Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Don't Be A Cold-Blooded Killer

It is Wednesday again, and time for another thrilling instalment of the papal examen, our weekly look at the fifteen spiritual diseases Pope Francis cautioned the Roman curia against in his pre-Christmas address. I believe it is a good examination of conscience for everyone, and have taken it as such.

This address was the occasion of much fevered and at times quite ill-natured commentary and speculation on social media and regular media as well—the Pope laying into ‘those horrible people’ in the curia. The amount of snarky comments and guessing games as to which cardinals he was talking about, etc., is somewhat ironic in light of the fact that disease number nine is:

The disease of gossiping, grumbling and back-biting. I have already spoken many times about this disease, but never enough. It is a grave illness which begins simply, perhaps even in small talk, and takes over a person, making him become a “sower of weeds”(like Satan) and in many cases, a cold-blooded killer of the good name of our colleagues and confrères. It is the disease of cowardly persons who lack the courage to speak out directly, but instead speak behind other people’s backs. Saint Paul admonishes us to do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent” (Phil 2:14-15). Brothers, let us be on our guard against the terrorism of gossip!

Yes. Indeed. Let us not look to the sins and misdeeds of others as fodder for our facebook news feeds and water cooler chatter, but look to our own hearts.

Gossip is a pernicious fault of humanity, one of the hardy perennials of the human sin garden. It is, simply, talking about other people in the service of one’s own entertainment, increase in status, or (in the case of the more serious form of the sin) to maliciously harm the other.

We are not to ‘dish the dirt’ about other people. Gossip is a sin against truth, even if the content of the gossip is entirely true. Truth is meant to be spoken in love; truth is not fully true unless it is coming from a place of love and for the purpose of love. To use the truth of some other person’s lives—who they are romantically involved with, some misfortune or personal failure of theirs—as a game or sport or diversion is to reduce that person to an at best an object of fun, at worst an object of mockery and derision. At any rate, an object, and this is a violation of the whole truth of that person.

And then there is gossip which actually damages the good name of the person. This is the sin of detraction, where we disseminate negative information about a person without just cause. There are times when we have to pass on something we know about a person, and I think it should be fairly obvious to an adult of normal intelligence when those times are.

But simply blabbing about how this one is stupid and that one is short-tempered and that other one is lousy at their job—what loving purpose does that achieve? To talk about someone behind his or her back is a grave sin against charity.

Worse yet, of course, is calumny, which is knowingly spreading damaging lies about a person. I would add that passing on negative information about a person when we do not really know it to be true verges on calumny as well. It is already detraction, but the real possibility that we are incorrect in our gossip raises it to the point of that most serious sin against truth.

‘The terrorism of gossip’ – the Pope certainly does like that phrase! And it’s a strong one. I think he is trying to get people’s attention here—besides being a commonplace sort of sin (or perhaps because it is so common), gossip is a sin we like to ‘palliate’ – make little of, pretend that it is really not a big deal. Everyone does it, after all, so how bad can it be?

Well, it’s very bad. It does terrible damage to the person gossiped about, and does worse damage to the gossiper. We are meant to live in such a spirit of charity and love for one another—do we really take that seriously? We are meant to have an overflowing heart of compassion and tender care for every human being. Gossip, as far as I can see, destroys that in us like nothing else, quite.

Reducing another person to fodder for the rumour mill, victims for the arena of public exposure, the circus of the tongue, for tabloid headlines and water cooler chatter—all of this is the direct opposite of the attitude of mind and heart that is the spirit of Jesus Christ in the world.

Bottom line: we are not to talk about people behind their backs, except perhaps to praise them and extol their virtues. And Lent is a good time to examine ourselves for the sins of gossip, detraction, calumny, and bring them to confession if need be (since these are grave matters). Let us leave off this nonsensical and deeply sinful habit that is so pervasive in our world today. Amen.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A Question of Love

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love... love... love, never counting the cost.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House

Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me. We are going through the Little Mandate of MH each Tuesday on the blog, phrase by phrase. These are words that Catherine received, we believe from God, in the 1930s when she was discerning His call in her life. They are the heart of our spirituality, what we try to live and believe we are called to be and do in the world.

Here we have, appropriately for Lent, the call to take up the Cross and follow Christ. Catherine was initially disconcerted by this as it is different from what is in the Scriptures. Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow Him—the personal share of suffering or struggle we bear both as human beings living in a fallen world and as men and women striving to live the Gospel of love in that world.

Here, though, it is His cross, and the cross of the poor, that we are being asked to carry. Perhaps these are not greatly different things in lived reality, but there is a focus here in the Mandate that is worth pondering.

