Looking Up

This time of year always makes me think of the early followers of Jesus. Perhaps it is the combination of Easter, new life, springtime, and allergies. Trust me, it’s all connected in my head.

The readings for this season are all about those early days, how an experience of God-through-Jesus led people to faith. There are stories about how those experiences led to inclusion, exclusion, joy, and suffering. How persecution gives way to stronger faith and how conversion leads to a paradigm shift that gives the early church new leadership.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about the movie Paul, Apostle of Christ(which is well worth seeing). The article cited a remarkable fact: when Paul died in A.D. 67, there were 2,500 Christians. By the year 350, there were 34 million. Think about that for a second. In a time when you would be killed for professing faith in the Risen Jesus, the Good News spread, more people came to faith than left it, and the church flourished.

Then Constantine came along and institutionalized the faith into religion and things have never quite been the same. It seems we might have been better off when we had to tell the story than when we were allowed to tell the story. More on that another time.

This week, we will read about those early followers standing alone, looking at the sky, waiting for Jesus to return. They did not know when he would return, only that he had promised to return. So they stood there, staring at the sky, missing life around them.

The family continued our trek through the Marvel movies this weekend with Dr. Strange. In some ways, it was a typical superhero story: an overachieving protagonist is really a jerk at his core, arrogant and narcissistic. Then his world comes crashing down and he comes face to face with the one incontrovertible fact we all face at some point: life is not all about you. That new perspective requires a basic change in position. We no longer live for ourselves. We live for others.

The early followers figured this out. For them, it was never about gathering for Mass, making sure it only lasted an hour and then screaming at each other when one donkey cut another donkey off in the first-century parking lot. No, it was about serving others in the name of Jesus. It was telling the Jesus story. It was about the family meal where we remembered the sacrifice and sacred instruction. It was about taking care of the widows and orphans, the least among us, and caring for the basic needs in society. There was no right or left, only the Christ I see in you – and that required an action. It required selflessness. It required love.

Spoiler alert: the Jesus story still requires all those things. If only we could stop staring at the sky and get to work.

~pjd

Losing Our Way

Like many people, I use Waze to help me get from point A to point B. I call the disembodied voice Gladys and, most of the time, she is very helpful.

Last week, I was headed to a parish I had not visited before. I could see it. I knew in my gut it was a left turn ahead and not a right turn. But Gladys kept telling me to turn right, so I did. My instincts, it turned out, were correct. Gladys was wrong.

As I pulled into a driveway and turned around, it made me wonder why I listen to the voice coming from my phone more than I listen to the voice inside my own head. I thought about all this again on Thursday as the young people from my class at Sacred Heart University circled the neighborhood looking for our house. I had invited them over to watch A Man for All Seasons as we ended the semester but I finally had to send two of the children outside to flag some of them down.

You see, when the neighborhood was built, the new homes were mostly for executives from General Electric and everyone got to choose their own house numbers. I am not kidding. We live at 301 but 305 is across the street. 87 is roughly seven houses away and is next door to 228. There are not “evens on this side and odds on that side.” Nope, it’s a big hot mess. I will admit, however, that it is fun to watch the substitute UPS driver try to figure it out. Apparently, the personal assistants the students were using could not figure it out either and so the children were sent to flag them down.

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6) And yet, we often give more authority to our smartphones (which are making us dumber, some would argue), or the television (real news vs. fake news), or the people around us (even if ill-informed). We live in a world where it will soon be possible to animate a real person and have that person appear to say things the person never actually said. Think about that. You could be watching television and think you are watching the Pope or the President or the leader of another country giving a speech when, in reality, the words are made up to incite others, not inform them. To echo Mark Twain, that false account will likely get around the world much faster than the truth.

Jesus is the way to God, the way to peace, the way to life eternal. No hacker or virus or false media report can make that less true. It is the Truth to which we must be converted so absolutely that it dominates our every thought, word, and deed.

This week, I will silence the voices around me – in my car, on my phone, and in my head – and listen to the Truth I learned long ago. Might I challenge you to do the same?

May your week be blessed.

-pjd

Converted

On Friday this week, we hear about the conversion of St. Paul.

I love that at the root of his faith is his experience.

His conversion experience is so powerful it becomes his whole life, his whole world. It defines his reality. The institutional church makes him a hero. In reality, he is a rebel. Paul doesn’t go along with the parameters; he sets the parameters.

