Saturday, July 24, 2010

Our Daily Bread

Homily, 17th Sunday Ordinary Time, C
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton, GA

I once heard a program on public radio that talked about various scientific experiments that sought to prove that prayer is truly effective. Apparently, over the years, many medical professionals have been interested in this question, setting up studies to see if sick people who are prayed for fare better than those who are not prayed for. Some of the studies have indeed shown that there does appear to be some relationship between prayer and patients getting well more quickly. But they’ve had trouble setting up truly scientific studies, because it’s hard to contain all the variables, especially in matters spiritual. One experiment, though, the scientists claimed proved that prayer was effective. In it, they got two test tubes filled with an identical amount of a growing bacteria and asked various prayer groups to pray for one and not the other. And each time, the one that was prayed for grew faster than the other.

Now, listening to this on the radio, I was fascinated, since my background is in science. But the priest in me said, wait a second. They’ve missed the whole point, indeed it makes you wonder if these scientists truly understand what prayer is. Prayer is not a power of the mind that causes things to happen in some sort of magical or paranormal way, and God is not some big source of impersonal energy that can be manipulated by our prayers and his response measured scientifically.

Instead, prayer is, as Jesus explains in the Gospel today, a conversation with a loving Father who cares about us, knows our needs, and wants to give us all that is good for us. If a reluctant and sleepy friend will give in to a persistent friend knocking at his door, how much more will the heavenly Father respond to you when you knock on his door. And, as Jesus says, “If you with all your sins, know how to give your children good things, how much more will the heavenly Father give to those who ask him.”

So Jesus defines prayer in terms of a loving relationship, as St. Therese of Lisieux would say, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” (CCC2258) And St. Teresa of Avil defines prayer this way, “in my opinion, it is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” (CCC2709)

Jesus says, “Ask and you shall receive…” but we’ve all experienced times when we’ve asked but not received. Why is this? Well, St. Augustine explains it this way: “Pray for temporal goods in private, and rest in the knowledge that they come to us from him who knows what is best for us. Did you ask and not get what you wanted? Trust in your Father. If it would have been good for you, you would have received it. Before God, you are much as a little child is before you. All day long, the child cries his eyes out so that you will give him a knife to play with. You wisely refuse his plea and pay no attention to his wailing… You deny him small things so as to preserve more important things.”

So God is generous, but he is also wise, knowing what is best for us. As the new catechism says, “Our Father knows what we need before we ask him, but he awaits our petition because the dignity of his children lies in their freedom. We must pray then, with his Spirit of freedom, to be able to truly know what he wants.” So, if we want our prayer to be effective, we first have to learn to trust him. Pope John Paul said that to learn who the Father is means learning what absolute trust is. And that’s why Jesus taught us the “Our Father.” It has been called the “summary of the whole Gospel” and the “most perfect of prayers.” (CCC 2774) And in it, we learn and show absolute trust in God. We praise him, praying for his kingdom and his will to be done on earth, trusting that his plan for us is for the good of all. We ask him to give us our daily bread, which is symbolic of all our necessities, trusting that he will give us what we truly need. We pray for his mercy, and we pray for protection from evil. In short, in this prayer, we place everything in his hands: our hopes, our needs, our very lives.

But second, if we want our prayers to be effective, we should attune our hearts to his. If God is indeed a loving Father and an intimate friend, then we should appeal to that which is closest to his heart, his mercy and compassion and love. And Abraham knew this in the first reading. When God had threatened to destroy the cities because of their sin, Abraham appealed to his love, his love for just a few just people in the city. God was willing to forgive thousands of sinners for the love of just a few. And we know from the Gospels that Jesus was this way as well. Frequently, he would see the crowds and be moved to pity for them.

