The Narrow Strait

The best any of us can do when it comes to understanding God more deeply is seek out metaphors and images that somehow give us a glimpse into the mystery in which we share.  We are surrounded by them each and every day if we allow ourselves even moments to be aware of the eternal presence shaping our own journey, breaking in, in one way or another.  It’s hard, at times, when you find yourself in paradise, not to miss the moments and signs that are pointing us to a deeper way of life.  It can be something as simple as walking along the beach or watching a sunrise or sunset to even some of the great obstacles we face in trying to pass through in this life.

As I was out walking along the beach yesterday there was one such sign that came in the form of an obstacle.  In parts, the beach is quite narrow right now and you have to practically walk over people in order to keep moving in some direction.  Yet, as you walk, there comes a natural obstacle that would make most pause, at the least, or simply turn around because of the difficulty in passing through.  There is a narrow path in which you can only pass through in single file.  If you’re on the other side it’s best to wait for others to pass.  It’s that narrow of a space, which added with rock formation and water breaking in through that formation, it can easily throw anyone off balance before passing through to the other side.

Yet, if you handle it carefully and with some awareness, you can pass through the narrow strait, which opens up into what appears to be the paradise desired of endless beach, few people, and a sense of stillness that all but makes the memory of the journey thus far all but forgotten.  Now I did happen to notice a woman that thought she’d outsmart it and walk around the narrow strait.  She was going to avoid it all together and somehow go around it to pass through but quickly realized that was nearly impossible, climbing over slippery and jagged rock, of course with phone and other items in hand, before turning back because it was too hard.

Is it not true of our spiritual lives as well?  We too are often left with such a choice as to how we are going to move forward.  It appears that the options are endless, and God knows, we’ll try every one of them before attempting the narrow straight.  We think and convince ourselves that somehow we can outsmart the process and avoid the seeming danger of passing through the most narrow of spots along the journey.  We turn around and settle for a life that we’ve outgrown, that feels crowded and yet lifeless all for the fact that we fear passing through.  We try to avoid that passing and attempt every other option, no matter how dangerous, all but to avoid the one, narrow straight that promises us an openness into what it is we’ve desired.  Maybe it’s why it appears, with the naked eye, to have so few people on the other side because so few of us are willing to take the risk in passing through.  Yet, what lies beyond transcends words and is simply something to be experienced for our own selves.  Otherwise, all we can do is listen in on a story and experience that our hearts long for and desire and yet we continue to allow ourselves to get in the way of possibility all because we convinced ourselves that there should be an easier way to all of it or if I wait long enough I’ll find the way to outsmart it all.  We’ll be waiting a long while if we live our lives that way, lacking the depth and meaning we desire.

Now, it’s not that we toss out that life once we pass through.  We still look behind at times to learn and heal the narrowest parts of our lives that at time continue to plague our hearts.  They remain; but when we allow ourselves the opportunity and invitation to pass through the narrowest of straits, time and again, we are afforded the opportunity to let go and to be healed of the memories that often stand as our greatest obstacle of passing through that space.  It is the fear that has become attached to our memories that hold us back.  More often than not, the fear of being hurt or rejected.  Sure, we may get hurt passing through, but it’s the only way that promises life and the paradise desired by our hearts and souls.

All any of us can do is seek out these metaphors and images.  We can study theology for years on end, and that’s a good thing.  But in the end, when it comes to deepening a relationship with God, it’s the images that find a way to transform our hearts or at minimum open us up toward greater possibility and to the impossible that we tend to avoid.  All too often we settle for being trapped, confined, and allowing our hearts to be overcrowded with a life that once was and setting up shop there thinking we have it all.  At some point, though, we start to get the nudge.  It may take months and years, but eventually cracks begin to break us open enough to realize that narrow strait is unlike the rest and what’s on the other side is something that we desire all the more.  It takes great courage to live now and not hung up in some past life or anxious about what’s next.  In the great moments of passing through that narrow strait, there’s no space for fear or worry, simply about being.  It isn’t until finally braving that space that we learn we need not fear it each time we encounter it because once we encounter the spaciousness of the paradise beyond there’s no turning back.  It’s images like this that speak to us but most importantly, transform our hearts into knowing and understanding the primal message of the sacred word, fear not.

