Sunday, June 26, 2016

13th Sunday of Ordinary Time

1 Kgs 19:16b, 19-21
Ps 23: 16:1-2, 5,7-8, 9-10,11
Gal 5:1, 12-18
Luke 9:51-62           

Today’s readings and gospel are rich in meaning and symbolism.  They are also dense and complex.  One common thread among them that speaks to us today is the question of our vocations, receiving, living and the cost of accepting them.

The Latin root of vocation, voco, vocare, vocatus means: to summon, to call, to name, to call upon, to invite, to challenge.  The meanings overlap a bit  but each is also distinct. A standard dictionary defines vocation as: a regular occupation, especially one for which a person is particularly qualified or suited, an inclination, as if in response to a summons, to undertake a particular kind of work, especially a religious career.  Then there is the very personal definition of vocation of Mother Dolores Hart, the movie actress who became a nun at Connecticut's Abbey of Regina Laudis 53 year ago: "A vocation is a call from God but not one you necessarily want."

One's vocation may involve membership in a particular order or congregation, vows, or ordination.  Those of us who came of age in the 50’s and 60’s tend to automatically associate the word ‘vocation’ with being a priest, sister, or brother.  ‘Vocation Day’ was always eagerly anticipated in parochial school, if for no other reason than several classes were suspended in favor of vocation talks.  Something like an in-school field trip.  It was certainly better than enduring arithmetic or, God forbid, algebra.  The Church's understanding of vocation has expanded since those days.

Today we speak of:
The vocation TO religious life
The vocation TO marriage
The vocation TO medicine
The vocation TO teaching
The vocation TO parenthood

Ultimately our vocations hinge on radical witness to Gospel values.  That radical witness is summarized in Paul’s letter the Galatians,  “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Elisha’s dramatic summons is fascinating.  Imagine being him. There you are working on a day like any other when a stranger comes up, tosses his cloak over you, and expects you to follow him? It would be odd. It would be frightening.  But that is what happens when we realize:
“This is it." 
"This is the life I will live." 
"This is the path I will follow." 
"This is the one whom I will follow."  

Many of us here probably have stories of how we came to realize our vocations at the most inconvenient time possible, much as it was for Elisha.  But we accepted the summons because in the end, when we realize our vocations, there really is no choice, something Mother Dolores knows very well. 

Jesus tells us of the cost of discipleship, the cost of accepting, following, and living out our vocations with integrity in the last verses of the Gospel.  That cost is very high.  When three men ask or are asked to follow Him Jesus does not respond with a warm and affirming “Great” or  “Welcome Aboard”  or  "Thank you for joining us.”  He gives them a reality check.  The first interchange reflects the challenge of being itinerant.  The demands of a vocation may keep us from being rooted in one place.  Or may force us to leave home for a place far away.  The last two replies seem almost cruel.  The late scripture scholar, Jesuit Fr. Dan Harrington, notes that the statement about not returning to bury one’s father is probably to be understood as deliberate hyperbole meant to shock the hearer into realizing that nothing is to be preferred to following Jesus, not even the solemn obligation to bury one’s parent.  Nothing takes precedence to discipleship and its demands.  Nothing takes precedence to living out one’s vocation.   The interchange with the third man has a modern counterpart.  “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” 

Most of us have never been behind a plow or even on the seat of a tractor.  But we’ve driven cars.   When driving our eyes must be fixed on where we’re going not where we’ve been.  Looking back while behind a plow causes a crooked row.  Looking back . . .  or, to put things in a contemporary setting, texting while driving results in disaster.   As the birthday card my older sister sent a few years ago says, "Honk if you love Jesus, text while driving if you want to meet Him."

To follow Jesus, to accept and live out one’s vocation, requires that we remain with our gaze fixed ahead, not behind from whence we came.  Our freedom to do so is radical.  We are free to accept or reject a vocation.  We are free to love our neighbor or treat our neighbor as a means to an end.  Ultimately we are free to say with the psalmist:

"You will not abandon my soul to the netherworld
Nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption
you will show me the path to life
Fullness of joy in your presence
the delights at your right hand forever."

