Monday, July 31, 2017

Feast of St. Ignatius

July 31 is the major holiday for the men of the Society of Jesus.  In Ljubljana two of the men, Fathers Marjan Kokalj, SJ and Ivan Platovnjak, SJ will pronounce their final vows at Mass at sv. Jože.  I wish I were still there for that but the vow Mass was set well after I arrived with return plans already in place.  I will celebrate two Masses at two different nursing homes.  Rev. Mr. Evarist Shigi, SJ, of Tanzania, a deacon, will go with me to proclaim the gospel and preach.  The community at Campion will celebrate with vespers in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit followed by a festive dinner.  

Officially founded in 1540 though the roots stretch back about twenty years previously the Society founded by Ignatius and his first companions changed, and has continued to influence, the history of the world.  Having lived a life of many graces I can say the greatest of those was entering the Society twenty years ago next month.  

The photo is a painting of Ignatius on the wall of the domestic chapel at sv. Jože in LJ.  

St. Ignatius, Founder of the Society of Jesus, pray for us. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, July 23, 2017

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Ps 86:5-6,9-10,15-16
Romans 8:26-27
Mt 13:24-43

As was the problem last week, the readings and the Gospel contain an overabundance of riches on which to preach or meditate.  This weekend we hear the second of three readings from the long 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, a gospel reading that picks up where it left off last week. The overall sense of the today's readings and psalm taken together is: what God has done for us, the last judgment, and the movements of faith.

The first reading is from a section of the Book of Wisdom subtitled: God’s Fidelity to His People in the Exodus.  Over the next three or four weeks the first reading at daily Mass will focus on the story of the Exodus up to and including Moses’ death just before entering the land.   We will hear again of the people’s infidelity to the covenant, an infidelity that was recurrent despite God’s unwavering fidelity. 

The Book of Wisdom was written centuries after the Exodus.  This reading is a reminder of God’s love for us, and his tolerance of our tendency to be unfaithful to our side of the deal.  There is great consolation when we hear: “You judge with clemency and with much lenience you judge us.”  With those words in mind consider the parable of the wheat into which bad seed was sown. 

Scholars suggest that the seed sown with the wheat was difficult to tell from the wheat during the early growth stage.  Any attempt to remove the weeds would be based on judgment and appearance.  The judgment could be wrong.  Wrong judgment would result in loss of good wheat.  Better to give all the plants the benefit of the doubt, better to let them to grow to maturity, before putting the good into the barn and the bad into the flame. 

Just as God never wavered in His commitment to the Israelites in the desert, He does not waver in His commitment to us.  God does not judge or condemn us without allowing multiple chances to reform our lives as individuals and as a people. The final judgment, the final sorting, does not happen on this earth.  It can take place only after death.  And so we can say with the psalmist as often as necessary,

“But you, God of mercy and compassion,
slow to anger, O Lord,
abounding in love and truth,
turn and take pity on me.”

We have daily opportunities to allow for the action of grace in our lives. That action is illustrated in the two short examples of the mustard seed and the yeast.  I’m going to ignore the mustard seed. I’ve been a bread baker for decades.  Having gone through hundreds of pounds of flour the example of the yeast is a resonant one.  Despite having watched many loaves of bread rise I’m never less than amazed by the action of the yeast. 

When a tablespoon of yeast is mixed with three cups of water, one-half teaspoon of sugar (most American bread recipes contain way too much sugar, I only use enough to get the yeast kicking unless making cinnamon-raisin), a tablespoon of salt, and six cups of flour it disappears from view; its effect, however, is astounding.  After mixing, stirring, kneading, and a few hours of rising, what began as a beige, gloppy, sticky mess becomes a smooth dome ready to be transformed by heat into warm, fragrant, and golden loaves of bread.  

