Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Five Helpful Hints for Lenten Mountain Climbers

Dear Friends in Christ,

Tomorrow. as ashes are placed upon our foreheads, we begin the holy season of Lent. Admittedly, I am always way more enthusiastic about Lent a few days before it begins than I am in the days after it begins! The initial enthusiasm can devolve rapidly into a sloth like slog. So, as we step off from the Liturgical season of Ordinary Time and begin the ascent known as Lent, let's keep some helpful things in mind.

1. We have a destination. We are climbing a mountain. We are on our way to a more perfect union with God. We are not going in circles. We are going up! Being invited to such a lofty destination is a privilege, not a curse! God is drawing us up to Himself. Climb with Hope! Climb with your heart fixed on the destination. Yes, at times the road and the path will be difficult, but remember the destination! 

2. Pack light.  Many of us when we travel, pack way too many things. Any experienced traveller, however, would recommend traveling light. Climbing the mountain with a heavy pack can quickly discourage us. Similarly, in the ascent to union with God, the things that we are asked to surrender are  meant to help us travel more easily and more quickly. As we make our way up the mountain of Lent, perhaps we will discover that we have packed too much.  Too much food, too much drink, too much entertainment, too much vanity, too much pride, too much envy, too many possessions. As we make this ascent, let's not fear lightening our pack. Fasting and almsgiving can help make the climb easier. What are the things in life that are weighing you down from going more quickly towards perfect union with God? Is keeping them really worth the cost? Whatever we take out of our pack, replace it with more humility. Paradoxically, the more we fill our pack with humility, the lighter we become and the easier is our ascent.

3. We are in this together. We support each other with our prayers and with our friendship.  When we are tempted to give up the ascent or to cut corners, remember that the others are helped by our perseverance and by our example. I know that there are some folks who are able to ascend more easily on their own, but I'm not one of them. For me, having the companionship of fellow travelers spurs me on towards the goal. I'm depending on you. 

4. The Holy Spirit is working within us. This is really the most important thing about Lent. Let the Holy Spirit do most of the work. Stay in the state of grace! Go to confession, receive the Eucharist worthily and devoutly, and pray, pray, pray!  More and more, let the Holy Spirit do the climbing for us. The supernatural virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the Sacraments are the indispensable fuel of the Christian mountain climber. 

5. No discouragement! If you fail, fall, or stumble, don't get discouraged. Sometimes, when somebody stumbles in the spiritual life, they think that it puts them down at the base of the mountain where they have to "start all over" and this discourages them.  It is unusual for someone to stumble on a mountain and to go back to the very bottom. If we stumble on the spiritual mountain, we should  go to confession, humble ourselves, and then be picked up by the grace of God. Then, we pick up where we left off.  In a sign of God's extraordinary goodness to us, if we stumble and have a profound contrition, God can even place us higher up the mountain than the place where we fell. How awesome is that?!  So, no discouragement . . . ever.

I am grateful to be making this climb with you.

(Among my Lenten disciplines this year, is a fast from Facebook. Since I won't be putting my posts up on Facebook, feel free to share them yourself if you think anyone will benefit from reading them).

Friday, February 24, 2017

Divorce, Remarriage, the Gospel, and a Leaking Roof

(Today at daily Mass, the Gospel concerned the question of divorce and remarriage. I was preaching to our students and here are some of the general ideas that I spoke about.)

There are certainly times when we hear our Lord utter words in the Gospel that cause us to say, "I wonder what he means by that?"  The parables are a good example of this.  One parable finds Jesus praising a man for cheating his boss out of money. Since we can trust that Jesus is not inviting his disciples to become embezzlers, we know that there must be some deeper meaning to be found in this parable.  Oftentimes, parables are effective because there can be layers of meaning.

Today's Gospel from the Gospel of Mark (10:1-12) does not lack in clarity. It would be difficult for anyone to honestly find ambiguity in this reading. Jesus is asked about whether a man may divorce his wife.  He says that it was only because of the people's hardness of heart that Moses permitted divorce but that divorce was not something allowed by God.  He says, "What God has joined together, no human being must separate."  Hmmm.....what does he really mean though?  Maybe we shouldn't be too strict in our interpretation of this passage. Maybe he meant to convey that "In an ideal world, somebody wouldn't cause a separation of a marriage, but that we have to take into account real life situations."  I guess we will never really know what Jesus meant. It seems just too ambiguous.

Oh wait! There's more!  It seems that the disciples were a little shocked by this statement of our Lord, so when they got away from the crowds they were like, "Hey Lord, back there it sounded like you were almost suggesting that marriages cannot be ended by divorce. What were you really trying to say, because it isn't too clear to us?" So Jesus clarifies it.  "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."  It seems to me that looking for a "deeper meaning" or a "more nuanced interpretation" would be a bit of a waste of time here.  Jesus is crystal clear.  

