Reflection from Chapter Meeting

+JMJ+

Every month our chapter gathers for a community meeting, where our Religious Assistant (a Dominican sister) usually gives a Gospel reflection. Today, Sister was not able to attend the meeting, so I offered this reflection for our chapter. I share it with you all tonight: may we all strive to be athletes of God!


I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory…

…They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations
as an offering to the LORD,
on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries,
to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD.  – Is 66:18, 20

When I sat with the readings this week, I immediately started to picture these few verses from Isaiah, where we hear of the gathering of every nation and every language on earth in one large parade towards Jerusalem as none other than the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Over the past few weeks we who have been following the Games have seen Michael Phelps swim for his 23rd Gold Medal. Usain Bolt from Jamaica boasts a perfect 9 gold medals over three Olympic Games. Kenyans, Ethiopians, Japanese, Chinese, North Korean, South Korean, Brazilian, brown, black, white and every color in between—all of the best athletes from every nation, speaking every language, gathered in one place to challenge one another, test their skill and hopefully come out victorious. I love these fraternal gatherings because imperfect as they are, they give us a small glimpse of what Isaiah’s vision of that parade of nations could look like.

olympic
Parade of Nations: 2012 London Olympics

And this is the same imagery that carries over to the Gospel today, where Jesus says: “And people will come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south, and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 13:29)

These are beautiful images, which call us to remember that God does not want to exclude a single person from this invitation to Heaven. Through Christ, He opens the path to eternal life with Him not just for the Jewish people, but for the entire world. Yet the big question remains: If everyone receives this invitation, how are so many barred from entry at the door?  It’s one thing to be invited: but how do you actually get in to the Master’s house? If it’s not enough to know the master, let alone eat and drink with him and listen to his teaching in the streets, what more must we do?

In a rare lectionary feat, it seems the second reading can shed some light on how to get into that house—and if you’ll continue to humor me, I’d like to approach it again through the lens of the Olympics. How does one get to the Olympics? Training. You discipline your body and sacrifice in many ways so that not only are you good enough to compete, you are good enough to win. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes: “Therefore, I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it a slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:26-27) At the end of his letters to Timothy he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) He uses the imagery of the athlete to describe the training he puts his body and his soul through in order to keep the faith and win the crown of heaven.  This is actually picked up in various ways first by the Church Fathers, then the desert fathers: the type of athletic training an Olympian, a gladiator or a warrior would undergo was called “askesis” in the Greek, and it is where we get the term: asceticism. We hear of that training directly in the Letter to the Hebrews today as Paul talks about the Father who disciplines us—

“At the time,
all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.” (Heb 12:11)

I am sure the Olympic athletes would agree.

And like a good coach, like a great Father, God doesn’t just train or discipline everyone in the same way. The marathoner requires very different discipline than the sprinter; though their activities look much alike—they are very different. Our Christian lives, our lives as children of God, may look very similar on the outside, but we know that they are very different.  God calls to us and challenges us in unique ways, wanting us to be the very best version of ourselves—and therefore he trains us all in different ways.

He doesn’t want any repeat saints.

There’s already a St. Catherine of Siena. What God really wants next is a St. Catherine of Boston.

Yet in this singularity and uniqueness, God has also decided to put together some “teams.” Our families, our parish community, our friends. Sometimes we are called to train together; and certainly as Lay Dominicans we share some common training ground: prayer, study, community, apostolate- these are the ways in which God, through Dominic, has put together a good training regimen for our little team—our family.  At times we may be very sympathetic to Paul in this reading today: some times our four pillars may seem a cause not for joy but for pain—we are rightly challenged by this way of life. If it were easy, there wouldn’t really be a point, would there?

So today I’d like to take a few minutes for us to reflect in the quiet of our hearts on the ways in which God disciplines us. Take to heart this image of you as God’s athlete—God’s champion—like the martyrs of Rome whom Eusebius called the “athletes of religion”, we are part of that great parade of nations called to the Heavenly Jerusalem. Set your goal on that narrow gate, which is, in fact, the person of Jesus Christ and with that single goal in mind, think about:

What training regimen has God uniquely set before me in order to achieve that goal?

What challenges has He thrown my way, in big ways and in small ways?

Where are my victories?

Where are my failures?

What little acts of discipline does God ask of me in order to strengthen me?

To make me more myself? And will I accept them?

…..

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus said, to which Paul coaches us: “strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet!” (Heb 12:12-13)

+LORD, as we continue along this path of training, make us strong. Do not let us grow weary in the face of hardship or challenge—show us the narrow gate and give us the fortitude to strive for it, no matter what. Make us your champions, make us your athletes, so that we may join your children from every corner of the world in the great parade of saints. Amen.+

 

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Summer Newsletter!

Head on over to the newsletter archives and check out the latest issue of “NFP and Me.”

As a follow-up, email me if you are interested in learning more about becoming an NFP Ambassador for your parish! You don’t need to be a teacher to support others: even just knowing that someone else is out there can make all the difference for a couple wishing to learn more!

 

The Master and the Thief

+JMJ+

If your church follows the Catholic (or Revised Common) Lectionary, last week you heard a parable from Luke about the servants waiting for their master to come home from a wedding. Then at the tail end of that parable, a funny little saying:

Be sure of this:
if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming,
he would not have let his house be broken into.
You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come. — Lk 12:39-40

Our Youth Group gathered last Sunday for pizza and fellowship and we talked about this Gospel passage. The kids (mostly middle school age) were able to identify that the master in the first parable (who stood for God/Jesus) is NOT the same master in the second saying. Rather, the master in this proverb is every one of us– those who are waiting for the Son of Man to come. The gist of the whole reading is simply this: STAY ALERT. Because you never know when Christ is coming back. Got it.

But this little phrase has always struck me as a bit odd. Why can’t the master just lock his house all the time? He doesn’t need to know when a thief is coming, just that there is a possibility of a thief coming. So he can prepare, install a good alarm system, and sleep soundly. That’s what we do isn’t it?

And it’s not like ancient civilizations didn’t use locks. The Romans used them. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians had them. It has even been proposed that Mesopotamia was the birthplace of locks. So why not just lock the darn door?

Well the answer is: the master probably did. He probably had adequate locks on any windows and doors to take care of his estate; but even a well-to-do master cannot prevent a stealthy thief from digging into the sun-dried brick homes that most people had back then. A patient thief could literally dig his way into your house without much noise at all, then sneak off quietly through the same entry-point before anyone awoke. No locks or bar systems could detect that. So the only way to be 100% sure that your house wasn’t robbed was… to stay awake. That’s a sad truth for the poor master, who needs his sleep and isn’t omniscient.

But far from being a cool factoid, this image of the silently digging thief has stuck with me this week. It strikes me that this proverb is not only an exhortation to be alert for the End Times; it is a perfect visual description of how sin ever-so-quietly enters our lives.

For those of us concerned about such things, we may be aware of temptations and vices that would rob us “by the front door,” as it were. These are things that are obvious, things in our life that we know we are doing, things we know are wrong, and yet we get frustrated because we do them anyway. So in order to change, we “cut it off and throw it away” (as in Matthew 5:30). If we are struggling with addiction, we don’t even let ourselves go near alcohol or cigarettes. If we struggle with lust, we don’t hang out with those friends who are constantly watching porn. We lock the door.

But the more pernicious and deadly sins are those that we don’t even realize we’re committing, those sins which sneak in little by little as we sleep securely, thinking that we’ve got it all under control. It may start out as a harsh word said to someone out of anger and before you know it, your soul is so mired by anger that you say: “How could this happen?”

We must remain vigilant. We must remain awake. It’s very important to lock those doors. It’s crucial to the safety of our soul that we do not allow thieves to enter the easy way. But it’s also important that we don’t rest on our laurels, congratulating ourselves for that fancy new security system we just bought to protect ourselves from the thief with the giant sword, only to wake and find that we’d been completely robbed by the thief with a tiny spoon.

 

Are You Convinced?