The readings, particularly Jesus' advice in the gospel, are interesting.  Looking back on two of the marriages at which I officiated that have ended, I wish I'd had the foresight to remind the couples that once the ceremony is over you can't look back.  You can't continue to hang out with your buddies the way you did before being married, you can't put your girlfriends  first.  The relationships will change drastically.  You cannot live the life you did before committing to marriage.  You have said yes to another.  You have said yes to a particular way of life.  This way of life cannot be part-time.  It must be full-time with everything else taking second place.  The same is true when parenthood happens.  Stay behind the plow, keep going forward.  

The same is true for a man or woman entering religious life.  Your old life is gone.  A few years ago while making manifestation to the provincial he asked if I had ever thought of leaving the Society.  I responded that I had, generally once a year, and almost invariably when I was in Philadelphia.  I liked living in Philly during med school and loved it during psychiatry residency fifteen years later.  Whenever I found myself in Philly after entering I would eventually wander over toward the Parkway with the Art Museum at one end (think Rocky running up the steps) and the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul at the other.  And my apartment  with a view of the cathedral nearby.  During the three years I lived there I ran along the Parkway four or five days a week, attended concerts at the Academy of Music regularly (hearing violinist Sarah Chang's debut with the Orchestra remains the most memorable concert), explored restaurants, bookstores, and wandered.  Unfortunately I had not yet returned to photography as a hobby so there is no record.

Each of those times I would wonder about why I'd entered the Society and why I stayed.  And then at one of the medical school reunions it hit me.  I didn't want to leave the Society.  What fueled my thoughts was a sloppily sentimental nostalgia for being forty years-old again.  And THAT wasn't going to happen.  I was looking back at the energy I had then to run five or six miles early Sunday AM and then walk two miles to Mass followed by wandering the city for a few hours on the way back home.  One can look back and enjoy the memories but to recreate and relive those memories is impossible if for no other reason than age.  Once I figured out what drove my looking back the thoughts disappeared.  No, I ain't never gonna be forty again.  Might as well get used to the idea and stay behind the plow.  

Ljubljana at night was fascinating.  Just before I went to Slovenia I acquired 50 mm equivalent f 1.4 lens that allows hand held photography at night as opposed to needing a tripod.  A few days after arriving I went out in the neighborhood.  Am pleased with the results. 

This first is not technically a night shot but it is low-light.  It is the chapel at the Jesuit church.  The church is huge.  Vast.  It would be brutally expensive to heat in the winter.  Thus, the English-language Mass was held in here on Sunday.  The chapel was redesigned by Br. Robert who is an accomplished architect.  The simplicity is breathtaking.  He used/uses light very creatively as seen in the tabernacle that is lit from behind.  The translucent door is etched with the Jesuit sunburst IHS logo.  

This is the street alongside the Jesuit community and church.  It was about 9 PM when I took these.  Ljubljana is very quiet at night.

A little further down on the road leading to the canal. 

The canal runs through a significant swath of the city.

A viaduct over the canal. 

I'd had coffee earlier in the day at this coffee house with two men.  Lovely little place adjacent to the canal.   The table in the window (indoors, unlike most Slovenians I am not keen on sitting at an outdoor café in 50 degree weather drinking coffee.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Monday, June 13, 2016

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sam 12:7-10.13
Psalm 31
Gal 2:16.19-21
Luke 7:36:8:3

Being deeply in debt is uncomfortable.  Being forgiven a debt is an extraordinary experience.  What would it be like to open an envelope from the credit card company to find that the bill had been wiped clean? To be told you owe nothing more?  The word tremendous comes to mind.  Wouldn’t it be great to receive a letter from the bank informing you that the mortgage had been forgiven—and you were being given $10 grand for remodeling?  What would it be like to learn that an anonymous benefactor  had freely chosen to pay your debt?  Were we to then meet that benefactor most of us would be speechless in the face of such generosity.  That is what Jesus did for us.  Jesus freely chose to pay our debt, to atone for sin and to save us—not from bankruptcy court—but from death. 