Now, when we hear these words, perhaps our minds immediately think of people whom we love who are in situations like what the Lord describes. Maybe even in our own families. And this can be upsetting to us, right?  Okay, let's not panic and let's not start looking for a way out or around Jesus' words. Let's not think that the best solution must be in finding a loophole.

Last week, somebody came and told me that the ceiling on our top floor was leaking.  I immediately had this annoyed feeling when they told me that.  I remember when I was a pastor, sometimes people would report to me that they found something broken or a pipe leaking and I'd feel annoyed at this person for telling me.  Now that's silly right?  It's better to know that the roof is leaking than to pretend it isn't.  I could decide, "Hmmm...maybe I will just shut the door to that room and pretend that it isn't leaking," but that is really not accomplishing anything.  

So it is better for us to know the truth about marriage and divorce than to try to "shut the door" and obscure the truth.  We love to look for loopholes.  I remember once feeling particularly betrayed by someone.  And when I'd get angry about it, I'd think about all those things that Jesus said about loving those who hate us and praying for those who persecute us.  I'd go through the bible trying to find that loophole!  I was hoping I'd find the passage that said, "You must love those who hate you and pray for those who persecute you unless they are really a mean person. Then you can do whatever you want."  Alas, Jesus was crystal clear.  No loophole.

I know that these days we see a lot of confusing headlines in the news about the Catholic Church and marriage.  Just to be clear, the Catholic Church cannot change its teaching on marriage because it is not "the Catholic Church's teaching on marriage." What we believe is "God's teaching on marriage." That teaching is revealed to us--crystal clearly--by Jesus Christ.  

So what about people who are in these difficult situations?  Not to be glib about it, but they have a leaky roof.  Knowing that is not a bad thing.  The only way we know how to act is if we first know the truth of the situation.  I wouldn't know how to fix the roof if I didn't know it was leaking in the first place.  All of the Christian life involves looking at the objective truth and conforming my life to that objective truth.  For example, on this hand I see that Jesus says that I must love those who hate me, forgive those who harm me, and pray for them. That's the objective truth. I have to look at my life, on the other hand, and determine if I'm doing those things or not. If not, then I have to conform my life to those things.

We all do this regularly in confession, right?  Here's the objective truth and here's my life.  There are a lot of leaks in my spiritual life. It is better for me to know that so that I can set about fixing them. This is called, "conversion." When Jesus tells us things that seem difficult like, "love your enemies," he's not doing it to make our life miserable! The Truth sets us free.  The Truth helps us to live in the world in the way that God made the world to be. If there's a leaky roof, it's better to know it than to ignore it or to find some philosophical argument that says, "It's really not leaking." That would just be silly.

We're not alone. God gives us all the graces we need to fix the leaks in our lives. We can help each other by supporting and encouraging one another to live in the Truth. All of us have leaks in our spiritual lives caused by our sins. It's tempting to close the door to the room that is leaking and forget about it, but that only makes the damage worse. Instead, let's allow the power of the Gospel to show us our leaks and allow God's grace to move us into action.  That's true for the divorced and remarried, but it's also true for all of us.  There is no need to fear the Truth or to desperately search for loopholes.  We have Jesus and He is infinitely better than any loophole.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Perfect Love of God, Thermostats, Water Heaters, and Red Buttons

(This past weekend I was on retreat with the students of the Boston University Catholic Center. It was such a great weekend. Here's what I preached on at the Sunday Mass.)

When I was a pastor, I was responsible for a lot of old buildings and that means things would break all of the time.  Occasionally, the rectory where I lived would get some water in the cellar, and when that happened, it would extinguish the pilot light of the water heater.  I have to admit, it was the only thing I really knew how to fix, so it always made me feel a bit manly to go down to the cellar to fix the water heater.  But, I also have to admit that all of the warning signs on the water heater scared me.

Of course, they don't put the warnings and instructions up at eye level where you can read them. Instead, they were almost at the bottom, so I practically had to lay in this puddle of water to read the instructions.  They had all of these pictures which basically gave you the sense that if you did anything wrong, you would burst into flames.  I'd read all of those instructions very carefully and even do a run-thru.  (Yeah, I'm not very mechanically inclined).  Then, after I turned all of the knobs to the right place, I'd have to push THE RED BUTTON.  Now, having viewed all of the warning signs and pictures of explosions, pushing this red button made me feel both exhilarated and terrified. I felt as though I were authorizing the release of nuclear weapons. When I'd push that red button, there would be this "Whooshing" sound as the gas and the spark met. Again, both terrifying and exhilarating.  Another successful mission without blowing up my house.

Today, in the Gospel, Jesus instructs us to do some difficult things. It boils down to loving our enemies.  I don't know if you've ever had an enemy. I have. Loving my enemy and praying for my enemy is not something that comes naturally. I mean, maybe if we tried really, really hard, we could arrive at some willingness to allow our enemy to exist on the same planet as us. But, praying for him, loving him, willing his good?  Come on.  That's not happening. Truth to be told though, forget about our enemy for a minute. We couldn't even love God on our own. And God is infinitely lovable. On our own natural capacity, we cannot have this kind of Divine Love in our souls. 

