This is a blog that I post to several times a week although not necessarily daily. These reflections are triggered by the scripture found in the lectionary used by many Christian denominations. While I am part of the Catholic tradition, these posts are not --or rarely--sectarian. I try to put myself in the space of a of Jesus Christ and listen to words that come to me as I read and pray the scriptures. Each post also includes a photograph. These rarely have any connection to the content of the post but are simply pleasing images that I capture as I make my pilgrimage through life.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

My body, my life

Hike in Abraham Lincoln Park, Rochester NY

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God,to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this agebut be transformed by the renewal of your mind,that you may discern what is the will of God,what is good and pleasing and perfect. Rom 12:1-2

These two verses from Romans encapsulate the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately this translation used by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in the lectionary used in the U.S. uses a literal rather than an idiomatic translation for "your bodies."  Most translations use "your lives" as a more accurate rendering of the underlying meaning.  For the Jews of the first century, there was no distinction between "you" and "your body."  An alive body was the reality of an alive person.  When the early Christians professed a belief in the "resurrection of the body," they were professing a belief in the resurrection of the person into eternal life.  This confusion over "body" and "life" has led to a great deal of angst about what our bodies would look like, where in the universe would we be embodied, etc.  The fact is that Jesus talked about life, not bodies, and promised eternal life.

Unfortunately this use of "body" in this passage can send us into a state of inattention.  We have heard all this before about how we have to sacrifice our body because the body with its ever present danger of uncontrolled sexual desire and behavior is what keeps us from the Holy One and a life of discipleship.  How different it is to consider offering our life to the Holy One so that we are transformed by a new way of thinking that does not force us into the mold of our contemporary culture.  With this new way of thinking, we can, perhaps for the first time, think about what the Divine One desires for us and our lives.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The kingdom of heaven is like....


The kingdom of heaven is like....  Mt 13:44
The 13th chapter of Matthew's gospel is known as the Parable Discourse.  It is a series of parables that all begin with the words quoted above:  "The kingdom of heaven is like" a sower, pearl of great price, a field with a treasure, a field with both wheat and weeds, yeast, mustard seed, etc.  Although the early parables are spoken to crowds that contain both disciples and those who are not, especially the Jewish authorities of various sorts, the later ones are spoken only to the disciples and the great explanation of the parable of the sower is only for the disciples, i.e. those who believe.

Those who have ears to hear and eyes to see will understand the message.  But those who are insulated from new understandings by their engagement with the old will not understand no matter if they hear and they see.  If one comes to Jesus without preconceptions and without unchangeable notions of how things are, one will understand his message.  One will understand what he means by the Kingdom of Heaven.

It seems to me that the Kingdom of Heaven is the reality that is hidden in the "world" and yet provides the ultimate meaning of my life in the world.  It is difficult, though not impossible, to arrive at such a conclusion or one very much like it by focusing on the world and my experience in it.  But the great wisdom men and women of the human tradition have always tried to share their insights with us.  Erich Fromm summarized that wisdom in his conclusion that each of us have to make a fundamental choice or our stance toward life.  His question was simple:  What is most important to us:  to have or to be?  His review of those he called the Great Masters of Living concluded that a full and satisfying human life came from a "being" rather than a "having" orientation.  He included Jesus in this group along with Moses, Marx, Mohamed, Buddha, Freud and others.

The good news of Jesus goes well beyond this important understanding, however.  Jesus was not just concerned with the quality of human life as it unfolds but with life everlasting to which he invited us all.  Most the parables end with a description of the "end of the age" when the angels will sort out the righteous from the evil people with the latter consigned to everlasting fire and the former to everlasting life.

Jesus invites us to consider that there is something of vital importance hidden in our lives as they unfold in the world.  It is everlasting life.  Do we hear and understand?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Healing miracles...what to make of them?

Sumac blooms along the Erie Canal

While Jesus was speaking, an official came forward,knelt down before him, and said,"My daughter has just died.But come, lay your hand on her, and she will live."Jesus rose and followed him, and so did his disciples.A woman suffering hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind himand touched the tassel on his cloak.She said to herself, "If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured."Jesus turned around and saw her, and said,"Courage, daughter! Your faith has saved you."And from that hour the woman was cured.  Mt 9:18-22
The readings from Matthew this past week have been filled with stories of Jesus healing people including bringing them back from the dead and with stories of his casting out devils and demons.  These stories are well attested in the canonical gospels as well as other gospels and contemporaneous accounts.  Clearly the early Christian communities knew of and believed in the ability of Jesus to cure and give life.  That these were expected signs of the Messiah does not undercut the accuracy of these accounts.  In fact, today's gospel in Matthew 10 says that Jesus bestowed this power on the apostles as well.

