December 21, Fourth Sunday of Advent
Most people believe in God, they just don’t believe in a God who believes in them.
When I read those words in a book by Neale Donald Walsch and given me by a friend recently, they hit me between the eyes. The staggering truth of those words! We find it hard to believe in a God who believes in us. That’s the crux of the matter. Words from Matthew’s Gospel spring to mind: “And he (Jesus) did not work many miracles because of their lack of faith. (Matt. 13:58) Because of our disbelief in a God who, without question, believes in us, our faith remains small; impotent. Such disbelief is the proverbial stumbling stone that makes faith falter. Why?
In January, 1985—my first year in monastic life—the writer and Notre Dame professor John Dunne, CSC, gave the Community retreat. During one conference, he mentioned once looking up the word “unloving” and finding the synonyms “unloved”, “unlovely” after the definition. For Dunne, this was revelatory. He went on to explain, saying that our unloving behavior stems from, and is in reaction to, the experience of being “unloved” lurking beneath the surface of our awareness. Deeper still, is the wounding conviction that we are somehow “unlovely”: broken; damaged goods.
With all that lurking inside, how could we ever hope to fully believe in a God who believes in us; who loves us, damaged goods that we are? Such disbelief, born of crippling self-doubt, has a rippling effect upon all our relationships; especially those closest to us. When Dunne spoke that overcast, January morning, it was like a door had opened within me.
Most—if not all—of us feel like damaged goods in some way. Emotionally, we’ve been dropped. Somehow, without ever uttering it, we feel unlovely. Is this not the predicament of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, played out before our eyes every Christmas?
When we are willing to believe and take to heart the Birth of Christ, it becomes the antidote for such self-doubt and negativity. Swaddled in flesh and with tiny hands, the immense God reaches out to us. God becomes small, like us, and takes hold for good our fragile nature. This Divine Birth says, beyond words, that God believes in us; that we are loved, damaged goods and all. In the Birth of Jesus, God gives his Word:
For when peaceful stillness compassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent, your all-powerful word from heaven’s royal throne leapt…(Wisdom 18: 14-15)
It was a leap made with abandon and great love. Are we willing, then, to take to heart and believe in a God who believes in us?
It’s been said that we can actually miss heaven by eighteen inches. Physically, that’s the average distance from head to heart. Too often, we live out of our heads: calculating and controlling. Spiritually, we need to let our heads descend into our hearts. Only then, will my life change; less heartless and vastly more meaningful: “Only the heart sees”, says the Little Prince. “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
To let our heads descend into our hearts: what might that look like?
At a Christmas concert presented by our Choir recently, a parishioner began to cry during “O Come All Ye Faithful” and mentioned afterwards that she gets teary-eyed whenever she hears that carol; (Michael Smith’s carol “All is Well” does that for me; my eyes brimming most times). I recall the Catholic novelist Walker Percy being moved to tears during a Midnight Mass. Suddenly, the miracle of Christmas dawned on him. To his great surprise, he was overwhelmed in a way not felt before. As he sat in that pew, the head descended into the heart. He believed deeply and with faith alive; born again.
This Christmas, let’s put our heart into what we are about; wherever we find ourselves. There, God is found; One who believes in us. This Christmas, will we allow ourselves to be surprised by the enduring, loving nature of Christ’s Birth with its timeless message that we are loved and lovely in God’s eyes?
A Blessed Christmas to you and your loved ones!
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
December 14, Third Sunday of Advent
This 3rd Sunday of Advent is sometimes called “Gaudete Sunday”. The emphasis is on joy. Yet, what is this advent joy? The joy that caused the child to leap within Elizabeth’s womb, when Mary’s voice sounded in her ear, differs from the ephemeral and fleeting joys we tend to grasp at; like straws.
This gospel joy is interior; deeper than feeling. I’m reminded of St. Therese of Lisieux who described her life in Carmel as an “unfelt joy, unfelt peace.” When we long for Christ and let His word sound within us, such joy will come to birth within our lives.
In a homily given at the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil, Pope Francis pointed out how Christians ought to have an attitude of joy, and that “We cannot fail to be witnesses of this joy”. He continued:
Jesus has shown us that the face of God is that of a loving Father. Sin and death have been defeated. Christians cannot be pessimists! They do not look like someone in constant mourning. If we are truly in love with Christ and if we sense how much Christ loves us, our hearts will “light up” with a joy that spreads to everyone around us. (pp. 63-64)
Not only in the womb did the Baptist experience joy. In today’s Gospel, he is seen pointing away from self, saying “I am not the Christ.” Ever since, John reminds those willing to listen that “there is one among you whom you do not recognize…whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” Such selfless humility always leads to joy; joy no one can take away.
In our time, the faces of a good number of us look defeated; distracted as we go our way. Why? I suspect it’s because we lose sight of this love Pope Francis talks about in his homily. Often, we fail to recognize what makes for joy, and that God alone brings lasting joy; joy that Jesus promises.
I know this from personal experience, and clearly remember a turning point. It happened during my Novitiate. One afternoon, I was feeling pessimistic about life at the Abbey; about myself, actually. I’ve never much liked myself at times. I remember being in a dark mood as I spoke with the Novice Master. Patiently, he listened; then responded with a zinger that snapped me out of the funk and distortion. He said, “Tim, drop the black crayon! You are making things blacker than they really are”. His words jolted me towards the possibility and love already present, and that I failed to recognize; the same lack of recognition John points out in today’s gospel.
In our search for God we must learn, as did John, who we are not; and who we truly are as we stand in God’s gaze revealed in Jesus. We are—as we are—understood, loved, forgiven. This does bring joy, and enables us to leave pessimism behind; to “drop the black crayon.”
