An Immense Sea

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Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

I wonder if St. Gregory of Nyssa ever stood at a place like this. He must have:

“The feelings that come as one stands on a high mountain peak and looks down onto some immense sea are the same feelings that come to me when I look out from the high mountain peak of the Lord’s words into the incomprehensible depths of his thoughts.

“When you look at mountains that stand next to the sea, you will often find that they seem to have been cut in half, so that on the side nearest the sea there is a sheer drop and something dropped from the summit will fall straight into the depths. Someone who looks down from such a peak will become dizzy, and so too I become dizzy when I look down from the high peak of these words of the Lord: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“These words offer the sight of God to those whose hearts have been purified and purged. But look: St John says No-one has seen God. The Apostle Paul’s sublime mind goes further still: What no man has seen and no man can see. This is the slippery and crumbling rock that seems to give the mind no support in the heights. Even the teaching of Moses declared God to be a rock that was so inaccessible that our minds could not even approach it: No-one can see the Lord and live.
“To see God is to have eternal life – and yet the pillars of our faith, John and Paul and Moses, say that God cannot be seen. Can you understand the dizziness of a soul that contemplates their words? If God is life, whoever does not see God does not see life. If the prophets and the Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, attest that God cannot be seen, does this not wreck all the hopes of man?
 “It is the Lord who sustains our floundering hope, just as he sustained Peter when he was floundering in the water, and made the waters firm beneath his feet. If the hand of the Word stretches out to us as well, and sets us firm in a new understanding when these speculations have made us lose our balance, we shall be safe from fear, held safe in the guiding hand of the Word. Blessed, he says, are those who possess a pure heart, for they shall see God.”

Daily Reading, Daily Bread

Reading the scriptures daily and on Sundays in the lectionary is one of the great reforms begun by the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. It’s part of the church’s effort to seek renewal through the Word of God. But it’s going to take us awhile to get used to it.

For one thing, reflection on the daily and Sunday readings is a new way to reflect on our faith.  The scriptures are old and we live in a new world.  Pope Benedict, describing his own search for “the face of God” in scripture said you have to “trust” you will find it there.

We have to trust we will find God and enter God’s presence as we take up this daily discipline. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” God promises to speak today. The daily scriptures are daily bread, and they offer a varied diet. We go from Matthew, preoccupied with the tensions of his church with Pharisaic Judaism,  to Luke preoccupied with an outreach to the gentiles, to the other New Testament writings, each with its own purpose.

Then there are the varied readings from the Old Testament. They can be hard to understand, but the church wisely keeps them side by side with the New Testament. They hold a treasure all their own. We need to understand them better.

We need help to appreciate this daily bread, this varied diet served up. We need people like those people on the cooking shows on television who not only  tell you what to eat but make those strange dishes appetizing and appealing. We need good homilists and good catechists.

We need a “lamp, shining in a dark place.” So we ask: Come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with your light.”

READINGS FOR THE 11th WEEK OF THE YEAR

June 17 Mon Weekday 

2 Cor 6:1-10/Mt 5:38-42 

18 Tue Weekday

2 Cor 8:1-9/Mt 5:43-48 

19 Wed Weekday [Saint Romuald, Abbot]

2 Cor 9:6-11/Mt 6:1-6, 16-18 

20 Thu Weekday

2 Cor 11:1-11/Mt 6:7-15

21 Fri Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, Religious Memorial

2 Cor 11:18, 21-30/Mt 6:19-23 

22 Sat Weekday[Saint Paulinus of Nola, Bishop; Saints John Fisher, Bishop, and Thomas More, Martyrs;] 2 Cor 12:1-10/Mt 6:24-34 

23 SUN THE MOST HOLY BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST (Corpus Christi) Solemnity

Gn 14:18-20/1 Cor 11:23-26/Lk 9:11b-17 

Our gospel readings, from Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5, 1-7,29) are meant for all of us, ordinary or extraordinary saints. They also indicate how Jesus lived his life and ministry. He lives what he teaches.

The readings from the letters to the Corinthians offer a picture of church life then and now.

The saints this week come from different times, Romuald, 11th century Italy, Paulinus of Nola, 5th century Italy, Aloysius Gonzaga, 16th century Italy, Thomas More and John Fisher, 16th century England. Holiness is found in every age and social condition.

The Church of England also honors Thomas More and John Fisher for their holiness.

