St. Gregory the Great, September 3

Gregory the Great

Today’s the feast of St. Gregory the Great – the greatest of the popes, many say. We usually recall saints on the day of their death or their martyrdom, but Gregory’s remembered the day he became pope, September 3, 590, which I’m sure was martyrdom for him.

Years ago, I lived across the street from Gregory’s home on the Celian Hill. On my way to school, I would peek through the doors of the library of Pope Agapitus, a relative of Gregory’s, where archeologists were at work learning about what was once the largest Christian library in Rome. Barbarian tribes would have plundered the place on their regular sweeps through the city.

These were bad times. Gregory was called from his monastery, not only to become pope, but to lead a city under siege. He never was a healthy man and he never had much support. Most of Rome’s leading families had fled to safer parts; the imperial government relocated in Milan. The burden of the city and the church fell on him.

Called to a job he didn’t want, Gregory drew wisdom and strength from the scriptures, especially from figures like Job and Paul the Apostle, from whom he learned what riches can come to the weakness of “earthen vessels”.

In his Commentary on Ezechiel, which we read in today’s Office of Readings, Gregory describes what he went through. Like Ezechiel, he was appointed a watchmen in the city. He’s supposed to go up to the heights and see what’s coming, but “I’m not doing this very well, ” Gregory said.

“I do not preach as well as I should nor does my life follow the principles I preach so inadequately.
“I don’t deny my guilt, I get tired and negligent. Perhaps by recognizing my failure I’ll win pardon from a sympathetic judge. When I lived in the monastery I was able to keep my tongue from idle topics and give my mind almost continually to prayer, but since taking on my shoulders the burden of pastoral care, I’m unable to keep recollected, with my mind on so many things.

“I have to consider questions affecting churches and monasteries and often I have to judge the lives and actions of individuals; I’m forced to take part in certain civil affairs, then I have to worry about barbarians attacking and wolves menacing the flock in my care; I have to do my political duty to support those who uphold the law; I have to put up patiently with thieves and then I have to confront them, in all charity.

“My mind is torn by all the things I have to think about. Then I have to put my mind on preaching. How can I do justice to this sacred ministry?

“Because of who I am I have to associate with all kinds of people and sometimes I say too much. But if I don’t talk to them the weaker kind of people wont come near me, and then we wont have them when we need them. So I have to listen to a lot of aimless chatter.

“But I’m also weak myself and I can get drawn into gossiping and then find myself saying the same things I didn’t care to listen to before.

“Who am I — what kind of watchman am I? I’m not standing on the heights, I’m in the depths of weakness. And yet the creator and redeemer of all can give me, unworthy though I am, the grace to see life as it is and power to speak effectively of it. It’s for love of him that I do not spare myself in preaching him.”

You have to admire Gregory. He feels weak, but he’s a watchman caring for his city and his church. Weakness doesn’t prevent him from serving or being far-sighted. From the Celian Hill Gregory sent monks to England, to the ends of the world, to found the church there. On his tomb in the Vatican is the simple inscription that describes him so well. “Servant of the servants of God.”

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Ecological Conversion

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Today, September 1st, Pope Francis asks Catholics and all people to pray for the care of creation, the subject of his recent encyclical “Laudato Si.” We may need to pray, if recent surveys are right that claim that American Catholics aren’t much interested in the pope’s recent encyclical. That might be true of Catholics elsewhere as well.

There’s an ecological crisis, the pope says in his letter, and we have to do something about it. Some may deny the crisis exists; some may claim it’s exaggerated; some may just throw up their hands thinking it’s too big to deal with. Some may think it can be easily fixed by the eventual play of “market forces.”

For the pope and many today the ecological crisis is real, it endangers the world and it has to be dealt with now. To meet it Francis recently urged Christians to “first rediscover in our own rich spiritual patrimony the deepest motivations for our concern for the care of creation.”

That’s important advice. The first step is not to immerse ourselves in conclusions of science, although the pope in his encyclical obviously respects scientific conclusions. The ecological crisis is not going to be taken care of with a few quick moves, like changing a couple of light bulbs at home. The first step, the pope says, is to undergo an “ecological conversion” guided by our spiritual patrimony.