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
December 7, Second Sunday of Advent
On weekdays during the season of Advent, students, faculty and parents gather in the foyer of the parish school first thing in the morning for our Advent prayer and candle lighting. With Principal Vince McGovern’s amplified “Shush” they gather quietly; a reminder that we gather for prayer. Together, we encircle the Advent wreath at the center. I love this tradition, begun by another Principal and years ago: Sister Dolores Crosby, niece to “ole Blue Eyes”; who made the song “White Christmas” a well-worn tradition this time of year.
As the school gathers, still wearing backpacks, stocking caps and coats, we begin prayer with the sign of the cross and listen to a scripture passage. We pray, sing and light the appropriate candle.
Last Monday, I was present. At the end of our prayer, I asked: “Why is it so cold outside this time of year? The sun is out today and the sky clear. Why isn’t it warm? Always reliable Elizabeth Ford responded, “Because the Northern hemisphere is farther away from the sun this time of year.” And I said, in so many words: “Yes, Elizabeth, the earth is tilting away from the sun. That’s why it’s colder now and why there are still patches of snow on the ground”. I went on to say that, spiritually, we can do this with God. Through selfishness and sin, we tend to tilt our lives away from God and the warmth of His presence. Because of that, we’ve grown cold and distant from God and one another. Advent asks us to tilt our lives back to God; to return to the light and warmth of God’s presence revealed in Jesus. The candles we light and prayers we say are reminders of that.
This morning and before prayer, I lit the candle on my own Advent wreath I placed in the living room. I bent to light the wick and realized that, with my body, I was tilting toward the light. That simple gesture became a prayer as I remembered what I had said Monday. Also, the word “faith” in Hebrew is a verb, not a noun and it means, “To lean.” Faith cannot be centered on the head, where I logically and doctrinally arrive at clarity of God’s presence in my life. God is Mystery and can never be comprehended by our intellect. No doctrine ever fathoms the Mystery God is. That would be idolatrous. Yet, we can apprehend God by our love and with the heart. So true faith involves more than an adherence to doctrine and magisterial teaching. Our faith, if it’s to be credible, must reach beyond thought; even words. God is a verb, not a noun in the mystery of the Incarnation. Only when we are willing to “to fall in love in a complete and absolute way” with God—to tilt—can we ever hope to experience the light and warmth of His presence. Only the dynamism of such faith can impact our incredulous world. Pope Francis is evidence of that. The Pontiff’s life is on ‘full tilt’, to the delight and hope of many; inside and outside the Church.
This morning, as I bent close to light the candles’ wick, I realized my need to tilt more faithfully towards God this Advent: towards life and those who approach me daily. Too often, I lean back and keep a safe distance. Our fallen, tilted world does that all too well and why life has grown cold for many due to the “tyranny of self-absorption” and sin. I’m reminded of “The Divine Comedy” and Dante’s image of Hell as a ‘region of ice’.
This Advent, let’s be more willing to ‘tilt’ in ways that make this world and our hearts more luminous; more alive with the warmth of Christ, who’s forever tilted toward us by his birth and ever close; even now.
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
November 23, Solemnity of CHrist the King
In his latest book, “Eager to Love” Father Richard Rohr OFM, writes:
To pray and actually mean “thy Kingdom come”, we must also be able to say “my kingdoms go.” At best, most Christians split their loyalties between God and Caesar… (p. 36)
Are not the lives of most of us “split” and not wholly given over to God, where the sway of God’s presence has a hold on us within the strategies of life? Regrettably, “my kingdoms”—my agendas and programs for happiness—have my attention rather than “thy Kingdom” much of the time.
We need to remember, Rohr says, that our “first citizenship” is, always and in every case, elsewhere. It is this awareness that allows us to live in this world “with joy, detachment, and freedom.” At the beginning of Compline at the monastery each evening, the Abbot says, “My dear Brothers, we are one day closer to our everlasting homeland.” I’ve grown to appreciate the hope hidden within those words, though, at first, I saw them nothing more than a grim reminder of death and dying; unenlightened novice that I was!
Nevertheless, we lose sight of such hope when we anxiously grasp onto our premeditated expectations rather than allowing the plans God has for life to unfold in time. Though cliché, it nevertheless rings true: we too often fail to “Let go and let God”.
The Kingdom of God is not a place we neither track via GPS, nor locate ‘out there’ and ‘beyond’ as we believe. Jesus says, “The Kingdom…is within you.” In other words, the ‘beyond’ is not simply beyond. It is a mystery deep inside our lives; in the depth of here. I tried to emphasize that in my homily last weekend when I said (quoting Rohr):
The Gospel is not a fire insurance policy for the next world, but a life assurance policy for this world.
“Thy Kingdom” dawns inside us and has our allegiance when we learn to see with “grace-healed eyes” (St. John Chrysostom); a way of seeing that brings us to the Gospel this Solemnity of Christ the King (Matthew 25:31-46)
In this Gospel passage, those who “inherit the kingdom” are ones who, in this life here, assure the dignity and well-being of those not seen for who they truly are; those relegated last place in the eyes of the world. They do so with no religious intent in mind: “Lord, when did we see you hungry…?”
They respond, simply, to basic needs and in a humane, loving way. They have the compassion to recognize something of themselves in the need of another. I call such folk “kingdom people” in that they live, as Rohr puts it, on the “edge of the inside, a way different place from the lives of most of us who want to be front and center.” (p.61)
On this Solemnity and last Sunday of the liturgical year, may “my kingdoms go” so that, with the help of grace, God’s reign might have “front and center” here, and within this tilted, spinning world.