He trusts his experience. It is not an “outer” authority with which he speaks, but an “inner” authority. So convinced is Paul of his conversion experience, he gives himself the title, apostle to the gentiles. Apostle: a title reserved in those early days for those who had experienced the risen Jesus.

Both Jesus and Paul trust their experience of God against the tradition. Over time, the institutional church takes the experience of both and domesticates it. There has to be a balance, I think, between trusting our “inner” authority and falling over into relativism.

There’s room for the “outer” authority, to be sure. But I don’t think we should be on bended knee before it either. I think we should behave as those who know something deep within – an experience of a God who won’t let go, no matter what.

In Galatians 2, Paul says quite clearly, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me…”

Powerful words. Such was Paul’s experience that he understood – before Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John ever told him – the death of Jesus was Paul’s own death to sin. One death for all.

So strong was the bond for Paul that it was not his words changing lives, but Christ’s. Not his actions, saving souls, but the resurrected Jesus’, now confessed as Christ.

For Paul, life became all about participation in the Body of Christ. We no longer live in the world and go to Church, rather we live as Church and go out to the world. It’s a basic change in position and it can only happen after we’ve been thrown to the ground and converted.

And what’s the opposite of participation?

Control.

Think about it. Do we participate or do we control?

I really do love St. Paul.

~pjd

Twins

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows that I have an affinity for good old Thomas. I get Thomas. I knew we would hear about him this week, just like we do every year around Easter. So I was prepared.

I even talked to a friend at work about Thomas on Friday afternoon. He’s a deacon and was preparing his Sunday homily. Lucky for me, we get to talk about such things at work and so Thomas came up in the conversation. As you know, Thomas was not present when Jesus first appears to the disciples. They were locked in the upper room for fear of the Jews. Thomas simply was not there.

Did you ever stop to think why? Where was he? Doing laundry? Catching up on some sleep (Easter can be exhausting)? Visiting his family?

The truth is, we do not know. What we do know is that in John 11:16, it is Thomas who says to the others, Let us also go, that we may die with him,” as Jesus works to convince his followers that they must return to Judea. He does not hesitate, this Thomas. If suffering is what Jesus has to endure, then let us go and endure it with him. They are, the story says, on their way back because Lazarus has died. So Thomas, presumably, knows what Jesus is capable of doing.

So where is he on that “evening of the first day of the week,” while the others were locked in a room, trembling with fear.

Could it be that he was not afraid?

Could it be that, even after all that he had seen and experienced, he trusted Jesus and knew the work must continue?

Assuming I am correct and Thomas was out and about telling the Jesus-story. Why does he doubt when the others tell him that Jesus had visited?

Perhaps the answer is in his name.

Thomas is called Didymus. It’s the Greek word for Twin. But whose twin?

Could it be – is it possible – that you and I are the twins of Thomas? Could it be that the name is given to those who struggle and wonder and doubt, even though the answer is right in front of them?

Could it be that, even after all the goodness and holiness and wonder and awe we experience, we still question if Jesus is present.

“My Lord and my God.” My everything. My master. My teacher. My witness. My ruler, leader, superior, monarch, sovereign, and king.

It is the cry of one who is – and was – faithful, but just forgets now and then to really see.

~pjd

Best Dad Ever

The title of this entry comes from the birthday card my youngest made for me. She is known for her brutal honesty, so I am taking her words for Gospel.

Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He is the patron saint of fathers (Joseph is also patron saint of the Universal Church, families, fathers, expectant mothers (pregnant women), travelers, immigrants, house sellers and buyers, craftsmen, engineers, and working people in general), so he and I share a bond. I don’t have any kids like Jesus, but they try.

Since yesterday was my birthday, the children were extra well behaved. The yelling was limited only to the moments when child number three hit child number four (two times) or when child number two “tripped” on child number three’s outstretched leg (only once). They made cards and gave me a wrapped package of Junior Mints. They used money I had given them for when they go to town after play practice, so technically, I think I bought the Junior Mints.

We had our standard dad’s birthday dinner of chicken, mashed potatoes, and broccoli. Apparently, I thought we were having company because I have enough mashed potatoes for a week.

Maureen made sure I got to spend the entire day with the kids and enjoy their company all by myself, having gotten herself checked into the hospital on St. Patrick’s Day. She’s still there, hooked up to pain meds for some mysterious illness that has her doubled over in pain. I told the children she probably forgot to buy me a present.