+JMJ+

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Romans 8:31-35, 37-38

If you ever feel disconnected from the writers of Sacred Scripture, if you ever feel like you just don’t understand them or the world they lived in, I highly recommend that you sit with this passage. Let it pour over you. Imagine St. Paul, pacing the room as poor Tertius scribbles frantically to keep up with the dictation. (cf. Romans 16:2) The message was clear: urge the Roman people to remain faithful to Christ and to spread that faith throughout the world. Ever the master rhetorician, Paul poses question after question– and always Christ Jesus is the answer. But what grabs me about this passage and what makes this such a vivid and effective way to dive into Scripture isn’t the beauty of Paul’s prose, nor the way in which every word hinges on this person whom Paul never actually met in earthly life… but the sheer way in which Paul lays himself bare with these few words:

st. paul
Pompeo Batoni “St. Paul” 

“I am convinced.”

He could have said “I have faith” or “I believe” or “I am reasonably sure.” But he didn’t.

“πέπεισμαι” a passive of the Greek: πείθω, to persuade.

“I am persuaded.”

And I wonder: by what has he been persuaded? From whence this conviction? And as Tertius scribbled those lines, what did he think? Was he also persuaded? Or did this profession belong solely to Paul? Was he just a passive, faithful scribe, or did he nod his head in agreement just as feverishly as he wrote?

As soon as I begin to ponder that, I can imagine Paul not as the great Saint in Heaven (which he undoubtedly is), but as a man on earth, sharing his faith and his love for Christ with other men (and women!) on earth.  As theologically eloquent and rich as the Epistle to the Romans is, in this small fleeting verse you hear not a treatise or a theory, but a man pouring out his heart.

And it challenges me to think: would I ever be bold enough to write that? Or to even speak it? Would I ever authoritatively and unapologetically tell someone that I am convinced? That I am completely persuaded? What sort of “proof” do I need in order to be convinced? Could I put aside the “Theology 101” for just a minute and give witness to the fact that I just really, really, really love and trust Jesus? Of course, Paul still gives quite a hefty Theology 101 lesson in this letter, but at the heart of it all is not some academic, rational, logical proof. In Romans 8:38 he shows that he is persuaded by the strength of Christ’s love.

Which also begs the questions: Am I truly convinced that Jesus Christ loves me? Even if I were, what would that mean? How would that change my life? Am I truly convinced that Christ cares for me? Am I truly convinced that even if I go broke and find myself destitute, persecuted, starving, naked, and staring down my executioner that none of that will separate me from God’s love?

…Am I convinced?

What’s So “Luminous” About Those Mysteries?

+JMJ+

I’m going to be very honest here: I’m a curmudgeon about those Luminous Mysteries.

The Rosary has traditionally been said with only three sets of mysteries (Glorious, Joyful and Sorrowful), each with 5 decades, which when you add it all up comes to 150 Hail Marys.  There also happen to be 150 Psalms. This is not a coincidence: 150 Hail Marys were the psalter for the illiterate. It was a way for everyone to feel connected to the Liturgy of the Hours, to mirror in their busy, daily lives the constant prayer of the psalter that was done by the monks and nuns. There’s a beautiful symmetry and symbolism there. Then, in 2002, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote Rosarium Virginis Mariae in which he introduced another set of mysteries which he called the “Mysteries of Light,” which we shorthand to “Luminous.” These are:

  1. The Baptism in the Jordan
  2. The Wedding at Cana
  3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom
  4. The Transfiguration
  5. The Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper

I’ve got nothing against these events– they’re pretty great. But if you add 50 more Hail Marys you get… 200. Where’s the symbolism and the liturgical connection with that?

Psh. Harumph. Grumble.

