A Match Made in Heaven

Jeremiah's visionTwo Adult Formation studies began this week.  Called, “Conversations”, one study discusses selected Jewish practices and their theological underpinnings and the other explores aspects of our Catholic faith which distinguish us from other Christian traditions.  Interestingly, the “conversation” on Judaism attracted more participants than the study on Catholicism.  Perhaps interest was heightened due to an awareness that Wednesday of this week ushers in the High Holy Days for Judaism.

The High Holy Days commence with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and climax ten days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; they are the most widely observed of all Jewish holy days.  Even those Jews who normally do not attend synagogue services are inclined to observe these holy days.

The preceding Hebrew month of Elul is set aside as a time for reflection and soul searching in order that Jews might enter the “Days of Awe,” as the High Holy Days are called, in proper spirit.  The dominant theme during this forty day period from the beginning of Elul through Yom Kippur is teshuvah, or “repentance.” The spirit of teshuvah grows and intensifies over the course of the 40 days.  The shofar, or “ram’s horn,” is sounded at morning prayer services and special prayers of penitence are added to the liturgies of the High Holy Days.  By the time Rosh Hashanah arrives, Jews have already been deeply immersed in reflection, reconciliation and acts of charity.

Rosh Hashanah, means, “head of the year” and is celebrated for two days.  As mentioned above, this marks the beginning of what is alternately called “the ten days of repentance,” “the Days of Awe,” or “the High Holy Days.”  According to tradition, it is during this period that God determines “who shall live and who shall die” in the coming year.  Axiomatic to all of Judaism is the belief that man possesses the freedom and capability to atone for his sins and to transform his life. He has the power to attain reconciliation with both God and his fellow man.  Just as God sought out Adam, Cain, and Jonah when they tried to flee from him, so God seeks out all humankind, confronting them with the inner contradictions of their lives and offering forgiveness. God, in the words of the midrash (commentaries or stories on scripture passages) declares, “My children, give me an opening of repentance no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into openings through which even wagons and carriages will pass through,”

The Jewish New Year is not a time of hilarity or frivolous rejoicing, but of solemnity and intense moral and spiritual introspection akin to a plaintiff coming before the Supreme Judge and Ruler of the world, appealing for his life. The mood pervading the day is one not only of “fear and trembling” before judgment, but also of trust in a merciful and beneficent father who desires our repentance and is eager to grant forgiveness.

During the Days of Awe, Jews greet one another with the words, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good  year” (le-shanah tovah tikatevu v’taychataymu). This practice stems from the traditional imagery in which God sits in judgment during the Days of Awe, deciding the fate of every living thing.  On Rosh Hashanah he opens up three books—one for those who were righteous during the year, one for those who were sinful, and one for those whose good and bad deeds balance.

Everyone’s fate is inscribed in one of these three books.  During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur however, Jews can alter the course of their destiny by repenting, praying, and doing acts of charity.  On Yom Kippur, the final day of judgment, God closes all three books and seals humankind’s verdict for the coming year.  It is customary to dip a piece of challah (bread) or apple, into honey at meal time and recite the prayer, “May it be thy will that we be blessed with a good, sweet year.”

Another custom of Rosh Hashanah is the Tashlikh ceremony in which Jews fill their pockets with small stones or breadcrumbs, then gather at a running body of water such as a river or spring.  They throw the stones or breadcrumbs into the water, symbolically casting off their sins and beginning life anew. The words of the prophet Micah (7:19) give meaning to this ritual, “Thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” Unlike our penitential seasons, white is the predominant color during the Days of Awe. The kippahs (skull caps), ark curtain, and Torah mantles, are all white, signifying purity, holiness, and atonement for sin; “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Isa. 1:18)

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the culmination of the entire High Holy Day drama—the final opportunity for Jews to repent of their sins.  It is the holiest day in the Jewish year or, in the Torah’s words, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” although Shabbat, the Sabbath, is truly the most significant day. During the twenty-four hours of Yom Kippur, Jews fulfill their obligation to “afflict” their souls by fasting (both food and water are prohibited), soul-searching, and praying.  Many observant Jews also abstain from bathing, sex and the wearing of leather shoes.  Since leather shoes were considered a luxury in earlier times, it has become a custom for some to wear tennis shoes to the synagogue.