Hungering For More

Wisdom 7: 7-11; Hebrews 4: 12-13; Mark 10: 17-30

We live in a time often referred to as the “Information Age”.  We all have little gadgets in our pockets that we can pull out and find a wealth of knowledge, information, useless facts, and you name it, all at our fingertips.  It’s become something like an extra appendage of ours as we carry them around, always in contact and answers without any kind of wait.  Yet, there’s a downside to it all.  We have, in many ways, lost a sense of mystery or the unknown, when we would have to wait for information or news and now it comes with just a click.  We’ve also lost a sense of truth and depth.  Ironically, the truth seems to always be the people I agree with and yet a deeper sense of truth is gone.  The very thing that was supposed to keep us connected has in many ways made us even less so, leaving us with a deeper hunger and thirst for something more out of life, a deeper sense of truth, wisdom, and connectivity.  All of us, as well, who learned computers early on learned first hand that they are binary, the ones and zeros, and nothing more.  That too feeds into the great divide that exists and separation that exists.  We never have to leave our corners but it also leaves us wanting more of the wrong thing rather than truth, wisdom, connectivity that can only come by allowing us to grow more deeply in our humanity rather than trying to make ourselves into computers.

Solomon, in the Book of Wisdom, points the way with such beauty.  Like us, he looked for satisfaction out of all the ways of the world, through power, position, wealth, possessions, even health as he points out today.  Yet, nothing seemed to satisfy the deeper longing in his heart.  All of the ways of the world simply seemed to pass and he was left all the more hungry for something out of life.  He takes the turn inward, growing in relation to the living word of God, and his life begins to change.  He begins to grow more deeply into the truth and wisdom that he desired, spelling it out for us today in such beautiful feminine language.  Solomon learns, as we all do, that the only way to wisdom isn’t through knowledge and information, nor even the ways of the world.  Rather, for Solomon it was growing more deeply into his own humanity, learning the nuances of life rather than the binary ways of the world, connecting with the deeper places within his heart and soul.  It wasn’t by accumulating anything, but rather learning to let it go and creating space for the true God and Solomon grows into one of the great wisdom figures.

It was the same for the writer of Hebrews and the community in which he writes.  This is a community that had grown stagnate and drifting away from its mission and purpose.  They had lost sight of their own deeper humanity and connectivity and had grown bored with the word, no longer capable of hearing and listening and being moved by the Word.  The writer reminds them and us that the true Word is living and effective, sometimes even when we aren’t expecting it, cutting us like a two-edged sword.  A relationship with the Word is the only one that can cut through the hardening that begins to happen in our lives or even the numbing that takes place by staring at screens, objectifying our humanity rather than growing more deeply into it.  Ultimately, it’s our own thirst for knowledge and thinking we need to know and accumulating information that leaves us hungering for more while feeling empty.  It begins the slow process of disconnecting us from our hearts.

Of course, we then come to the pinnacle with the story of the rich man in today’s gospel.  Here’s a man who had everything.  He had wealth.  He had power.  He had position.  Heck, he even thought he was perfect in the eyes of God and was in a very binary way.  He had the life so many dream of.  Yet, despite literally having it all, including a knowledge of this God, it wasn’t enough.  He was left feeling empty and still wanting more out of life.  He settled for hiding behind his own screen per se, when it came to God, rather than entering into relationship.  His way of thinking and this desire for perfection, often associated with being right and superior, became an obstacle towards God.  All we know is as the story is told that he leaves sad.  There is a deep sadness that hangs over this man and he walks away.  He’s sad because he couldn’t give up his possessions.  He was even more sad because he recognized that they also would never satisfy that longing within.  After an encounter with the living Word in Jesus, he doesn’t feel all warm and fuzzy, but rather a deep sadness of what his life had become and yet feels trapped within by his own choosing.  We never know if that Word finally penetrates his heart and moves him to a deeper place in his own humanity and to enter into relations with the most vulnerable, the poor.  It was easier to keep them at a distance.  Yet, the two-edged sword cuts him straight through where it needs to, straight through his heart.  Wisdom and truth aren’t found by accumulating knowledge, information, or wealth of any kind, rather, by letting go and for him, that seemed impossible.