Nothing is recorded in Scriptures about St. Joseph’s words to his family. He gets a message in a dream, but even the Blessed Mother gets to speak once in a while. And yet, he is a model for fathers everywhere. There’s a lesson in there, albeit an ironic one, about who gets to talk and who gets to listen.

This week, be like Joseph and listen more. Speak less. Work hard. And, like Joseph certainly did for Jesus, teach your children well.

St. Joseph, patron of best dads everywhere, pray for us.

~pjd

A Good Measure

In this morning’s Gospel reading, our instructions are pretty clear.

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

But what is mercy? Patience? Kindness? Forgiveness? Compassion? Can I be full of mercy and not really like somebody? Can I have patience, but not with everyone? About this kindness thing, just how kind are we talking?

“Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.”

Okay, this is getting trickier. I am going to need to think more about this. I am an expert judge when it comes to other people. 

“Forgive and you will be forgiven.”

Not a problem. My wife is always saying that she is impressed with my capacity to forgive. I do not do a great job of forgetting, however, so I could work on that. A friend told me recently that real forgiveness is choosing to love. It is remembering that the reason you first loved someone is greater than your righteous anger.

“Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.”

This is good news. I like when the Gospels talk about gifts. I like getting gifts. I like giving gifts. I think I am a pretty generous person. It’s nice to know that some of that generosity might be coming back my way…though I guess that is not really the point, is it?

“For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

If this means, “what goes around comes around,” I might be in serious trouble.

Perhaps this week I will try very hard not to judge, to stop condemning (even people who might deserve it….there I go again) and to give more generously, forgive more easily, and come to understand more completely what it means to be merciful.

(sigh)

Lent is hard.

~pjd

Evil Around Us

In this morning’s Gospel reading (Mark 5:1-20), we see that great scene in which Jesus is confronted by a man “with an unclean spirit” and, after a brief conversation (“Legion is my name. There are many of us.”), Jesus commands the unclean spirit to enter the swineherd, which then run off the cliff and drown themselves.

I would imagine it was quite a dramatic scene, especially with all the dead pigs now in the water, but if we stop and think about it, there is – as always – more to the story.

What do we do with the evil around us? The gossip? The secrets we cannot seem to keep? The opportunities to talk badly about those around us? The countless chances to be mean or ignore a chance for mercy in favor of our own idea of justice?

Do we command the evil spirits to be gone or do we join in? Do we give the evil spirits a place to live or do we send them packing?

There is never a swineherd around when you need one, but maybe this week, we can make a conscious effort to send the evil away and choose to live the Jesus way.

Give me strength, O Lord.

Words to Live By

Politics is in the news these days and whether you live in a red or blue state, vote right or left and somewhere in the middle, it is hard to avoid the noise coming out of the nation’s capital.

When I was in the Holy Land, the Dominican who guided us said something that has been on my mind these last few days. As we visited the Mount of Beatitudes, he asked the group if we could recite any words to the US Constitution. A few knew how it started, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense….” Then the voices trailed off.

Though no one could say much more, we knew the gist of it and could certainly explain what the Constitution did, its place in history, and why it was still important.

But that Father Paul threw us a curve. How many could recite the Beatitudes? We had just read Matthew 5:3-12 and yet few of us could remember more than a few of the eight in the list.

“We remember what guides a country, but not what guides our faith,” Father Paul challenged. He likened the Beatitudes to our own constitution. That got me thinking. By definition, a constitution is “a body of fundamental principles or established precedents,” so doesn’t it stand to reason that the Beatitudes are just that – fundamental principles of our Catholic faith?

Take some time this week and read Matthew, chapter five. See how many you can commit to memory (I’m up to six). Think about what each teaches. Imagine what it must have been like to be challenged by those words two thousand years ago.

As the good bishop, Fulton Sheen, once said, “If you do not live what you believe, you will end up believing what you live.” Maybe living what we believe begins with knowing what we believe.

Now there’s a lesson our politicians could certainly use.