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
October 5, Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
In his book, “The Jesus I Never Knew” Philip Yancey writes:
When I was a child…I associated Jesus with Kool-Aid and sugar cookies and gold stars for good attendance. (p. 13)
As Yancey grows up, his childhood understanding of Jesus evolves. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film, “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” (and dedicated to Pope John XXIII) opened his eyes. In that film, there is no ‘gold star, sugar cookie’ kind of Jesus. Instead, Yancey discovers a Jesus who touched nerves and upset religious leaders due to his unconventional ways, saying things such as we heard in last week’s Gospel: that “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you”, because of their openness and repentance.
Jesus continues to touch nerves and upset the status quo with another parable directed once again to the “chief priests and elders of the people” this 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time. However, this parable is read, not to recall what happened to them, but to see something of their resistance to the newness of his message in ourselves.
Through this parable his ploy is, again, to expose the true condition of their hearts. As the tenants refuse to ‘give ear’ to what is being asked, so, too, the religious leaders fiercely turn a deaf ear to Christ and what God is revealing through him. By the Parable, Jesus wants them to see their own violent resistance and how they, too, dismiss him; rejecting that ‘cornerstone’ meant to uphold us in ways new, and of God. All they feel is a bloodthirsty need to be rid of him, he threatens them that much.
Why the resistance? Why is Jesus such a threat to them and, sometimes, to us? The discord of resistance and threat is a leitmotiv in human history: from the killing of Abel to the present day. We find resistance almost everywhere; even the church. I’m amazed at the resistance felt by some to the proposal made by Cardinal Walter Kasper recently and which will be addressed at the Synod on the Family happening in Rome this October; of allowing the Eucharist to divorced and remarried Catholics, as well as streamlining the whole annulment process. Such resistance, however, pales when compared to what is happening in the Middle East and the rubble of such violence…
Why resistance to Jesus, seen in the Gospel, as well as ourselves and the world in which we live?
As he overturned those moneychanger’s tables in the Temple, Jesus overturned a notion of God and an ‘anthropology’ that was comfortable; known. One they could control. Jesus’ very gestures, presence and words often threatened that notion and approach to the human person. The parable’s image of the vineyard with its produce calls them—and us—towards a new kind of fruitfulness that is more open; giving. Yet, they refuse. Indeed, they kill the son.
What Jesus came to reveal asks that we change; and change often. Change, however, is rarely easy. It threatens us. Yet, it’s the way we grow beyond self and that ‘comfort zone’ we selfishly guard; the only way to experience the dynamic nature of God, who makes all things new.
In his Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” Pope Francis chides those who resist change; who say, “We’ve always done it this way”, because it leads to a “false security, as he puts it.” He writes:
Jesus can also break through the dull categories with which we would enclose him and he constantly amazes us by his divine creativity. Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world.
As individuals and as a Church may we be less resistant and more open to the “freshness of the Gospel”; the ways Christ continues to speak and so find the willingness to break free from the “dull categories” and “ecclesial introversion” (Pope Francis) that keep us closed to the lived reality of people here and now.
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
September 28, Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The whole Christian life is a life in which…the more we progress, the poorer we get so that the man or woman who has progressed most is totally poor—and has to depend directly on God with…nothing left in themselves.
Nothing left in themselves. And Jesus says: “Take nothing for the journey.” (Luke 9)
Strange way to God, don’t you think? This ‘progress’ that, paradoxically, makes us poorer with nothing left in ourselves. Who in their right mind would want such a life? Yet, saints and mystics alike concur that such a letting-go is the surer path upon which we become more dependent on God, who is our Life. Christ himself trod such a path within this fallen world, teaching us beyond words and by example that such a path is a means to an end: into deeper freedom and joy; into God who holds the key to life’s meaning and our own.
Merton’s words help us grasp somewhat our 2nd Reading this 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The passage comes from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and quotes from an Christological hymn that was sung in the early church:
Christ Jesus…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself… (Phil. 2:6-11)
Jesus emptied himself, becoming totally poor; dependent directly on God and with nothing left in himself. Emptied. The Greek word is “Kenosis”.
Last week, my family received the pathology report concerning a biopsy performed on my Mom. We discovered, sadly, that she has a rapidly growing tumor in her neck that is cancerous; this on top of her dementia! Kenosis, to be sure. Her dementia and this cancer leave her totally poor and dependent. What else is left?
Ten years ago when her dementia started to progress, I would often hear her utter the words, “O God, help me”, when walking up behind her unawares: a prayer so heartfelt and utterly dependent upon God that it often pierced me.
This kenosis and self-emptying—inevitable in the Christian life; in life itself—is rarely easy because we’re not in control and can only trust. Sometimes we can’t even pray. All we can do is survive during the letting-go and path to God. I’ve felt often helpless and angry watching the disease progress and consume someone so much a part of me. But I try to move beyond such moods and simply be present; to trust and wait it out believing, with an often threadbare faith, that “there’s more to life than meets the eye”. Everything speaks, everything teaches, I’ve often said. I need to practice what I preach…
Years ago, as kids, we were in the TV room one evening, seated on the floor and watching the film, “The Song of Bernadette”; our Mom behind us on the sofa and Dad on a business trip. At one point, Bernadette undergoes her own kenosis as she’s consumed by tuberculosis. The nuns advise her to journey to Lourdes; to the miraculous spring. Bernadette responds that “The spring is not for me.” When they ask why, she says: The Lady said, “I cannot promise you happiness in this world; only in the next.” To which my Mom was heard to say, “That is so true”. I turned, wondering what she meant and saw my Mom taking a drag on her cigarette! Those were the years when nearly everyone smoked…
We were made to be happy, and we do experience by God’s grace ‘shards’ of happiness in this broken and amazing world of ours. Only in the next—with God—will such happiness become whole and unbroken; full, complete, alive. I want only to believe that, my Mom—being emptied—awaits such happiness. That is my hope. It is the hope of anyone who longs for what this world cannot give.
