Saturday, July 31, 2010

18th Sunday of Year C (Gospel: Luke 12:13-21) Remember what we are here for

Over the last few days I was thinking about the people in Pakistan: one minute just getting on with their daily business, the next minute drowned in a flood. Think of any one of those people who died. One moment they are just getting on with their lives, then suddenly they are before God knowing what their whole life was about. It is the same with the tsunami and other disasters. Here on earth one minute and the next, suddenly in the spiritual world, which is hidden from us now, but is just as real.

If I was suddenly told, like in the Gospel, ‘This very night the demand will be made for your soul,’ I wonder what would I focus on for the rest of the day? Would I be worried about paying off bills, or loans? I doubt it. I’d imagine my focus would turn to the people I love and also to wondering how I have lived my life so far.

At the moment many people in our society—including many who consider themselves Christians—are living as though there were no after-life, as though our life on earth were everything. If that were so, then we might as well grab all we can and make our life as comfortable as possible, because we only have one chance. But our faith tells us something completely different. Perhaps the most important thing it tells us is that we will not find full happiness in this life, but in the next, if we choose God. Complete happiness is not to be found in this life. We will have moments of great happiness, and hopefully we will find overall contentment, but that’s about as good as it gets.

When Our Lady appeared to Bernadette in Lourdes 150 years ago, one of the things she said to her was, ‘I cannot promise you happiness in this life, but in the next.’ The point of that message and of the teachings of Christ is to remind us not to ‘miss the bus’, so to speak. It’s important that we don’t forget what our life is really about. We are only on this earth for a short time.

In Jesus’ time the problem of greed for money was just as much of a problem as it is now, and it will probably always be this way. When this man said to Jesus, ‘Tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance,’ straight away Jesus pointed out to the disciples the danger of this desire. He said, ‘Watch out for this.’ ‘A person’s life is not made secure by what he owns.’ The problem is that our society tells us the opposite.

I have heard so many heart-breaking stories of families split in half over inheritance. It is so sad, because it is not important. Of course it is not right when someone in a family is done out of their fair share of what is coming to them, but sooner or later we will leave it all behind anyway. ‘There is no tow-bar on the hearse,’ as they say! Is it really worth causing such division in a family for this? I suppose it is a sign again that we believe we will find happiness if we have enough of everything materially. If we get the right car, house, job, furniture, etc, then we will be happy. The reality is, we won’t. It is nice to have these things, and don’t get me wrong, I am all for people being able to have a good standard of living, but these things won’t bring us happiness because we are much deeper than this.

God has made us in such a way that we will only be fulfilled in him. Our time here on earth is a time for learning to love and serve; to choose for God or not; and this is a choice that each one of us has to make individually. That is why each week we come to listen to the Word of God and to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, so that we remember what our life is about. The key is in making sure that God is at the centre. Otherwise we will forget what we are here for.

‘This very night the demand will be made for your soul;

and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?’

Saturday, July 24, 2010

17th Sunday of Year C (Gospel: Luke 11:1-13) Ask and you will receive

When I was young and I wanted something I would always try and talk my parents into it. I never asked a direct question but always came at it in a round-about way. My mother used say I was like a crab the way I would come at things. It drove her nuts. Most children just seem to keep asking the direct question until the parents are worn out, as I’m sure many of you are familiar with. 'Please can we go to the beach? Please can we go to the beach? Please can we go to the beach?' It’s interesting that in this Gospel Jesus more or less tells us not to afraid to pester him in this way when we are praying for something. Keep asking and don’t be afraid to ask.

A common difficulty for most of us is that we continually wonder if God really does answer our prayers. So often I’ve heard people say that they have prayed for something but God hasn’t listened, or answered. Is this true? Not if what Jesus says to us is true; and of course we believe that He only speaks the truth. ‘Ask and you will receive’; not might receive, but will receive. I suppose part of the problem lies in the fact that we often don’t recognise how God answers us. God always answers us but we may not even be aware of the answer, as it may not be what we expect.

