation, "will never be shaken."  There is no good reason to argue with that conclusion.

The challenges put forth by this psalm are daunting.  How many of us consistently do justice?  How many of us enthusiastically slander others under the guise of gossip or idle chatter? I suspect most of us breathe easily at the proscription against lending money at usury, though some of the quid pro quo situations we create with others are usurious in their own ways.  The psalm describes positive and negative attributes of acting virtuously.  It may surprise some who argue that there are no moral absolutes or necessary virtues that the characteristics of the virtuous individual are not unique to Judaeo-Christianity. 

Jesus elaborated on this list from Psalm 15 in numerous places in the New Testament when he described the virtuous action.  Consider for example his demand to the rich young man to sell all he owned and then to follow him.  Virtuous to be sure.  But not easy. 

The Analects of Confucius give a description of virtuous behavior that almost echoes Psalm 15.  Confucius lived from around 550 to 473 BC.  Scholars think the Analects achieved their final written form some around 350 years before Jesus' birth. One reads the following in Book XII Chapter II:  Chung-kung asked about perfect virtue.  The Master said, "It is when you go abroad, to behave to every one as if you were receiving a great guest; to employ the people as if you were assisting at a great sacrifice; not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself; to have no murmuring against you in the country and none in the family."  Chung-kung said, "Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigor I will make it my business to practice this lesson." 

I like Chung-kung because, after hearing what perfect virtue entails he admitted in essence, 'I am a sinner but I will try.'  We are in the same boat, deficient in intelligence on how to act and weak when confronted with less-than-virtuous options.  In the context the first reading and the Gospel it is apparent that Abraham was much closer to virtuous behavior than was Martha, no matter if one uses the psalm or Confucius as the yardstick. 

Abraham was certainly a master of understatement.  "Let me bring you a little food that you may refresh yourselves."  A little food?  Rolls.  Beef.  Curds and milk.  It seems as if there was quite a bit of exertion put into preparing this little bit of food.  And then he hovered over his unknown guests, waiting on them, until the meal was over.  No mention of complaining how hard he was working, or how much he was spending or anything else. 

Martha, for her part, blew it.  While there is much allegorical interpretation of this narrative along the lines of the difference between the contemplative and active vocation, the story itself comes across as a slice of life that remains relevant today.  Unlike Abraham, who was almost obsequious to his guests, Martha committed a serious breech of etiquette when she tried to drag a guest into what seems to be sibling rivalry flare-up.  It is difficult to imagine anyone asking a guest to tell that sister of mine to get in here and help me instead of listening to you?  The most essential component of hospitality is to pay attention to the comfort of the guest, precisely what Abraham did and Martha failed to do. 

Martha and Mary are not either/or:  Be preoccupied with service or attend to the words of Jesus.  We are called to serve AND to hear the words of Jesus.  Contemplative religious life must entail some element of action and active religious life demands a degree of contemplation.  The challenge for all of us, religious or lay, active or contemplative, old or young, is to place the burdens that confront us on a daily basis in their proper perspective so that we can hear the words of Jesus in the midst of our busy-ness.  It is not always easy but it is, like the admonitions in the psalm and in Confucius, an ideal toward which we must strive.  Our reward for such striving was limned in the Gospel acclamation:

"Blessed are they who have kept the word with a generous heart and yield a harvest through perseverance."

The heat and humidity have finally broken.  Alas, there was no rain.  The grass is getting a tad beige.  Last Sunday was an almost perfect day.  It rained at some point Saturday night.  All of the flowers in the planter were bedecked with rain drops.  I spent about 45 minutes  wandering around with my camera both in the house and around the planter.  The results are below. 

"Up on the roof."  The elevator is done.  We are awaiting the state inspection before it can be put into use.  The old parts were still on the roof last week.  

Down in the lounge the chessboard was sitting beneath a window.  Definitely a b&w photo rather than color.  I call it The Bishop and His Deacon.
The flowers were particularly lovely.  In the past week the searing heat has done a real job on them. 