Sharing in the Sufferings of Christ

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The weekdays at Mass we’re reading St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, a Christian community in the city of Corinth around the year 50, shortly after the time of Jesus. Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians are favorite sources for historians studying the early Christian church; they also help us reflect on our own church today.

During the easter season we read the Acts of the Apostles– St. Luke’s overview of the early Christian church as it spreads from Jerusalem to Rome after the resurrection of Jesus, mainly through the activity of Peter and Paul. Now, in ordinary time we look more closely at one of the churches Paul founded–the church at Corinth. What was it like?

Drawn from different peoples flocking to the great Mediterranean port, the Christian community at Corinth was diverse; it attracted a variety of preachers and teachers, causing some division, noticeably as they came together to “break bread.” There’s some sexual immorality in this church, close to the open sea. Some were wondering about the resurrection of Jesus.

Its members were not mostly Jewish Christians, though there are some who may have missed the stability found in a Jewish synagogue. There’s no bishop administering this church as yet. Paul’s ministry is to the world; there is no one person in charge here for him to work with.

It’s a church  “in the works,” not complete, with glaring weaknesses, struggling to grow in faith, with plenty of loose ends, looking for answers. It’s a church experiencing great change. It’s a church suffering, not from outward persecution, but from turmoil within.

Maybe a church like ours?

Addressing the Corinthians, Paul sees first their suffering, which he describes as “Christ’s suffering”. He feels that mystery in himself, as he says in the opening chapters of the Second Letter to the Corinthians. He returns to that theme over and over.

Yes, problems must be faced, corrections made, restructuring to take place, but Paul keeps reminding the Corinthians they’re experiencing the sufferings of Christ–with Christ’s suffering comes his encouragement.

Paul knew both–the sufferings of Christ and his encouragement. “We were utterly weighed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired of life,” he writes from the province of Asia, but with suffering came an overflowing encouragement, which always accompanies the sufferings of Christ. “We do not trust in ourselves but in God who raises from the dead.” ( 2 Corinthians 1, 5-11)

Paul’s way is the right way, the first way to look at our experience. We’re tempted to judge, to analyze, to condemn, to throw up our hands and lose hope in the world around us. We need to remember the sufferings of Christ, a mystery affecting us all, and the “encouragement” that always accompanies this mystery.

Listen to Paul speaking to the struggling Corinthians:

“Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement,”

Good letter for us to read these days.

St. Anthony of Padua

There’ s surprising range of pictures of St. Anthony. In some he’s  blissfully holding the Christ Child in his arms, which is how someone saw him one day towards the end of his life– holding the Child Jesus. At times he’s pictured holding a book in his hand. Some pictures and statues portray him holding the Child and the book together and giving a loaf of bread to  a poor man.

The pictures and statues say a lot about him.

Anthony was born in Portugal in 1195 and died near Padua, Italy in 1291, acclaimed for his preaching and virtues.  Canonized shortly after his death, he’s invoked as a miracle-worker, especially good at finding something lost. But Anthony’s more than a miracle-worker.

His world was the complex, changing world of the 13th century when Europe’s economy was expanding; military crusades against the Muslim powers were in full swing in Spain, Sicily and the Holy Land, and new religious movements like the Franciscans were bringing reform and new vigor to the western church.

Anthony entered the Augustinian community in his birthplace, Lisbon, and studied at the renowned theological center of Coimbra as a young man. Just decades before, Portugal had been freed from the control of the Moors, but then, unfortunately, the victors started fighting among themselves for power and spoils from the crusades.

Anthony rejected the violence and avarice he saw in feuding leaders of church and state; he was a crusader of another kind.  When the bodies of some Franciscan missionaries martyred in Morocco in 1219 while preaching the gospel were brought back to Portugal, Anthony decided to join the new community.  He became a Franciscan and went to Morocco, hoping to preach the faith to the Muslims there, but illness forced him out and he went to Sicily, then to Italy, where he became a Franciscan missionary and teacher.

Only a few years before, in 1206 in Assisi, young Francis Bernadone stripped himself of his trendy, stylish clothes and put on the dress of a poor man, to follow the poor Man of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Thousands followed him and the movement he began quickly spread through the Christian world. Like others, Anthony was attracted to this movement, eager to bring the gospel “to the ends of the earth.”

The Franciscan movement began with a dedication to absolute poverty and a simple life, but as church leaders requested them to preach the gospel throughout the world its members needed books, education, training and places of formation. Anthony emerged as a model Franciscan preacher and teacher.

Through northern Italy, then through France, Anthony’s vivid, down-to-earth preaching stirred people’s hearts and minds and showed other preachers how to preach.  At the time, the Franciscan movement was not the only movement attracting the people of Europe. Through northern Italy and especially in France, Albigensian teachers were preaching a message of simplicity and release from the burdens of life to believers dissatisfied with the church. They denied that Jesus was divine, they questioned the gospels and painted the world as an evil place.

“Wise as a serpent and simple as a dove” Anthony disputed their message in his preaching. Gifted with an extraordinary memory for the scriptures and an ability to illustrate his talks with homey examples simple people understood, he spoke “with a well-trained tongue.” Thousands came to hear him. The world was not  evil, Anthony taught, Jesus, the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Artists capture Anthony’s spirit in their portraits of him. As a preacher and teacher, he carries of book, most likely a psalter holding the Jewish psalms. St. Augustine, whom Anthony studied as a youth, always carried this one book of the bible with him, as a summary of the scriptures.

Some say this book is also clue to Anthony’s gift for finding lost things. He probably kept his notes for teaching and preaching in it. If he lost it–some say one of his students stole it– he lost something valuable to him. He found it, so he knows what it means when someone loses something too. “Good St. Anthony, come around, something’s lost and can’t be found.”

The Christ Child Anthony holds in his arms was more than a momentary vision he had.  Anthony was deeply attracted, as St. Francis was, to the mystery of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh. God became a little child, who grew in wisdom and age and grace in the simple world of Nazareth. He died on a cross, accepting it as his Father’s will. Then, he rose from the dead.

Human life and the world itself has been blessed by this mystery. Because of it,  life can never be small or inconsequential. Even suffering and death have been changed. “The goodness and kindness of God has appeared.” We hold it in our hands.

I suppose this is why a picture of St. Anthony is down in our laundry where Brother Angelo and others wash sheets and towels and clothes. He speaks to this world.

Blessed Lorenzo Salvi, Passionist (1782-1856)

Are Catholic religious communities like the Passionists, down in numbers, on their way out? Numbers don’t always predict the future. More importantly, does the community still nourish saints and foster holiness? That’s a lesson to learn from Blessed Lorenzo Salvi, a Passionist whose feast is June 12th.

Lorenzo Salvi was born in Rome on October 30, 1782, professed a Passionist in 1802, and ordained a priest in 1805. These dates point to difficult, extraordinary times. As Lorenzo entered the Passionists, Napoleon was carrying out his campaign to create a grand new world with France and himself at its center. He saw the Catholic church, particularly the papacy, in his way and he tried to cripple the church and the popes.

Napoleon invaded the Papal States in 1787, then again in 1798 when he declared a Roman Republic and drove Pope Pius Vi into exile where he died in 1799. Napoleon also ordered religious orders like the Passionists suppressed, their religious houses closed and their members sent back to their families or wherever they could find a place for themselves. Most Passionist houses were closed for a year or more at the time.

Not a good time to join the Passionists, you would think. But Lorenzo did.

In 1802 the body of Pius VI was brought back to Rome in 1802, the year Lorenzo made his vows. Many people said then that the papacy had come to an end. The future didn’t look good.

In 1799 the new pope, Pius VII appointed Father Vincent Mary Strambi, a distinguished Passionist preacher and teacher, as bishop of Marcerati, to shore up a tottering diocese in the tottering papal states. Later, Strambi would be declared a saint. Certainly the move benefited the church, but perhaps not so much the Passionists who lost a religious deeply involved in forming their young people, like Lorenzo.

You wonder what the young man felt facing the future at a time like that.

Far from losing hope, Lorenzo’s spirit seemed to soar and his call strengthened during the Napoleonic suppression. The young priest worked to restore the church in Italy and his own congregation. Napoleon’s plans failed.

Lorenzo Salvi was a forceful preacher who had a great devotion to the Child Jesus. “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said. Lorenzo had the heart of a child. He believed no one can destroy God’s kingdom.

The Passionists entered a period of surprising growth after the Napoleonic suppression. Lorenzo, an inspiring preacher and holy priest, was one of those leading the community into a new era.

Pray for saints like Lorenzo today.

Lord, you granted Blessed Lorenzo Maria Salvi an intense and penetrating knowledge of the mystery of your Word made flesh through his devout contemplation of the Child Jesus. Through his intercession grant that we, too, walking in the ways of spiritual childhood, may come to eternal life in your Son. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God, forever and ever.