It feels impossible for all of us.  We become possessed by our possessions, whatever they may be.  It may be easier to keep staring at a screen and keep accumulating information, but it will keep falling short and leaving us wanting more in life.  We desire that deeper wisdom and truth, that sense of connectivity and intimacy, but it’s not going to come in the ways we’re told of the world.  Rather, it comes through relationship with the living Word and through our relationships with others.  It comes through getting it wrong and failing more often than trying to present ourselves as perfect.  It comes with growing more deeply into our own humanity where we learn to see the other as ourselves rather than separate from.  Our hearts are easily hardened.  The heart of a nation and the heart of the world often stand frigid, resulting in the divisions and wars and continued poverty, sacrificing our humanity for worldly powers.  As with the rich man in today’s gospel, the choices are all placed in our hands as well.  Will we allow our possessions, whether wealth, information, phones, knowledge, or whatever, continue to possess us, captivating all our attention, leaving us hungering and thirsting for more out of life or will we allow ourselves to be possessed by the living Word, cutting through our hearts?  It comes with great price and cost but the promise of life eternal will always move us towards the truth, the wisdom, and the connectivity we truly desire and leave us fulfilled in this life and the life to come.

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.

You Are God’s Building

Ezekiel 47: 1-2, 8-9, 12; 1Corinth 3: 9-11, 16-17; John 2: 13-22

Since the beginning of salvation history, as read in Scripture, there is an ongoing tension of where one praises, thanks, worships, God. There is this tension that it must happen in a specific place, such as this church or that that temple or some synagogue. Certainly there is some significance to that and we continue to do it today. But God is not simply found in this structure. Jesus breaks that mold by moving around and ministering and being present in so many different places and leads us to finding God in all things.

In this day and age, when churches are closed and merged in many different ways, it too is challenging us to see and view church in new ways. I know my home parish up in Pennsylvania is no longer open and functioning. It’s hard for people because we become attached to the structures. They mean something to us throughout our lives but so often can no longer be sustained. The readings this weekend provide us the opportunity to look and see beyond church as a building and a specific place. As a matter of fact, Paul says today in his letter to Corinth, “You are God’s building.” It is you, me, we that make up this church beyond the building. If the building were to be fall today, church would still be because we would still gather and pray. It would still be a living body, growing, changing, and seeking conversion to newness of life.

Paul wanted that for the people of Corinth. He eventually works his way up to the many challenges facing the community but begins with this ongoing dialogue of what church and community are and can be. He has high expectations for the people. Yet, he is aware that there is divisions in the community. He realizes that some are being excluded from the eucharistic celebration of the community. Some are being singled out by others, and so he reminds them of their foundation in Christ. Christ was not one to exclude from the body but found ways to be inclusive, even when others thought they should be excluded. If they are to become the body, with Christ as the foundation, then they must build from that in including, especially those who are hurting, exiled, banished, and being pushed away and judged and deemed unworthy by the community.

Ezekiel, in the beautiful first reading we hear today reminds us that that life comes and flows from within each of us, building on what Paul says as we being the church, the building, we are mindful that we too must seek conversion and change in our lives, as individuals and as a community. If life isn’t flowing and we’re not being moved to change within, then we become a stagnant water, drying up, lacking fruit. We begin to age and the building begins to fall down and away from us, in need of repair. It can happen to us and it can happen to community. At times, we become an obstacle for others being church.

Jesus addresses that in today’s gospel from John. John wants to send a message loud and clear that there is something different about Jesus. In the other gospels this episode happens near the end of his time but John places it right at the beginning. This is a God that is going to disrupt the natural flow and stagnant water. The sellers and money exchangers become an obstacle to those seeking God, even at their holiest time of year. They prey on the weakness of the people. That’s why Jesus gets angry with them; they too are making the choice who to exclude, and as usual, it is those who truly desire and seek conversion and the living presence of God.

Although this feast doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot to our daily lives, I do think it and the readings today provide us the opportunity to reflect on church and what it means in this day and age and how we can continue to become God’s building, ever-present, ever-changing, a community of conversion. Yes, the building, structure, institution has its place, but it is also more. That is why we come here as a body. Not to exclude or judge or anything else. Yes, it’s important for us to come as our whole, not just what we have deemed holy in our lives, but our darkness and shadow as well because that is where we seek conversion. As the body of Christ, we come not just to receive something; that makes us consumers. We come in order to continue to become what it is that lies before us, here on this table; the body of Christ becoming the Body of Christ, broken, seeking wholeness, seeking conversion, seeking to become God’s building, the living body of Christ in the church and in the Church.