From the eve of the holiday until sundown the following day, Jews are in the synagogue beseeching God for forgiveness and reflecting upon the course of their lives. Evening services commence with the recitation of the Kol Nidrei (meaning, “all vows”), one of the most powerful and emotionally evocative prayers in all of Jewish liturgy. The Kol Nidrei (meaning, all vows) prayer is a plea for the absolution from vows that were made to God but not fulfilled during the course of the year. The moving, heightened emotions associated with the service are due more to the history and melody of the Kol Nidrei prayer than to the meaning of the words themselves. The prayer originated some time between the sixth and tenth centuries when Jews were faced with the choice of either converting to Christianity or suffering martyrdom.  Many of those forced to convert however, secretly recited this Kol Nidrei prayer on Yom Kippur, declaring before God that the vows they had made denying their Jewish faith and accepting Christianity were done under duress and were, therefore, null and void.

The document of Vatican II, Nostra Aetate, (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) tells us that the Catholic Church cannot “forget that she draws nourishment from that good olive tree onto which the wild olive branches of the Gentiles have been grafted…. Likewise, the Church keeps ever before her mind the words of the apostle Paul about his kinsmen: ‘they are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises: to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, the son of the virgin Mary.’  She (mother Church) is mindful, moreover, that the apostles, the pillars on which the Church stands, are of Jewish descent, as are many of those early disciples who proclaimed the Gospel of Christ to the world.”  The “Guidelines on Religious Relations With the Jews,” goes on to state that we “must therefore strive to acquire a better knowledge of the basic components of the religious traditions of Judaism.”

Those joining the “Conversation” on Judaism must have read this document.  L’chaim! (to life).



Come and See

Come and SeeThe next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this and they followed Jesus.  Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”

John 1:35-39

 Come and see, come and see—we echo Jesus’ words each time we invite and welcome those inquiring about Catholicism.  This evening I resume the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA; also referred to as “the catechumenate”).  The initial session is always eagerly anticipated by me, the RCIA team and the adults coming to inquire about Christianity in general, Catholicism, in particular.  RCIA is for adults who are either unbaptized, or baptized in a Christian tradition other than Catholicism, and now want to explore our faith.  They spend an extended amount of time learning about the foundations of our beliefs and traditions and will, perhaps, decide to culminate their process of initiation by coming into communion with us.  Those who are already baptized in a Christian tradition other than Catholicism are called Candidates for Full Communion.  This admits of the partial communion they share with us through their baptism.

I have the utmost respect for these adults who have all the same concerns we do—mortgages, utility bills, clogged gutters, children, work, school, and so much more—yet commit to immersing themselves in the faith over the course of several months or years, if necessary.  Throughout scripture we see Jesus’ heart moved toward those who seek to follow him though they may limp or even be lame in their discipleship.  To these and those wounded by injustice or the effects of sin, the Lord remains faithful: “…a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah; 42:3).

I recall one of the members of the North American Catechumenate telling me that serving in the catechumenal ministry will change the way I “do” everything.  Over the years I have come to live into this statement.  The perspective of the initiation process certainly has become the lens for all the ministry work in which I engage.  The vision behind the RCIA process shores up that becoming a Catholic is about more than assenting to a set of religious propositions.  Its emphasis is on stimulating and nurturing a life of discipleship rather than one of mere membership. Throughout the initiation process there is a concern for authenticity; that “conversion” will be manifested in one’s life; in relationships and day-to-day behavior.  The process is a process of formation to the Gospel.

Anyone who serves in catechumenal ministry is quite insistent that initiation is a process—not a program.  The distinction is more than mere semantics.  It refers to the way candidates become connected to the Catholic communal faith.  The RCIA team member is more minister than administer, more companion than catechist.  They are mindful of the candidate’s family dynamic, their culture, age, maturity and stage in faith.  In other words, the RCIA “minister” is, in part, teacher, family therapist, sociologist, spiritual director and most importantly, a companion and witness to the presence and activity of Christ.

Early in the initiation process the inquirers are guided to begin to recognize God’s manifestation in their daily lives.  Gradually, their task will be to remain faithful to this kind of dialogue and reflection to gain a degree of self knowledge and sense of mission.  This all implies that it is from within human experience that we come to meet and know the living God.