~pjd

 

(photo taken looking from the Church of the Beatitudes down the mountain)

Death at the Cemetery

I returned from a week in Bethlehem, Galilee, Nazareth, and Jerusalem on Saturday night and will be processing the journey for some time. It was a powerful trip, especially because I participated with twenty young adults and our bishop. Reading the Scriptural passages, studying them, and then visiting the physical places is a powerful way to make your way through the Holy Land and, as with any pilgrimage, some moments stand out more than others. There will be time, in the coming weeks, to share more of what we experienced. For me, though, it was the unexpected moments that were the most emotional.

On Tuesday, as we hiked up the hill towards the Chapel of the Milk Grotto in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories, we noticed a large group of women coming down the hill. They were all in black and heading into a church. Not being familiar with our destination, I assumed they were heading the same place we were going. But then, many paces behind them, came the men. The first one was carrying a lid to a coffin and it became clear pretty quickly what was going on. The men were carrying the body of an old man, laid out in a coffin and surrounded by flowers. Then came another group of women, many sobbing. We stood silently on the side of a very small road, trying to push ourselves aside for the procession to pass. As they headed into the Coptic Orthodox Church, I found myself praying for the deceased and his family. It was a stark reminder that life falls over into death, even in the holiest of sites.

The following day, we were outside the Eastern Wall of Jerusalem, which faces the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley. On one side of the hill is an enormous Jewish cemetery. On the other side, nearest the Eastern Wall, is a Muslim cemetery. Both are hundreds of years old and yet still in use. We saw one family gathered at the grave in the Jewish cemetery, placing stones on the grave of their loved one, presumably marking a birthday or anniversary. We made our way down the hill from the Garden of Gethsemane and wandered through the Muslim cemetery so we could more closely touch the Eastern Walls surrounding Jerusalem, which have stood since the time of Jesus. As Fr. Paul, our guide, was speaking, a group of men walked in haste towards us. “Stay where you are,” Fr. Paul whispered into our headphones. As the group came closer, I could see that the man in the front of the crowd was carrying a body.

It was child.

No box. No coffin. Just a father carrying his child, presumably wrapped in the traditional white linens, though we could only see the green blanket wrapped around the outside. If I had to guess, I would say the child was no more than five or six years old. The pained look on the man’s expression was one of emptiness, unimaginable grief, and yet a look of purpose. The tradition is to bury the dead within a day, but not after sundown. It was obvious this was a recent death and so the group moved with precision, past the onlookers, and towards the grave.

I stood and wondered. Was it a boy? A girl? Had he been sick? Was it an accident? Why the hurry? These questions haunted me all day and into the night, as the rest of the pilgrims shared their reactions, prayers, questions, and thoughts as we gathered for our regular time of sharing that night. As I went to bed, I prayed for the family of that child, the repose of the soul of that child, and fell asleep thinking about my own children six thousand miles away.

Then, around 4 am, I woke up with a start. I don’t know what made me wake up, but as I sat up in bed, a thought occurred to me. Maybe the father was hurrying because he had other children at home. He had a wife he was anxious to get home to. He had responsibilities waiting. Outside the cemetery, life was waiting. It was a strange experience in so many ways.

In the United States, we have sanitized death, commercialized it even. We have rituals, a timeline, showrooms for caskets, and budgets. There is a beauty in all of this, to be sure. There is also a beauty in hastily taking the dead to their resting place, giving him or her back to God, and getting back to life. Even after leaving the cemetery, that father will carry the child with him forever. That’s how fatherhood works.

I know, too, that I will carry the image of that scene with me for some time. It is an image not on my camera, but embedded in my mind. I will continue to pray for that child, those men, that family. Religious views may divide us, but that man and I are fathers and I pray with all my heart, I never feel his pain.

May your week be filled with holy sights.

Consequences

I have had a great blessing these past few days to be walking in the footsteps of our Lord.  From the Church of the Nativity to the  waters of the Jordan to the wedding feast at Cana,  The young adults on pilgrimage, Bishop Caggiano, and I have had the great privilege of reflecting on Scriptures and then visiting these holy sites.

In our reflections last night, after praying at the Church of the Annunciation, the group discussed the consequences of saying yes. Yes to pilgrimage. Yes God. Yes to Jesus. Yes to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives.

Each and every day, the choice is made. Each and every moment, we find ourselves challenged to do what is right, what is holy, what is good.  There is indeed a consequence of being a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.

As Mary tells the servants in the Gospel story, “Do whatever He tells you.”

Accepting the invitation to discipleship changes everything.

What is Jesus asking of you this week?

-pjd