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
September 21, Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Almost from the beginning we are taught to earn our way through life: from earning degrees to a person’s respect. We’re taught that we must earn our way through life because nothing in life is free. There’s “no free lunch” we’re told; almost from the beginning.
Such a mentality skews our notion of grace and understanding of God, I believe. Have not all of us tried to earn God’s favor? We believe that our moral life, character and what we can accomplish in this life for the sake of the Gospel will win God’s favor and earn His attention. We fail to realize that we always are in the gaze of God: saints and sinners alike. We need not earn it. All we need do is become aware of that loving gaze. It is this awareness alone that makes us to change and to live in that gracious gaze for good. Nothing needs to be earned. We need not prove ourselves in God’s eyes; or anyone else’s for that matter. Yet, vainly, we do just that: within our spiritual life and life in general.
When we think we can earn God’s favor and grace, it can breed a sense of entitlement within us which has nothing to do with the path of the Gospel. Did not many of the religious leaders surrounding Jesus have a sense of entitlement, believing that they had—by observance of the Law—earned God’s favor? Remember the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable on righteousness: who prayed “up front” thanking God he was not like other men, grasping and adulterous and nothing “like this tax collector” who, in the back of the temple, was bent to the ground, begging God’s mercy. We know the ‘rest of the story’ and who went home “at rights” with God. The point is such favor cannot be earned; only given and received.
This sense of entitlement can be founding lurking within those who find themselves annoyed at “deathbed conversions”. I remember how some conservative Catholics were incensed when Senator Ted Kennedy was buried from the Catholic Church. And I always find it embarrassing when bishops withhold giving the Eucharist to politicians who have dissented from a particular church teaching. I wonder how those bishops felt when the Holy Father recently presided at a wedding in the Vatican where some of the couples, reportedly, were “living in sin” before their nuptials? I can only imagine. Thank God the Holy Father has the pastoral wisdom to see the greater good and freely give what all of us long to receive; that cannot be earned.
In his exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel) Pope Francis writes:
The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of the sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak…
Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems. (pp. 24-25)
This sense of entitlement has muddied our discourse over the recent and complex issues of universal health care and immigration. We’ve yet to learn that we, indeed, are our brother’s—and sister’s—keeper. We are responsible one for another. We ought to work towards the good of others and want only what is best for the other, ungrudgingly.
This is the point of the Gospel this 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: the parable where we find those who worked one hour only and those who “bore the day’s burden and the heat” receiving the same pay. Logically, it seems unfair. Yet, this parable is not about worker’s rights and a just wage. That’s not the point. Rather, Jesus is teaching us about a God who leaves no one out—those no one would hire, as in the parable—and the illogical nature of Divine Love; a Love that can never be earned, nor seen as an entitlement, no matter how virtuous or laborious our spiritual lives. Grace cannot be earned; only given and received. For God’s love is impartial and open to all. Let us remember: the Church is not a tollhouse, but the house of the Father where all are welcome; all belong; all deserving of a Presence and Love that wants only to be given, and received.
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
September 7, Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
A utilitarian approach to life is defined as “useful, profitable, beneficial” in my dictionary. Architecture that is utilitarian often has usefulness and practicality in mind rather than beauty. For example, strip malls—an epidemic here—are utilitarian, but usually unattractive; even ugly. So, a utilitarian approach can be quite practical, yet lack the aesthetic which I believe is essential and a necessary ingredient adding meaning and happiness to life. As classic philosophy reminds us, we are made for “The Good, the Beautiful, and the True”. St. Augustine frames it in these words:
We were made for You, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.
When our approach to people is utilitarian, however, it robs life and relationship of meaning. It is dangerous because such an approach inhibits the sacred and God-given nature of the other. A utilitarian approach diminishes another human being. This is why the ethical issues like abortion and physician-assisted suicide—though seemingly practical—can never be the answer. Our stance, too, on warfare that seeks to defend “our way of life” is ruinous in that it blinds us to the dignity of those we consider different. Isis, clearly, takes a utilitarian and brutal approach when it comes to people who differ. Syria, too, is in shambles because of such blindness. Our hands, however, are not bloodless. We’ve made a mess of things as well. St. Paul said it well when he wrote: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
In the Mystery of the Incarnation, the Reality of God took flesh in Jesus and descended into the narrowness of life to know first-hand the burden of our humanity. In this, we encounter the aesthetic of Divine Love. The Incarnation is not at all practical; yet profoundly loving because we’re made to see “The tragic beauty of the face of Christ.” In this revelation—this historic happening—those who find the courage to believe come to realize that God not only is for us, but with us in every circumstance we face; every person we encounter.
When our approach to people is utilitarian—“What can I get out of them?”—then we become blind to the goodness and beauty of the other. People feel used because such an approach is demeaning.
What can open our eyes, and save us from this approach to another; to life itself?
In the Gospel this 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus says:
For where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them.
This “name” Jesus mentions is not like the names and surnames we use to identify ourselves. To me, this name—a “Name above every other name”—is a way of life. It is compassion that takes on a human face in Christ.
When our approach to one another and to life is more compassionate than utilitarian, we open to the aesthetic of life: its beauty and meaning. It is this “name” that redeems us from an approach that diminishes and blinds us to the good, the beautiful and what is true within life and in each other; what a utilitarian approach misses. We open to a God ever in our midst when gathered by that name embodied in Jesus.