Caring for creation isn’t going to be an easy task. People of faith are needed who, in the pope’s words, understand that “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (Laudato Si, 217).

In his encyclical the pope looks to the scriptures, from Genesis to the books of the New Testament, to provide wisdom for our steps. He looks to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, as signs that creation itself figures in God’s plan.

An interesting feature in “Laudato Si” is the way Francis turns to the Eastern Church for guidance to ecological conversion, almost as if he recognizes the weakness of western theology and spirituality. A prayer suggested by the Vatican for today’s prayer service is inspired by the prayers of the Eastern Church:

We praise and bless you, O Lord,
for you are the King of all ages,
and through Christ your Son you have made all that is.
In the beginning of the beginning,
you breathed upon the waters of creation,
and filled the earth with life through your vibrant Spirit.
The heavens declare your glory, O Lord,
and the stars of the sky bring light to our darkness.
You spoke, and the earth burst forth in life,
you saw that it was good.
You called forth creation, and enlivened every creature on land and sea.
You made human beings in your image,
and set us over the whole world in all of its wonders.
You gave us share in your dominion,
and called us “to till and to keep” this garden, the work of your hands.
As day gives way to evening, we praise you for your manifold gifts.
May our adoration this night give glory to your name,
so that we may serve you with faithfulness and love.
May our daily care for your creation show reverence for your name,
and reveal your saving power in every creature under heaven.
We make this prayer in the name of Christ your Son,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God forever and ever. Amen.

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Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation

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Pope Francis is asking that September 1st be a world day of prayer for the care of creation. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has provided suggestions for a 1 hour prayer service for the day:
http://www.iustitiaetpax.va/content/dam/giustiziaepace/Eventi/giornatamondialepreghieracuracreato2015/PCJP_WorldDayPrayerCreation2015_PROPOSAL_ENG.pdf

September 1st marks the beginning of the Church Year for the Orthodox Church. Pope Francis quotes from the Orthodox tradition in his encyclical “Laudato Si”
We need a spiritual conversion, Pope Francis wrote to Cardinals Koch and Turkson. ( August 6, 2015)

“As Christians we wish to contribute to resolving the ecological crisis which humanity is presently experiencing. In doing so, we must first rediscover in our own rich spiritual patrimony the deepest motivations for our concern for the care of creation. We need always to keep in mind that, for believers in Jesus Christ, the Word of God who became man for our sake, “the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us” (Laudato Si’, 216). The ecological crisis thus summons us to a profound spiritual conversion: Christians are called to “an ecological conversion whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (ibid., 217). For “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (ibid.).

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22nd Sunday B: Keeping Up Appearances

You may have seen the British comedy on PBS Keeping Up Appearances, about Hyacinth Bucket (she insists pronouncing it “Bouquet”} Hyacinth believes in keeping up appearances. She’s intent on impressing people with who she is, what and who she knows and what she owns. She’s superior to others, she thinks. Some of her “low-brow” family members embarrass her terribly. She tries to bring her long-suffering husband, Richard, up to her standards, but never succeeds.

The comedy pokes fun at what Jesus warns his disciples and the Pharisees about in our gospel today–appearances. Putting your trust in appearances. It’s not things outside, like the house you live in, the car you drive, the job you have, the clothes you wear, the health regime you follow that count most. Appearances inevitably disappear. It’s what’s within you, what’s in your heart, that remains.

Certainly Jesus wasn’t against external things, like washing your hands before you eat or cleaning the pots and pans afterwards. He knew the value of customs and external practices in society and religion and he kept them himself. He knew outside things influence us. He wasn’t against a good home, a good job, a good life. It’s extravagance he’s warns against, an excessive dependence on appearances that don’t last. It’s failing to pay attention to what’s in the human heart he warns against.

The world within is more important; what’s in our hearts makes the difference. Our search for God ends there, nowhere else.

Notice in today’s gospel Jesus seems to describe the world within as a battleground. What comes out of your heart can defile you and the world around you.

“Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.
From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.” Mark 7

Now, we’re not used to hearing that that kind of negative description of ourselves these days. We like to see ourselves in a more positive light. We’re beautiful people, with gifts and talents. But take a look at the shootings, the murders, the rapes, the greed, the anger that we see all around us. Where do they begin? In the human heart. Are those things absent from our own hearts? The greatest saints call themselves the greatest sinners. They’re right.

