Saturday, July 30, 2011

Not Cool

I am not making this up.

I found this church while out visiting my sister in Tucson. It’s not far from her house, and apparently, it’s a chain – there is at least one other like it.

After the heat wave last week, we can all appreciate the appeal of a cool church. If this one stays fresh and comfortable even in the crushing desert heat of Arizona, they obviously have a more powerful air conditioner than I do -- and a significantly smaller building, I add in my defense.

While that may be true, I doubt it is the intention of folks who named their church. So I have to wonder whether they want to identify themselves as the popular church – that is, well liked, especially by all the people who are themselves popular, which is sort of what “cool” meant in high school. Maybe like some innovative gadget or other promising novelty, some might marvel that this church is “cool” because of some new invention. They also might want to make clear that they are not that bothered by or interested in the things that another church often is, since there is an aspect of the word that means certain easygoing unflappability, possibly even aloofness.

Doubtless, these folks named their church this because they wanted to make it attractive, make it sound popular, new, and “laid back,” or some other word that means that it makes no demands. Aside from the promise of refreshment from the heat, I have to confess that few of its characteristics have anything to do with the real Church.

What is attractive about the Church, what she teaches and what she does, is attractive because it is true, not vice versa. In fact, sometimes the truth is not readily appealing, and not very popular at all! The Church is popular in the sense that is of and for people, but her foundation and design are from God; she is a divine institution. Popularity in the sense of being well liked is hardly a criterion, since from her very beginning Christ’s Church has been made up of unpopular people, the marginal and excluded.

And while the Church incorporates and embraces everything that is truly human, and that includes many innovations over the centuries, the divine element of her nature is eternal and unchanging. Every human life has a fresh encounter with revelation in Christ Jesus, which is called the Good News because the newness of the experience, not anything recent or invented about the message. Everything that is essential about salvation through Jesus has been consistently present in the Church for two thousand years now, even though that hardly makes it old news.

‘Laid back’ is a term I have never thought was appropriate to Jesus or His followers. He has a deep and abiding concern over the life of every person He encounters, and to save us from our own sin and its consequences, He sacrifices his own life – not just his own ease, but His life! How is that “laid back?”

So, while you know I am very proud of our HVAC in the church, you won’t hear me trying to convince anyone that the church is “cool.” Nothing is here at Saint Bernadette because of its popular appeal, or it is new and exciting. Nonetheless, we get pretty excited about it, and take its demands pretty seriously.

No, the faith of the Church is hard to consider cool. But anything you find here, you can be certain that I am not making it up!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Don't go there

It’s hotter than hell out there!

Well, actually, no - it is not. Then again, maybe it is. Heat? Flames? I am not sure. But hell will be infinitely worse, whether in temperature or some other form of misery. It is an apt comparison, nonetheless.

Funny, isn’t it, how many people get scandalized at the use of the H–E-double–hockey-sticks word? The convention against saying “hell” casually, in polite company, or in in front of children is reasonable, but only in a comparable sense to our obligation not swear or take the Lord’s name in vain.

Similarly, we must not invoke damnation in vain – that is, casually, for dramatic effect, or as an oath. But damnation not only is a very real possibility, but something which I have set my life to helping people avoid, and it would be a fatal hindrance if I couldn’t mention it in the most effective language possible. So why do folks expect such vocabulary never to pass the tender lips of a priest, as if it would be in our interests to maintain everyone’s comfort?

Unfortunately our interests – or mine, anyway – are too often turned to our own comfort. But even I bridle at the common expectation that I not mention hell. So while I don’t pepper my speech with hell and damn – much less my homilies – it is vital that I draw your attention to their very real possibility for all of us.

The cartoonist’s image of hell, with its flames, pitchforks, and always-descending escalators, may be reasonably dismissed by modern, educated folk. But it would be foolish and dangerous to dismiss the reality those images attempt to present of an unending, inescapable pain and grief. My favorite reflection on hell is The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis. This slender novel is an absolute delight (not what one might expect) and I devoured it in two hours. Read it; it will rock your world. More to the point, it will focus your attention outside of your world and my world, this world, and onto the real questions of how you will be spending eternity.

Damn is even less useful a verb most of the time, since if God is its subject, it is too easy to escape with the logic that “a loving God would not do that to me for (insert offense here).” Of course He wouldn’t do that to you! He would save you by the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of His Son. But you and I can do it to ourselves, or more accurately, can demand it for ourselves. Our every decision and every action can be either a liberating step toward salvation revealed in Christ, or it can be a damning step toward, well, hell.