The new catechism says that one who prays in intercession for others has a heart “especially attuned to God’s mercy.” (CCC 2365) And if we pray like Abraham, then our prayers will indeed be effective. St. Augustine said, “It is more meritorious to pray for someone else in their needs, than it is to pray for yourself.” And as Pope John Paul has said, this type of prayer is especially needed today, for there is a lot of injustice in today’s world: war, genocide, exploitation, racism, poverty caused by injustice and neglect. Perhaps if more of us pleaded with God like Abraham for mercy and compassion, then we would truly see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

I’m sure we can all think of examples of answered prayer, but I thought I would share with you one from our trip to Jamaica to work with the children with handicaps. The Mustard Seed Community we worked at has always been hanging on by a thread it seems. They’ve had some of their homes firebombed, been evicted from other places, and frequently have trouble getting just the basic necessities, like food and water. Well, one time, they were drastically low on food and were beginning to really worry. But Fr. Gregory, the founder, has taught these children with handicaps how to pray. Indeed, they get up at 5am each morning to pray the rosary and meditate, almost like a monastery. And it is a beautiful thing to see a child pray. So that day, Fr. Gregory asked the children to pray for food. And it turns out, that later that evening, a truck full of food came by, on its way to the Swiss ambassador’s residence for a gala reception for many of the diplomats in Kingston. Well, the truck driver was lost and accidentally pulled into the Mustard Seed Compound. And before he could react, the orphans jumped onto the truck and began unloading it with joy. By the time the truck driver figured out what was happening, the kids had taken 2/3rds of the food and were passing it around.

Well, as you can imagine, the Swiss Ambassador’s party was ruined, and Mustard Seed got an irate call from them the next morning, demanding restitution. Fr. Gregory simply said, by all means, we will do what we can, just come on by and we’ll work something out. Well, the ambassador’s wife came by, and it didn’t take her but 2 minutes with the children to see what had really happened. So instead of demanding restitution, she offered a 3 months supply of food, free, from the finest grocery in Kingston (kind of like our Publix).

So, you see, God does answer prayer, if we simply trust him, appeal to his mercy, and realize that he is a loving Father who knows our every need, for we are indeed, his beloved children.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ora et Labora

Homily, 15th Sunday Ordinary Time, C
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton, GA

“Martha, Martha, you are upset and anxious about many things; one thing only is required. Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it.”

The Gospel today gives us a beautiful contrast between two types of people: on the one hand, the Martha’s of the world who are busy with all the worldly concerns that our Lord calls us to be occupied with - welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked; and on the other hand, the Mary’s of the world, who are more contemplative, given to quiet reflection and the inner life of prayer.

Martha was busy with all the details of hospitality, Mary with resting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his words. Yet both these things are clearly good. God needs the Martha’s of the world as much as he needs the Mary’s of the world. Yet Jesus said that Mary had “chosen the better part.” Why is this? It’s not that Martha had chosen something bad, in fact, she was doing as our Lord had commanded, but it’s simply that Mary had chosen better. Why? Because what Mary chose will last forever. Martha’s work will come to an end. What she was doing would pass away, while Mary was anticipating the life to come, the goal to which we strive and to which all our work on earth is directed.

Martha was troubled with a myriad of details, Mary was delighting in her Lord. Martha was on the journey, Mary had reached the destination. Martha was on the pilgrimage, Mary was enjoying the Promised Land.

St. Augustine would put it this way, “Martha... when you have reached the Promised Land, will you find a stranger whom you may receive into your house? Will you find any hungry, for whom you may break your bread? Or the thirsty, to whom you may hold out your cup? The sick whom you may visit? The imprisoned whom you may set free? The dead whom you may bury? None of these will be there, but what will be there? What Mary has chosen. For there we shall be fed, and shall not feed others.” (Sermon 103, NPNF, v.6, p. 428)

On that day, what Mary had chosen was to have a foretaste of the life to come. She would have to go back to work soon enough, for our Lord was on his way to Jerusalem, where he would be lifted up on the Cross for our sins. Perhaps that’s why Mary chose to sit at our Lord’s feet that day. She knew that he would not be with them much longer. Yes, they would be reunited in Paradise one day, but in the meantime, she wanted a little rest and comfort listening to the Lord’s words - some strength for the long journey ahead. So our Lord was not so much rebuking Martha for her work, for indeed it was good, but he was reminding her of her final goal, her reason for the work.