What makes the RCIA process exemplary for all ministry is this dialogical and reflective aspect.  The process stimulates and encourages the inquirers to voice their doubts, concerns and struggles.  Consequently, listening is integral to this ministry.   A Russian proverb counsels that “sometimes we must listen another into being.”  The initiation process would not be fruitful if it were only an academic, dispassionate discussion of truth claims.  If I were to lecture and dictate to the candidates what the Church teaches and what they are to believe, I would merely be imparting a body of facts about the faith.  In his book, A Community of Character, author Stanley Hauerwas points out that the Christian faith can only be sustained in a secularized and pluralistic society through the formation of a community of character in which Christian behavior and conviction are bred, not argued, into existence.

For so many in this type of ministry, it is fairly easy to lose sight of the vision of initiation and get caught up with all kinds of programs to “get people through.”  But programs come and go; we do not want our neophytes to come and go.  Poet T.S. Elliot warns in his poem, Four Quartets: “It is possible to have the experience but miss the meaning.”

The listening, talking, reflecting and sharing that occurs in the process of initiation communicates far more than any text can.  It communicates and incarnates Jesus’ own compassionate patience, care and love. Having experienced this, the new Catholic can then set out on the quest for more and deeper knowledge of the beloved.  This movement is beautifully expressed by St. Anselm of Canterbury, who, for me, captures the essence of the RCIA process: “The mind that believes is led by the heart that loves.”

“Come and see;” this is one of the most powerful and beautiful statements of Jesus—and an invitation to us.  Come! You are invited to share his life.  Jesus does not tell the inquiring disciples what will happen to them, what their future will be. He simply invites them to share his life.  Just as he invites the two to share his life, he also invites the RCIA inquirer to do the same.  But before he will send them forth on mission, he desires that they spend sufficient amount of time with him.  At the center of their Christian life must be union and friendship with him—staying with him.  The inquirer and each of us, must purify our intentions and determine to place Jesus at the center of all that we do.  If he is not, we may discover that our entire activity was undertaken for ourselves and not for him; we may discover that we were looking for ourselves and not for him.  “But seek first his kingdom and righteousness…”(Mt 6:33).  In, with and through Jesus, we gain sight of our most authentic self; our identity, mission and destiny.  Once we begin to follow Jesus we realize that our lives are not solely about us, just as his life was not about him.  His life was about seeking and doing the will of the Father.  What is the will of the Father? Come and see, Jesus beckons, come and see!


Aged To Perfection

John XXIIIToday Fr. Chuck returns to Houston for three weeks then its off to Maryland again until January.  It will be good to have my old friend back.  Fr. Chuck and I have been friends ever since he came to Texas in 2002 and I feel rather bereft when he is away.  When I refer to Fr. Chuck as “old” I do not infer “elderly” rather, I use it as a term of endearment.  “Old” is not derogatory although some may connote it as such.  Of late, I find myself remembering  St. John XXIII whenever someone is dismissed or discounted simply because they are “old”.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was 77 years old when he was elected Pope; an age when most are inclined towards retirement if not already there.  Taking the name, “John XXIII”, he was the oldest Pope to be elected in more than 200 years.  After the whirlwind pontificate of Pope Pius XII, the Cardinal electors thought Roncalli would be a simple Pope, one who would slow down the Church and be a Pope of transition— instead they introduced a revolutionary.  He could have been content with just blessing people and having a few ceremonies in St. Peter’s but instead he surprised a group of 17 cardinals on January 25, 1959 when he announced that he intended to convene an ecumenical council.  “Trembling with emotion and yet with humble resolution” he said, “we put before you the proposal of a double celebration: a diocesan synod for Rome and an ecumenical council for the universal Church.  I would like to have your advice.”

The cardinals simply stared at him without a word. There were a number of reasons for this.  Some of the cardinals were shocked that a Pope whom many saw as merely a “transitional” figure, holding down the fort, as it were, until a more dynamic Church leader might come along, was proposing something so monumental.  After all, there were only twenty such councils in Church history; the last had been the First Vatican Council (so called because it took place within the Vatican) in 1870.

But the main reason that the cardinals withheld their approval was that they were members of the Roman Curia. The Curia—curia from the Latin word for “court” – is the administrative arm of the Holy See.  They run the departments, or congregations, of the Church on behalf of the Pope.  Pontiffs came and went but the Curia lived on. They had a vested interest in protecting the status quo.  Now, here was this elderly Pope, only three months into his pontificate, and he was acting in an entirely unexpected way—at least to them.

The other thing unsettling the cardinals was that in the past, the great councils had been called to condemn heresy but what John was proposing was a pastoral council, a council in which no heresy would be expunged, no dogma reasserted, rather it would be an “updating”, aggiornamento, of the Church.