I learned a new technique on Aperture 3.  Here is the first attempt. 
Two bees were busy gathering pollen. 
And now we have the reason for photography.  A blue dragonfly was teasing me.  The first shows it on the concrete near a flower petal.  This one has to be cropped as I took it while standing.  The other shows the same dragonfly a few minutes later perched on a daisy.  No cropping, no manipulation at all.  This is how it came out of the camera.  I think I am inordinately pleased with myself for these two (he said as he rubbed his nails on his lapel.)

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, July 13, 2013

14th Friday in Ordinary Time

Celebrated Mass on Thursday and Friday at St. Zephiran in Wayland.  One of the men in the community generally celebrates Mass there on Thursday and Friday.  As he was away for a few days I went down.  On Thursday traffic was a nightmare.  It took 40 minutes to get there, with 15 of those minutes trying to get onto Boston Post Road.  On Friday I left early.  Had lots of time to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament as the trip took 15 minutes.  But still, traffic here is better than the Beltway and 270 in D.C. 

12 July 2013
Mt 10:16-23

Today’s gospel is not one of the comforting ones.  There are no images of good shepherds, the blessedness of the poor, or anything else that might make us feel good about ourselves or about being followers of Jesus. 

Today’s gospel comes from the middle portion of a long instruction Jesus gave to the apostles before sending them off on mission. It began in the readings on Wednesday when Jesus “summoned the twelve and gave them authority over unclean spirits and to cure every disease and every illness.”  Yesterday he set the radical ground rules: “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”  Today he gives the apostles a dose of reality.  He tells them what their mission is going to be like.  Preaching the gospel wasn’t easy then and it isn’t easy now.  As we are all called to preach Jesus crucified and risen from the dead, the instruction which Jesus gave to the apostles is for us as well.  Of course it has to be understood in our own setting, in this time and place. 

Here in Wayland, as well as in most of the Western world, it is not as if we are facing death or charges of blasphemy for preaching Jesus' message.  The risks are much higher in parts of India where Hindu fundamentalist are burning Christian churches, the Middle East where the Iraqi Christian community has practically vanished, and China, to name a few.  We are physically safe.  However, that physical safety does not mean that we will not be persecuted for being Catholic.  We may have to suffer the martyrdom of exclusion, of ostracism or, horror of horrors, not being considered sufficiently liberal, modern or with it, whatever IT might be. 

We live in an age where it isn’t “cool” to be religious.  Many assume that everyone supports living out of wedlock, gay marriage, abortion, and physicians giving old sick old people a prescription for a lethal dose of medication upon request.  It is a shock to some when they find out that there are those who live their religious beliefs by speaking out against such abuses.  We cannot afford to be silent when it is time to speak.  The comfort in this gospel comes from Jesus’ promise, “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say.  You will be given at that moment what you are to say.” 

The apostles were called to profess Jesus as coming in the name of the Father.  The apostles were called to preach the Kingdom of God here on earth.  We are called to nothing less.
Some semi-random photos from Gloucester and Taiwan
The first few are from Taiwan, specifically Sun Moon Lake trips. 

The orchids in the hallway of the hotel were simple but made a strong statement.  Asian hotels, in general, use flowers a lot better than U.S. ones in that they are not prone to the huge over-the-top sprays of flowers beloved of places like The Four Seasons. 

This is my first attempt at night photography.  Did not have a tripod then but there was a wall.  The flowers above were in the hotel to the right of the neon bedecked one.

The little boy's yellow shirt caught my eye.  We were now across the lake from the hotel at an Aboriginal village.  His concentration on whatever he was concentrating on was complete. 
The photos below were taken at the beginning and end of the whale watch on 4 July.  Had to use a high iso setting and fast shutter speed because the boat was bouncing all over the place.  Holding any kind of focus was impossible.  

The red boat was sitting in the harbor.  

 The lighthouse and jetty at the entrance to Gloucester Harbor are important in my prayer life.  During the long retreat I would walk down to the jetty and out to the very end at night if the tide was low.  Boston was visible in the distance with the lights glittering.  I would yell at God on the jetty.  In the mornings, if the tide was low, I would run to the jetty and out to the edge, a very tricky thing given the rocks.  The lighthouse is at the beginning of the jetty.

The old factory sits a bit further out in the harbor.  The only thing missing is a Burma Shave sign.  

We did see whales.  Here is proof.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD