Food in the Desert

It started in a desert.

After weeks of fasting, stripping down to spiritual and physical emptiness, Jesus is tempted to use his divinity to serve his hunger. (Matthew 4)

“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.”
(As if he would use his power for such a cheap trick!)

“He replied: ‘It is written that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”

To listen ardently for every word God speaks to us: this is what we hunger for but are mostly unaware and untaught to realize. It takes time, effort and grace to realize that only God can satisfy our needs. The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want!

The ancient Jews, rescued from slavery in Egypt, were led grumbling and ungratefully into a harsh desert. They even preferred the false comfort of three squares a day to what Moses offered. Their Egyptian rulers were tyrants, but at least they had been fed. Now, it seemed, they would surely not survive this trek to an uncertain Promised Land.

But God showed his mercy by impossibly sending meat and bread to these former slaves. And even more miraculously, he sent them water from a rock.

Jesus used the power of these images some time later in his ministry, as he taught about the Kingdom. By this time, every word from his mouth could have filled them with the richest banquet. All they had to do was open their mouths to receive it. If only they – or we – could be like squawking nestlings, screaming to be fed this food!

Jesus took pity on the crowds who were lost, like sheep without a shepherd. He intimately knew their bodily and spiritual hunger, and showed them his desire to feed them, even more wonderfully than their ancestors had been.

He tells us it is not Moses, teacher of the Law, who can give us this perfect food. No, it is himself, the very Word of God, who gives us, through Love, his own self, his own sacrifice. He gives us not just the temporary life that the Law gives, but eternal life through the perfect Love he teaches and exemplifies.

All we need to do is to desire and accept this food, this Word. God does all the rest.

clouds dawn desert landscape

 

What Is the New Evangelization?

The term “New Evangelization” is heard in many Catholics circles today, but what exactly does it mean?

An easy search on the internet will turn up many insights in answer to this question. Focus, a site sponsored by Catholic University (see footnote for link *) gives a very clear answer which I’ve modified slightly in the following paragraphs.

“It is believed that Saint John Paul II first used the term in 1983 in an address to Latin American Bishops. He would later bring this term to the attention of the entire Church.
Perhaps the most clear definition of the New Evangelization is in his encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, where John Paul II describes three different situations for teaching the Gospel (evangelization), as described below:

“Mission ad gentes: Latin for “to the nations.” This is a situation where Christ and his Gospel are not known. It is what we commonly think of as the work of our foreign missions where Christianity may be first introduced.

“Christian communities: these are the communities where the Church carries out her activity and pastoral care – i.e., the parish church you and I attend every Sunday. This involves teaching the Gospel to people who are currently and faithfully connected with a Christian church (even if often superficially).

“Candidates for the New Evangelization: St. John Paul II refers to situations where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even those who no longer consider themselves members of the Church, living far removed from Christ and his Gospel. These are people we commonly refer to as having ‘fallen away’ or ‘lapsed.’

“The New Evangelization addresses the spiritual needs of this last group in particular.”

The Focus website further quotes Pope St. John Paul II:

“I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization [to lapsed Catholics] and to the mission ad gentes [to foreign missions]. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio).

“To this end, it is more necessary than ever for all the faithful to move from a faith of habit, sustained perhaps by social context alone, to a faith which is aware and personally lived. The renewal of [one’s own] faith will always be the best way to lead others to the Truth that is Christ.” [My emphasis.] (John Paul II, Ecclesia in America).

A faith of habit; a faith that has not grown much beyond one’s last formal instruction, probably since grade school. These are the faithful indeed, insofar as going to church every Sunday; never missing major feasts such as Ash Wednesday, Easter, or Christmas, but who possibly have not yet heard their personal call to discipleship and dedication to the revolutionary teachings of the Gospel.

Nevertheless, according to John Paul, it falls to this group (you and me) to pay the needed attention to the third group. Since everyone knows someone who was once baptized but who no longer practices the faith, Saint John Paul II wanted these, the “faithful,” to clearly recognize this problem and then try to solve it.

John Paul realized that in order to carry out such a special mission, the “faithful” need to be sufficiently knowledgeable and inspired to do so. They need to grow in their faith, in the Gospel teachings, in order to channel the Holy Spirit in drawing back to the Church those who have fallen away.

Put another way, it means that Catholics today need to go beyond what they’ve been comfortable with for many generations. We need to respond to the call to holiness as taught by Vatican II. We need to listen to the counsel of theologian Karl Rahner who boldly stated that the Christian of today must be a “mystic.” That is, our main and ever-present aim in life is to live out the Gospel of love as taught and exemplified by Jesus Christ. The faithful Christian needs to live a life of constant and ever deepening prayer. We Christians today must wake up from spiritual complacency, and become ever more aware of how, through the Holy Spirit, we can affect the world around us.