As the council was announced to the whole world a flame of enthusiasm swept over the entire Church.  “This holy old boy”, wrote Cardinal Montini, “ understood immediately, perhaps by inspiration, that by calling a council he would release unparalleled vital forces in the Church.”

The third of 13 surviving children born on November 25, 1881 to a family of farmers in the tiny village of Sotto il Monte in the region of Bergamo in northern Italy, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was always proud of his down-to-earth roots.  Even after he became Pope he eschewed the trappings of his position and refused to take advantage of it either for himself or his family.  He left his personal “fortune” to the surviving members of his family  – they each received less than $20.

When Roncalli entered the major seminary in 1895, the fourteen year old began to keep a journal upon the advice of the school’s spiritual director, Canon Luigi Isacchi. The journal, kept in a series of black academic notebooks with stiff covers, was a way to stay in touch with his spiritual goals.  He would continue this practice for the rest of his life, ending up with thirty-eight notebooks and folders which were published after his death in the volume titled, Journal of a Soul.

Pope John, stout as he was, sat lightly upon the papal throne at exactly the moment when such a position would be critical for the very survival of the Catholic Church in a brave new world.  Setting the tone for his successors, he moved the Church in a new direction in its relationship to Jews and to non-Catholic Christians and to a whole new attitude on the part of clergy, the hierarchy and the laity.  Pope John XXIII stood with his feet planted firmly in the swiftly flowing river of history and helped the Church move safely from one bank to the other without being swept away by the raging currents beneath.

John did not get to see his Council to the end.  He died of stomach cancer on June 3, 1963.  He had been Pope for just under five years but accomplished an extraordinary amount.  In his moment of history, Pope John stood at the pinnacle of an ancient religious hierarchy during an era of secularism and ideological conflict.  With both a prayerful humility and an iron will, he moved a massive institution toward a more open relationship and engagement with the world.  Unblinking and with a smile, he sought to reform and reclaim his cherished Church.

Anyone who associates aging with dysfunction does not know the story of St. John XXIII and so many others like him—and among us.  In a partisan culture such as ours there is no shortage of “divisions”: religious and secular, the ninety –nine percent and the one percent, red America/blue America and young vs. old.  Sitting on my desk is a paperweight with a quote from Abraham Lincoln which reads: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” I picked this up for myself and derive inspiration and courage from it to challenge those ready to marginalize people simply because of advancing years.  And when I look at an image of St. John XXIII, I can imagine him saying to the world: “You ain’t seeing nothing yet!”



Double Vision: Seeing the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

Seeing the ExtraordinaryA couple of weeks ago I was setting up for a training session for new EMs (Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion).  Needing a chalice, paten and communion cup for demonstration, I went to the drawer where the key to the cabinet which houses the vessels is kept but it was not there.  I looked in the other drawers and unlocked cabinets but still did not find it.  I had earlier greeted one of our sacristans, Jean, who was setting up for the Novena in the Ars Chapel so I went to find her to see if perhaps she had the key.  She did not but returned with me to the sacristy to search.  And search we did; she retraced all her steps and opened the drawers and cabinets she had accessed but again, to no avail.  We returned to the Ars Chapel to empty her handbag, suggesting that perhaps she had inadvertently dropped it in however, she had not. We returned to the Church and retraced her steps at least 3 times but still did not obtain the lost key.  We were rehearsing yet again, her actions in the sacristy and angsting about the misplaced key when, low and behold, it fell on the floor before us.  We had just been retracing the sacristan’s steps; one of them had been to replenish the hand towels with the freshly laundered ones and there it was, the key apparently had slipped in between the towels which we had examined 3 times before!  When the key fell before us we both paused in astonishment.  I said to the sacristan, “Jean, God is so good.”

Something so seemingly insignificant as this may have been dismissed as simply, “good luck” but I knew it was more than that.  Yes, God was looking out for us but more importantly, for those whom he had called to serve in a very important ministry. Their service and training for it, would not be thwarted.

How often does God reach down and show his presence to us yet we fail to recognize him?  St. Benedict, the Father of Western Monasticism, believed that “the encounter with God ought not be rare, because one should see God regularly and easily.”  “All you need to do”, he wrote, “is open your eyes; God is not absent from our world.”