Yet, God comes to dwell in our hearts.

A few days ago we celebrated the feast of St. Augustine. He certainly understood the battleground of the human heart very well. In his Confessions he describes frankly his own unlikeness to God and then God’s grace brings him to see and hear and love. It wasn’t his brilliant mind or human gifts that brought him the recognize God in his heart. It was the grace of God, which we all look for and are given.

Listen to him describe his conversion, when the Light that filled the universe came to rest in him. “Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so.”

“Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking you there,
and upon the shapely things you made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.

You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;

I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.” Augustine, Confessions

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The Passion of John the Baptist

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Venerable Bede has a thoughtful homily on the death of John the Baptist, whose head was cut off by order of Herod, at the prompting of his wife Herodias. The story told in Mark 6 is a dramatic tale of revenge and loyalty, and we celebrate it today as a feast of the church. The Church calls it “The Passion of John the Baptist” because it’s like the Passion of Jesus.

Bede says John’s story was noticed by heaven, where things are judged differently than here on earth.  If John had remained silent about Herod’s conduct, perhaps he could have gained a few peaceful years of life.

“His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say: I am the truth?”

John’s death prefigured the death of Jesus Christ, Bede says; because of the values both of them valued, they were unjustly killed.

He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by ungodly men; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life.”

But heaven notices– not the span of our lives– but how we live them, speaking the truth.

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Augustine

“Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so.”  Augustine, Confessions

Then, Augustine saw the Light that filled the universe and was his maker.

“O eternal Truth, true Love, and beloved Eternity, you are my God, and for you I sigh day and night. As I first began to know you, you lifted me up and showed me that, while that which I might see exists indeed, I was not yet capable of seeing it. Your rays beamed intensely on me, beating back my feeble gaze, and I trembled with love and dread. I knew myself to be far away from you in a region of unlikeness, and I seemed to hear your voice from on high: ‘I am the food of the mature: grow, then, and you shall eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me’”.

The light was Christ.

On his feast today, the day after we honored his mother Monica, the church looks at Augustine as one changed by encountering the mystery of God. It was not his brilliant mind or human gifts that created the encounter; it was the grace of God, which we all look for.

“Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!

Lo, you were within,

but I outside, seeking there for you,

and upon the shapely things you have made

I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.

You were with me, but I was not with you.

They held me back far from you,

those things which would have no being,

were they not in you.

You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;

you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;

you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;

I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;

you touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

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Monica

Monica augustine

We remember two saints together this week in our calendar, Monica and her son Augustine. I was thinking of a song I knew long ago, “A Mother’s Love’s a Blessing.” Augustine could have sung that song.

In his “Confessions,” he praised God for drawing him “late” to the faith he found so beautiful, but Augustine also acknowledged that his mother’s tears and prayers brought him to Jesus Christ. She was like the woman in the gospel who brought her dead son through the gates of the town of Naim to bury him and Jesus saw her tears and stopped the funeral procession and raised her son to life.

“ I was like that son,” Augustine says. ‘I was dead. My mother’s tears won me God’s life.”

Like many women of the time, we don’t know much about Monica. She married a man named Patricius, a tough husband who put her down and went out with other women. They had three kids. She felt Augustine was someone special, and she followed him, trying in her own way to get him to be the person she knew he could be. Faith was what she wanted for him above all.

He was a hard son to deal with, so smart, so well educated, so hooked on the “lovely things” about him. He was deaf to her advice, blind to the path she wanted him to take, but she kept following him anyway. Convinced God had something big for him to do, she finally got her wish.

She sounds like so many people today, doesn’t she? Loving their kids, or their husbands or their wives or their friends, but worried about them getting mixed up in the wrong things–not going to church, deaf to the gospel. But they stick by them anyway.

That’s not easy to do and so Monica’s someone to remember. Most of us have read those moving words to God Augustine wrote in his Confessions. I wonder if he ever showed them to her.

“O beauty every ancient, O beauty ever new. Late have I have loved thee. You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

The church rightly celebrates Monica’s feast the day before her son’s.

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