What am I to make of these stories?  How do they fit into my own faith and spiritual life?  When I was younger, it was easy enough to find "natural explanations" for these healings but that misses the point.  The primary miracle, if you will, is the incarnation.  If I believe that the Divine One was incarnated as the human Jesus and that he was fully human and fully divine, what's a few healings and exorcisms.  It is the incarnation that is important for me and my life.

If the Divine One became accessible as a human being, it was to show us how to live a life that would lead to eternal union with the source of all life.  The path he called us to follow is not one that has no difficulties, pain, suffering and ultimately death.  No amount of righteous living can result in a life devoid of these human realities.  The simple rule of Jesus was that we are to love others--even our enemies--as ourselves.  His life demonstrates that such way of living does not eliminate pain and suffering but rather the opposite.  Such a life will bring us into a radical conflict with the world and its values and will result in our crucifixtion in small or large ways depending on our life and the extent to which our life threatens the world and the "powers that be."  This is what happened to Jesus and surely the same fate awaits us if we have courage enough to live out our values in the midst of a culture that encourages just the opposite.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Cognitive dissonance is the fountain of learning.

Wetlands in Tinker Park, Henrietta NY

Blessed are all who fear the LORD,and who walk in his ways.
What your hands provide you will enjoy; you will be blessed and prosper:
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your home,Your children like young olive plants around your table.
Just so will the man be blessed who fears the LORD.
May the LORD bless you from Zion; may you see Jerusalem’s prosperity all the days of your life,
and live to see your children’s children.  Peace upon Israel!  Psalm 128
Sometimes the comforting words of scripture come into a profound conflict with our life experience.  Most of the time I, at least, just try not to think about it because it is uncomfortable.  "Cognitive dissonance" is a term used to describe this situation.  "In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values."  (Wikipedia)  It is uncomfortable because something has to give.  Either one belief is accepted and the other rejected or both are changed to eliminate the contradiction.

Psalm 128 is the responsorial psalm in today's liturgy.  It presents a comforting thought:  If I fear the Lord and walk in his ways, I will prosper.  It is a scene of domestic tranquility and peace that is very appealing.  There is, however, another truth.  During the 20th century about 2 billion human beings lost their lives to wars, infectious diseases and famine.  It is reasonable to assume that these victims had nothing to do with these disasters that befell them.  They were victims in the truest sense of the word.  Their faithfulness to their religious traditions could hardly have had anything to do with their fate.

How can one hold both of these realities at the same time?  How can one resolve what appears to be fundamental contradiction?  One thing is certain:  to ignore this and pretend that there is no contradiction does not help very much.  This presents an opportunity of coming to a deeper understanding of my relationship with the Divine One and my role in the world.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Perhaps I should think of myself as an orchard.

Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica, Buffalo NY

Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
Just so, every good tree bears good fruit,and a rotten tree bears bad fruit.A good tree cannot bear bad fruit,nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit.Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut downand thrown into the fire. Mt 7:17-19

For as long as I remember hearing this passage, I think I have thought of it as applying to me and the life I lead.  Clearly I want to be a "good tree" that bears good fruit rather than a "rotten tree" that bears bad fruit.  I desire to be "good" and not "rotten."  Who wouldn't?

But there is a trap here of which I was unaware until I read a reflection on this passage by a fairly recent graduate of Notre Dame University on its excellent prayer web site.  Click here to visit the site and then bookmark.  The trap is the familiar either/or thinking with its bias for perfection.  Either I am a good tree or a rotten one.  This leaves little room for the reality of human life which is a mixed bag, to be sure.

It is the same impossible situation of which St. Paul warns us when he says that the Law cannot save us.  In fact, the Law brings death not life.  The Law must always focus on right or wrong, compliance or non-compliance.  There little room for the doubt or confusion that arises with real situations.  And the rules multiply to cover all foreseen eventualities.  In modern times, it is why the NCAA rule book runs to more than 500 pages with more being added each year.  And still there are violations; sometimes intentional and sometimes not.