The fire of charity was first placed in our souls at baptism.  This fire comes from outside of ourselves. It is infused by God himself. This is so cool, right? In baptism, our souls are set aflame with Divine Love. In a sense, God begins to love himself in and through us.  Now, when we sin in a serious way, that fire of Divine Love is extinguished in our souls.  This is why we want to avoid sin. We want to protect that flame of divine fire and allow it to burn within us.  But, once that flame is extinguished, we are incapable of rekindling it.  We are like that water heater in my old house. We are incapable of re-starting ourselves.  We need something to happen to us.

Last night, we all went to confession. Perhaps, some of you felt like I did when I'd go and push that red button. You felt as though maybe you'd confess your sins and you'd blow up! We are always a little bit afraid when we approach the Majesty of God. We are worried that this Divine Fire might obliterate us. But, unlike my water heater which very well could explode, there is no risk in going to confession that we are going to be harmed. The fire of God's love only obliterates sin. It doesn't harm us! As we all experienced last night, confession is the place where that Divine Fire of Charity is re-kindled in the soul that had grown cold and dark. Or, for those whose charity may have gown small, confession can be an opportunity for it to receive an increase in fuel.  

Now, in today's Gospel, Jesus is not asking us to just keep trying really hard to do the impossible. He is telling us that this Fire of his Love that is in us is capable of loving so much that we can even love our worst enemies.  I don't know why, but heating images or on my brain today.  The rectory where I live is this huge building, and my room is on the third floor in the corner. The thermostat for the rectory is on the second floor. I've noticed that when it is really could out, my room can can sometimes be freezing.  I think what happens is that the heat turns on, rises to the second floor, and then the thermostat says, "It's warm enough. Let's shut down for a while." But, that means that the heat doesn't always get to the third floor.  

Sometimes, in our Christian life, we think, "Okay, I'm at this level. As long as I don't mess up too seriously and drop down a few levels, I'm good."  But this is not the right way to think. If we were climbing a mountain, we would not say, "Well, we made it a quarter of the way up. This is good." We want to get to the top. When we only love those who love us, we are like that heat stopping on the second floor.  We want the fire of God's love to permeate every part of our lives.  Last night in confession, we asked that the fire of his love permeate those parts of our personality that are embarrassing to us or that seem impossible to change. We want God's love not to stop at the second floor, but to reach to every nook and cranny of our souls. This means that we want that love to extend even to our enemies. We want the house of our soul to be completely filled with the radiance and warmth of Charity.

If baptism and confession are like the red button that ignites the spark of charity within us, then the Eucharist is like the fuel of charity. The more devoutly we receive the Eucharist, the greater is the intensity of Charity within us.  In other words, when we come to receive the Eucharist in a few moments, let's really be mindful of what is happening and stir up within ourselves true devotion and hunger for this great gift. Let's ask Jesus to stoke the fires of charity within us, eliminating all lukewarmness or coldness of heart. With this Eucharist that we receive today, let's ask Jesus to heat our whole house. Whatever things we've hidden away in the attic--our prides, lusts, resentments, envies--whatever part of our souls are cold and dark, let's ask Jesus (and trust that he will do it) to make this reception today of Holy Communion a moment that will fill those places with the warmth of his love.  The warmth of his love can fill our whole house.

At the end of the Gospel today, Jesus commanded us to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. How is that possible? It is possible because of grace. It is possible because through the sacraments, the fire of his love can burn within our souls and can purify us of all that is unholy. This fire--that can continuously grow as we make strides in the Christian life--can reach every part of our house and fill it with the warmth of Christ's presence. We can be perfect when the house of our soul is filled with the love of God.  Don't settle for the second floor of love. Be perfected by the Love of God.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Social Media Junk Food and the Substantive Food of the Word

There are things I like about social media. I enjoy keeping in touch with people and hearing about their lives, their families, their jobs, and their vacations. I really enjoy the humor. And I enjoy posting articles that I've read and thoughts that have come to me in prayer or from reading. That's why the thought of giving social media up for Lent is a bit daunting to me.

Recently, as I've been praying about Lent, I've thought a lot about what I consume. I consume too much. The more I indiscriminately consume food, the less I appreciate and enjoy good food. But, I also consume too much information. In many ways, social media has become for me like the consumption of intellectual junk food. I munch on a post, an article, or some political or ecclesiastical commentary and, for a few moments, I feel full. But I quickly become empty again. It takes greater effort to eat good food than it does to consume fast food. It takes greater effort to read a good book than it does to read a tweet. It takes greater effort to have substantial conversations with friends than it does to have brief online exchanges over some recent social media post.