We, as Catholics, approach the world with a sense of something more than which appears before us.  As we tend to our everyday tasks we view them sacramentally, as pointing to a greater reality.  This approach opens up a world in which nothing is too common to be exalted; everyday experiences hold the possibility of revelation.  This view of life must be focused or we risk losing or being blinded to the extraordinary in our midst. We, like the disciples on the way to Emmaus, may fail to recognize that Christ is in fact, alongside us.

Perhaps the first step is that we should sincerely desire to unearth God in our midst, for letting heaven break through will not happen automatically.  It lies at hand, but needs a determination on our part to realize it.  If we can recover this “double” vision, then we are able to transform what lies at hand and allow the mundane to become the edge of glory and “see” the extraordinary in the ordinary.

At times God may be encountered in the experience of absence.  Experiences of broken relationships, stress, burnout, frustration and hopelessness are a particular challenge to faith and too often our ability to view our world as a sacrament of divine mystery is weakened.  But the invitation remains for each of us to persevere and to grow in our trust in God’s desire to be lovingly present to us in all circumstances.

The biblical phrase, “If today you hear his voice..” (Hebrews 3:7) implies that the divine voice is accessible in our daily experience.  If we are to listen for the God who creates and sustains us, we need to take seriously and prayerfully the meeting between the creatures we are and all else that God holds in loving existence. This interface is the lived experience of our days.  It deserves prayerful attention and is a big part of how we know and respond to God.

I am reminded of the story of a young musician from a small city who traveled to New York City.  She was mesmerized by all the cars, buildings and people and very anxious about her upcoming audition.  As she emerged from the subway she felt disoriented.  She knew her destination was nearby but in which direction? Then, to her relief, she saw an elderly man coming toward her with a violin case tucked under his arm. Ah, he must surely know, she thought, so she inquired, “Excuse me sir, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”  The old musician halted, looked pensive for a moment, and then offered, “Practice, practice, practice!”  We can say the same about our faith; being any good at it requires lots of practice.  Perseverance in faith is the best evidence of the sincerity of our faith.

What Jean and I experienced that evening when the keys “dropped from heaven” was the determination of God’s in-breaking into our midst.  What an awesome gift that was.  And like all gifts, one to be shared so that all may delight in its beauty.  If we look closely we will be able to find God in the ordinary of our lives; in fact we might be looking at  – but failing to recognize him  – each day.

  Earth’s crammed with heaven,

and every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes-

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware……

Elizabeth Barrett Browning



Monica and AugustineEach time my son leaves the house he hugs and kisses me and says, “See you, mom; I love you.”  With those words he melts away my frustration at the mess he is usually leaving behind and at the same time those precious words demand that I worry about him: will he remember to wear his seat belt; will he talk on his cell phone while driving; what friends will he be with; what will they do; what will they not do; and on and on my imagination leaps.  Once aware of the knots forming in my stomach I remind myself that he is no longer a child, can be responsible and then say a prayer asking God to keep a firm hand on him. When the hour grows late I rekindle my petition and too tired to pray an entire rosary, will often simply hold it in my hand or place it over my heart as if by osmosis, the prayers will enter and God will hear them.  I try very hard to forget what a good friend told me his dad told him: “nothing good happens after midnight!”

This, to a small degree, may be what St. Monica felt when she prayed for her son, Augustine. This week we remember both: On August 27, one day before the feast of her son, St. Augustine, the Church honors St. Monica, whose example and persistent prayers led to one of the most dramatic conversions in Church history.

Most of what we know about St. Monica is the account that Augustine gives of her in his Confessions. Monica was born in 332 in the North African city of Tagaste, what is now Algeria.  Educated by a household servant, Monica cared for her father and siblings until she married Patricius, a landowner and minor Roman official.  Patricius was a pagan, though like so many of that period, his religion was no more than a name.  He was an arrogant man, whose temper was violent and habits immoral.

Monica and Patricius had three children who survived infancy: Augustine, the eldest, Navigius, and a daughter, Perpetua. Monica was unable to persuade her husband to allow the children to be baptized and became greatly concerned when a very young Augustine feel ill.  Succumbing to his wife’s persistent pleading, Patricius relented however, upon Augustine’s recovery, withdrew his consent.  Monica also had to deal with a cantankerous mother-in-law who lived in their home.  Patricius criticized his wife because of her charity and piety but maintained a respect for her.  Monica’s prayers and example eventually inspired her husband and mother-in-law to become Christians.  Patricius died in 371, one year after his baptism.  Augustine was 17 and a student of rhetoric in Carthage at the time of his father’s death.

