Unseen Obstacles

Sirach 27: 30–28:7; Matthew 18: 21-35

When I was out at Notre Dame back in July, I had asked the priest who was kind of leading us through the week what he thought was one of the greatest obstacles we faced as a Church.  Now, I can name many already.  We know there are less priests.  We are certainly aware that there are less people coming.  We also know that there is a lack of trust with all institutions but also a feeling that the institution is out of touch with what’s going on.  Again, the list can go on and on as to what kind of obstacles we face, all of which we can see with our own eyes.  But he wasn’t thinking about what we can see.  He was thinking about something much deeper and so I was taken back when he responded to me.  He said he felt the greatest obstacle we face is resentment.  I got to tell you, it has pushed me to look at my own self and where it may be simmering underneath for me.  We’ve all faced it towards the institution but also with priests and people.  So many examples of how it hasn’t gone as planned or it’s not what we thought it would be or should be.  We have somehow been treated unfairly and we deserved better.  All along as it simmers underneath the surface, resentment.

And, boy, do we as Sirach tells us today, love to cling to it.  I don’t know why we hold on as tightly as we do.  If anything, over time it really acts as a cancer in our lives, feeding on itself, and taking a toll on our hearts.  Now Sirach is speaking specifically to friendships that have gone awry.  This isn’t just something that the Church must face, but we see it in marriages, in families, and in our communities that we’re a part of, simmering underneath as we cling for dear life.  Maybe we tell ourselves that we’ll hold the injustice over the other.  Or somehow it gives me power and domination over the other who has wronged me in some way.  I’m going to dangle it over them, holding a grudge, as if that’s somehow going to bring justice.  Any maybe that’s are problem.  We want justice despite Sirach telling us we even have to forgive our neighbor’s injustice.  Justice without mercy and forgiveness only leads to greater anger and resentment simmering underneath. 

Both Sirach and Matthew write to communities that often faced division.  This who section of Matthew that we’ve been listening to for the past few weeks has been on what it means to be community and the necessary tools for a community to grow.  Today we hear this outlandish parable by Jesus about a servant who was given forgiveness but never quite penetrates his being.  He remains a tyrant and unchanged by the king’s gift.  The servant simply feeds the king a line that he wants to hear, that somehow he’ll repay this outrageous amount of money, knowing full well that it will never come to pass.  He simply reacts to the situation to get what he wants and yet is unable to receive the gift.  How do we know?  See how he immediately goes and reacts to his fellow servant.  He does exactly what Sirach tells us today.  He clings to his sin and begins to choke the guy.  His own anger that simmers underneath gets the best of him, unchanged by the king’s mercy.  Whether we like it or not, it’s our story.  We like to do the same thing.  We’ll play nice to get what we want.  We’ll go along with something even if it upsets us for the sake of keeping “the peace”.  Yet, all along, just as it is with the servant, just below the surface anger is feeding itself on resentment.  It has destroyed relationships and communities alike when we don’t allow it to come to the surface, to the light, in order to be transformed.  We’d not only prefer to cling to it but also transmit it to anyone who happens to set us off at the moment.  The king doesn’t need to send him to the tortures.  We do that to ourselves by holding on.

These two readings provide us two images and leave us with a choice.  Sirach gives us the clinched fist and grinding teeth, holding on to what eats away at us from within.  Then there’s Jesus, the freedom that comes with forgiveness.  The thing about forgiveness, though, and I have said this before, I cannot do it myself and nor can you.  It is truly a grace given to us from God, freely given.  We do not have the ability to forget how we have hurt and have been hurt and so through this grace we are set free from what binds our hearts and what it is we cling to.  The other is this.  There must be a mutuality.  There must be an openness on our part and a receptivity on our part to receive that grace otherwise it simply deflects off of us, unable to penetrate our own hurt.  The servant is the perfect example.  If he were able to receive that grace, that gift from the king, he would have in turn shown mercy to his fellow servant.  When we open ourselves to the grace we in turn give the gift away.  That’s grace.

We all cling to things in our lives, unable to be free.  It may be fear, resentment, anger, so often causing depression in people’s lives.  It can be towards the Church, towards me, towards a spouse, and even towards God when we feel we have been wronged and unjustly treated for whatever reason.  In those moments, though, we are invited into a choice as to what we do with it.  Do we allow it to simmer underneath the surface, creating a wedge between us and the other and God or do we surrender it to the Lord?  It’s hard stuff as individuals and hard stuff as a community to deal with the real issues.  It’s easy to speak about the obvious issues and problems we face as Church and community.  It’s a whole other ballgame to talk about the real issue simmering underneath that prevents us from growing as individuals and as community into the grace of God that is being offered us at this very moment.  Cling or be set free.