Social media does expose me to more information, but as one spiritual author that I've been recently reading mentions, this type of information is like having too much wood on the fire. Instead of stoking the fire, it smothers it. Like the Gospel of Martha and Mary, I've been wondering if the Lord is asking me to be less attentive to the many things so that I can be more attentive to Him--the one thing that is necessary.

I don't want to know the President's daily thoughts or the opinions of everybody else on the President's daily thoughts. I don't think it is always helpful for me to know every word the Pope uttered (or reportedly uttered) today, or what some priest, bishop, news organization or website thinks about what the Pope uttered (or reportedly uttered) today. These things can be helpful, but they also can distract from living a recollected and serious life. They can become junk food that replaces the solid food of slow, deliberate, and reflective meditation.

So, two weeks from today begins Lent. The big question for me is whether giving up social media is a good thing or not. Social media definitely has its plusses, but it also can have negative consequences upon my Christian life. I gain information and opinions from social media, but I'm not sure I gain much wisdom. It distracts me by providing me a barrage of information that is more or less interesting, but it hinders me from pondering the deeper mysteries.

I wonder when I write a blogpost if I'm too concerned about how many people will like or share it. Blogging without the benefit of social media would mean that it is out there for the reading, but that it is not there simply for "likes and shares." 

Lastly, I wonder if social media is helping me to love my neighbor more. I don't think that it does. Knowing everyone's unreflected and instantaneous thoughts and reactions to EVERYTHING doesn't always make me love and respect them more. In fact, sometimes it causes me to judge them solely according to some knee-jerk "share," "like," or comment. God is able to look at each one of us in all of our multiplicity of thoughts, actions, feelings, and words and judge us justly.  I'm not quite so gifted. I sometimes seem only capable of judging others on their latest tweet. Perhaps taking a break from the social media scene will help me to love my neighbor more by not having to see their every waking thought about everything.

Who knows if I will pull the trigger on this one? No matter what, it seems that spending more time being fed by the True Food that comes from heaven is a much better source of nourishment than munching on the junk food that is often the fare of social media. Lent is a good time to draw closer to the Lord by going into the desert with him.  And maybe, in the desert of Lent, there is no wifi connection. There is only the Word.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Priests Are In This Together

Every year, I write to the pastors of our students and ask them to consider donating to our Newman Center. Since our Campus Ministry is funded solely by the generous donations of our supporters, fundraising is a constant part of our life here. Whenever I read that somebody has donated 10 Million Dollars to have a coffee nook named after them in a dining hall or something, I think, "When are we going to get a Catholic to donate big to the BU Catholic Center?!"

Sometimes fundraising can be a bit of a drag, but writing to my brother priests has been something I've come to enjoy. Truth to be told, when I was a pastor, had I received a letter from some priest asking to help support his cause, I probably would have thought, "Hey buddy, I've got my own problems."  Oh how I think differently now!

One of the reasons I really enjoy writing to priests is because I feel as though I've inherited the fruit of their hard work. The vast majority of young people who involve themselves in the Catholic life on campus do so because they come from a good Catholic family and parish. Sure, we get some students who are seeking, but many of those who come to us do so because they received solid formation before they arrived at college. When I see students praying in the chapel, hear them making a good confession, or joyfully sharing their faith with others, I am very mindful and grateful for the priests who formed them. In many ways, my work on campus is simply to build on the solid foundation already laid by others.

The other reason I've enjoyed writing to priests is because many of them have written back.  In fact, today I received the first batch of replies. The replies are always so fraternal and supportive. Something else struck me today.  Of the four replies that I received today, two of them were personal checks from the priest himself.  In fact, one of the priests wrote, "I'm not longer the pastor. I recently retired so you may want to write to the new pastor." Then, he included a personal check. It really moved me that these guys are so generous. 

College ministry is very different from parish life. For a parish to be strong, it needs stability. They require a stable community and stable leadership.  Newman Centers have entirely new communities every four years. The transitory nature of college chaplaincy means that we really exist as a bridge. We exist to help people go from one place to the next. My hope is that the students who come to us from great Catholic parishes will eventually go out from here and build up Catholic parishes. 

Most of the priests who will write to me, I will never meet. Their support, however, helps me to experience the fraternity of the priesthood in a deeper way. These priests and I not only share a common bond in the priesthood, but we also share together the pastoral care of these young men and women. I've been a priest for twenty years, but always feel like I'm brand new at it, still learning and discovering something great. One thing I've gained from college ministry is a deeper sense of the fraternity of priesthood. We priests are in this together.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Don't Make Your Soul the Junk Drawer for Vice: Gospel Minimalism

Recently I've been praying about what I should do for Lent this year.  The more I've prayed about it, the more I feel the need to simplify my life, to "Unlclutter" my life. Yes, in terms of all the accumulated  junk, clothes, and stuff that seems constantly to spread everywhere.  But also to free myself from the clutter that occupies my time, my energies, and my thoughts. I'm not sure what it exactly means, but I have this sense that in order for me to hear God's Word more clearly, I need to be freed up from so much physical and spiritual clutter.  