Unfortunately, even after we come to know the one who had freely chosen to pay the debt, even after we learn how that debt was repaid, most of us behave more like the Pharisee than “the woman known in town to be a sinner.” No big deal.  Gratitude is not always our response to the gift or to the giver.

In its commentary on the first reading The Jewish Study Bible notes, “David has been ungrateful to the Lord who gave him everything.”  That is quite an understatement.  The Lord had given David everything and then some.  But—as it is for many—everything wasn’t enough.  He, like us, wanted even more.  So David went as far as to arrange for Uriah the Hittite to be sent to the front lines where he was certain to be killed, so that David could marry Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, with whom he had already committed adultery resulting in a very inconvenient pregnancy.  David has only one redeeming feature in this sordid chapter.  As the commentary notes, “David, without arguing, frankly and immediately admits his guilt.”   He did not make excuses.  He did not say,  “I was only just . . ."  David did something that is very difficult for all of us.  He said, “I have sinned.”  He admitted his guilt.  He confessed.

The Gospel is something of a contrast. 

While it is difficult, if not impossible for us to admit, “I have sinned,” we are usually enthusiastic participants in the sport of pointing out the sins of others, oftentimes to anyone who will listen.  Simon, the host of the party, and his guests were certainly happy to do so.  “She is a sinner. . . .”  We are all sinners.  We are all sinners loved by God.  But unlike David we are reluctant, if not unwilling,  to admit our guilt.

How many rationalize not taking advantage of the sacrament of confession, or criticize Catholics, by saying "I don't need a priest.  I confess directly to God."?  Perhaps. The rationalizations for not confessing sins are sometimes creative.  In the end they all boil down to one thing, unwillingness to admit to ourselves that we are sinners.  We are unwilling to say it aloud. 

In our relationships with others  we find it difficult to apologize without trying to excuse ourselves saying something such as  “I’m sorry BUT . . .”, a line that is generally followed by inventive rationalizations and self-justifications.  Indeed, we oftentimes begin a comment that is going to hurt another individual with “I’m sorry, BUT. . . ."

The woman in the Gospel recognized the gift.  She recognized the tremendous gift of forgiveness.  And she acknowledged the giver.  Just like us, if we were to meet the benefactor who had freely chosen to pay off our mortgage, the woman was speechless.  She could only weep.  Did she weep from joy?  Did she weep from relief?  Perhaps she wept from sorrow when she realized how undeserving she was.

The responsorial psalm is explanatory:

“I acknowledged my sin to you
My guilt I covered not.
I said ‘I confess my faults to the Lord,’
And you took away the guilt of my sin. 

That is not an easy thing to do.   If we are able to do so, however, there is joy.

“Happy the one whose fault is taken away,
 Whose sin is covered.
Happy the one to whom the Lord imputes not guilt In whose spirit there is no guile."

In his letter to the Galatians Paul wrote, “I will not treat God’s gracious gift as pointless.”   He tells us what we are called to do.  To treat God’s gracious gift not as pointless, not as something that we deserve, not as something to which we are entitled, not as something for which we need not give thanks, but. . . . as the tremendous gift that it is.  The mortgage has been paid off. The bankers can’t touch us anymore.

Despite the bystanders muttering, “Who is this that he even forgives sins?”  we can only stand in silent gratitude as Jesus says to us,

“Your sins are forgiven. . .
Go now in peace.” 

A free day tomorrow.  For the first time in about 35 days I don't have to go anywhere to celebrate Mass.  I love doing it but the luxury of not having to hit the road by 9 AM or later is going to be appreciated.  As there is coffee, cereal, and a few other staples in the room I won't have to get out of my long-sleeved t-shirt and ratty basketball shorts.  Nor will I leave the room, especially dressed like that.  After a certain age a man should never be seen in public in shorts.  I've passed that age.  

The photos attached were taken in Lyon, France one year and one day ago (on 14 June 2014).  It was a perfect June day.  Sunny, warm, with breeze and no humidity.  Absolutely glorious.  I'd been there for two weeks already.  Got some very fine shots.  It was one of the few times I returned home for lunch and downloaded all the photos before going out again.  