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
August 31, Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
In his book, “The Human Poetry of Faith” Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J. writes:
In each (of our) journeys comes a threshold that causes fear. I glimpse how fragile everything is (and) run up against my spirit of refusal. There is a sense that…more is being asked of me... the temptation is to shy away. We are experts at avoiding risks.
In Matthew’s Gospel this 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (16: 21-27) Jesus predicts his suffering and death. The disciples unexpectedly stand at a threshold that causes fear and speaks of risk. Peter intervenes, saying, “God forbid, Lord!” He, who confesses Jesus as the Christ and whose own true nature is recognized by Jesus who calls him “rock”, sees it all shaken and falling apart. In an instant, the disciples glimpse how fragile everything is. Peter even refuses to believe it and rebukes Jesus, exposing more his fear than any real concern for Christ. Later as the passion unfolds, we see how ‘expert’ Peter is at avoiding risk.
We’re no different really, are we not? On this spiritual journey, more is asked of us than expected: to carry our cross and pass through a threshold not of our own making. The temptation will be to shy away and choose the path of least resistance. We fear being ‘stretched’ in ways we cannot understand. We find it hard to believe that inevitable suffering within this fragile world can lead into something more when we learn to trust that all is in God’s hands.
I recall an image from another Jesuit, Jean-Pierre de Caussade who likens discipleship to a block of stone a sculptor hits with chisel and hammer. If you could ask the stone what the sculptor is doing—and if the stone could speak--it would say, ‘I don’t know. Each blow of the hammer seems to be destroying me. Yet, I must trust that, in his hands, something beautiful is being created.’
When faced with the ‘givens’ of life—the “must” of the Gospel—it is trust alone that brings us through the threshold:
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go…and suffer greatly…Then said to his disciples, Whoever comes after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow…
This “must” needs to be embraced with surrender and trust because the temptation will be to shy away from what we can’t control, nor understand; to play it safe and save our own skin.
With this gospel in mind, the journalist Jim Foley, tragically killed recently, came to mind. Before returning to Syria he had an exchange with his family I read about in the Seattle Times:
During one conversation in the family kitchen, Diane Foley said she urged her son not to go back to Syria, noting that he could do many other things with his talents. “He said, ‘Mom, I’ve found my passion. I’ve found my vocation.’ He just felt compelled,” she said. (August 27, 2014)
May we be so compelled to live our lives in ways that make a difference and that awaken within us all a greater passion like this journalist; like Jesus.
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
August 24, Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time
YOU ARE PETER AND UPON THIS ROCK I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH…
These words of Jesus and found in Matthew’s Gospel alone, have lived on in Peter’s successors over the centuries; for better, for worse. These words, misunderstood at times, were the inspiration behind Michelangelo’s Dome: immortal words which, in mosaic, encircle its interior; defining words we cannot dismiss or ignore.
I’ve never been enamored with the baroque style—my preference is Romanesque. However, St. Peter’s Basilica succeeds. During my years in Rome, my room overlooked St. Peter’s, with the Dome ever in sight. And I never grew tired of contemplating its beauty and linear grace.
Ironically, Michelangelo’s dome—and the present basilica—were built at the height of the Renaissance and moral doldrums of the Church’s inner life: where pontiffs were driven more by ego than any desire for the Living God; deaf to the cries for reform, both within and without. Seemingly, she was being built up and falling into disrepair all at the same time. It’s a miracle the Church always survives such moments when what seems to prevail has little to do with Christ or the Gospel. Oddly, that dome I loved to gaze upon is an inexplicable testimony in stone to the prevailing nature of beauty and grace. (A side note: I recall reading how Abraham Lincoln insisted on the construction of the Capitol dome at the height of the bloody Civil War and while the nation was on the brink of secession.)
As he looked at the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus foretold how “a stone will not be left upon another”. Simply, faith cannot be built upon structures, institutions, nor encircling mosaics, no matter how aesthetic and uplifting. In Peter’s confession this 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, he demonstrates that faith, if it hopes to prove credible must be built upon living stone: the person of Jesus. When I hear people talk about the Church sometimes, and what it means to believe it seems they talk more about the magisterium rather than the person of Christ. We can be so institutionally zealous and miss the face and message of Jesus altogether. What sustains me in turbulent times, when what is contrary to the Gospel seems to prevail in this “vale of tears” and world with its potential for goodness, is not the magisterium or institution of the Church. It’s my faith in Christ. Structures like the magisterium and institution of the Church are a means to an end: to help guide one’s life of faith. But I fear they’re seen more as ends in themselves sometimes.
What is this faith the Apostle Peter professes and Jesus acknowledges; that reveals the true nature of them both? What can help ‘flesh it out’? Two gospel passages that involve Peter come to mind. The first is when Peter begins to sink, with the wind against him. There his faith deepens as Jesus, no longer a “ghost”, takes hold of him in the midst of the sea. We, too, need to sink sometimes before we arrive at an awareness of Christ; when we are grasped, understood, loved.
The other passage happens as many disciples of the Lord bolt because they find His teaching “hard”. Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks, “Do you want to leave, too?” Peter, like any true successor, articulates the faith for all and responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” In other words, there is no viable option. When we feel quite alone with our beliefs, our questions, and at a decisive point like Jesus and the Twelve then faith will slowly come alive when we’re willing to wait; it will breathe and Christ become real with the stability of love.
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
August 10, Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Often, I’ve told people that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but indifference. When a person becomes indifferent to God and believes that the reality of God makes no difference, that person no longer believes in any religious sense.