So, last week we had a snow day and I decided I would use the time to clean out some of the physical clutter in my drawers, shelves, and closet. When I mentioned that I was doing that, someone suggested that I watch a Netflix documentary called, "The Minimalists."  It's about this movement of people who are trying to live more simply.  So, given the choice between cleaning my room or sitting down and watching a 90 minute Netflix show, I obviously chose the show. But it was really interesting.  Know what really struck me about it?  The people were saying stuff like, "You know we live in a culture that is constantly trying to convince us that the more we buy, the more own, the more we possess, the happier we will be. So we just keep buying more stuff.  And the truth is, this stuff does not make us happier."

This really struck me because they were saying these things as though this was a new idea.  I don't mean that as a criticism of them. I just mean that it really fascinated me.  Now, if I gave a homily today about how we live in a consumer society and how possessions won't make us happy, everybody would be like, "Oh, here we go again. The Catholic Church is so negative." And it's true in a way. When we talk about stuff like that, it almost sounds like we're saying, "Get rid of stuff that makes you happy, be miserable for your life, and then maybe you can be happy in heaven."  Right? It does sound like this sometimes.  But the people on this documentary genuinely sounded as though they were proposing something that was about helping people experience more happiness now. And they mentioned how when people here them speak, they often start asking questions like, "Can I keep this? Can I keep that?  How much of this can I have?" And these guys were saying that the place you have to begin is not with what external things am I going to throw away or keep, but rather an internal recognition that happiness is not about what I own.

Today, in the Gospel, Jesus sounds pretty hard hitting.  "You have heard it said, no murder, but I tell you no anger. You have heard it said, no adultery, but I tell you no lust."  So often, when we think about the Gospel, the spiritual life, our moral life, we immediately start asking, "Well, what about this?  What if I don't hate my brother, but I have an immense disdain for him? Is that okay?  How long can I stare at that pretty girl before it's technically lust? How close to the line am I allowed to get?"  We do this because we begin with a bad presupposition. We don't really believe that God's will-- that God's law--is actually FOR our happiness. Instead, we think God has laid these heavy burdens on us to prevent us from being happy now.

Can't I just settle for a little less anger, a little less lust, a little less pride?  Wouldn't this be enough?  Can't I just store a little bit away so that I can have some happiness now and again? God doesn't really expect me to be perfect, right?  We ask these things because we think that becoming perfect disciples means we lose happiness.  Think about today. How many people today are thinking about whether they can miss Mass because of the weather. (I'm not talking about people with legitimate safety concerns. I mean people playing the game. Right? There are people today who feel like this snow "got them off the hook" from going to Mass. What presumption is at the foundation of this? "Mass is a drudgery that makes me unhappy, but I have to do it. But today, I'm free because it's snowing!!"  

Deep down, we sometimes do not believe what we repeatedly sang in the Psalm today, "Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord."  God's Will is for our happiness. In His Will is our happiness. This is why Jesus isn't merely concerned with the outward or external living out of the commands. He is concerned with our hearts as well.  Christian life is not just about externally following the God's Will. Jesus says that all of those things are, of course, necessary. You cannot commit adultery. You cannot murder. You cannot bear false witness.  But, Jesus wants to purify our hearts. He wants to remove anything and everything that is not of God. Don't try tucking away a little lust in your heart as though keeping that lust will make you happy. Don't squirrel away some resentments or some pride or some envy and put them away for safe-keeping.  When we do this, when we think in this way, we are acting as though God's law is against my happiness rather than for my happiness.

Today's Gospel is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount which we began reading a couple of weeks ago. That sermon begins with Jesus saying, "Blessed." Jesus comes to bring us beatitude, happiness. There is this temptation to hear Jesus' words today and to try and water them down; to look for exceptions, loopholes, and excuses. But what we really need is an increase of Faith in Jesus Christ. When we look for loopholes, what we are really saying is that we distrust that Jesus can bring us happiness.  We are placing our hope for happiness in these vices rather than in the Lord.

As we approach Lent and as we live the week ahead of us, let us ask Jesus to increase in us a deeper faith in him. Let's ask him for the courage to go through the closets, drawers, and shelves of our souls and to rid of ourselves of our resentments, lusts, vanities, and envies.  Holding on to these things (even small amounts of them) destroys our happiness. Following and trusting Jesus ALWAYS makes us happy.  When we believe that and act on it . . . Blessed are we.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

My Married Friends and Lent

The other night I was out for dinner with some friends of mine and some mutual friends came up in the conversation.  In speaking about these mutual friends, I repeated something that I have said many times over the years: "I loved their wedding!"  Adam and Jen's wedding was so perfect because it was all about the Sacrament.  I remember them asking me, "So, how many people have to be at the wedding?"  I told them that they both needed to be there, I needed to be there, and two witnesses. As it turns out, the wedding was slightly larger than that. Maybe 25 or so people? Adam wore a shirt and tie. Jen wore a light blue dress. They weren't really interested in walking down the incredibly long aisle of St. Mary's Church. Instead, the three of us met in the sacristy before Mass and then walked out the short way to the altar. They wanted a full Mass.  Afterwards, we went to a small restaurant a few doors down from the church for lunch, and Adam and Jen took the train to Portland, Maine for a weekend honeymoon.  It was a GREAT wedding.