During my teens I lost interest in the practice of my faith just like many of my peers, although I still believed in God. When I was nineteen I remember thinking at one stage that I wanted to find out whether this faith was real or not. I didn’t just want to drift aimlessly. A few days before I turned nineteen a close friend of mine was killed in a car accident. This was a terrible shock to me because it was the first real encounter I had with death and it made me ask a lot of questions. At the end of the summer of that same year I came across a book called Power for Living. This was a series of testimonies of other people who had come back to God and whose faith meant a lot to them. At the end of the book it said: ‘If you want to discover God in your life, then ask him now wherever you are to come into your life and make himself known to you.’ I remember sitting at the end of my bed and saying, ‘Ok Lord, if you are there help me to find you.’ And then I put the book away and forgot all about it. I could never have imagined what would happen next.

A few weeks later I met a friend of mine called Aidan, who told me about a mutual friend of ours called Louise who had been to Medjugorje and had rediscovered her faith, or as Aidan put it: ‘she has become all religious and holy.’ I was intrigued, because Louise was my own age and from a similar background. So I called around to her and asked her about it. I remember she talked for about an hour and a half about what had happened. At the end of the conversation she invited me to come to a prayer meeting here in Galway. Now I wasn’t that keen to go to a prayer meeting. I thought I was much too cool for such things. But Louise was smart enough to know that and she asked another girl whom I fancied, to ask me. Naturally I went! Both of those girls are now married and I’m a priest!

So I went along to this prayer meeting and I was very surprised to find 50 or 60 young people there praying the rosary, singing hymns and reading the Bible. This was totally new to me. I remember thinking that these people had something that I wanted. It was obvious that their faith was real; none of them had to be there. So I started coming back each week.

Several weeks after I began attending this prayer group they had what is called a ‘Life in the Spirit’ seminar, where they give talks about the reality of the Holy Spirit and the difference it can make in your life. On the fifth night they pray with each person to have an experience of God’s Spirit, just as the Apostles did. I was really looking forward to this and wondering what would happen. I think my family were looking on nervously from the side and hoping this wouldn’t be a disaster. After the people prayed with me I was disappointed because nothing extraordinary seemed to happen. But in the days and weeks that followed many things began to happen. It was as if someone plugged in my faith and switched on the power. Suddenly I had a tremendous desire to pray and read the Bible. The words of the Bible began to come alive for me in a way I had never experienced before and also the mass came alive for me. It was as if I was hearing it for the first time. Three years later I began studying to be a priest.

I could never have imagined how God was going to reach out to me and change my life that time I prayed to him sitting on the end of my bed. God does answer us, but often not in the way we expect.

Ask and it will be given to you.

Seek and you will find.

Knock and the door will be opened to you.

I enclose a link to that book Power for Living which inspired me.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

16th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 10:38-42) Only one thing is necessary

Last year I remember hearing on the news that between 2008 and 2009 23 people working for French Telecom took their own lives. The company finally began to take a serious look at what was going wrong and realised that part of the problem was that they were just pushing their employees too hard. They couldn’t take it anymore, so the company began to change its work policy and take some of the pressure off. While it is terrible that it would come to that, I think it is also a good reminder that we are not machines and we are not just meant to be worked to death. Apparently the same thing has been happening in China where people were also being pushed too hard. We are not machines and there is a spiritual side to us which is just as real as the physical, and which also needs to be cared for if we are to be healthy.

Much of our society has gone like this, working like ‘the hammers of hell’. We don’t seem to know when to stop, or even how to stop. And now because Sunday is a shopping day there seems to be no beginning or end to the week. Shop owners will tell you that Sunday is now the busiest shopping day of the week. Even apart from a religious point of view, this cannot be good for us because we need to be able to rest, to just stop and do nothing. We are not machines.

‘Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things.’ Look at what Martha was saying to Jesus: ‘Can’t you see how much work there is to be done. Tell my sister to be busy too. She shouldn’t just be sitting there.’ But Jesus’ reply is interesting. He says that only one thing is necessary. He doesn’t just say that there is nothing wrong with her sitting and listening to him; he says it is necessary and that she shouldn’t be stopped from doing that. Stopping and listening is not just a nice idea, but it is necessary. Why is it so important?