Yet, even atheists must believe in something or someone. I recall attending a luncheon following a funeral. I was standing in the buffet line—clerical collar and all—when the woman next to me announces she no longer believes in God; that she is an atheist. I was tempted to retort, “That’s nice” as I continued making my sandwich. Frankly, I wanted only to eat, and was not interested in digesting ‘heavier fare’. Nevertheless, I sat next to her and asked, “What gets you out of bed in the morning?” She thought for a moment, and said that it was her grandchildren, and her impassioned commitment to the environment, too. I was quite impressed and remember thinking of Jesus’ words in the Gospel: “You are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven.” This woman—educated, articulate—was closer to God than she realized.
At the moment, I’m reading a book recently given me called, “Awareness” by the Jesuit Anthony De Mello. The friend who gave it found it pivotal; timely when discovered some years ago.
De Mello mentions that the opposite of faith is not doubt—or indifference for that matter—but anxiety. When I read that, it leaped from the page and caught my attention. It is a prophetic word for this anxiety-ridden age of ours, and reminds me how Abbot Bernard at the monastery would pray that we be delivered from “useless anxiety” in that prayer sandwiched between the Lord’s Prayer and Exchange of Peace during the Mass. I’ve used this phrase myself, up until the newly botched translation of the Roman Missal was implemented…
Anxiety erodes faith. I’ve seen this personally, and have witnessed it in the lives of others who struggle to believe. My Mom was an especially anxious person and had a difficult time with trust. Losing her mother at the age of eight to cancer had much to do with it. Sometimes the anxiety surfaces in her dementia as she babbles and begins to cry. All I can do is reassuringly hold her hand which seems to quiet the inner storm.
Often, we choose to hold on to anxiety rather than God. We let the anxiety inside and so identify with the feeling that the “I” (as De Mello puts it) becomes the anxiety; and we begin to sink.
In the Gospel this 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matthew 14: 22-33) Peter walks towards Jesus on the sea as he beckons him to leave his fear behind, for they have mistaken Jesus for a ghost in their anxiety. Anxiety distorts everything; even those we love. Initially, Peter stays afloat as he makes his way; his gaze is fixed on Christ. Yet, when he notices “how strong the wind was” rather than Jesus, he begins to sink; overwhelmed by it all. Jesus takes hold of him, breaks the spell and says, “Why did you doubt?”
Doubt is defined as “a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction.” When we doubt, anxiety is close at hand. In such moments, I try to hold fast to God; yet the anxiety sometimes seems more proximate and real rather than God who feels aloof and distant in such moments. We need to learn from Peter: where we focus and are looking is what saves or sinks us. I recall the movie “A Beautiful Mind”: how the Princeton Professor, John Forbes Nash suffers from schizophrenia. In the film’s final scene he still ‘sees’ those imaginary characters that were his undoing. Yet, he no longer focuses there, nor gives them his attention. With his wife’s love, he’s learned to weather it all and navigate through life in a new manner: focusing more on what is real.
Like Peter, all of us need to sink and find ourselves going under. It is the way we sense the grasp of Christ; the way we’re rescued from anxiety; the only way faith deepens as we learn from experience to focus less on our anxious selves and more on Christ.
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
July 27, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Thanks to parishioners, I enjoy a gift-subscription to Notre Dame Magazine. I got ‘hooked’ on it years earlier, however, and during monastic life. We had it in the monastery’s periodical room, thanks to a monk who had been an alumnus and Holy Cross priest at Notre Dame. He was there during the Knute Rockne era. It was there, too, that Father Simon suddenly left it all and entered monastic life. Quite the character, he lived to be 92. Quietly, he died one morning while I planted trees along the swale with another monk. The monastery bell tolled, and we knew. Hastening back, we prayerfully gathered near his lifeless body in the infirmary. His grave was the first of many I helped dig in the Abbey’s cemetery.
In the current issue just received, there’s an article on Knute Rockne: the “winningest coach in the history of college football”. On March 31, 1931 the plane he had boarded on his way to Los Angeles crashed. The right wing snapped off, causing it to plunge into a Kansas cornfield. There were no survivors.
When Rockne’s body was removed from the wreckage, they found a rosary clutched in his lifeless hand. It had been given to him by Father Vincent Mooney, C.S.C. He had baptized Rockne and received him into the Church. Mooney, also, had been his coach during Rockne’s student years at Notre Dame.
In this life, we must learn to hold on to God tenaciously; faithfully. In that surreal moment, I imagine Rockne searching for that rosary buried in his pocket and as the plane plunged to earth. Holding it—on to God—was no last ditch effort in believing, for Rockne was known to carry that rosary everywhere. Like an athlete, his faith was a disciplined and everyday practice.
In “Short Trip to the Edge” (a book read several years ago and given me one Father’s Day), Scott Cairns chronicles his search for God on Mount Athos in Greece and during a mid-life crisis. He writes that “Christianity is not, finally, about what we think. It is about what we are and…are becoming. It is necessarily an embodied faith, a lived faith…” (p. 36)
In this search, he seeks out a wise monk in answer to the “increasing hunger” inside. He writes of his encounter in these words:
He placed a hand on his chest, just above his abdomen. “You have to hold on to God,” he said, “with all your strength.”
He brought his other hand there too and made a tight, cupping gesture with both hands…saying, “You have to plead with Him to meet you here…And when God arrives, you must hold on to Him, and not let go.” (p. 136)
On this 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to buried treasure; to the search for fine pearls. Like Rockne who searched for that rosary buried in his pocket, we need to understand that what we’re searching for is not found elsewhere, but lies close at hand: buried deep in life and beneath the surface of everyday. The Kingdom and priceless Reality of God is discovered when we search inside that “increasing hunger” God alone understands; when we clutch God with both hands.