Monica was distressed to discover that her son had embraced the beliefs of the Manichean sect (they believe all flesh is evil) and was living an immoral life in Carthage.  He lived for 10 years with a mistress and fathered a son, Adeodatus.  For a while Monica refused to allow Augustine to eat or sleep in her house.  She even tearfully sought the intervention of her local bishop who famously responded, “the child of those tears shall never perish.”  One night, Monica had a vision whose message assured her Augustine would one day embrace Christianity.  From that time on, she stayed close to her son, praying and fasting for him and, in fact, stayed much closer than Augustine liked.

When he was 29, Augustine decided to go to Rome to teach rhetoric and Monica was determined to accompany him. On the night of his planned departure he told his mother that he was going to the dock to say good bye to a friend; instead he set sail for Rome.  Monica was heartbroken when she learned of her son’s deceit but not one to be deterred, she followed him to Rome and then to Milan.

It was in Milan that Augustine came under the influence of the bishop there, (St.) Ambrose.  His sermons inspired Augustine to look for the truth he had always sought in the faith he had rejected.  Augustine renounced the teaching of the Manichees and at age 28 was finally baptized by St. Ambrose in the Church of St. John the Baptist.  Monica’s tears of sorrow changed to tears of joy.  Shortly after, while waiting for a ship at the port of Ostia to return to Africa, she and Augustine experienced a shared mystical ascent to God which Augustine describes in Book IX of the Confessions.  Monica declared to Augustine, “Son, for myself I have no longer any pleasure in anything in this life. Now that my hopes in this world are satisfied, I do not know what more I want here or why I am here.” Monica died in Ostia in the year 387, the same year as Augustine’s baptism; she was 56 years old. Her relics are in the Church of Sant ‘Agostino in Rome.

On the day following St. Monica’s feast, the Church honors her son, St. Augustine, who grew to become one of the most significant and influential Church Father and Doctor, and whose teachings are the foundation for Christian doctrine.  I do not think either of my sons are on the road to greatness of the magnitude of St. Augustine but they have, and I know will, falter like him. They do have a mother like St. Monica who prays for them and lights candles for them and urgently asks God to hold them closely whether they like it or not.

It is heartening to know that we have in our parish a ministry specifically for mothers of elementary to college aged sons and daughters called, St. Monica’s Society.  It allows mothers to come together to share their stories; to be nourished, encouraged and supported by one another.  Like St. Monica, we see our children through tumultuous times, wooed and tempted by secularism. We, like her, and Mary before her, desire to keep our sons (and daughters) within sight, through their big and little sufferings, to their glory.  Monica is a model of patience. Her long years of prayer, together with a strong, well disciplined character, ultimately led to the conversion of her hot-tempered husband, her cantankerous mother-in-law and her brilliant but wayward son; challenges which find resonance today; perhaps it is, the “same old story” but St. Monica suggests the possibility of a different ending.


Whole In One

Whole In OneYears ago, before children, lazy Sunday afternoons were my norm. The drive out to the country where my in-laws lived was a tranquilizing transition from the busy-ness of the city to the delicious lunch and recliner I knew were waiting for me.  Often, we’d arrive to find my father-in-law watching a sporting event on television; his favorite was golf.  On those particular Sundays, listening to and watching a golf game contributed nicely to the entire soporific experience.  Nothing could put me to sleep faster than a full belly and the narrative lull of a golf game!

I’ve always wondered what golf’s attraction was: standing outdoors for hours, trying to get a little ball in a little hole?  “A long walk, wasted” is how one person put it. Why would anyone subject themself to that?  Some dear friends are avid golfers and inspired their eldest son to pursue the game. His junior and senior high school years were punctuated with try outs and tournaments.  A few months ago I conveyed to them my puzzlement about their, or anyone’s, attraction to golf.  Aghast, they attempted to extol the virtues and values of the game but I remained unmoved.  They told me that there was a golf movie I would have to watch with them which would convert me.  They often suggested this movie night however, I successfully managed to stave off such a night.

A few weeks ago, I was perusing through the DVDs on offer at a local book store and came upon the movie that my friends had mentioned: The Legend of Bagger Vance.  I decided to purchase and watch the movie on my own so that I could scan through it and then tell my friends that I’d seen it so we could forego plans for an ENTIRE NIGHT of watching A GOLF MOVIE!  The content and length of this “Message” reveals that I did not fast-forward through it.