But another reason I’ve been so curmudgeonly about the Luminous Mysteries is that for a very long time, the title didn’t seem to make any sense. “Mysteries of Light?” Apart from the Transfiguration, there really doesn’t seem to be any “light” happening in these stories. What am I supposed to be contemplating here? How did JPII get that name? For a long time I just avoided saying them on Thursdays, because it’s not like you have to say the recommended set of mysteries each day. But at some point I decided I needed to at least try to understand these things better and stop being so stubborn. So I read:

“In the course of [these] mysteries, we contemplate important aspects of the person of Christ as the definitive revelation of God. Declared the beloved Son of the Father at the Baptism in the Jordan, Christ is the one who announces the coming of the Kingdom, bears witness to it in his works and proclaims its demands. It is during the years of his public ministry that the mystery of Christ is most evidently a mystery of light: ‘While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.'(Jn 9:5)”– RVM, 19

In his typical way, JPII is weaving together images, rather than creating a straight line of thought. As someone who likes to think linearly, this used to frustrate me a lot. Now that I know him better, I have come to find it endearing. In a few succinct sentences, he takes some threads: the person of Christ, revelation, public ministry, the Light of the World. He puts them together and voila!:  The Mysteries of Light.

Yet after reading this, I decided that we’ve fallen into a bit of misnomer when it comes to calling these the “Mysteries of Light”, because “Light” for JPII is shorthand for: The Revelation of God in the World Contained Within the Person and Actions of Jesus Christ. 

But of course, that’s a horrible name for a set of mysteries.

So if you have ever felt the same confusion or frustration I felt about the “Luminous” Mysteries, and what exactly you were supposed to do with them, I propose something that I have found very helpful in my own contemplation: simply call them the “Illuminating Mysteries.” Or the title that I prefer is the “Epiphanic  Mysteries,” from the word “Epiphany”– revelation. Rather than being distracted (as I am wont to be) by the “Light” imagery,  I now go through these mysteries I ask myself: “What is being revealed about God in this moment?”

Approaching them this way, I reflect on:

  1. The Sonship of Christ. The benevolence and love of God for giving us the sacrament of Baptism.
  2. The generosity of God’s miracles. His concern for human affairs. His elevation of marriage to a sacrament. His acceptance of Mary’s requests.
  3. The Kingship of God. The already-but-not-yet of our life here on earth.
  4. God’s promise of our own glory in heaven. His radiance above the law and prophets. His glory being so hidden here on earth.
  5. God pouring Himself out for us. God bestowing us the gift of the Eucharist.

…and much more. And each time I go deeper, I can see more of that tapestry woven of the person of Christ, revelation, public ministry, the Light of the World.

Of course, this doesn’t get rid of the psalter issue. I’ll still grumble about that on occasion. But I don’t wrestle with myself on Thursdays anymore, going back and forth about whether or not I should try to contemplate those Luminous Mysteries. Now that I understand a little better what they are all about, I pray them and try to let the imagery of revelation and light wash over me, with this text always in the background:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  — John 1:1-5

 

We’re Not Just a Prayer Group

+JMJ+

Last Friday, I packed up my kids and drove out to beautiful Clinton, MA (home of the Museum of Russian Icons!) for the funeral of a departed Dominican brother. The 18-month-old was delightfully well-behaved, but his two older sisters spent the majority of the time whining, punching each other and fighting over books. Just letting you know that I won’t be getting that Parenting Award this year. Again.

During the homily, Father talked about the ways in which our brother had contributed to his parish, professional and family life. I sat there with a large contingent of my fellow Lay Dominicans, wondering when he would mention our brother’s commitment to his Dominican vocation. Then the priest said,

“He was also a Lay Dominican, a member of a prayer group that got together once a month to pray– to say the Rosary. They would do a litany. And also the Liturgy of the Hours and his presence in that group will greatly be missed.”

Our chapter president, who was sitting directly in front of me, rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “Well, that description was embarrassingly wrong.”