There was a big snowstorm in Boston today, and since the University where I work was closed, I stayed home and cleaned my room. Although I don't own much, somehow stuff accumulates. I began the process of throwing stuff away. Wow, for somebody who doesn't own much, I own a lot of stuff! Part of the reason I'm doing this is because I realize Lent is approaching and I feel this need to clear out some of the clutter in my life so that I can better hear the voice of God. Sure, I mean the physical clutter that sits on my shelves, in drawers, and on my desk. But I also mean the things that clutter my time and attention. I don't know what this all means exactly, but I have the sense that my Lent is intended to be one where I remove those things that hinder me from living a deeper spiritual life.

Like I said, I don't know the exact specifics of what this will entail for Lent, but I think it is a movement of grace. And just as I was sitting here and thinking about that, Adam (the groom from that wedding) tagged me in a photo on Facebook from his Nuptial Mass. This photo was like a confirmation that indeed my inclination for Lent this year is correct.  What made Adam and Jen's wedding so memorable to me that I still talk about it so many years later? It was beautiful because it was uncluttered. It was all about Adam and Jen receiving the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.  Their wedding was dignified, simple, beautiful, and holy.  That photograph is like an icon for me for Lent this year. I want to remove the clutter from my life--physical and spiritual--so that I can focus on what is truly important. 

That photo and the memory which it evokes assures me that this Lent, I am called to simplify.  Thanks Adam and Jen. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Get Ready for Lent NOW!!!

Everyone is different. I know that some people wake up in the morning at the very last possible minute.  They basically decide, "What is the very last second I can wake up and still get to work on time."  That's not me.  I could think of nothing worse than having to get up and rush in the morning.  I need time to ease into the day. Part of the reason I like to wake up early is so that I am not rushed. 

That's why I recognize that I need a little extra time getting ready for Lent. While some people can leap out of the gate on Ash Wednesday, I need a lot of lead time. I need time to think through the plan. What am I going to give up? What am I going to do? Where is the Lord asking me to grow? What virtue do I need to practice? What vice do I need to mortify? I may even need to begin the practices a bit early. For instance, in years that I've given up coffee, I usually start easing into it a couple of weeks out. Otherwise, Ash Wednesday comes and I hate Lent by about 2pm. 

So, if you're at all like me, now is a good time to begin getting a plan in place. Maybe even test driving a few penances or disciplines.  Thinking about adding some prayer time to your life? Give it a whirl now. Try it on for size. This lead time also gives us the opportunity to be intentional about our Lent. Instead of just giving something up, we can think about what would really help us in our life. In other words, what can I give up that really will help me to be a better disciple of the Lord?

Another thing that we can do for Lent is to live it with each other. Many moons ago when I was in the seminary, I got to spend a few summers working in the Navy. One of the things that I really enjoyed was doing physical training together. Something about doing it together really encouraged me. Similarly, Lent is a time of spiritual training.  Find ways to live Lent together. Have your friends help you to keep to your disciplines. Have your friends pray for you and with you to keep strong in your Lenten program. It's easier with a friend. 

There are obviously a million things that we can do for Lent. What I provide here is by no means an exhaustive list. I throw these out as conversation starters:

Daily Mass (this is a great one!)
30 Minutes of Meditation every day. (Don't know how to do 30 minutes of mediation? Ask for help or read a classic spiritual writer for help).
Pray the Rosary every day (this is a great thing to do with a friend) 
Every time you walk into the Catholic Center during Lent, go immediately to the chapel for a brief visit to the Lord.

Don't listen to anything when you walk to and from classes.
Shut your phone off for various parts of the day
Get a real alarm clock and put your cell phone in a drawer far away from your bed
Give away things that you don't need or use

Struggling with pornography? Ask a friend to help you by becoming accountable to them and having them pray for you.

Angry with someone? Pray for them every day
Overly concerned about people's opinions of you? Find ways to humble yourself
Given over to too much luxury--food, drink, clothes etc? Fast and donate money.
Envious of others? Look for ways to promote others.
Slothful? Wake up early and at the same time 5 or 6 days a week and pray

Read more. Watch less TV. Read more and spend less time on social media. 
Find ways to be more silent in your life. 

Think about seeking out spiritual direction every other week during Lent. Now to be clear, spiritual direction is not a long, drawn out chitchat session. It's not a counseling session. It's about talking about your prayer life, your moral life, your life of discipleship, and to understand where the Lord might be leading you.  It's about your relationship with the Lord. Spiritual direction needn't be lengthy. It should be direct and honest. It's about taking the next step. There are times in life when someone needs a professional counselor.  That is a positive thing. But that is not spiritual direction. Spiritual direction is, in some ways, a way of holding ourselves accountable. 