One problem remains. How many baptized Catholics have left the Church because of its perceived attitude toward women, minorities, gays and often, frankly, the laity in general? How do we explain refusing Communion to people who attend another church, when our Lord prayed and gave his life for unity? We, the faithful, are neither equipped nor authorized to explain these difficult questions.

But we’re not expected, not told, to explain or defend these issues. No. Our task is even more important as well as more difficult.

Our task is to recognize that we are channels for the Holy Spirit, called to help the Spirit accomplish this heroic task. Our channels – our hearts and souls – must be totally clear, unclogged, and open to others. In the words of our Savior:

So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)

Christ is visible to others only insofar as we allow him to be seen in us.

* https://focusoncampus.org/content/what-is-the-new-evangelization-the-answer-might-surprise-you

The Joy of Evangelization

When I was miraculously (yes, miraculously) brought back to the Church, I experienced a sense of what can only be described as true joy.

I know there are many who would be puzzled by this. We’re aware of so many flaws existing in the institutional church. How can one be happy (much less joyful) to be brought back to this historically flawed institution?

Amazing, right? This seems impossible, because we expect perfection in any organization that’s dedicated to the precious person of Christ. These perceptions reflect, I’ve discovered, a serious absence of understanding.

Take this Sunday’s Gospel of Mark (6:1-6a).

Jesus has come back to Nazareth, his native place, intending to teach in the Synagogue. The reaction to him is, in the vernacular, “Who does he think he is? He’s no better than us. He hasn’t had any special instruction, so how can he talk about wisdom? He comes from a common family whom we see every day, and his relatives aren’t that great either.”

Like so many of us, the Nazarenes looked at the messenger and ignored the message. Jesus had something remarkable to teach them, if they had only been open and non-judgmental. He had been given the assignment when he was baptized by John in the Jordan, participating with (let’s not forget) a bunch of sinners. What he heard as he emerged from the waters was the divine call to teach, which is what prophets do. This is my beloved Son; listen to him. Jesus cemented his resolve by spending 40 days in the desert, alone except for beasts and angels: one side against the other, leaving him to discern the message he was to teach: The kingdom of God is near. Indeed it was. It was especially present in this new Prophet from Nazareth.

Unfortunately, many of us have become jaded, unimpressed, empty of wonder at the message of God, delivered through this divine Prophet. Yes, the Church has a history of imperfect behaviors. But what is its message?

Through all its human failings, the Church has continued to deliver the message: God IS; Christ IS; the Gospel IS. There are no teachings that can surpass the one commandment that Jesus constantly repeated as the most important: Love one another. Love covers a multitude of sins.

And there’s St. Paul in this Sunday’s letter, begging God to take all sense of pride and elation from him. Of course Paul was elated to have been allowed to teach the gospel, to Evangelize.

But God knows how to keep us humble as he allows us to struggle against egotism so that we might rely totally on God’s strength and perfection. And so the Church has likewise struggled, and has still been enabled to bring the world that most important message.

The Prophet Ezekiel (first reading) has been sent to speak to a “rebellious house.” And “whether they heed or resist, they shall know that a prophet has been among them.” Again, not because of the prophet/messenger, but because of the message.

True discipleship is to cling to the message of the Gospel, not because the Church is made up of saints, but despite the fact that the Church is made up of imperfect sinners, which includes us along with all the rest.

Most astounding of all is that we imperfect ones are given the same assignment as Christ’s: Teach the Gospel in our native place and elsewhere. Teach it by living Christ’s message, by loving and accepting all the sinful others who share our need for God.

Prayer and Presence

As a child in parochial school, I remember being taught the answer to the question, “Where is God?” The Baltimore catechism told us that “God is everywhere.” Of course, the class smart alecks (usually the boys) pursued the issue with questions like, Is he inside my desk? In my pocket? On the bookshelf? Et cetera, et cetera.

Well, as St. Paul said, when I was a child I thought as a child, but now as an adult, I ponder the everywhere-ness of God.

A short while ago when we celebrated Trinity Sunday, our homilist quoted the phrase, In him (God) we live and move and have our being. So, is God in us, or are we in God?

Somewhere I read that we are like a fish who, swimming in the ocean, asks himself, “Where’s the ocean?” This is like us asking, “Where’s God?” and all the time we’re in Him. Psalm 139 expresses the wonder of this discovery:

Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.

Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?

I’m so often concerned when someone in spiritual direction tells me how difficult it is to find time for prayer. My first thought is, isn’t it wonderful that these folks want to pray, feel the need to pray, know the importance of connection with this Person we know as God? I can empathize with them as this too used to be my concern and still often remains a subject for discernment. I used to envy monastics who were routinely called to prayer several times during the day for community recitation of the Divine Office. My laywoman’s “schedule,” on the other hand, is so often interrupted by some household need, or the call for personal intervention somewhere. (Truth be told, many distractions are often due to my jumping-bean mentality. More on that another time.) It therefore seemed to me that if a person really wanted to be holy and to pray always, as Scripture teaches, it was necessary to belong to a religious community. That I felt called to holiness but not to religious life became the source of much spiritual anxiety.

