Our excerpt from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians we have today for our first reading ends with a beautiful vision of human life: “Everything is indeed for you, so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.” Everything is a gift. Creation, beauty, other people, our Church, your faith, and the love you have received are all gifts from God. When we experience gratitude, we respond to the goodness of what we have received. We respond to the goodness of the giver. If human life was only full of the persons and items listed above, living a life of gratitude would be pleasant.
To live a life of Christian gratitude is a real challenge because our gratitude is meant to include the things for which often make us ungrateful. We are often not grateful for failure or being humiliated. People normally do not get warm “fuzzy” feelings at the prospect of doing lowly, unrecognized service. The life experiences for which we are often ungrateful strip away our egos of any pride which hinders our life with God. Pride is a failure to recognize our dependence on God.
Jesus embodies the grateful life to which He calls us to live by following him. In our Gospel reading, he recognizes his Father to be the source of the gifts in his life. The gifts in his life are as much the glory of the Kingdom as it is the humbling service which is the Kingdom. The Father gives Easter and the Cross.
To take up our crosses, in whatever form it might be, is never easy. If it was, it would not be a cross. We are not sure what good will come in taking up a cross. We might approach a situation with trepidation in what good will come from feeling defeated, small, or forgotten. What helps at time is to remember what good has come in your relationship with God from the crosses God has helped you carry. When we recall the Easter experiences of our life of discipleship, we may come to be grateful anew for all the things and events God has woven into our life stories.
What are the crosses you have carried in your life? What new life has God grown in you as you carry your cross?
“Do you not see what is right in front of you?”
There is a famous psychological experiment called the “Dancing Gorilla Experiment.” A quick Google search should deliver a few renditions for your viewing pleasure. If you want to participate in the experiment, do not read further until watching a clip since what I am about to say will ruin you as a test subject.
The experiment was a counting exercise where a study participant had to count the number of times a basketball was passed between a group of persons on a basketball court. While the participant is subsumed in counting the number of passes, a person in a gorilla costume dances in the center of the group passing the basketball. At the conclusion of the study, participants are asked about the number of passes they counted. They give their answers. Then, the study participants are asked whether they saw a person dancing in a gorilla suit. A majority of study participants reported to not have seen the dancing gorilla, even though the gorilla was in their center of their optical field. The experiment suggests we do not notice certain objects when our attention is focused on another aspect of our sense experience.
The First Reading and the Gospel passage today echo what the Dancing Gorilla Experiment demonstrates. When our attention is focused on one aspect, we miss other objects and persons who are right in front of us. I think Jesus knew this fact about our limited attention. He says to the people to whom he is preaching, “Do you not see what is right in front of you?” The crowd is interested in seeing a sign to confirm what Jesus preaches is true. They want to see if Jesus is trustworthy.
Even if they were to see a sign, I am not sure they would have seen it, just like the dancing gorilla in the experiment. We are sometimes lost in the work and toil of ordinary life that we become blind to the extra-ordinary presence of God working in the world. We can come to see people who interrupt our plans as distractions, rather than issuing us invitations to notice and care.
We need God’s assistance to break our habituated way of listening and seeing. Taking a little time each day to pray that we may be sensitive to the Lord’s movements is a start. Let us pray for the grace that we may truly grasp where the Lord is working in our lives and in the world.
What daily practices do you have to slow down to become aware of God’s presence?
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
When I was young, my mother would have to patrol me in the garden. My youthful willingness to help my mom tend the family garden was not paired with any knowledge about plants. I frequently confused the weeds for vegetables, and the vegetables for weeds. I had to check with my mother what the thing that was growing in the garden really was. Often, I asked her only after I had already uprooted the plant to my mother’s consternation! Whenever I was in the garden, I knew I needed my mother’s help, and only had to ask for it to be given. This story came to mind when praying with the Gospel reading today about the weeds growing amongst the wheats.
This passage challenges us by causing us to think about who are weeds or wheats in the world, including reflecting to which category we ourselves belong. We want to know if we are good enough. We want to know if God concurs with judgments we have made about others. If all we do is wonder about ourselves or others, I think we miss the point behind today’s reading.
Instead of worrying about ourselves or others too much, we take our attention off of God. We miss the fact that God loves both the wheats and weed, and lets them grow together. Letting weeds grow is counterproductive to the average gardener. We can miss this description about God because we are launched into worrying about ourselves. God is no average gardener, nor are we any average plant. We are complex beings in which God loves both the wheats and weeds in us. Only God knows the totality of people’s thoughts, desires, fears, and hopes. We do not know who is truly a weed or wheat. As my early experience in the garden taught me, appearances may be deceiving on who is a wheat or a weed.
I think God tells us about these two categories to help us pay attention to Him. God is not rash to cast out what is unseemly in His garden; let us pray that we are not rash to cast out others or ourselves in a similar fashion. My experience gardening with my mother was similar in that I had to rely upon her, and watch what she did to know what to do myself. Let us pray for the grace to be like God in His garden.
What does the image of God letting the weeds grow in the garden mean to you?
“Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb.” For some reason or other, Mary Magdalene woke up very early and went to the tomb of Jesus. The scriptures do not record for us the reason why she got up so early. Was it her custom to do so, or was it because of her grief at the loss of her “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher?
Contemplative monks and nuns rise very early, while it is still dark, to sing God’s praises. Were they not, perhaps, inspired to some degree by Mary Magdalene’s example? Whatever her reasons were, Mary Magdalene was given a great and special reward for seeking Jesus so early in the morning: she learned the good news of the resurrection before any of the apostles, she saw Jesus Christ in his resurrected state, and she was filled with the joy of Easter Sunday. In my opinion, St. Ignatius Loyola was also influenced by Mary Magdalene’s example, which is why he put various guidelines for sleeping in his Spiritual Exercises. One’s manner of sleeping and waking are important to the life of prayer.