Go to confession weekly during Lent.
Read the life of a saint.
Reach out to one person a day who seems to have disappeared from the practice of the faith.
Extend love towards those who seem on the outside and who need a friend.
Invite someone to Sunday Mass.
Decide every day that you will find an opportunity to be embarrassed by sharing your faith.

Visit the sick. If not in person, then call. 
Be generous in kind words

Spend time each day thinking about Christ's sufferings on Calvary.

Tithe 10% of whatever you make during Lent to charity.

Spend time hungry during Lent. Fasting is important.

Okay....these are all just conversation starters. Lent begins in three weeks. It is a great season of grace. It is an amazing opportunity to grow in our friendship with the Lord. We are in it together. The list above is not comprehensive nor should we think, "Yeah, I will do all of that!"  That is doomed to fail. But, we should pray in these days before Lent and ask the Lord, "What should I do? What are you asking of me? Help me, Lord and show me." 

Of course, there's a risk to all of this. If you take Lent seriously, your life will change and you'll feel compelled to follow Christ more faithfully and more radically. The alternative is that we can be big babies and try to live a life of comfort.

Dear Friends, as I prepare for Lent, I take great solace in knowing that I will be living it with you. We are in this together. Lent is a time that is deeply personal, but it is also something that we do together. In a very beautiful way, the more we live it together, the more personal it is. And the more we take it personally, the more we strengthen one another. Let's use these next few weeks to come up with a plan for a great Lent. If there's any way that I can help you, let me know. BU Catholic Center . . . Lent is coming.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Priesthood Isn't Flashy. It's Deep.

Fr. Gabe (the pastor with whom I live) and I
I share with you today, my day. I don't share it because it is very interesting. In fact, it is rather uneventful. But, as I get ready to go to bed, I look back on this day and am grateful for it.

When I arrived at work this morning, Patrick, who is the intern at the Catholic Center was in the kitchen cleaning the stove. He mentioned that he had spilled something in there a few nights ago and needed to get it cleaned.  I think that's when I asked him if he'd like to go out for lunch together later on. He agreed.

I went upstairs and spoke to Fran, our Office Manager. Fran arrives at work around 5:30am, after driving an 1 1/2 hours to work. By the time I arrive, she's basically cleaned the building, restocked the snacks for the students, ironed the altar linens, and then started on all the work that is actually her responsibility. All the other stuff she does is because she's just a good person. (By the way, she also goes shopping for all the snacks). I made myself a cup of coffee, chatted for a bit with Fran, and then I went up to the chapel.

In the chapel were our four FOCUS Missionaries praying their daily holy hour. I prayed and tried to do my daily mediation and some spiritual reading, and then made the second cup of coffee. After spending time throwing the ball to my never tired dog, I decided to have breakfast. Patrick was still in the kitchen cleaning. I mentioned to him that I had trouble praying this morning and he told me that he was praying the Rosary while he cleaned the stove.  God bless Patrick. 

I tried to catch up on a little fundraising stuff. Admittedly, those types of things are not my favorite thing in the world to do. But, the good example of our Office Manager compels me to occasionally relent and do what needs to be done. 

Although I was looking forward to lunch with my intern, he got busy and couldn't make it.  Instead, I had a conversation with a young man whose presence I have come to appreciate over the years. Like many of the students, his intelligence, faith, and humor edify me. 

As we are preparing for our winter retreat, one of the students sent me his witness talk. I wish that I could share it with you because it was deeply moving and beautiful. If all I did today was to have read that witness talk, it would have been a day well spent.

There was an hour nap. Don't judge me. I love a nap.

I went up to the chapel to pray, but was interrupted by a student who wanted to go to Confession. That was a happy interruption.  I came back to the chapel and prayed some more. For most of that 30 minutes, there were several other students present. At Mass, there were probably about 30 or so students. Not bad for a daily Mass. One of the things that always moves me about the Catholic Center is how students arrive early to pray before Mass and how they all remain for a little while after Mass, offering prayers of thanksgiving. It's very impressive.

From there, it was our weekly spaghetti dinner. I'd guess that usually 60 or so students show up for that. During that time I heard more confessions and met with our Pastoral Board to discuss the life of our community.  One of the great things about the Catholic Center is the way that the students offer leadership. I often tell people that in a parish people say, "Father, we should do this," but nobody actually wants to take responsibility for "doing it."  One of the things that impresses me in Campus Ministry is that when the kids say, "We ought to do this," they follow it by . . . actually volunteering to do it!  Among the things that the college students take on is responsibility for evangelization, liturgical ministries, retreat planning, and service.  As a good example, every week, students at the Catholic Center make food for those who are suffering homelessness and then deliver the food to them on the streets of Boston. I love the fact that the students do this on their own. 