There is an order to God’s creation. It will work a certain way and the Lord knows what we are able for much better than we do. And so the Lord gives us the Commandments as a kind of blueprint for living. Following these laws will help us to flourish as individuals and as a societey. The third commandment that God gave us is to keep the Sabbath, or Sunday holy. It is to be a day of rest, where God is remembered, where God is given priority; but also a day where we can rest and recover because we need it ourselves.

When the people of Israel (who represent all of us) were wandering through the desert, initially they had nothing to eat. So God provided them with manna, a food that they could collect each day. This sustained them for the journey. He also told them that they should go out and collect each day just enough for that day; but on the day before the Sabbath they should collect enough for two days, so that they could rest and give God priority that day. To put it in modern English, He said 'do enough shopping on Saturday so that you don’t have to go shopping on Sunday.' Sunday is to be a day of rest from unnecessary work, where we can worship God, relax, take a walk with family or friends. Why? Because we need it. It is necessary for our sanity. It is part of the order that God created. God is well aware of what we need, because He created us.

God also asks us to rest so that we can continually learn how to listen to him. I often hear people say they wish that God would speak to them more. The truth is that God is speaking to us all the time, but mostly we are not listening. Indeed to a large degree we don’t even know how to listen any more, because we have gotten used to being so busy.

Well you might be thinking that this is just how society has gone now and we should just get used to it; maybe 'father' here is just a bit over the top. But the point is that if we are following the way of Christ as we say we are, then we need to listen to what God is saying to us, even if the rest of society doesn’t. Christians have always been different and we should be different. I suppose we just have to decide ‘do I believe in this or don’t I?’ Do I really believe that this is what God is saying to us or not? If we do believe this—as we say we do—then we need to listen to what God asks of us and follow his directions, because they are there to help us. The order that God has given his creation, is not to make life difficult, but to help us blossom because God knows better than any of us what will help us grow.

‘Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things; only one thing is necessary. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.’

Sunday, July 11, 2010

15th Sunday of Year C. There is good in everyone

I remember hearing a story of a priest who went to stay with his niece and her husband. They were a young couple and were big into occult practice, so it was going to be awkward and they were a bit nervous about him staying. But when he came and stayed with them, he never said anything to them about it. He was just very loving and considerate of them both and their needs. They were so moved by this, that it actually brought about their conversion. This story taught me a lot. The power of love and the importance of seeing good in others.

All of us grow up with a lot of prejudice. We aren’t even aware of most of them, but they are there. Before we see ‘people’ we tend to see someone who is English, Irish, Polish, or black, white, Asian, Muslim or Christian. But these are all human categories that we put on people, and even though they may be a way of telling us something about a person, we have a lot of associations with each category which are often negative. If they are Irish, we think they’re probably ok. If they are from somewhere else we will probably be more cautious until we get to know them. But if you take away all the different labels, then first of all you simply have another human being and that is really the only thing that matters. There was a very good movie out a few years ago called Traffic (I think) which was about different people in Los Angeles and how everyone was suspicious of everyone else especially if they were of a different race. It's worth watching.

This kind of prejudice was really brought home to me several years ago visiting two prisoners in Dublin over two years. One was in for a very serious crime, which he deeply regretted. If you were to make a picture of him from the papers, you would write him off as a monster, but as I got to know him I realised that he was one of the most decent guys I’d ever met. I couldn't help thinking that if I had grown up with his circumstances it's quite likely I would have ended up in prison too.

It says in Genesis that ‘God saw all that He had made and indeed it was good.’ God’s creation is basically good and every human being is basically good. The good in them/us may have gotten buried because of the different hurts we have encountered, or because of what we were taught growing up, but there is good in everyone and that goodness is the thing that we must try and tap into in each person.

In this parable of the good Samaritan Jesus was showing the people that there could be good even in someone like a Samaritan. Ironically we now associate the name Samaritan with someone who does good to others, but at the time that Jesus gave this parable it would have been the opposite. The Samaritans were one group of people that the Jewish people really despised. They would have found this impossible to believe. But Jesus in his wisdom used this parable to force them to admit that there could be good even in someone that they were totally prejudiced against.

All the people around us, no matter what they believe, or where they come from, are human beings before they are anything else; ordinary people trying to raise their families and make their way in the world just like the rest of us. Even if they have a totally different understanding of God to ours, or indeed don’t believe in God at all, there is still goodness in them.