As yeast transforms the nature of the ingredients to which it has been added the invisible action of grace transforms us. The result is a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts. The transformation does not occur without work on our part. Yeast cannot exert its transforming effect without some attention.  We must maintain the proper conditions for the yeast to act.  Water that is too hot kills the yeast.  Bread won’t bake in an oven that is too cool.  The dough collapses if the pan is dropped on the way into the oven.  In this last case, however, the dough will rise again if given time and the proper conditions. Baking bread is not foolproof but it is not difficult either.  And so it is for us. Cooperating with grace is not mindless. It does not occur automatically. But it is not impossible either. 

Like baking bread, cooperating with grace requires some effort and attention to detail and conditions.  Grace, like the grains of yeast mixed with other ingredients, is invisible. It may be forgotten in the midst of our daily concerns.  If we do not maintain the conditions needed for the action of grace, we, like improperly handled bread dough, remain beige, gloppy and sticky messes.  If we are careless about our faith, we collapse with the first jarring blow.  We can maintain the conditions necessary for the action of grace only through prayer, regular participation in the sacraments (particularly confession), and meditation on the Word of God.  In that way we make ourselves ready for the final action of the Kingdom of God.

The question is: will we rise to the occasion?

Jet lag is mostly gone.  It took a little longer than usual compared with previous travel to and from Europe.  However, I'd never lived there as long.  Now back into the previous swing of things at the nursing homes.  

Of all the photo opportunities in LJ, and they were almost innumerable, shooting at night was the most revealing.  I have a very fast 50 mm equivalent lens (f 1.4) that opened up the possibilities for shooting at night without a tripod.  LJ supplied much raw material for playing with night shots.  I enjoyed being able to go out after dark with the camera to shoot for an hour or two.  One of the challenges in the summer is how light it stayed.   Dark was well after 9 PM.  Winter was great as the dark descended by 5 PM.  

A below-the-sidewalk bar along the river.  Note the ashtrays.  I think there is proportionately more smoking in Slovenia than the U.S.  Smoking not allowed indoors at restaurants and cafes but it is allowed in the outdoor seating areas, an accommodation that strikes me as eminently sensible.  Forbidding smoking anywhere on the grounds of a hospital or other area strikes me as mostly virtue-signaling.  Funny how a 16 year-old in the U.S. can begin sex-change treatment or get an abortion but not purchase cigarettes.  

Plečnik's Colonnade reflection in the Ljubljanica River.   

The fascination with empty glassware continues.  Note the Snickers Bar wrapper.  I don'tknow if it was part of the drink or a side treat.  

It is a bit odd to see gelato and pastry sold alongside alcohol.  The next three shots are from an outdoor bar/gelato stand on Prešernov Trg across from the Franciscan Church.  It is open seasonally.  It will close around Advent and reopen when it gets warmer, according to Slovenian standards of warm as opposed to U.S. standards, which translates into March rather than mid-June.

May I have some Campari poured over my gelato?

I like this bar still life very much.  Shots such as these make night shooting rewarding and fun. 

The fascination with the interaction of light and glass continues.

Another gelato place, this one indoors.  When walking along the promenade on either side of the river there are multiple options to purchase gelato without going indoors.  

One of the outdoor options.  I bought gelato from this stand twice.  Very good.

Candlelight and glass.  An unbeatable combination. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, July 15, 2017

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Is 55:10-11
Ps 65
Rom 8:18-25
Mt 13:1-23

It is important to remember that our scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments, were written at a particular time and in a particular place. They reflect a specific social structure and describe a unique model of governance and law.  One of the challenges today is to put the teaching of scripture into a modern context so as to understand how particular examples and mandates apply to us now in the first part of the 21st century.  Some of the images and examples we encounter in the Bible may fail to affect us or may not resonate with us whereas others still work fairly well.  

Today's first reading, the psalm and the gospel all contain images of grain, seed, rain and soil, images that may be a bit easier for us to understand than images of raising sheep or weaving cloth, something with which the vast majority of us have no experience.   There is quite a bit to consider.

While today’s gospel has several aspects to it, the centerpiece of this passage is the parable that begins in the first nine verses and is explained in the last eight verses.