At 7pm, we had our weekly formation night. When I entered the room, besides a ton of students, there were two archdiocesan seminarians, a Jesuit deacon, and a Sister of the Immaculate Heart or Mary. I said that I felt like I was at the UN of religious vocations. One of the seminarians gave a talk on Baptism and then fielded a ton of questions from the students.

During the talk, I received at text from someone who had recently given me a gift. Her gift comes at a moment when I have the opportunity to help support several important good works. God works in great ways! I feel particularly blessed that because people are generous to me, I am able to help out others who are in need. It's been one of the great blessings I've received in my life. On my own, I might not be able to support certain good causes, but because people desire to support me, I am able to support others. And, the people who support me somehow know that they are really supporting others. So cool. 

Afterwards, I came home to my rectory and the pastor of the parish where I live was having dinner. He and I sat for over an hour, had some wine, and talked about all sorts of things. He is 75 and will soon be handing over the reins of his parish to a new pastor. He and I chatted about what we might preach on next week, what parish life is like, and about priesthood. Spending time with him, especially when it is unplanned, is always a blessing to me. Priesthood is a beautiful thing in that someone 75 and someone 45 are still brothers. This priest continues to educate me and help me in my life.

At the end of all of this, it doesn't read as a particularly compelling story. It is just an average day. In my life as a priest, there have been those extraordinary moments. I've been to shootings, car accidents, middle of the night tragedies, deathbed anointings etc. But, much of priesthood is lived sitting at the kitchen table talking to a brother priest, getting interrupted during prayer to hear a confession, and having lunch while taking about life with a young college student.

All I can say is that I couldn't imagine a better way to spend my life. I'm grateful.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Disciples Who Are Salt and Light: Not Sour and Dark

I'm sure we've all met people who begin conversations by saying, "Well, I hate to sound negative" or "I hate to be critical."  We know with undeniable certitude that whatever comes out of their mouth next will undoubtedly be . . . negative or critical. It's been even worse during the never ending political climate over the past couple of years.  Some people are just plain miserable to be around. Everything turns into an occasion for complaining. You say, "Oh, isn't a beautiful day?" They reply,  "Well, don't get used to that. There probably aren't too many beautiful days left."  People like this kind of suck the life out of you, don't they?  Everything is terrible. Everything is going to hell.  Sometimes when I'm with people like this, I feel myself getting angry because I feel as though they are stealing life away from me.  And when they say, "I hate to sound negative," I want to say, "No you don't! You love to be negative!"

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples that we are to be salt and light. Where life is dark, we are to be light. Where life is bland, we are to bring flavor. There is enough blandness in people's lives, they don't need more useless chatter and complaining. There is enough darkness in the world, people do not need more negativity. 

It would be easy to read the words of the Prophet Isaiah today and think about how other people do not live up to them. "Share your bread with the hungry. Shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked, do not turn your back on your own. Remove from your midst oppression, false accusation, and malicious speech." It is easy to look at others and to say that they fail to do this. But the real question for each of us is, "Are we doing these things?" Are we introducing something new into the world and into people's lives? Are we being salt and light in the world or are we just a bunch of negative whiners and complainers pointing out how bad things are? When people leaver our company, do they feel as though their life is better as a result; that they've tasted the life of grace and been warmed and enlightened by the Gospel? Or, do they feel like they've met someone who is angry and negative about everything?

There is a lot of cruelty in the world. A lot of anger, negativity, darkness, and selfishness. Sometimes, Christians can be tempted to spend all of their time angrily pointing out all the negativity, darkness, and selfishness, but in doing so, they only contribute to all of that. Instead, Jesus calls us to be salt and light. We are invited to add something to life by providing examples of what life can be. When people encounter joy, generosity, humility, purity, uplifting and edifying speech etc, they walk away having tasted something better. 

As we live the week ahead, we will encounter many people. Chances are, their social media is filled with negativity. Chances are, they experience--on all sorts of levels--emptiness, darkness, and blandness. They know that there is evil in the world. There are any number of people who will engage these people with a big dose of more negativity. "Oh you think that's bad . . . it's way worse than that!"  But Jesus wants to open for these people something better. These people whom we encounter--they are hungry for meaning. They are naked and exposed to the cruelty of the world. They are lost in the darkness and are looking for a way. The way in which we speak and engage with them can make all the difference. We can be light and salt by pointing out places where the Truth of the Gospel is at work. 

Instead of only talking about how unjust it is that the poor are hungry, the refugee is suffering, and the unborn are discarded, we could be salt and light. We could give some of our bread, welcome the oppressed, and refrain from malicious speech. These things aren't as "big" as some dramatic gesture, but salt and light are not all that dramatic either. They are every day experiences, but everybody is looking for them.

Jesus did not say that we are sour and darkness. He said we are salt and light. Let's be that this week and allow people to experience how great and necessary the Christian life really is.