29 April 2016

Lord, I'm tired!

St. Catherine of Siena
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Our Lord doesn't ask much of us. Love one another. Trust one another. Believe in one another. Correct one another. Remain in his love. Write our papers. Keep his commandments. Receive his peace. Take our final exams. Teach and preach all that he has taught us. Baptize in his name. Remember him. Forgive. Show mercy. Serve. Write evaluations. Keep his word. Feed the hungry. Visit the sick and imprisoned. Mourn the dead. Bless the poor. Grade exams and papers and turn in the grades. Drive out unclean spirits. Heal the blind and crippled. Complete faculty evaluations. Deny ourselves. Pick up our crosses. Finish up paperwork for accreditation. Compose syllabi and book orders for fall of 2016. Follow him. Oh, and, at last. . .die for the love we have for him.
O Lord! I am tired. My knees are swollen! My back aches! I have calluses on both my typing fingers! My eyes itch. I haven't slept well in four days. And I'm breaking out like a high school freshman. My room looks like a FEMA camp after Katrina. And I've not done laundry since the third Sunday of Lent. . .2014. I've forgotten how to read and I can no longer do basic addition or long division. I'm tired, Lord. I'm tired. What do you have to say, Lord? “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.” Well, thank you, Lord. One thing: can you unchose me?

The answer, of course, is no. He can't. Or, he won't. He knows our limits. And the limits beyond those limits. And he knows all that we give and all that we hold back. When we've given everything we have, all that we've held back. . .he gives us a new limit and the strength to reach it. The strength he gives is not some sort of magical grace-dust or a boost of sanctifying merits. He gives us himself. He's the limit. Not as an example, or a model, or a roadmap. He is the Limit. The Omega of all our striving. Think about it. Our end, our goal – Christ himself – comes to us in our soreness and sleepiness and crabbiness and hands himself over to us so that we might be made perfect as he is perfect. The Perfection we seek surrenders himself to us, the Imperfect, and dares us to surrender ourselves to him in return. How do we accomplish this astonishing task of surrender? “This I command you: love one another.” And forgive, show mercy, preach and teach, deny yourself, and follow him. 
Looking for answers, or maybe just some small consolation, I've searched the ancient libraries of the world – Oxford, Cambridge, Rome, London, Beijing, Ole Miss. . .and I've read hundreds of books and manuscripts. Talked to masters, professors, mystics, seers, soon-to-be saints, and quite a few sinners. How do I surrender? How do I hand over my life, everything that I am to God? I found the answer. My guide: a diminutive mystic of the Thomistic kind, a fellow renowned for his wisdom, patience, and kindness. I asked him my desperate question. He hefted his walking stick. Climbed a chair. And locked his eyes with mine and said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Expecting further distinctions or a citation from the Summa, I hesitated for a moment before breaking into tears. Love, or do not love. Forgive, or do not forgive. Believe, or do not believe. There is no try. Surrender, or do not. There is no try. There is no limit to surrender in love. Love one another as Christ loves you. He will not unchose you to complete the work he has given you to do. Therefore, with sore knees, cramping fingers, grouchy disposition, blurry eyes charge head long and recklessly into the work you have to do. . .knowing, knowing that Christ is your end, and he is always with you.

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24 April 2016

Our most difficult task

5th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Of all the difficult tasks our Lord leaves us to accomplish in his name, one stands out as the most difficult. He says to his disciples, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Our Lord commands us to love one another in his name. Given that he also commands us to forgive those who offend us; to show mercy to and pray for our persecutors; to stand ready to give public witness to the faith; and to give our lives as a sacrifice for another – how is his command to love another the most difficult task he leaves us to accomplish? Loving one another is not a discreet act, a one-time deal where we rouse ourselves into action and obey his command start to finish in a single movement. Forgiving a sinner can be done in a single act. Showing mercy, praying for our enemies can be done in a single act. Dying for love of another is certainly a singular, unrepeatable act. And even if we must repeatedly forgive, show mercy, and pray for our enemies, we do so individually, serially. But loving one another cannot be accomplished so easily. Loving one another is an on-going, life-long, habit of living with your brothers and sisters in the same sort of love that Christ himself shows us. The same sort of love that leads him to the cross. . .for your sake and mine.

And what sort of love is this. . .exactly? Pope Benedict XVI writes, “By dying on the Cross. . .Jesus 'gave up his Spirit', anticipating the gift of the Holy Spirit that he would make after his Resurrection. . .The Spirit. . .is that interior power which harmonizes [believers'] hearts with Christ's heart and moves them to love their brethren as Christ loved them, when he bent down to wash the feet of the disciples and above all when he gave his life for us” (DCE 19). To obey our Lord and love as he commands, we must set aside whatever it is that prevents us from washing our brothers' and sisters' feet; whatever forbids us from serving them as the least among the Lord's children; whatever stops us from seeing in them the Christ who died for love of us all. Jesus isn't talking here about the casual acts of charity that we all do everyday. . .a dollar for the homeless guy on West End and Veterans; a bag of shirts to St. Vincent de Paul; or the extra $5 at the register for Habitat for Humanity. He's talking about the extraordinary transformation of our hearts, minds, bodies, souls, and all our strength into a life-long habit of self-sacrifice for the salvation of the world. IOW, to be and do who and what he himself is and does for us. 
Without any doubt – this is our most difficult task. One we are well-tempted to avoid. One that I myself am well-practiced at avoiding. For example. My mom is a neat freak. Her house is as organized and as clean as any Swiss museum. When my younger brother and I were in our teens, mom insisted that we make our beds before heading to school. We hated making our beds. An utterly pointless chore! So, what did we do? We half-made the beds – lumpy, crooked, creased. Mom would see the beds, sigh dramatically, and then make them up for us. Worked every time. Because of this laziness, I never learned to make a bed. I never learned to fold a fitted sheet or how to do a sharp hospital corner. To this day, my bed is a more like a pile of laundry than a proper bed. When we avoid loving one another, when we succumb to the temptation to let others love for us, or when we love thoughtlessly, causally, we deprive ourselves of the practice we need to grow in holiness, to mature into truly self-sacrificing witnesses of God's mercy. Our Lord demands of us that we take up his cross and die to self, die to selfishness, and rise again to a new life in perfect charity and peace. Christ gives us all the help we need. However, he will not make our beds for us.

Lest we fall into despair at the difficulty of our task, remember John's vision, “[God] will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. . .The One who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new.'” We never love alone, forgive alone, show mercy alone, heal, pray, sacrifice, or hope alone. He is always with us. He is always the source of the love and mercy we share among ourselves. His demands on our generosity are his due b/c we can only be generous at all b/c he was first abundantly generous with us, giving us his life on the cross and eternal life through his empty tomb. As we approach the birth of the Church on Pentecost, give thanks and praise to our Father for the gift of His Son, for the gift of His Spirit, and practice-practice-practice the difficult task of loving one another. He will always help us. But He will do it for us. He will not do it without us.

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