This particular parable is oftentimes referred to as the parable of the sower.  That is the wrong name.  This parable has little to do with the sower or the seed.  It has everything to do with the soil into which the seed was sown.  The sower is the means of getting the seed to the ground. The seed is good seed that could take root anywhere. 

A parable always points to something more than its story.  When we hear one of Jesus’ parables proclaimed we must always ask ourselves what is below the surface.  While the story of the parable is generally simple the meaning is deeper and more complex.  That is the great gift of the parables; we can return to them again and again, and find something new each time.  We can meditate on them repeatedly and never exhaust what they say to us.  

The parable about the soils onto which the seed falls is a parable about us. It is a parable about us who are here to receive the Word of God, the Living Word of God in the assembly, the Living Word of God in the readings, and the True Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of the altar. 

The Word of God is the seed.  We are the soil.  But  what kind of soil are we?  Are we willing to receive the word?  Are we going to let it take root in us or not?  Will we nurture it?  Will we start off strong and fade in the end?  Will the Word of God take root in us and produce an enormous yield up to a hundred times? 

When he explained the parable to the apostles Jesus gave three reasons for rejecting the Word of God: the activity of the evil one,  personal shallowness, and worldly concerns coupled with the desire for wealth.  We confront each of these on a daily basis. 

Like us, Jesus knew temptation from the evil one.  Unlike us, Jesus never acted on the temptation.  He never “took the bait” no matter  what: food, power, or glory.  Jesus, fully Divine and fully human, was like us in all things but sin.  He is our model of obedience to the will and the law of God.

Personal shallowness is a different kind of rejecting God’s Word.  It is represented by the seed that springs up in a scant amount of soil and then withers with the sun.  That is us when we enthusiastically embrace the Word of God, when we nurture the seed . . .  until something happens.  It could be a natural disaster, a personal crisis, a loss . . . you name it.   But as soon as things don’t go our way we decide God is not worth bothering with.  The childish response, “I could never believe in God if he let something like this happen” is no different than the child who yells "I hate you" at a his or her parents when the expensive video game is not among the birthday presents. 

The crop that is choked out by weeds of worldly concern brings to mind a bumper sticker that is popular in the U.S.  It never fails to depress me when I see it.  “He who has the most toys when he dies wins.”  Wins what?  Accumulating material possessions in competitive fashion, having more, bigger, faster; more luxurious, more exclusive, more prestigious?  All of this distracts us from truly living. 

Financial success or having many possessions is not a sin.  A flashy car or a large house is not inherently sinful.  However, when obtaining these things becomes the dominant factor of our lives to the exclusion of everything else, we are allowing the Word to be choked by the distractions.  The seed that the sower has spread, the seed of faith freely given us by God, is of the finest quality.  The rains have been plentiful. 

We heard in the psalm: “You care for the earth, give it water, you fill it with riches.  Your river in heaven brims over to provide its grain.”
Only two questions remain.  What kind of soil are we?  Are we willing to care for the sower's gift?

Somewhat reluctantly back in the U.S.  Got home Thursday after a smooth but still arduous flight.  Jet lag a lot better today than it was yesterday when I was not fit to be around man, beast, or a beer.  It will take a few weeks to get my new room in shape.  Talk with provincial in two weeks about the next step.  Several interesting possibilities.  

The photos are from the sacristies of both the Cathedral of St. Nicholas and the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, both in LJ approximately 500 yards apart.  

Thuribles against a wall in the Cathedral. 

Chalice and patens at the ready for Mass.

Partial view of a chandelier.

The light in the Franciscan church was perfect at 11 AM.  By 11:30 there was no further direct light on the altar. 

Standing at the entrance to the sacristy.  Had to tone the on the flowers down just a little bit. 

The pulpit and portion of the choir loft. 