Finally, one of the reasons why we keep coming back to the Lord in the mass each week, is not because we have to, but because it is in Jesus that we find the strength to live with and love the people around us. That is where our strength comes from; from Jesus himself. Every time we receive the Eucharist we are renewing our bond with the source of love, the one who is Love itself. Love comes from God, not from us.

So if we want to convince other people about the God we believe in, the best thing we can do is to love them. That will say more than anything else.

I will finish with the words of Saint Francis: Let us go and preach the Gospel, and only if necessary... use words.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

14th Sunday Year C, (Gospel: Luke 10:1-2, 17-20) God’s comfort in our weakness

I have always been curious about the fact that when soldiers are dying on the battle field, they will often start crying out for their mother. In spite of all the training to be tough and ruthless, they end up calling for the one who can comfort them. In times of crisis instincts come to the surface. And as you know, when a child is small the first place it will go when anything is wrong, is to its mother and bury its head in its mother’s lap. Our instinct tells us that we will find comfort in our mothers, and we do. I also love to hear on the radio all the requests for ‘the best mother in the world’. There are a lot of them out there and it is always lovely to hear people talking about their mothers this way.

In the first reading today we are given this beautiful image. God tells us that He will comfort us, just as a mother comforts her child. But what is God comforting us from, or for?

When we begin to live a new way of life, such as married life, or religious life, we are usually full of zeal at the beginning. Everything is wonderful, and so it should be. But before long various weaknesses start to come to the surface that maybe we thought were gone, or that we didn’t realise were there at all. In religious life it may be that one’s prayer life seems to dry up and we begin to discover that there are far more weaknesses in us than we thought; so much so, that people often begin to doubt if they are able for religious life at all. This is where a bit of direction from someone who is further down the line is very important. The same thing happens in married life, but in a different way. You begin to notice that the other person has a whole lot of weaknesses that you didn’t know about before, perhaps even something as destructive as an addiction. What is happening? What is happening is that the Lord is helping us to grow up. He is beginning to show us what we are really like. Probably the hardest part for any of us when we are faced with the darker side of ourselves, is to learn to accept the fact that we are far from perfect and that we will always struggle with weakness.

There are two ways that we can react. We can deny that there is a problem and fight on with clenched fists, although this will eventually destroy us; or we can admit that there is a problem and that the solution lies in turning to one greater than ourselves; namely God. This is what the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is all about. It is the whole spiritual life summed up in twelve steps. We are powerless over our weakness and we need to turn to one greater than ourselves, who can and will help us.

I think that the hardest part for any of us, is to accept the fact that we are as weak as we are; and yet ironically that is also the key to coping with it. God allows us to see what we are like, so that we can turn to him and realise that God is the one who can help us. Yes we are weak, and it is very frustrating, but God doesn’t mind that at all. If we can accept that, then we will grow and we will learn to be at peace.

We are often given the impression that very holy people are basically people who have overcome all their weaknesses; but this is not true. Very holy people are the ones who have learned that they are weak, but that they can be at peace as long as they continually turn to God. Our strength lies in God. This is what the Lord means when He tells us that He will comfort us just as a mother comforts her child. Our weaknesses are not a problem for God, but that is something we find very hard to believe. The comfort we receive from God is in realising that the Lord is just as much with us in our weakness as any other time.

One of the signs of this denial of our weakness today, is the fact that we are slow to go to confession. That is a denial that we need to acknowledge our weakness before God. I’m always amazed at the amount of people who will tell me it is several years since their last confession, but that they have no sins. You can be sure that we have sins, but we have denied them so much that we are no longer aware of them. Ask your husband or wife, or the people you work with if you have sins, and they’ll tell you pretty fast; and they’ll probably be able to give you a much longer list of them than you could! God offers us the help we need, but He can’t force us to take it.

The key to growth in our life, whether we are married, single, or religious, is to face our weaknesses, painful and all as they are, and to turn to the one who can and will help us with them. But first we have to acknowledge our sins, confess them. It doesn’t mean that they will all go away, but we will learn to live with them and to be at peace.
‘As a mother comforts her son, so I will comfort you.’