What are we holding on to during this sometimes precarious ‘flight’ and journey to God?
Father Tim Clark
July 20, Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I’ve just finished reading Fr. Ronald Rolheiser’s latest book, “Sacred Fire”. I highly recommend it. In the Preface he asks, “How can we live less self-centered, more mature lives? What constitutes deep maturity and…a truly mature following of Jesus?”
Deeper into the book, he suggests one way we do this is by our willingness “to carry more and more of life’s complexities with empathy.” And he continues:
Few things in life, including our own hearts and motives, are black and white, either/or, simply good or simply bad. Maturity invites us to see, understand, and accept this complexity with empathy so that, like Jesus, we cry tears of understanding over our own troubled cities and our own complex hearts and, like Jesus too, we can forgive others, the world, and ourselves for this complexity and imperfection. A mature person watching the news at night and seeing the world’s wars, violence, and wounds responds with empathy because she already recognizes within herself that same complexity, neediness, pride, greed, and lust that lie at the root of all that unrest. (pp. 249-50)
Life is complex; imperfect. Few things in life—including ourselves—are “black and white, either/or, simply good or simply bad.” This, I believe, is the basic lesson offered us through Jesus’ words this 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time and in the passage known as the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds. (Matthew 13: 24-30)
Life, and each of us walking this earth, is a great ‘mix’. Take an honest look inside: often a discrepancy exists between what we show outside and carry within the heart. Like that field in the parable, sabotaged by “an enemy’s hand”, life in this fallen world is imperfect and not what we had hoped. Sometimes, we deal with this ‘weedy’ element in ways that make matters worse or, at best, make no difference at all: constructing larger prisons; advocating capital punishment; spending billions on endless wars. Has such an approach improved things; where good prevails? Statistics often question this approach. Morally, the malaise continues. I’m reminded of what Pope Francis said recently: “War always is a failure.” Whether it is a war on drugs, war on crime, you name it. Such aggression obscures the greater good and inhibits lasting change. I realize the nature of this topic IS complex and there is no easy answer. My point is we need to find another approach; more in line with the Gospel.
When “Sacred Fire” suggests we carry life’s complexities with empathy, what can that mean? This word “empathy” is defined as, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” And, I would add: to see something of myself in another. All of us, really, are “in the same boat”; all in need of rescue; all sinners because the troubled roots of this world’s unrest exist in us all. No one’s exempt, not even Jesus who, St. Paul writes, “Made himself to be sin”; Jesus, who befriended prostitutes and ate willingly with sinners; those shunned and hopeless.
Do you recall the Green River Killer years ago and before Gary Ridgeway was apprehended? I recall the outrage—and understandably so—when a sorority student and other respectable young women went missing and, later, their bodies found. I remember, too, the prostitutes who went missing and how barely a word of protest was uttered on their behalf. Why? Because we were sanctimonious and unwilling to see something of ourselves in them; made, too, in God’s Image and Likeness; “Jesus in his distressing disguise” as Mother Teresa would have it.
Within our world, as well as the Church, we stand in need of greater empathy: people willing to carry life’s complexities with compassion and understanding. The Jesuit, Anthony De Mello said:
You know, all mystics…no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion—are unanimous on one thing: that all is well, all is well. Though everything is a mess, all is well.
In parable, Jesus urges us to trust just that: despite the weedy condition within this complex world and inside our own hearts, all shall be well. The wheat will be gathered into barns, and good remain because of the unflagging mercy that carries us.
Father Tim Clark
July 13, Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
What we listen to shapes the way we think: everything from NPR to Fox News. Music, too, can alter moods and inspire. I remember reading about the Olympic medalist and swimmer Michael Phelps and how he would listen to a particular music (Rap; Hip Hop; can’t recall) before a meet to motivate him and raise the adrenaline level.
Most mornings, recently—before meeting the challenges ahead and following prayer—I’ve listened to music by the 16th century composer Thomas Tallis. For me, his sacred music sets the tone at the beginning of a day.
What we listen to has the persuasive power to shape and alter us who still retain the God-given gift of hearing; a gift too often taken for granted.
There’s a difference, however, between hearing and listening. On a given day we hear all kinds of noises, sounds, voices but do not listen to them all. We cannot. So, we make the choices and do so when we give our attention: whether to a Song Sparrow (that chirps outside the window as I write this on a clear, summer’s day) or a friend who confides in us during a troubling time. When we listen, really listen, we are receptive to the other. Listening involves presence and attention. When you’re receptive and “Listen with the ear of your heart” as St. Benedict describes it in his Monastic Rule, then your life is shaped and altered in life-giving, transformative ways. How we listen and what we listen to makes all the difference. Simply, the choice is ours. To paraphrase Shakespeare: ‘To listen or not to listen, that is the question.’
This brings us to the Gospel this 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time and deep into summer. Jesus tells us a story known as the “Parable of the Sower”. As he tells the story he urges us to listen—“Whoever has ears ought to hear”. He tells the story, not to teach us farming practices in Palestine during his day, but as a metaphor for anyone desiring to heed God’s word and put it into practice: the seed a symbol for God’s word broadcast daily, and the various soils our receptivity—or lack thereof—to this word. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that “God still speaks even if no one is listening. The seed of God’s presence still descends into this fallen world faithfully, never giving up on us. God still speaks daily, vying for our attention: whether through an ordinary Song Sparrow or the revealed Word of scripture. Do we listen? Are we receptive to the One who still speaks? Or is life all “sound and fury, signifying nothing” and ourselves soil without depth so that, what is sown, withers for lack of attention; lack of presence?