The Legend of Bagger Vance is based on a novel of the same name by Steven Pressfield (1995).  Directed by Robert Redford, it was made into a movie in 2000.  It is a story about how Rannulph Junuh, a fictional Southern golfer, got his swing back.  According to the Director and Screenwriter, golf is a metaphor for life: the rhythm of the game mirrors the rhythm of life.

The movie is told in flashback.  Rannulph Junuh was the local hero of his home town of Savannah, Georgia. At an early age Junah displayed a remarkable talent for the sport of golf and won a national amateur championship when he was only sixteen.  Experts who saw him play predicted he would one day become one of America’s most successful professional golfers.  Junah was in his finest form when the United States entered World War I.  He enlisted in the army along with his classmates and was shipped off to Europe to fight in the trenches of France.  At the end of the war Junah was the only member of his company, the only one of his classmates, who returned home alive.  Psychologically devastated by the violence he had witnessed, the friends he had lost, and disillusioned with the posh life he had known before the war, Junah returns home to Depression-era Savannah to forget and be forgotten.  It is apparent that he has lost his swing; he has lost his grip on his whole life, not merely his golf grip.

Out of the dusk and gloom Bagger Vance appears one evening.  Out walking, he tells Junah that he is  simply “taking in one of God’s glories.”  Junah mentions to this stranger that he has been persuaded to participate in a local tournament in which he will compete with two of the world’s best golfers.  Bagger offers to be his caddie for a minimum price.  His mission, we realize, is to recover balance and integrity to Junah’s game and ultimately, to his life.  With Bagger as his caddie, Junah gets to work preparing for the tournament.

Junah brings his cynicism, guilt and anger to the field.  But Bagger Vance tells him, “Ain’t a soul on this entire earth that ain’t got a burden to carry that he don’t understand.  But you’ve been carrying this one long enough.  Time to go on, lay it down.” According to the author and filmmaker, there is a “place” where everything is spiritually whole—your grip on life as well as your grip on the club; the place where you can “find your swing.”  Bagger shows Junah that his real opponent is not the other golfers or anyone else for that matter, but is his own mind, outlook and attitude.  Junah must let go of his guilt, anger, feelings of inferiority and hopelessness.  He must clear out the debris that is clogging up his inner wellspring. “Concentrate on the field,” Bagger tells him, concentrate on the bigger picture, on life and the things and people that are really important.

Bagger is a humble man who quietly waits for Junah to become receptive and ask for assistance, then helps him get back on track without a word of rebuke.  Bagger teaches Junah that in him (and in each of us) there is a soul infused with the Spirit of the One who is the source of all life and gives life ultimate meaning.  With, in and through God we can be our most authentic self and find hope which transcends suffering and all that we permit to weigh us down.  Bagger Vance ostensibly gives Junah advice about how to play better golf but is actually leading him to live a better, more spirit-centered, life. “I can’t take you there” Bagger says, “but I can show you the way.”

In the novel Junah implores Bagger, “Please don’t abandon me.  Do you think I want to feel these awful emotions, that I take pleasure in the desperate conclusions my heart leads me to? I’m lost, Bagger, help me, tell me what I must do.”  At this point, Junah is like the sinner who knows that he needs salvation but doesn’t know how to find or accept it.  Bagger reassures Junah: “I stand by your side always. I will never abandon you.” In this story, redemption, salvation and enlightenment for the characters elevate the sport of golf to a higher spiritual plane. It’s through golf that Junah finds his “authentic swing,” a metaphor for finding God, His Spirit within and the self-respect and integrity that flow from this awareness.

Is the The Legend of Bagger Vance a great movie about golf?  You golfers out there are the better judge than I.  However, with its gentle urging to cultivate a deeper spiritual awareness, the story will most likely resonate with many.  Give a person a stick and a ball when he is angry and he will hit it differently than a person who is content.  For most of us there are things that need “letting go.”  To recognize those things that weigh us down or distract us from being who we are and whose we are, necessitates spiritual discipline which involves a consciously chosen path. We must remember, the path itself does not produce the change; it only places us where change can occur.  When we fan the spark to flame, and then stoke its fire with spiritual practices, it will gradually transform us into beacons of light for others as they “play” on the course of life.