Which divine laws admit of exceptions, and which don’t? In other words, which laws did God intend to be taken in the strictest, most literal sense, and which were meant more as general guideposts that could sometimes be improved upon, adapted, or maybe even set aside? The answers to this question have not always been clear, and debates have arisen over this question that have been divisive and even destructive.
For example, in Matthew 12:1-8, Jesus debates the Pharisees over the correct interpretation of the Biblical prohibitions against working on the Sabbath. According to the Pharisees, picking the heads off of grain and eating them while travelling on a Sabbath was a violation of a divine law that could never be set aside. According to Jesus, that law was meant to have exceptions. For example, the priests working in the temple still had to work in the temple on the Sabbath, as required by divine law elsewhere.
Then Jesus adds something that will be a key principle for all his disciples: “something greater than the temple is here… the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” This is why, if we wish to understand God’s laws, we must turn to Jesus Christ and to His Church.
Who is the true god of the sun? Is it Ra, as the ancient Egyptians believed? Or is it Helios, as the ancient Greeks would say? Or is it Apollo, according to the ancient Romans? Did Ra truly reveal himself as the god of the sun? Or was it Helios or even Apollo?
My point is not that we should believe that any of these pagan deities revealed themselves as sun gods, but that we should consider how such a revelation would have occurred. “Who are you?” “I am Ra, the god of the sun.” The identities of such pagan gods was tied to some amazing phenomenon: the sun, the moon, the earth, the ocean, death, birth, etc.
When Moses heard the voice of the Lord in the burning bush commanding him to return to Egypt to free the Israelites, he asked which god he should say was sending him to them. At that point a very mysterious name was revealed to Moses, together with a key identifying feature: “tell them: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me.”
Jews and Christians do not worship a “god of the sun” as such. We worship a God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus Christ was a descendent of those fathers according to the flesh, and all Christians are their descendants according to the Spirit. This is one reason why we read and even pray over the Old Testament: to know the God of our fathers.
“I would rather feel compunction than know its definition.” That’s an old saw from The Imitation of Christ, a book which is of greatest importance to Ignatian spirituality. Those of us who have made St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises, and have spent considerable time asking for the gift of sorrow for our sins, can appreciate the value of this little quip from the Imitation.
God has hidden some things from the wise and the learned but revealed them to the childlike (cf. Matthew 11:25). If you are wise and learned, you probably already know what the word “compunction” means without having to look up its definition, but you may find it harder to admit your own mistakes and to feel true compunction for them.
There are several childlike attitudes that are helpful in the Christian life. Of course, the ability to feel compunction and to say you are sorry and to mean it are big. Here is another childlike attitude: trust. It seems to be easier for children to trust other people. We must renew our trust in God the Father, and trust in Him like we were his children, for so we are.
“Moses” is not a Hebrew name. It’s Egyptian. Pharaoh’s daughter gave the name “Moses” to the child whom she found floating in the Nile river in a papyrus basket. It appears that “Moses” is a version of the Egyptian word “mes,” which means “son.” Thus, the Egyptian name “Rameses” means “Son of Ra,” Ra being the Egyptian god of the sun.
We don’t know what Moses’ own family called him. Recall that he lived with his mother for three months before she hid him in the basket on the Nile, and he lived with her again for some time after he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. His Hebrew birth name is simply lost to history.
Many years later, when Moses turned aside to see the burning bush on Mt. Horeb, God called out to him: “Moses, Moses.” Even God Himself used the Egyptian name, and not the Hebrew name. It may seem strange that as Moses realized his true identity as a Hebrew and as the liberator of the Hebrews, he did not revert to his Hebrew name, but kept his Egyptian name. Such was the will of God for him.
If something has attached itself to you from some foreign source, and it feels alien and maybe even hostile to your identity, reconsider: could God be using this for His own greater glory?
Because of famine, the Hebrew people fled from the land of Israel down to Egypt. They lived well there at first, because one of their own, Joseph, the son of Jacob, had acquired, by his wisdom and effort, the confidence of the king of Egypt. But a new king, who knew nothing of Joseph, came to power in Egypt, and life for the Hebrews took a distinct turn for the worse. The Hebrews became slaves and were forced to build the supply cities of Pithom and Rameses, and their newborn males were cast into the river.
See how valuable a good reputation is! And yet Christ, who calls us to take up our cross and follow him, asks many of us to set aside our good reputations. St. Ignatius knew this well, so he gave his retreatants an exercise to make them ready for such a sacrifice, if need be. He would invite retreatants, “in order to imitate and be in reality more like Christ our Lord… [to] desire and choose… insults with Christ loaded with them, rather than honors… to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world. So Christ was treated.” Most of us aren’t on retreat right now, making the Spiritual Exercises, but all of us can find some way to loosen our grip on our own reputation, with God’s help.
Chapter 55 of the prophet Isaiah compares God’s word to the rain and the snow that come down from heaven, bringing life and moisture to the earth. Elsewhere, Psalm 65 describes how, after receiving water from heaven, the earth shouts for joy and sings God’s praises. If you are reading this blog right now, you have probably had some kind of an experience like this: you have received something from God, perhaps only a word, and it gave you life and made you want to sing God’s praises. And it made you thirsty for more. “Like a parched land my soul thirsts for you” (Psalm 143).
We all have acquaintances who are parched land but don’t realize it. They thirst, but they don’t know where to find water. They build kingdoms of dust that one day must be blown away. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24). Our desire for them is that they receive God’s word and bear fruit that will remain. God’s desire for us is the same, according to Isaiah chapter 55: “Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” May you and your loved ones receive God’s word and may it bear abundant fruit.