So, what about us? In a sense, we are called to be both Martha and Mary. If we do not respond to the Lord’s call to serve our neighbor, then we will not receive the gift of eternal life. If we are so focused on heaven that we neglect the poor and needy, then we have missed the very point of heaven. But, if we do not take some time to spend with the Lord, we may lose sight of our heavenly destination. We may make the mistake of thinking we can build up treasure here and now, a heaven on earth through our own hands.

So, how do we do this? How can we be both Martha and Mary? One of the common problems we face today is the widespread belief that religion is something incompatible with daily life, as if we take our religion in small doses - an hour on Sundays, a few private prayers during the week, maybe a prayer or two before we go to bed. But, we must realize that God is always present, in the midst of everything that we do. So we must integrate our prayer and work and make our work holy, sanctifying ordinary things. We can encounter God in the midst of our daily work and by means of our daily work, not in spite of it.

To be like Mary, we must put aside some time each day to spend with the Lord in prayer. And how do we do this in the midst of this busy world? Well, it’s easier than you think. When I was working in Florida I discovered a neat little trick that did wonders for my spiritual life: I turned off the radio on the way to work, and that gave me a full half-hour every morning to pray. Too often we surround ourselves with noise to distract us - radio, Television, whatever.

To be like Martha, we have dedicate ourselves to our work, but do one additional thing. In the midst of our work and daily life, we must listen to the Lord and be aware of his presence. Perhaps the reason Jesus rebuked Martha was that she was so busy with all the details of hospitality that she forgot that Jesus was in the same room. Perhaps if she had just slowed down a bit, she would have been able to listen to Jesus or even speak to him, in the midst of her work. And we can do the same, for we are always in the presence of the Lord.

When I would drive to work in Florida, there was a little sign outside a church that I would pass everyday, and it said very simply, “God speaks to those who take the time to listen.”

Jesus said to Martha, “only one thing is required.” And that one thing is Jesus himself. If we are aware of his presence now and respond to his call, then we have chosen the better portion, and, in the life to come, we shall never be deprived of it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

El Buen Samaritano

San Juan Crisóstomo dice con la boca del Señor:

"No te digo: arréglame mi vida y sácame de la miseria, entrégame tus bienes aun cuando yo me vea pobre por tu amor. Solo te imploro pan y vestido, y un poco de alivio para mi hambre. Estoy preso. No te ruego que me libres. Solo quiero que, por tu propio bien, me hagas una visita. Con eso me bastará y por eso te regalaré el Cielo. Yo te libré a ti de una prisión mil veces más dura. Pero me contento con que me vengas a ver de cuando en cuando.

Pudiera, es verdad, darte tu corona sin nada de esto, pero quiero estarte agradecido y que vengas después a recibir tu premio confiadamente. Por eso, yo, que puedo alimentarme por mí mismo, prefiero dar vueltas a tu alrededor, pidiendo, y extender mi mano a tu puerta. Mi amor llegó a tanto, que quiero que tú me alimentes. Por eso profiero, como amigo, tu mesa; de eso me glorío y te muestro ante todo el mundo como mi bienhechor

(Homily on Romans, 15; cited in Hablar Con Dios, v. 4, p. 134)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Good Samaritan

Homily, 15th Sunday Ordinary Time, C
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton, GA

Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God.” Here, St. Paul is affirming the great truth that the Church has proclaimed through all the ages: that Jesus Christ is the God-man, fully human and fully divine. And it is very important to understand what this means, that we do not misinterpret it. He is not part God and part man, or some mixture of the two; he became truly man while remaining truly God (CCC 464). Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes explains (GS 38). “God's Word, through Whom all things were made, was Himself made flesh and dwelt on the earth of men. Thus He entered the world's history as a perfect man, taking that history up into Himself and summarizing it. He Himself revealed to us that "God is love" and at the same time taught us that the new command of love was the basic law of human perfection and hence of the worlds transformation.

And the story of the Good Samaritan is a good illustration of how he is both divine and human. For in this story, Jesus Christ is both the Good Samaritan and the man who fell in with robbers, and we have a role to play as well.

In answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus tells the story of the traveler going from Jerusalem to Jericho. Well, that road would have been familiar to his listeners, for it was notoriously dangerous at the time. And when Jesus said, “going down” this road, he wasn’t kidding, for in just 20 miles, the road dropped down 3600 feet, and was full of narrow, rocky crevices and sudden turns. In short, it was a happy hunting ground for robbers and thieves, who could hit their victims with ease and escape quickly back into the hills. The traveler in Jesus’ story had no one to blame but himself for traveling alone, with valuables to steal, on such a dangerous road. So the help offered by the Good Samaritan was indeed gratuitous, for the traveler had, in a sense, brought the trouble on himself.

And if we look at this story from the standpoint of Christ’s Divinity, then Jesus is the Good Samaritan. We were the ones who fell in with robbers through our own fault. We tried to travel on our own without God and fell because of sin. We were wounded by our sin, left dying by the side of the road with no way to save ourselves, but Jesus came down from heaven to earth to heal us, bind us up, nurse us back to health, and provide for our care.

But in another sense, in his humanity, Christ is also the man who fell in with robbers. For scripture tells us, (Isaiah 53:4-5) “it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured... he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins... by his stripes we were healed”, (2 Cor. 8:9), “for our sake he became poor although he was rich”, (2 Cor. 5:21), and “for our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin.

So, in a special way, Jesus identifies with all those who suffer, for he took on our humanity so that he could raise up what was fallen, restore what was lost, and heal what was wounded.

And because Jesus identifies himself with the man who fell in with robbers, he calls us to be the Good Samaritan, to be like him and to respond with compassion and action to those in need. And at the last judgment, Jesus tells us that we will be judged on how we respond to that call, for he says (Mt. 25) “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.... I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.

St. John Chrysostom would reflect on these words of Jesus and have Jesus say to us: “I am not saying to you: solve all my problems for me, give me everything you have, even though I am poor for love of you. I only ask for some bread and clothes, some relief for my hunger. I am in prison. I do not ask you to free me. I only wish, that for your own good, you pay me a visit. That will be enough for me, and I in return will make you a gift of heaven. I have freed you from a prison a thousand times more harsh. But I am happy if you come and visit me from time to time.” (NPNF, v.11, p.458)

Throughout the history of the Church, people have responded to this call, to be the Good Samaritan who reaches out to Christ in the suffering and the poor.

If you ever have a chance to visit the Basilica Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Md., not too far from where I went to seminary, you will see two beautiful stained glass windows. One depicts what are called the Spiritual works of mercy, and the other depicts the Corporal works of mercy. They reflect the work that the Daughters of Charity, the order founded by St. Elizabeth, dedicate their lives to.

The Spiritual works of mercy are these: To convert the sinner; To instruct the ignorant; To counsel the doubtful; To comfort the sorrowful; To bear wrongs patiently; To forgive injuries; To pray for the living and the dead.

And the Corporal works of mercy are: To feed the hungry; To give drink to the thirsty; To clothe the naked; To shelter the homeless; To visit the sick; To visit the imprisoned; To bury the dead.

And in our day and age, there are so many opportunities to be involved with these works of mercy. In our everyday lives, we do the spiritual works by giving Christian witness, by teaching our children, by encouraging and supporting our friends, and by trying to be more virtuous people. And the opportunities for corporal works of mercy are even greater, for we can reach out to the homeless and needy, visit the lonely and abandoned, and pray for those who are sick.

Vatican II explains, (GS 38), “To those, therefore, who believe in divine love, [The Lord] gives assurance that the way of love lies open to men and that the effort to establish a universal brotherhood is not a hopeless one. He cautions them at the same time that this charity is not something to be reserved for important matters, but must be pursued chiefly in the ordinary circumstances of life.

And I want to reiterate one point, that may be lost sometimes: the Good Samaritan responded to the needs of the man who fell in with robbers, even though this man was entirely at fault for not taking enough precautions when traveling a dangerous road. And we are called to do the same today, and respond with compassion and action even to those who have brought trouble on themselves. We are called to be like Christ who came to us even in the midst of our sin. St. Paul says, (Romans 5:8), “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” And if that is how God proves his love for us, then if we are to prove our love to him and inherit everlasting life, then we must do as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, “Go and do likewise.