This incapacity to deal with ambiguity and ignorance results in the need to make absolute and summary judgments, not just about acts but also about people.   There are good people and bad people just as the passage suggests there are good trees and rotten trees.

A seemingly slight change in perspective can make a tremendous difference.  What if I change my focus to the entire orchard rather than individual trees?  What if I think of myself as an orchard with both good tress and rotten trees?  Then wouldn't I focus on cultivating those aspects of my self which tend toward the good and try to lessen the growth of those that do not?  Wouldn't I have a more balanced view of my self?  I wouldn't have to be perfect but I would try to be better each day.

I find this to be a more wholesome way of thinking about this saying of Jesus.  What about you?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Being close to the Reign of the Divine One is not quite the same as being in it.

Tug with empty barge heading east on the Erie Canal
The scribe said to him, "Well said, teacher.You are right in saying,He is One and there is no other than he.And to love him with all your heart,with all your understanding,with all your strength,and to love your neighbor as yourselfis worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,he said to him, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God."  Mark 12:32-34
This conversation takes place in the midst of a series of challenges to Jesus and his authority by the high priests, Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes.  They are all trying to rip him up except for this questioner who asks a sincere question:  "Which is the first of all the commandments?"  Jesus answers that the first and greatest is to love the Divine One with all one's heart and mind.  The second is to love your neighbor as yourself.   This was typical question used to engage people with the law and its fundamental principles.  With hundreds of laws and regulations, the law could be overwhelming and thus it would be natural to figure out the fundamental principles that ran through all the diverse regulations.

The scribe understands the wisdom of Jesus' answer.  Surely Yahweh cares more about fidelity to those two principles than any sacrifice offered in the temple.  Jesus realizes that he understands these fundamental principles of the law and tells him that he is "not far from the Kingdom of God."  This is an intriguing way of saying that simply living by these two principles is not enough to enter the Kingdom.  They are necessary but not sufficient in and of themselves.  Something more is required but what that something might be is left for another time.

What about me?  Living an upright life of loving God and loving my neighbor is also not enough to enter the Kingdom.  Something more is required...but what?

A week has gone by since I wrote the above sentence.  It is a haunting question that has only one answer, however uncomfortable that answer might be.  A life of rectitude is simply not enough.  I have to die to myself.  I have to give up what I want and I can do that because, in truth, I have everything that I need.  I have to somehow let go of my ego and its demands for attention, gratification, recognition, respect and on an on.  This is the path to recognition and acceptance of who I truly am, a child of the Divine One.

Monday, June 5, 2017

I am only a sharecropper

Sea of grass in Brighton NY

"A man planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it,dug a wine press, and built a tower.Then he leased it to tenant farmers and left on a journey."  Mark 12:1
This is the beginning of a parable that appears in all three of the synoptic gospels.  The story goes on to tell of the owner sending servants and finally his son to claim the results of the harvest.  The sharecroppers abuse them all and kill some including the son.  They labor under a mistaken idea that if they kill the heir, they will somehow inherit the vineyard.  Eventually the owner kicks them out and brings in new sharecroppers to manage the vineyard.  Mark's version as well as Matthew's and Luke's are directed at the chief priests, scribes and elders and the ways in which they have distorted the intentions of the owner, Yahweh, and have rejected the incarnated Word of Yahweh, Jesus.  This is re-enforced by the allusions to Isaiah 5:17 in the opening lines and the quotation from Psalm 118 about the stone rejected by the builders becoming the cornerstone.

Sometimes, scripture speaks to me in a different way providing me with a meaning that is salient to my life quite apart from the original meaning or intent.  That is what happened today as i reflected on this reading.  It came to me with even greater clarity that all I have , own, control, enjoy and experience is never really mine.  It is on loan from the Divine One who is the source of all life, present, past and future.  No matter how strong a feeling of ownership I may have, nothing ever really belongs to me.  This insight calls me to focus on being a good steward of the blessings and difficulties in my life.

In the end, I turn everything over to the Divine One from whom everything comes.  I am called to use whatever I have been given to draw myself and others closer to the Divine One.  I do this through works of mercy and justice that comes out of the conviction that all I have, especially when I already have enough for a fully human life, is to be used to provide that same kind of life to those who do not have enough.  Catholic social justice teaching is built on this bedrock belief.  It is why I am always and forever only a sharecropper who is called to accountability on how I have used the fields and livestock of the owner, the gracious Divine One and the Incarnated Word.