We are called to bear not only our own sufferings, but those of the suffering humanity. We are not meant to be defined by our own joys and sorrows, problems and challenges and gifts, but to always be broken open to the other, to the poor one before us, to the sorrows of humanity, be it the suffering people of Syria or Ukraine, or the neighbour down the street.

We are to carry their cross as well as our own, Simon of Cyrene-like in the world. And in that we find ourselves carrying the Cross of Jesus Christ as well—His own offering of Himself for the world and all humanity. Without doubt we carry the tiniest sliver of this weight; He alone, being God, carries the whole of it.

We think, perhaps understandably, of this whole cross-carrying business as a heavy, burdensome, sad, frightening thing. There is no question about the heaviness of it. And fear—well, we’re only human, and to fear suffering is not exactly something that needs an explanation. But it is not a sad reality—that is where the difference comes in.

Taking up ‘My cross (their cross)’ is not, fundamentally, a question of suffering first. It is a question of loving, not suffering. And love, while it is a heavy burden, is not a sad thing. What makes our lives sad is not the suffering we bear in them because of our love; our lives our made sad by selfishness, not love.

It is closing our hearts to others and (in that) to God that extinguishes the light within us and makes us grim functionaries or tragic failures. This is the secret of the cross, and it is impossible to communicate it in words alone. It has to be known experientially, and even then its secret is communicated in great hiddenness and silence.

‘The secret of the Cross is joy,’ Catherine wrote. And it is the joy of being a great lover—lover of God and lover of humanity. And this is what is at the heart of the Little Mandate—the heart of the Gospel, too. “I have come that my joy may be in you, and your joy be made complete.” (John 15: 11)

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Lord Heard the Voice of Their Pleas

To you, O Lord, I call; my rock, be not deaf to me,
lest, if you be silent to me,
I become like those who go down to the pit.

Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help,
when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.
Do not drag me off with the wicked, with the workers of evil,
who speak peace with their neighbours while evil is in their hearts.

Give to them according to their work and according to the evil of their deeds;
give to them according to the work of their hands;
render them their due reward.
Because they do not regard the works of the Lord or the work of his hands,
he will tear them down and build them up no more.

Blessed be the Lord!
For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts, and I am helped;
my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.

The Lord is the strength of his people;
he is the saving refuge of his anointed.
Oh, save your people and bless your heritage!
Be their shepherd and carry them forever.
Psalm 28

Reflection – Another Monday, another psalm. This one is a classic example of a typical genre of psalmody—the cry for help in desperate circumstances. There are many such in the psalter, a reminder that the psalms were not written by powerful people in a place of mastery, but by a small beleaguered tribe surrounded by stronger tribes, more often than not at war or threatened by war from them.

We cannot read a psalm like this today without thinking of our brother and sister Christians in the Middle East particularly, living literally with a knife at their throats from the terrorism and barbarous violence of ISIS. We can, and must pray for our fellow Christians who are facing persecution and martyrdom in large numbers.

I have never been fond of the use of the word ‘persecution’ by Christians in North America to describe our current situation. To have someone say something nasty to you about your faith, or to be surrounded by a cultural ethos and messaging that it antithetical to ones faith is unpleasant, for sure, but it is not persecution.

Persecution is having your church burned down by a mob, having to flee your village or your country at the threat of your life, having your throat slit and your head cut off. That is persecution, not simply someone being rude to us about our beliefs.

On a lower level it is also being forced out of one’s job for one’s beliefs—for example, one of the drafters of the new proposed ‘conscience’ policy for the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons suggested that doctors who have moral objections to providing or referring for abortions should simply not practice medicine. So far this policy has not been adopted, but if it is adopted, in essence faithful Catholics and others whose religious or moral beliefs forbids abortion will not be allowed to be doctors in Ontario.

So this psalm has its place in our lives, even though we really must be clear—we pray this psalm in union with and as an intercession for those members of the Body of Christ who are actually facing death for their beliefs. And in that praying there is a great call to faith and hope. The 21 men who were killed, for example, and who have already been declared martyrs of the faith by the Egyptian Coptic Church, have indeed won a great victory, have indeed been delivered from the hands of their enemies.

The Lord heard their cry for mercy and help, and came to their rescue, not to save their mortal lives, true, but to establish them in his kingdom forever. And this perspective is necessary for all of us—what it means to be delivered from evil and to triumph over those who would harm us. Our victory over the world and over evil is our perseverance in faith, hope, and love—not some passing temporal success.