Something About Mary

The Assumption of MAryOn August 15 we celebrate the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary.  This Holy Day of Obligation gives expression to the dogma that the Blessed Mother was assumed into heaven.  Catholics believe that at the end of her earthly life, Mary’s body was not subjected to the usual process of physical decay rather, she was “assumed”, body and soul, into heaven.  A distinction here is necessary:  Mary did not ascend into heaven.  Only Jesus, by his own power, ascended into heaven.  Mary was assumed or taken up into heaven by God; she did not do it by her own power. Pope Pius XII, in the document, Munificentissimus Deus, defined the Assumption of Mary to be a dogma of faith.  It states, “We pronounce, declare and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul, to heavenly glory.”  What the Pope solemnly declared in 1950 was already a commonly held belief in the Catholic Church. There are homilies on the Assumption dating back to the 6th century and documents reflect that this belief was universally held and celebrated by the 13th century. In his book, Introduction to Mary, Dr. Mark Miravalle writes, “In the New Testament, with the establishment of Jesus Christ as the new and eternal King in the universal Kingdom of God, we also have the establishment of a new Queen Mother and Advocate, who is the Mother of the King. The Virgin of Nazareth becomes the new “Great Lady” of all nations contained within the Kingdom of God, and as well, becomes the new Advocate for all peoples within this universal Kingdom.  It is for this reason that her cousin, Elizabeth, greets Mary with the expression, ‘Mother of my Lord’, (Luke 1:43) which was an ancient expression for referring to the Queen Mother in the language of the ancient semitic courts.” Seeing Mary approach, Elizabeth acknowledges that the Mother of her Lord,  the Messiah, is coming to visit her. Elizabeth is professing that Mary is the Queen Mother of her King. The title Gebirah (Gebira), meaning, “Great Lady” or “Queen Mother” was a royal title and an office which was bestowed upon the mothers of the kings of Israel and limited to those queens who were mothers of kings in the line of King David.  The Gebirah, the Queen Mother of the Kingdom of Judah, was the most important and influential woman in the royal court and the king’s chief counselor.  Recall that the practice of polygamy was not uncommon; Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).  Instead of choosing a wife to be queen, a king would choose his mother; a king had many wives but only one mother.  A throne would be placed on the right side of her son and a magnificent crown reserved for the Gebirah.  She served in a position of authority and great intercessory power for the people. It is significant that the mother of the Davidic king is listed along with her son in Sacred Scripture.  The name of each Davidic Queen Mother is given in the introduction to each reign of the Davidic Kings of Judah; see, 1 Kings 14:21; 15: 2; 22:42; 2 Kings 12:1; 14:2; 15:2; 15:33; 18:2; 21:1: 21:19; 22:1; 23:31; 23:36; 24:8; 24:18. In tune with their ancestral religious sensibilities the Jews, who were the first to embrace the Christian faith, undeniably acknowledged Mary’s royalty and her prerogatives by the right of her divine motherhood. Thus, the early Christians in apostolic times held the Mother of their Lord in the highest esteem, whose efficacious intercession should not be ignored.  Mary was their Queen Mother who went before their Messiah King to intercede for them. The angel Gabriel asserted Mary’s royal dignity when he greeted her (Luke 1:28).  In the original Greek text, it is written, “chaire kecharitomene”.   In ancient times this form of salutation, “hail/chaire”,  was used when greeting or acclaiming royal figures.  Only on one other occasion is this expression used in the New Testament.  After his arrest and scourging, the Roman soldiers mock Jesus by placing a crown of thorns on his head and clothe him in a purple robe since his alleged crime was that he claimed to be King of the Jews;  jeeringly, they proclaim, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (“chaire basileus ton ioudaion”) (John 19.3). The Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2:1-11) also exemplifies Mary as the Advocating Queen.  As Queen Mother, Mary brings the needs of the couple to her royal Son.  Because of the love Jesus has for his mother, he responds in a majestic way and provides a large amount of wine for the wedding feast. Through Mary’s motherly intercession, Jesus performs his first sign. From the cross, with his dying breath, Jesus said to his beloved disciple, “Behold your mother,” thus giving his mother to all of us to be our mother.  The Gebirah of  the eternal Davidic Kingdom is Mary of Nazareth.  Upon her Assumption into heaven her Son placed her beside him as Queen Mother of the King of Kings. The Assumption at once, completes and anticipates God’s saving work.  It looks to eternity and directs us to consider the conclusion of our earthly life. We believe and hope and resolve that one day we too will be rendered immaculate and be with Jesus forever.  Until then, Mary, our Gebirah,  intercedes for us as our advocating Queen Mother, the holy one who received early, the blessing we all hope to enjoy.