The first two are the footbridge from Rue Sala, where the community was located, over to Vieux Lyon.  The church is St. Georges where Mass is exclusively celebrated in the extraordinary rite.  Beautiful stained glass.  The bridge was about 30 yards to the left of our entrance. 

The tiny cafe was almost directly across from the entrance to the community on Rue Sala.  Very tiny. 

Two shots of an art gallery in Vieux Lyon.  There were several things I would have liked to have purchased.  If I had money.  

The farmer's market along the Saône.

Breakfast at an outdoor cafe near the cathedral.

The Cafe des Jacobins, on the other side of the Place Bellecour. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Friday, June 10, 2016

10th Friday in Ordinary Time

1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-16

The first reading from chapter 19 of the First Book of Kings begins with verse 9.  It is a fascinating study of faith in the face of adversity.  However, some fill-in background is needed for it to make any sense.

At the beginning of chapter 19 Elijah was about a low as he could go. He had fled Jezebel who had sworn to have him killed.  While hiding an angel instructed him to eat.  Elijah wanted to die. He had given up hope.  He had little faith in God or his mission.  He was despondent.  He ate only when ordered to do so a second time. He then set off on a journey of 40 days on foot. 

The Jewish Study Bible notes that a man traveling alone and used to walking  could cover 15 to 25 miles a day.  Multiplied by 40 days Elijah walked between 600 and 1000 miles.  To put that into perspective, were we to assume he walked 700 miles, he would have traveled from Boston to Cleveland.

What went through his mind as he walked?   What goes through our minds during the 40-day 700 mile journeys we are forced to take?  During chemotherapy?  In the setting of chronic pain?  After the death of a loved one?  Elijah wanted to give up.  But he didn’t.  We are confronted with the same choice. 

Elijah encountered God at the end of his journey.  That he encountered God in a whisper, rather than an earth-shaking event--tornado, earthquake, or fire--is one of the memorable images in the Old Testament.  Elijah had to be open to hearing that whisper.  He had to be attuned to it.  His faith told him it would come.  Similarly, we have to be prepared to hear God's voice in a whisper, in a brief moment of quiet that interrupts the noise in our lives. 

Faith is not a shield from trauma;
Faith does not protect against pain.
Faith does not evaporate the anguish of grieving
the death of a spouse, a parent, or a child.
Faith does not prevent illness and death. 

Faith is an umbrella over all of these.  In the midst of our fear, anguish, frustration, and anger, it allows us to hear the voice of God, in the softest of whispers.  
It has been almost a month since I posted anything.  To say that I've been busy would be a understatement.  I've been on the road a lot, writing a lot of homilies for the Masses I'm celebrating at what I now call "The Carmelite Complex" in Framingham.  The Convent, Carmel Terrace, and St. Patrick Manor, all have Masses daily, except for the convent which is generally Monday through Friday.  

Today is the ninth anniversary of my first Mass.  I was ordained nine years ago yesterday along with Andy Downing and Matt Monnig.  Saw Matt a few weeks ago.  He was actually shocked when I mentioned it had been nine years.  I've been enjoying sitting with the memories of that day.  On Sunday I will be posting the homily I gave at the Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Mary's Church, my home parish, a week after ordination.  

Spent last weekend staying about 1/3 the way up Mt. Equinox in Arlington, VT.  Beautiful drive out though I didn't stop to take any photos as I had to be there by a specified time.  Once off I-91 in Greenfield, MA it was all two-lane VT country roads for a out 2 hours.  The house, a typical 1950's structure had sweeping views of the valley below.  As the house had a complete southern exposure sunrise and sunset photos were a tad difficult.  Hope to return some time in the winter or late fall. 

The view of the  Arlington, VT way below the house.

The flagstone deck after I'd had morning coffee and said the office.  I was wearing a sweatshirt while drinking the coffee.  Wonderfully cool. 

These are almost emblematic of the 1950's cocktail culture. 

There was a crucifix and two empty candle holders on a parson's table just inside the entrance.  A little bit of contortion and nothing but sky and a bit of tree in the background. 

Just after returning to the house on Saturday evening as sunset was happening. 

The end of sunset. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD