Tuesday, January 26, 2010

John Paul II and Penitential Practices

“The first brothers and, for a long time, those who still came after them mortified their bodies not only by excessive abstinence from drink and food but even by vigils, the cold, and manual work. They even wore cinctures made of iron and cuirasses if they could obtain them and the roughest hairshirts they could find. That is why the saintly Father, considering that the brothers could become sick from this practice—which is what did happen in a short time to many of them—forbade, in a chapter, any brother from wearing anything on his flesh except his tunic.” (Paragraph 2, Legend of Perugia)

The above reading is from an early biography of St. Francis of Assisi. It came to mind as I read on the National Catholic Reporter website a story about Pope John Paul II and his penitential practices. A book in Italy reports that the Holy Father was known to sleep on the bare floor; and to use a belt as a discipline whip.

Now I know that such penitential practices have a long tradition in Western Christianity. The holiness of a saint was proven by how hard he or she treated their body. Even Francis was known for severe fasting, denying himself sufficient clothing against the elements. But Francis would realize the damage he was doing to himself and would apologize to his body for the rough treatment he put himself through.

For me, penitential practices, such as abstinence and fasting, is to help to discipline our selfish urges, making it possible for us to give of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters. It is not to punish ourselves for our sins or the sins of others. God does not desire our suffering; He desires an open heart, ready to receive His love.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Challenging Faith

I have been reading a book written by Sister Wendy Beckett entitled “Sister Wendy on Prayer,” when I came across this paragraph: “Like love, ‘faith’ is a word that seems simple but is, in fact, complex. I have heard people praising ‘simple faith.’ What they are referring to is an almost rote reception of mass and the sacraments based on pitifully slight knowledge of the teaching of our Blessed Lord. What they are really describing is ignorant faith, lazy faith, a refusal to engage the revelation of God with the full dimensions of what we are or what we can be. Faith is not meant to be a comfort blanket as those of ‘simple faith’ tend to make it. It is a strenuous call to engage all we are with the Father of Jesus.” (Pg 116, 2006 Harmony Books edition)

Strong words from such a little nun, but she is challenging all of us to live our faith more deeply, more fully. To do so requires making personal prayer an important part of our daily lives. It requires daily turning to the Scriptures, especially the Gospels; reflecting on the words of Jesus.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Purify Hearts of Yearning

“It happened one Easter that the brothers at the hermitage of Greccio prepared the table more carefully than they usually did with white linens and glassware….When they begun to eat, this truly poor man (Francis of Assisi) cried out at the door: ‘For the love of the Lord God,’ he said, ‘give alms to this poor sick wanderer.’…The beggar was given a dish, and sitting alone, he put the dish in the ashes. ‘Now I am sitting as a Friar Minor should sit,’ he said.” (The Second Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano)

“Trusting in the Father, Christ chose for himself and his mother a poor and humble life, even though he valued created things attentively and lovingly. Let the Secular Franciscans seek a proper spirit of detachment from temporal goods by simplifying their own material needs. Let them be mindful that according to the gospel they are stewards of the goods received for the benefit of God’s children.

Thus, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, and as pilgrims and strangers on their way to the home of the Father, they should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.” (Art. 11, Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order)

Every quarter of the year, my company holds a morning staff meeting at a local conference center. Before the meeting started, there was a continental breakfast buffet provided with coffee, fruit, large muffins, and other pastries. Since the economy went sour, my company still holds the meetings, but with a buffet made up of mini muffins and pastries. And I am sorry to say that this change bothered me. The large pastries were a perk that I felt we were entitled to; and darn it, I wanted them back.

Walking back to my office after this mornings’ meeting; I think the Holy Spirit was waiting to ambush me, because I suddenly remembered the above story about Francis by Celano. And I asked myself, is this how a Franciscan is supposed to react? There are so many hungry people who would love to get some of those small pastries, and I am complaining about it! Many of us feel entitled to certain things, from a better breakfast buffet, to substantial pay bonuses. And whether big or small things, we all need to constantly “strive to purify” our hearts from this desire, this feeling of entitlement. And be grateful for whatever we receive; and to share what we receive with all we come in contact with.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cruelity in Face of Tragedy

“To a poor man, however, be generous; keep him not waiting for your alms; Because of the precept, help the needy, and in their want, do not send them empty handed.

Store up almsgiving in your treasure house, and it will save you from every evil; Better than a stout shield and a sturdy spear, it will fight for you against the foe” (Sirach 29: 8-9, 12-13)

One of the sad side effects of a tragedy like the earthquake in Haiti is that there are some pundits who use the disaster to push their own view of the world. Robertson is reported to have blamed the earthquake on the Haitians of the past making a deal with the devil. Limbaugh sees the White House as using the disaster to fill the government coffers through a relief fund they have created for donations. In the face of such pain, lost, despair, and death, it saddens me to see people treat this situation so cruelly.

There are real people in that tortured land who are in need. It is time to open our wallets and purses, not our mouths.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Something More Important Than the "Liturgy Wars"

“When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you? Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and Sabbath, calling of assemblies, octaves with wickedness, these I cannot bear.

Your new moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load. When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you. Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim; redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” (Isaiah 1: 12-17)

When I was planning to write a post tonight, I originally intended to write about what some people have called “the liturgy wars.” But then the news came this morning about the earthquake in Haiti. Slowly the reports and images of the devastation have been coming out of that poor, hard-luck country. The National Catholic Reporter has been collecting and combining reports from the news wires on their website, including the report of the death of the archbishop of Port Au Prince. These stories and images have been gut-wrenching.

This puts the “liturgy wars” in perspective. Sometimes, we can be too focused on internal church matters; and forget what Jesus commanded us to do, to heal the wounded, to love the forgotten, and give hope to the despairing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bonuses for the Few

“Francis, the true friend and imitator of Christ, utterly despised all things belonging to this world, and hated money above all else. He always urged his brethren both by word and example to avoid it as they would the devil. And he told the friars to have as little love and use for money as for dung.” (Chapter 14, Mirror of Perfection)

“Trusting in the Father, Christ chose for himself and his mother a poor and humble life, even though he valued created things attentively and lovingly. Let the Secular Franciscans seek a proper spirit of detachment from temporal goods by simplifying their own material needs. Let them be mindful that according to the gospel they are stewards of the goods received for the benefit of God’s children.” (Art. 11a, Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order)

Driving home from a grocery run, I was listening to the American Public Media radio program “Marketplace.” There was an interview about the latest rounds of bonuses that are being bad out to Wall Street financial executives and the negative public reaction to them. The business journalist being interviewed said he could understand the anger, but the public should understand that to retain high class talent, the financial companies need to pay huge bonuses. It also came out that many of the executives really do not understand why people are so upset.

Thousands of people who are unemployed, living on the edge of financial ruin, or already in deep in the hole, struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their families’ heads. And we hear of people pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is no wonder that there is a lot of anger on Main Street!

Money is necessary for the functioning of our societies, but the desire to accumulate more and more of it is not. Everybody deserves fair compensation for their work, everybody deserves a living wage. The financial executives need to realize that they are part of a company, with co-workers who support they work; they need to realize that they “are stewards of the goods received for the benefit of God’s children.”
Image from "Marketplace" website.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

January Column from Secular Franciscan Fraternity Newsletter

Some background on this column, the Franciscan Friars of St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, opened a Food Center in a section of their basement Auditorium. The Center provides a food pantry for families with young children, as well as baby diapers and other supplies. So when our Secular Franciscan fraternity meets, a Food Center client will occasionally wander in and help themselves to our potluck buffet table.

“They (Secular Franciscans) should deepen the true foundations of universal kinship and create a spirit of welcome and an atmosphere of fraternity everywhere. They should firmly commit themselves to oppose every form of exploitation, discrimination, and exclusion and against every attitude of indifference in relation to others.” (Article 18.2, General Constitutions of the SFO)

Some of you may have noticed, as I have, that since the Franciscan Food Center opened; some of their clients have wandered into our socials and have helped themselves to our refreshments table. How we react to this illustrates the tensions that exist between what I call “radical” Franciscanism, and “practical” Franciscanism.

In the last years of the life of Francis of Assisi, you could already see these tensions coming about. There were friars who felt that the Order should always follow the example of Francis in living a radical life of poverty and service to the poor. They were inspired by Francis, who was quick to give the fraternity’s only book of the Gospels to a poor woman to sell for food; or who would regularly give his own habit to a poor person. Against them were the “practical” friars, who felt that there should be realistic limits to living a life of Franciscan poverty. The Church had given them the ministry to preach; friars needed to be trained and educated in theology. That required books, classrooms, and dormitories. To care for parishes, required places for the friars to live. Scholars have called the early “radical” Franciscans, “Spirituals,” and the “practical” Franciscans, “the Community,” or the “Conventuals.”

Now the Spirituals are often credited with authoring the collection of Franciscan stories we know as “The Little Flowers of St. Francis.” One of them is the story of a band of robbers who came to a friary to beg for the food. The guardian of the fraternity was indignant at this request, considered the robbers unworthy of receiving some of the alms the friars had collected for the poor. So the guardian sent the robbers away, after giving them a tongue lashing. When Francis heard this, he chastised the guardian for being uncharitable, “You acted in a cruel way, because sinners are led back to God by holy meekness better than by cruel scolding,” (Chapter 26). Francis sent the guardian out with bread and wine, to find the robbers, to serve them and ask their forgiveness for his harsh words. For Francis, nobody should be denied Christian charity.

So what does this means for us in this fraternity? The “practical” Franciscan in me would make sure that people know that our meeting is not part of the Food Center. Should anyone find their way into the Auditorium anyway, the “radical” Franciscan in me will welcome them as a brother or sister in Christ.

"Prosperity" Gospel versus the real Gospel

“Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!’ The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.’” (Mark 10: 23-27)

“But when on a certain day the Gospel was read in that church, how the Lord sent his disciples out to preach, the holy man of God, assisting there, understood somewhat the words of the Gospel; after Mass he humbly asked the priest to explain the Gospel to him more fully. When he had set forth for him in order all these things, the holy Francis, hearing that the disciples of Christ should not possess gold or silver or money; nor carry along the way scrip, or wallet, or bread, or a staff; that they should not have shoes, or two tunics; but that they preach the kingdom of God and penance, immediately cried out exultingly; ‘This is what I wish, this is what I seek, this is what I long to do with all my heart.’” (Thomas of Celano, First Life of Saint Francis: 22)

In my recent blog surfing, I came across a reference to a CNN story that was posted on December 25, 2009. The story was about the Christian preachers and pastors who advocate the “prosperity Gospel.” The more I read the story, the more I could not believe what they were preaching. They believe that Jesus was not poor, but rich; and anyone who faithfully follows this view of Jesus, will be blessed by God with wealth. Now CNN had some theologians, including Luke Timothy Johnson, dispute these claims. But these preachers, some of whom pastor mega churches, will not hear of it. I wonder if they skip over the Gospel passages, like the one above from the Gospel according Mark, that talk about the dangers of riches, of the need to empty oneself, take up ones’ cross and follow Jesus. How they must gloss over these passages.

Actually, this question of whether Jesus, Mary and Joseph were poor or rich has come up before. When the mendicant Orders, especially the Franciscans, were coming into being, they claimed that in practicing evangelical poverty, they were following the example of the poor Jesus. There were opponents to the Franciscans, who disputed the claim that Jesus and Mary were that poor. It was finally resolved in the Franciscans favor.

Still there are those who would say that the churches themselves has not always followed the poor Jesus; and sadly there is something to say about that statement; especially when one looks at the Catholic Church, past and present. But the Church still preaches that Jesus came to empty Himself in the service of all, that He came for the poor and wounded. And through His sacrifice on the cross and His Resurrection, he gave us something more precious than gold, silver or jewels. He brought us salvation and eternal life.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Days After Christmas

The days after Christmas and New Years have brought changes to downtown Boston. The large Christmas tree in front of the Macy's store is gone. The windows used for Christmas theme displays have been replaced with curtains and signs stating that new displays were in process. Christmas decorations have disappeared from the city streets and from the offices (my own included!). However, in the downtown chapel manned by the Franciscan Friars, St. Anthony Shrine, as in many Catholic churches, the creche is still up. It will remain up until this Sunday, which commemorates the Baptism of the Lord, the beginning of his adult life.
It brought to my mind how out of sync the secular world can be with the religious world when it comes to the Christmas season. While we were just beginning the Advent season of preparation for Christmas, the stores already had their Christmas merchandise and decorations out. And now that Christmas day is past, all the decorations are tossed into the trash and the St. Valentine's Day merchandise and decorations are being put up.
I think the Church's liturgical calendar is telling us to slow down, reflect on what we had just celebrated. The Son of God, loved us so much, that He became human like us; to reveal the Father's love for us; to save us from the power of sin. And in reflecting on this wondrous fact, we may be filled with awe, and with the angels continue the song: "Glory to God in the Highest!"