I was going through some formation materials with our current novice about the history of the Lay Dominicans (formerly known as the Third Order or the Order of Penitence of St. Dominic). Here’s a selection:

“‘Tertiaries need to be involved with attaining the goal of the Dominican Order. Third Order members are therefore Christian laity who are involved with the apostolate of the First Order– proclamation of the Word— in the broadest sense of the word.'(Schillebeeckx, The Dominican Third Order: Old and New Style, 1960)…The first purpose of the Dominican Laity, the individual purpose, is simply to be Dominicans. The second purpose of the Laity, the purpose within the family, flows from the first; the Dominican Laity are truly members of the Dominican family.” (emphasis added)

That doesn’t sound like a prayer group to me. It sounds like a vocation: a call to fill the world with holy men and women who will preach in places that the friars (the First Order) can’t. It is true that our chapter gathers for prayer on a regular basis, but that is because we need the time to pray together (and study, which we do every meeting) before returning to our preaching vocation in the world. We may not get to wear our full habits until we die, but we are as much a part of the Dominican family and the preaching mission of St. Dominic as are the friars, nuns and sisters– something our dear departed brother knew and lived very well.

Yet the charge that we appear to be nothing more than a prayer group is not without substantiation. There are times in the history of the Order when lay groups have seemed nothing more than Rosary Groups For Old People. When the average age of a chapter is not young, it can be difficult to engage in active preaching apostolates as a group, which would be one way to show that we have more to offer than insular, mutually-edifying devotion. I’m not saying that prayer groups are bad– they are wonderful! But the Lay Dominicans are something different, and the fact that we may not appear different is lamentable.

You may think I’m just complaining because I have a bruised ego over the whole affair. Maybe. I’m very sensitive to those who insist or insinuate that being a Lay Dominican isn’t a “real vocation.” But I think (and I hope!) that the real reason I’m dwelling on this incident is that the priest’s words struck me because they were a challenge. They challenge me to not grow comfortable in just three of the four pillars of Dominican life. I must meet with my chapter, I must pray and I must study, but in order for the world to know Christ, I must also turn outside these nourishing components of my vocation. I must preach. I must share the fruits of my chapter, prayer and study. Some people, like the priest at the funeral, will miss the connection between my apostolic efforts and that group I attend every month. That’s fine, but I can’t let lack of recognition be an excuse to get discouraged in my preaching, which admittedly can be a difficult temptation for me. I like people to acknowledge my efforts and my contributions, which seldom happens when it comes to preaching or teaching the Faith. Ultimately, I must learn to desire that people will come to know Christ through me– and if that means that I and my Dominican status remain unknown, that needs to be OK.  How disappointed Dominic would be if his sons and daughters didn’t heed the call to make disciples of all nations just because people on the outside didn’t realize they were more than a committed prayer group.

So in response to that call, I’m here to say:

Jesus loves you. Mary, His mother, is eager to open her heart to you and take you under her protection. Your sins are forgiven in Christ– Go to Him. 

And if you feel inspired to preach to others, to study and to teach the Faith, maybe you, too, have a vocation to the Order of Preachers. Maybe you are called to be a friar. Or a nun. Or an active sister (which is what I thought my vocation was before I met my husband). Or maybe you are called to the vocation of a Lay Dominican. I’d be very happy to talk with you if you want to learn more. Many wonderful lay people spread the Gospel in their families, places of work, and even online. But sometimes we are called to do so with the support of a chapter, with the prayers of St. Dominic, and the special protection given to his family under Our Lady’s Mantle.  So keep an open heart and an open ear– for yourself and for others.

And… if at my funeral, the priest says that I was part of a Dominican prayer group, please just roll your eyes and shrug your shoulders on my behalf.

Another Book To Read…

+JMJ+

I’m not sure I have time for a full review of this one, but a colleague just gifted me a copy of Alice von Hildebrand’s “Memoirs of a Happy Failure” and I devoured it in just a little over a day. It’s a quick and charming read!

Over the years I’ve felt that Alice is a bit of an acquired taste when it comes to theological reflections, but she really is a beautiful and holy person. What I didn’t realize was that throughout her career at Hunter College in New York, she suffered in many ways professional and personal due to the fact that she was not only a woman in academia, but also an ardent Catholic. This book was a collection of delightful personal reminiscences and vignettes about the many ways grace guides you through tumultuous circumstances. For anyone who is a Catholic teacher of any sort, this book is also an edifying look at how faith and commitment to Truth can convert the hearts of students, even the ones who seem the most hostile or disinterested.

Oh, and I hate to spoil the surprise, but she’s really not a failure. Good for you, Alice.

alice
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