How often that’s the situation and state of our souls Sunday after Sunday: God’s Word—“Words which breathe”, as the poet Emily Dickenson put it—falls on deaf ears, our lives too distracted to listen. We barely hear what’s being said as this transformative Word goes in one ear and out the other. Is it any wonder, then, that our spiritual lives remain fallow? We need to listen for a change, and take to heart what God is saying in Jesus and on a given day. Like seed, such a Word has the graced potential to transform our lives if only we take it to heart and receive it like rich soil: receptive and open to what is being said. If only we would learn to listen, really listen to what God is saying within the liturgy and beyond, it would feed and rouse us; shape and alter our lives for good…a hundredfold, Jesus promises. The choice is ours: to listen, or to go through life not truly hearing what is being said by a God who needs our attention and, like a treasured friend, wants only to confide in us his inner life and harvest of mercy.
Let me conclude with favorite words of mine by the writer Frederick Buechner:
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
Father Tim Clark
June 29, Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul
During theological studies in Rome, I had the opportunity to meet two Successors of Peter: Paul VI and John Paul II. They both come to mind whenever we commemorate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul as we do this weekend.
Along with other seminarians, I served the canonization Mass of St. John Neumann, June 1977. Following it, we met the Pope in the Pieta chapel. It’s been said that the eyes are the ‘windows to the soul’. As I shook Pope Paul’s hand I was struck by his eyes: their depth, transparency and presence. Looking into my own, he said, “Pray for me.” He died the following summer and, subsequently, whenever I was having one of those not-so-good days, I often would head to St. Peter’s; descend into the crypt and pray at Paul VI’s simple and unadorned tomb.
In 1980 and on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Pope John Paul II visited the North American College, our seminary in Rome and where I lived for four years. At that time, my “house job” was as Student Coordinator, “Head Prefect” in the ‘old days’. It was a two-year Rector appointed position. God only knows how that happened! I was asked by the Rector, Msgr. Murphy, to assist the Pope in planting a Sequoia Redwood near the chapel entrance which overlooked St. Peter’s.
The day arrived: I stood there, with shovel in hand and words memorized. When the Holy Father arrived in the late afternoon, he was first greeted by the Rector and American bishops visiting for the occasion. Then he was led to me to be introduced by Msgr. Murphy. I added to the welcome and handed the Pope the shovel and, in true Polish fashion, he went ‘at it’, planting the tree; no ceremonial spade of soil for him! As he planted it, I said: “Holy Father, this Sequoia Redwood which grows to be one of the tallest in North America, will be a living reminder of your visit among us tonight…” He interrupted me with a question, “What about you?” which startled me so much I forgot the rest of my words. Like Zechariah in St. Luke’s Gospel, I stood there speechless and tongue-tied. At least I ended on a complete sentence. I had that going for me; yet I was mortified. In that moment, I felt like Charlie Brown in a Roman collar. (In fact, I played Charlie Brown during college in “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown”; the story of my life, actually).
The Pope handed back the shovel and, with his palm extended, said to me, “Where’s my payment?” I could only smile as again we shook hands and he began to walk towards the chapel where the seminarians waited to greet him personally.
Since then, I’ve often pondered his question, “What about you?” and have asked myself: “Am I a living reminder of Christ?” Now that he is canonized, his question is probing and timeless. My sister Anne reminds me, “You shook hands with a Saint!” I did not realize that at the time, but his words, very much alive in me, now have the power to draw me towards deeper holiness if I let them.
Both Saints Peter and Paul were living reminders of Christ; the One they loved with a passion and to the end; martyred as they were in Rome, the center of the known world at the time. Their lives, however, were centered only on Jesus, the Living One now centered in God.
Sadly, our lives become off-center due to a faith that is rootless, withered and cut off from that Living Mystery. We can know so much about Christ, yet REALLY never know Christ at all. Too often we lack passion, with our lives centered too much upon ourselves with our fears, preoccupations, resentments; centered, too, on what cannot last nor lead to lasting joy.
Like that Sequoia rooted in the Eternal City, let us become living reminders: rooted and centered in Christ, our True and Only Life.
Father Tim Clark, Pastor
June 22, Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ
Those who know me know that I’m into cycling; that I love to bike and have for many years. I have not biked as much as I would have liked due to my cervical fusion this past November. But I’m ‘back in the saddle’ more regularly now; as the days lengthen and grow warmer.
Among the books shelved in my rooms, there’s one called, “Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Cycling”. LeMond is the first American to win the Tour de France.
In the chapter on maintenance, he addresses wheels and the importance that they be “true” when cycling. A wheel that “falls out of true” is not good and can happen if spokes are unevenly tightened, or when a spoke breaks. When a wheel is true, however, it keeps the tire safe and balanced.
Why this talk of wheels being “true” on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord; this Corpus Christi? Because, for me, it offers different ‘spin’ to Jesus’ words on this feast; in the Gospel of John (6: 51-58) and when says:
For my flesh is true food, and my blood true drink. (Emphasis mine)
The Eucharist offered us is a gift of Christ’s very flesh and blood existence and the substantial love of God that keeps us ‘true’ and ourselves in balance as we trek down life’s road with its twists and turns; its ups, its downs and rough patches. I remember reading a passage in Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s book, “The Holy Longing” and as he addresses the question why people go to daily Mass. He writes:
Simply put, people who go to Mass daily are there in order not to fall apart…they know that, without Mass, they would either inflate or become depressed and be unable to handle their own lives. (p. 235)
Too easily and, for a host of reasons, we become off-balance and ready to break; where nothing seems true any longer, disillusioned as we are by life and famished for meaning. Again, words of Jesus from the Gospel as he teaches us the nature of his presen