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The Capacity for God

I must admit, when I agreed to participate in priestly renewal at Notre Dame this summer, I really had no idea what I was signing up for at that time.  I knew it had a name, the Bishop D’Arcy Program in Priestly Renewal, part of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.  I knew it was free.  I knew it was at Notre Dame, a place I’ve always wanted to visit.  Of course, I also knew it was about priestly renewal.  Even that, though, I probably have my own idea and judgment about what exactly that means and how it can be defined by each of us, based on our own needs and desires.

Shortly after beginning his pontificate, Pope Francis often used the image of the Church as field hospital.  We all know that when it comes to hospitals, there is some knowledge or acceptance on our part that we may be sick, whether something minor or even terminal.  When it comes to Church life and the understanding of the image of field hospital, the second half of the equation is not always known and we often live in denial of the illness or for that matter, blame others for it.  Sometimes when you’re so close to the sickness you become immune or even numb to it, ultimately making you a part of the problem rather than an agent of healing and conversion.  We become blind to the deeper issues that we need to face while trying to band-aid when often surgery is the necessary route, or at least some restful care to regain the capacity to once again thrive.

I know this is all a rather long introduction to my point, but a point that is necessary in understanding what this week at Notre Dame has been for me.  Here’s the thing, those closest to me knew that I was burned out by the end of June, feeling fatigued and simply exhausted.  It was a transition year for me in moving from being pastor of one parish and taking on a second.  Despite the fact that they are a mere mile apart, it, over time, began to take a toll on me, especially interiorly.  My point is, I was in need of that field hospital myself without even knowing it at the time, while being immersed in the day to day routine.  That should have been a sign that a check-up was needed; everything was becoming routine.  I was becoming numb to it all, gradually forgetting why I was a priest in the first place, allowing myself to be pushed to the triage unit, which I was unfamiliar and new to trying to navigate, when, at times, I was the one in need.

Now don’t get me wrong, I never stopped doing what I needed to do, such as celebrating Mass and even having the time for personal prayer, but over the course of time, and after having the time to step away this week, to reflect, to listen, to allowing myself to be ministered to, I began to realize that the clock seemed to be managing me much more than the other way around.  Over time, it was easier to just escape for awhile, knowing that I had reached the bottom within myself, often without the capacity to give or receive, and try to gain enough muster to get through another day and another week, at least until the field hospital opened its doors to me and am once again breathing without a ventilator and no longer feeling like I’m on the brink of death.

One of the dangers of Church life and ministry is to become consumed by the weeds, which Jesus himself uses as metaphor.  Dealing with problems, fires, people, and the multitude of personalities and agendas , and now times two, began to consume me and I didn’t realize how ill I was becoming and in need of that field hospital, to mend wounds, deal with resentment, theologically contextualize the reality, and to reconnect with the larger priesthood that I am a part of and was ordained to for now thirteen years.  The crying child within, overwhelmed by the noise, needed to be cared for and loved.

For the past ten years, I have taught high school juniors not only the need for conversion but also have led them through that process.  Any of us knows that, just because we can lead others doesn’t mean we can always lead ourselves there.  The best leaders are often those that know how to follow.  It requires the help of the field hospital, a team, to lead you back to health and to a deeper understanding of the mystery of the life in which I have felt called and the capacity to fall into that mystery without the feeling of drowning, it’s arch-nemesis which likes to disguise.  There’s no book and no six steps that can bring about the perfect priest or parish, for that matter, (whatever that means anyway), all we can do is continuously allow ourselves to surrender to the mystery of God’s grace and mercy in our lives and through it we are changed, our environments are changed, the lens in which we view life is changed, broadened, and deepened, and ultimately the world begins to change.  The first step, though, is to acknowledge there’s a problem, even when we don’t know what it is and allow ourselves to be checked into the field hospital for care.  It may only require some medicine to sooth the soul, but it at least prevents something more terminal.

Each night I’d end my day down at the Grotto here on campus, often being bit alive by mosquitos, but there nonetheless.  Each night I’d watch people come and go, renewing a sense of wonder in myself as to what brings them there, seeking prayer and understanding, lighting candles for someone or something.  I sat, I listened, even to a young man in tears next to me one evening, knowing that this spot was a field hospital for him, in need of some kind of healing in his life and quite possibly in the life of someone he loved. Each night he’d return and pray, light more candles, making his offering to the Divine Physician. No words were necessary.  Simply a light, some tears, and an openness to the grace at hand.  I suppose the one good thing about field hospitals is that they are 24-7.  At least for the past week, whether at the Grotto, hearing confession with young people, in sessions with other priests, laughter, connecting with some of the people I encountered on campus, or simply walking through this campus, this became the necessary field hospital in my life, first to acknowledge that I had become ill and then to accept the doctors and the Doctor and the care they provided to bring about healing, the capacity to give and receive this mystery, and of course, renewal.