Then a wise spiritual director guided me to three books. One is a short collection of letters called The Practice of the Presence of God by a little-known seventeenth century Carmelite named Brother Lawrence.

Lawrence was a lay member of the order, living alongside the monks to provide various services, usually of a very humble nature. One of his regular assignments was washing dishes. A friend wrote to another about Lawrence:

In his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to doing everything there for the love of God, and with prayer . . . for His grace to do his work well, he found everything easy during the fifteen years that he had been employed there.

Because Lawrence focused on God being present in him while he performed the assigned chore, this menial task of washing dishes was transformed into prayer, connecting him to God. I imagine that while the monks were dutifully involved in more “important” activities, Lawrence must have been every bit as much – and perhaps more – united with the Lord while humbly washing dishes.

This same practice is taught by a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. One of his books, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, describes how to transform potentially irritating situations into peaceful acceptance. For us Christians, our awareness is turned to the unceasing presence of God.

Once again on the topic of washing dishes, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. . . Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane.

The third book is by a 17th century French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre De Caussade. Depending on the translator, its title is either The Sacrament of the Present Moment or Abandonment to Divine Providence. This small but powerful book has long been a favorite of spiritual directors. Its message is profoundly simple: “Embrace the present moment as an ever-flowing source of holiness.” De Caussade teaches that we don’t have to look for or manufacture elaborate prayer practices or penances. All that is needed is to set the eyes of our heart to recognizing all the events in our life — its challenges and delights — as gifts from God, as ways of seeing him, accepting and thanking him for all.

Practicing this “seamless” method of prayer helps us stay focused, counteracting our tendency to jump from one activity or thought to another. This is a prayer that cannot be interrupted, because the interruption itself is a call to be with Christ in a special way. This practice fulfills the Scriptural command to pray always, while maintaining a peaceful, simple and intentional acceptance of the duties of our vocation.

Fascinated as I am with the concept of our existence not only in space but also in time, I leave you with this thought: Just as God is everywhere, he IS all the time. We are limited by space and time, but God continues everywhere from within eternity. This is the wonderful and inexplicable reality of God being Present. His name is, after all, I am Who am (Present tense). He is present in the present moment, and that is where we will invariably find Him.

 

The Right Way

A small group of us were taking part in a discussion that soon turned to the subject of prayer. One friend remarked, sadly, that she was not praying as she ought. “Why do you think that?” I asked.

“Well,” she explained, “I’m lying on my bed. I ought to be sitting up.”

I was amazed! I found my friend’s attitude particularly sad since she was going through treatments for cancer which left her almost constantly fatigued. This was a woman who had spent decades as a member of a religious order! Somewhere, some time, someone had persuaded her that in order to pray “correctly” she needed to follow the example of Teresa of Avila who had allegedly sat up straight as a ramrod when she prayed. (Obviously, Teresa didn’t levitate then, but I kept that observation to myself.)

As it happened, I too had been struggling with a prayer issue: how to “do it right.” I felt unable to master the rather new “centering” prayer. This became a gnawing concern until I was given a spiritual director who was able to calm me with a different piece of advice from Teresa: Pray as you can, not as you can’t. Even so, it took years before I could be fully convinced that I was not praying the “wrong” way!

As time passed, I began to question the prayer practices of my favorite saints. Take Saint Francis of Assisi: I could find nothing about how he prayed. What was clear was that he kept his thoughts continually on Jesus, reading about him and his teachings. Admiring him, loving him, imitating him.

I read Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiography several times. Thérèse too simply gazed constantly on Jesus. This was the Person she loved above all others. She confided to her sister that she “loved him madly!” and addressed him in the familiar form of tu, not the formal vous. Fully aware of her littleness, she thought nothing of falling asleep during the required prayer time.

Teresa of Avila is the first woman to have been named a Doctor of the Church, an honor given chiefly in recognition of her teachings on prayer and growth in the spiritual life. In her autobiography, Teresa writes this about prayer:

As I see it, contemplative prayer is simply an intimate sharing between friends. It’s about frequently taking time to be alone with the One we know loves us. If the friendship is to endure, the love must be honored and tended.

How very simple! The purpose of our life – our spiritual life – is to be fully engaged with Christ: looking at Him, listening to Him, being with Him in our daily activities; sharing with Him our hopes, our regrets – all that will let Him know we’re fully connected to Him as we would be with our dearest friend. We don’t need to rely on what others say about their prayer, which is an entirely individual matter. A growing friendship comes from a two-way conversation where we listen with the ears of our heart to what God tells us.

If we notice that we are gradually changing for the better, that we’re becoming more loving, patient, non-judgmental, and generous, then we know that God is hearing us and is acknowledging our desire for him. Then we’ll know that, in spite of our concerns, we’ve actually been praying the right way after all.

St.-Therese