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Memorial St. Benedict

Mt 10:7-15

Today is the memorial of St. Benedict of Nursia.  For those who live according to the Rule of St. Benedict it is a major feast.  Benedict is thought to have been born around AD 480 and died around AD 550.  In response to the degeneracy of Rome--a degeneracy the US has surpassed--he became a hermit in Subiaco where he attracted his first followers.  He later went to Monte Cassino.  The monastery he founded there, though destroyed several times, including by Allied bombs in 1944, was a religious and cultural hub of Europe for centuries.  It remains an active community of Benedictine monks. 

Benedict wrote his rule for monks at Monte Cassino.  The Prologue is a masterpiece of concise theology:  "Listen carefully, my son, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is the advice from a father who loves you;  welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through disobedience."  In just fifty-three words Benedict described a fundamental truth. 

"Attend . . . with the ear of your heart."  How often do we truly listen with the ear of the heart?  Under the term "listen" in his Dictionary of Biblical Theology the late Xavier Leon-Dufour, S.J. writes, "Now according to the Hebraic meaning of the word truth, to listen, to receive the Word of God, is not only to lend it an attentive ear but also to open one's heart to it;  it is to put it into practice, that is, to obey.  Such is the preaching of faith which preaching that is heard demands." 

In his encyclical Lumen Fidei, (Light of Faith) the Holy Father  describes faith as hearing and sight.   Pope Francis quotes Paul's Letter to the Romans when he notes "faith comes from hearing."  Faith comes from hearing the Word of God as it is revealed in scripture, both proclaimed aloud at Mass and read in the silence of one's room.  Faith comes from listening with that ear of the heart that Benedict described.  That is a particular form of hearing that grows from the personal relationship with Jesus to which each of us is called. 

We live in a physically and socially noisy world.  Noise caused by  traffic, air conditioners, background music, television, crowds of people, . . .  sometimes despite our desire to listen we cannot hear above the din, we cannot hear above the distractions of daily life.  In today's gospel Jesus, through his instructions to the apostles, is telling us how to hear, how to attune the ear of our hearts to the Word of God in two words, 'travel light.'

Just as we sometimes cannot hear a person across the table from us in a restaurant because of the noise--a problem that is increasing by the year--we cannot listen to the Word of God when we are burdened  by too much baggage and by too much stuff.  Jesus is emphasizing to the apostles he is sending on mission-- he is emphasizing to us--the need for detachment from material things that are a source of much of the spiritual noise in our lives.

We are more attentive, we are more open, when our minds are not cluttered with concern for material things, power, and prestige.  When we are not preoccupied with possessions, we are more open to hearing God's Word in its many iterations. 

Listen with the ear of your heart.  Hear the Word of the Lord.  Share what you hear, with those around you.

Leaving Slovenia in two days for home.  Mixed feelings about leaving and mixed feelings about returning to the U.S.  Will discuss next assignment with provincial in two weeks. 

The photos are from St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA, the first monastery of Benedictine men in the U.S., founded by Boniface Wimmer, OSB over two hundred years ago.  Along with the archabbey there is a seminary and St. Vincent College.  I made a few retreats in Latrobe and may go there again this year.  Beautiful place and hospitable community.

The holy oils.

The monastic church.  This was the location for Arnold Palmer's funeral.

Going down the back steps of the monastery toward the ponds.

Alas, the coffee shop run by students is no longer there.  Every day during retreat I went there with some reading and slowly sipped huge cups of coffee.  The coffee at meals at the archabbey left a bit to be desired:  flavor and a temperature higher than room. 

The ponds are for water purification.  Beautiful grounds.  I made the retreat in October.  Fantastic time to be in western Pennsylvania.

The monastery itself is not particularly attractive.  The original one burned in the sixties.  Alas, it was during the time of brutalism.  The rooms are comfortable but the visual impact of the monastery suggests college dorm. 

Boniface Wimmer's statue in front of the church.

Benedictine seal. 

The sacristy with albs for Mass.

Graveyard.  With 200 years of history the graveyard is very large.  
Fr. Jack, SJ, MD