Friday, July 26, 2013

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.  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 be 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 is answering our prayers.  So often I’ve heard people say that they have prayed for such and such a thing 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 the problem lies in the fact that we often don’t recognise the way that God answers us.  God always answers us but we may not even be aware of what God has done or is doing.

During my teenage years 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 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.  Each one described how they had come to have a very real relationship with God which was now at the centre of their lives.  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 was to follow. 

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.  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 and 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.  My family were also looking on nervously 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.

Friday, July 19, 2013

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

A few years ago something like 21 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 they were just pushing their employees too hard and they couldn’t take it anymore.  So the company began to change their work policy and take some of the pressure off.  It is terrible that it would come to that,  but 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 something similar has been happening in China where many people were also being pushed too hard and there is a high rate of suicide.  We are not machines; we are body and spirit and both aspects of the person need to be looked after if we are to remain healthy.

Much of our society has gone like this, working ‘like the hammers of hell,’ as the expression goes.  We often 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.  Business people will tell you that (in Ireland at least) 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.  The third commandment that God gave us is to keep the Sabbath/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 each day.  But 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 also collect enough for the Sabbath, 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 most, because God created us.

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

You might be thinking that that is just how society has gone now and we should get used to it.  But 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 will be different if we follow the path that God shows us.  We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do I believe in this or not?’  Do I believe this is what God is saying to us or not?  If we 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.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

15th Sunday, Year C (Gospel: Luke 10:25-37) ‘Who is my neighbor?’

Recently I was shopping in a big department store here in Sarasota, and it was my second time there in a few days (I nearly always end up having to change things!).  The second time I was there a young man came up to me and asked me if I was a religious minister of some kind.  He had helped me the first time too.  I told him I was a Catholic priest and he wanted to know if he could ask me something.  So I said, ‘sure!’  He said, ‘What do you think is the best way to deal with people begging on the street?’  I smiled when he asked me this and I told him it is one of the more difficult things we are continually faced with and there is never an easy answer to it.  

I know from speaking to social workers and people who work with the homeless that more often than not you don’t really help people on the street when you give them money.  You are often feeding an addiction of some kind.  Having said that they are obviously a lot worse off than me, no matter how you figure it which makes it all the more difficult to pass by.  We are told many times in the Scriptures that the poor will always be with us (Mk 14:7, Mt 26:11, Jn 12: 8, Deut 15:11) and we have a duty to look after them, but we must also be wise as to what is the best way to help.  However, without a doubt the most important thing is that we treat each person we meet with dignity.  Whether we decide to give money or not to someone begging doesn’t mean we cannot smile or acknowledge them.  They are people that will be with us in heaven hopefully.  Just because things haven’t worked out well for them now doesn’t mean it won’t change.  We have a duty to look after them.

A temptation in many cities today is to ‘hide’ the poor, keep them out of sight, because we don’t like the ‘messiness’ of people begging and the discomfort that this causes.  However, the Lord has given us these people to care for too and they have just as much a right to be part of our towns as we do.  Just because it doesn’t suit us is no reason to ignore them.  Remember the story of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar at his gates (See Luke 16:19-31).  The rich man was condemned, not because he was wealthy but because he ignored the poor man who was right under his nose.

In today’s Gospel we are shown something interesting.  First when the man asks Jesus what he must do to get to heaven, Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, firstly to love God with our heart, mind and soul and secondly to love our neighbor as ourself.  The order is important.  Then when he asks Jesus, ‘But who is my neighbor,’ Jesus tells him the story of the good Samaritan.  Something that we may not appreciate from the story is how much the Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people.  They could see absolutely no good in them.  Jesus was showing them (and us today) that goodness can be found in everyone, even in people we despise or may be prejudiced against.  The people who were expected to do good (the priest and Levite) did not, and the last person on earth that they would have considered good did the most loving thing of all.  But perhaps the key to the story is the commandments that Jesus quoted and the order that they come in.  Our first duty is to love God above all else.  Only then are we called to love our neigbour.  Why? Because the strength we get to love our neighbor comes from our relationship with God.  The closer we remain to God, or the more our relationship with God grows, the more we are able to see those around us who are in need and help them.  Our neighbor is simply whoever is in need of help, even if they despise us or believe quite differently to us.

It is interesting that Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her sisters continually take people in off the street to allow them to die with dignity.  They clean them up and they look after them as best they can, but they don’t try to convert them.  Most of them would be Hindu or Muslim.  They simply love them and treat them with dignity.  They are able to do that because they love God first and that is where their strength and inspiration comes from.  Needless to say they speak more about God by their actions than anything they could possibly say.

‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.  And you must love your neighbor as yourself.’

Saturday, July 6, 2013

14th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 10:1-12, 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, or indeed when we just launch out on our career, we start off full of zeal.  It is exciting 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 our prayer life seems to dry up and we begin to discover that the community are not so easy to live with.  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.  I know that similar things happen 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.  This is the human condition, but it is ok to be like that.

There are two ways that we can react.  We can deny that there is a problem and fight on with clenched fists (white knuckling), 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 and all the other addictions 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.  That is why it is so successful.

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 is not put off by our weakness.  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, or who never had any sins; but this is not true.  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, although they can be very frustrating for us.  The comfort we receive from God is in realising that the Lord is just as much with us in our weakness as at any other time.  St. Paul also says this in the second reading: 'May I never boast of anything except in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.'

One of the most powerful things the Lord has given us to help us cope with the weaknesses that we have to face is the gift of confession.  Each time we come to the Lord in confession we are not only unburdened of our sins but also encouraged to keep going and not give up.  It is one of the lovely ways the Lord has given us to help us to be at peace.  Through confession we are able to keep coming back to the Lord and be assured that the Lord is with us.  He knows we struggle.  He knows we are weak and that it is difficult for us and that is why He invites us to take comfort in him. Spiritually, you could say, the Lord is the one we turn to for a hug.  Then we can also be united to Jesus each time we receive the Eucharist, again to strengthen and comfort us.  That is why He gives himself to us.

The key to growing and blossoming as people, is not to be afraid of our weakness, but to turn to the one who can and will help us with them.  He will help us to be at peace.

As a mother comforts her son, so I will comfort you.’