So… let us pray for one another and all those who are facing terrible danger and suffering on account of their faith for any reason, that we may all keep faith with the God who keeps faith with us. Amen.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

This Week in Madonna House, February 21-27

Well, I'm writing this from Mississauga, Ontario, a rather booming city flush next to Toronto, where I am going to be giving a parish mission this coming week at St. Ignatius of Loyola parish. I am grateful for all prayers for that event.

Our week at MH continued to be marked by fairly severe cold--it was -35 C when I got up yesterday, and while that's the coldest we've hit, it's been pretty much down in that range almost every day for the past month. So, lots of the work for the men in particular has been at the most basic level of keeping the place warm by delivering loads of firewood to pretty much all of our buildings. This is of course the season to be providing the firewood for next winter as well, so a crew of guys are out in the bush, felling, bucking, sorting, chopping, so that the wood will have a full year to dry before we burn it.

It is worth mentioning that MH works the bush in an environmentally sensitive way. We have enough forested property that we never have to clear-cut, or even come anywhere near to that, but simply rotate around the various locations culling the mature trees so that the younger ones have room to grow. If you know what you're doing, and do it right (and our men are very experienced and capable in this matter) you can harvest firewood from the bush forever. It is... what's the word... oh yeah, sustainable.

So that's going on. Lent continues its course among us. We have among our guests a young woman who is not baptized and has requested to be received into the Church this Easter here. So we began the formal rites of the RCIA this past Sunday with the Rite of Election. It is a simple, but very beautiful ritual, whereby the Church, in the person of the celebrant of the rite, formally declares that this person has been chosen ('elected') to be a candidate for baptism, confirmation, and eucharist at the coming Easter Vigil.

This is always a great joy for us in MH, recalling us to our own baptismal commitment as we journey as a community with this person. Unlike the parish setting where you see the catechumen(s) on Sunday and may not see them otherwise unless you are personally involved with them or the program, we get to spend the whole week working, eating, recreating alongside our catechumen. So we have lots of chances to either help the catechumen with our good example... or not, as the case may be!

We are reading a wonderful new book for spiritual reading. Well, new to us anyhow--the book dates from 1978. It is To Believe in Jesus, by Ruth Burrows, the English Carmelite author. She writes in deliberately provocative style about the nature of faith, the reality that we quite often do not believe what we say we believe, since our lives do not show forth the works faith should engender, and goes into the profound mystery of who Jesus is and what it means to put our trust in him. It is all written in the elegant and accessible English prose those familiar with Burrows' writings would expect. It has certainly been provoking good discussion and reflection among us, and I recommend the book highly.

Our Directors General--Susanne Stubbs, Mark Schlingerman, Fr. David May--have left on visitation to three of our mission houses, the 'Eastern houses' as we call them of Washington DC, Roanoke VA, and Raleigh NC. Meanwhile I am not the only priest running about doing missions and such. Lent is the season for such things, and so one of my brothers is giving a weekend to the seminarians of St. Augustine's in Toronto while another is giving a diocesan women's retreat in nearby Maynooth.

I should mention in closing that this week in Madonna House I am being relieved of one of my jobs (and yes, the word 'relief' is quite appropriate in this context!), in that I am completing my term as the assistant to the director general of priests, and being replaced in that capacity by one of my brother priests. I'll still be his replacement for the times when both he and Fr. May are away, but otherwise I have one less thing to worry about now.

And there were a few transfers announced this week--staff being moved from one house to another--but since it is my policy to not mention names of MH people on this blog, you'll have to read about it elsewhere, those of you who know the community personally.

And that's about it - still a fairly quiet and indoorsy time of year in MH with the late winter cold and all that. Easter preparations are looming, mind you, and spring is (at times) in the air even in the midst of the deep freeze. Know that we keep you all in our prayers, always, and the whole world waiting for the great Spring of hope and love that it needs so badly.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Madonna House Movie VII: Restoring the Earth

Thursday again, and so time for another thrilling installment in the franchise of MH short films. I'm posting a bit later in the day than usual, as I had some (routine) blood work at the hospital this morning. I have found that, while I can blog when half-asleep, I cannot blog half asleep without coffee. So here we are - enjoy the show:

This is just about my favourite of all twelve of the films. For one thing, it is beautiful - tons of beauty shots of our MH farm, which is an utterly gorgeous place. Lots of shots of cows and horses, sheep and chickens, and green gardens, pastures, hills. All just lovely - we are so very blessed to be living in such a place of God's created order and grace.

But I think the film does a very good job of giving at least a sense of our whole MH approach to the question of the earth and our care for it. We were environmentalists here long before it was a fashionable stance, long before anyone had any concern about global warming or whatever they're calling it these days.

And our approach to these matters are completely unconnected, then, to the fierce debates and raging conflicts around AGW, etc. If tomorrow there is conclusive proof that the AGW is false; or if tomorrow there is conclusive proof that it is true, it will not affect in any regard how we live our life in MH.

Because here, we have always cared for the earth. Here, we have always tried to use as little as we can, and to farm in a sustainable way, to compost and recycle, reuse and make do. We live on donations--every article of clothing I am currently wearing is second-hand! We do not use herbicides, pesticides, hormones. We do use chemical fertilizer, but even the most strong advocates of organic farming have conceded to us that we need to do that to get crops off the poor marginal soil of these parts.

But beyond the specifics, the MH approach to farming and the earth is one of knowing ourselves to be in relationship with creation, to dig our hands into the soil, to pull weeds and plant vegetables. To move through the year of plowing and tilling, planting and watering, weeding and thinning, reaping and storing, and to do it all again the next year, and the one after that, and then again...

There is something that happens to you when you live close to the earth, some way of being tuned in to God and his plan for creation in the natural order that blends easily with his plans in the supernatural order. So many things fall into place, and so much of our fractured, failing humanity falls into place as well.

Well, that is enough for now - watch the video, and enjoy it. We believe in MH that we have a key here, in the way we farm and the way we live, that addresses much of the anguished questions and turmoil of our times, and is a great healing for humanity and for our poor beleaguered planet.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Perils of Living a Double Life

It is Wednesday, and time then for our weekly journey through the ‘papal examen’, the Pope’s Christmas talk to the Roman Curia that is such a good examination of conscience for all of us. We are now at disease number eight of fifteen, which is:

The disease of existential schizophrenia. This is the disease of those who live a double life, the fruit of that hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and of a progressive spiritual emptiness which no doctorates or academic titles can fill.

It is a disease which often strikes those who abandon pastoral service and restrict themselves to bureaucratic matters, thus losing contact with reality, with concrete people. In this way they create their own parallel world, where they set aside all that they teach with severity to others and begin to live a hidden and often dissolute life. For this most serious disease conversion is most urgent and indeed indispensable (cf. Lk 15:11-32).

Clearly we are in serious territory here. Hypocrisy is the great charge levelled by those who are not religious against religious people. It is perhaps a bit over-done sometimes; after all, hardly anyone completely lives up to the tenets and high moral standards of what they believe, and it is not ‘hypocrisy’ to simply be a struggling sinner. Hypocrisy enters in when one puts on an outward show of virtue or claims holiness for oneself while living something very different. Nevertheless, it is an accusation not without some truth.

We have to be vigilant. I say I believe ‘x’. Why am I doing ‘y’, which is inconsistent with that? The Pope is referring to, I gather, very real corruption and dissolute lifestyles that can and possibly do exist in high places in the Church; I will not comment on that, neither knowing about it nor considering that this is any of my or your business.

But on a lower level, this is a problem which can and at least incipiently does afflict all of us. Toleration of habitual sin in ourselves, for example, is the beginnings of this existential schizophrenia. A ‘double life’ for me may not mean that I’m secretly keeping a wife and three children in a suburb of Toronto (I’m not), but it may mean that there are small corners of my life that I have simply reserved as the personal property of Fr. Denis Lemieux, and in which poverty, chastity, and obedience are not welcome. It can be small things, insidious things, perhaps not even things that rise to the level of sin per se, but nonetheless have that quality of doubleness, of duplicity.

We say we believe in Jesus Christ. This statement of faith calls us to a radical belonging to Christ, a radical submission to His Word. To say I believe in Christ but then turn and say ‘But I won’t forgive the person who hurt me!’ or ‘But I won’t take the lowest place’ or ‘But I won’t acknowledge Him before men’ (or any other direct flouting of the precepts of the Gospel) is to live in a perilous state of  “mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness,” as the Holy Father so pithily puts it.

Well, it’s Lent, isn’t it? Good time to review all these matters and make some changes. I think there are few of us who could say with a straight face that we always and everywhere live out our faith by doing exactly what the Lord Jesus commands us in His Gospel. And those who do—well, you are the saints of God, so please pray for us struggling sinners, eh?

And really, let’s pray for one another in this. There is a terrible hampering of the Church’s evangelical work in this. People, when they look at how Catholics live, cannot tell that there’s any great difference between them and anyone else. This must not be. The Gospel is so radical that, if we say we believe it and are even trying to live it, our lives should look different, don’t you think? We should at least be puzzling to people, don’t you think?

Let us pray for one another, and above all let us ask the Lord to make us more faithful to Him and live with a deeper integrity, a deeper purity of heart, seeking to please God and not ourselves or others in all things.