We have constructed an air-conditioned cocoon for ourselves that we allow to lull us into thinking that we have mastered not only nature, but also, even more implausibly, our own eternal course. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and the shortcomings of Pepco regularly shatter on our Potemkin comfort. Even that is temporary, and we easily return to our complacency. But do we dare?

Meanwhile, it is blistering, withering, suffocating, and altogether unbearable outside, but most decidedly not hotter than hell. God is giving us this day, and this moment in it, as an opportunity to repent and be delivered from all that misery by His gracious mercy!

All of a sudden, it’s not so bad outside.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Our Good Fortune

I almost forgot my fortune. I had gone to a Chinese restaurant with two friends, and was enjoying the conversation so much that I broke open my fortune cookie, but neglected to read the little strip of paper with my “fortune” printed on it. Eventually, when I was reminded to read it, I laughed so hard that I couldn’t read it aloud, and had to pass it around the table.

Your charm today will be almost irresistible, so use it wisely.

I assume you have known people, as I have, who seem to have been over-endowed by God with an abundance of charm and attractiveness. When we meet them, we are, well, charmed and attracted, delighted and drawn into their orbits. Like most of you, I have never been under the misapprehension that I was one of those people. That’s why I laughed until I couldn’t breathe when I read that fortune.

Almost every such person I have known has been at least somewhat aware of his (or her) gift and been able to “turn it on” when they need it. I have occasionally wanted to ask, when did you discover your “charm” and how powerful it could be?

If we live with them longer – as family-members, friends, or co-workers – we are more likely to see the charm with a little more objectivity. We try to make sure we do not “fall for it” ourselves. We know they have something we don’t, and maybe get just a tad envious.

That “fortune” made me think about this gift, this charm, and how much fun it would be to “have it” and to know it, even if only for a period of time. Rather than be envious of what we see others having, why not just try ourselves to “turn it on?”

How could we amplify our own attractiveness and lovability, and magnify the very best aspects of our personality and uniqueness and know that we have an audience who appreciated us, is attracted to us, and responds to us? Imagine, if we could do that, the power it would give us? The challenge would be to use it wisely, indeed - but obviously, it would be a great opportunity as well! Who would pass up a chance for that?

Aware as I am of everything about me that is unattractive and unlovable, there is only one way I could imagine myself doing this: prayer. That’s right: just hurl my whole self in front of God and let Him have it. He will see and love better than anyone else everything that is good about me, everything true and beautiful, everything attractive and loveable. If I simply give myself to His attention, He will be unable to withhold from me his entire attention, His entire love.

To go to prayer is to rid my mind of everything that can distract me from this fabulous attraction that God has to me, this amazing power that draws God into my orbit. To “turn it on” in this manner is to realize who I truly am, and what I am truly for.

Hey; you know me. You know how quickly my charm arsenal can run out. So you know that if prayer can do this for me, you should realize that it can do the same for you. This is our great fortune, our treasure and our future. Have you been to prayer today? Your charm today will be almost irresistible, so use it wisely.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Packing Power

Many things we enjoy are modern inventions. While many of us can wag our heads and tell the kids what it was like before smartphones and power car windows, we ourselves may be unaware of how recently certain other newfangled contraptions have come into the world, as we cannot imagine life without them. Like vacations.

That’s right, vacations are a new invention. Ever ask a farmer about his vacation? He’ll look at you funny, or maybe laugh. In agrarian societies, which was almost everywhere until the modern era, everybody was a farmer, or worked in the farm economy, and nobody could take time off. Then, when industrialization came along, the “infernal machines” had to be kept producing all the time, and even rest on the Lord’s day was done away with, and whole families worked seven days a week.

Somewhere along the line, it was discovered that a break from work could actually increase productivity in the long run. A rested worker is a stronger worker, happier and healthier. Leisure is an essential element in human culture, and properly developed, does not detract from the output and invention of a society, but enhances it. Now most folks have not only weekends, but whole weeks free to enjoy some leisure, recreation, and travel. But this has become widespread only within the past century.

Most of us cannot imagine life without days off now and then, and vacations periodically. We look forward to these times away not only because they will make us better at what we do to support ourselves and our families, but also for their own sake. Thanks be to God for this gift of our modern era!

Toward the end of RCIA this year, I was trying to compile a list for our neophytes of “Neat Things You Can Do Now That You Are A Catholic.” These are things that we who are Catholic learn about growing up living the Faith in the Church, but don’t really get taught when studying doctrine. There are many, of course; one of them is to find a church for Mass while on vacation. This can require a little work sometimes, but not so much in these days of the internet, for all but the most cartographically challenged. The reward is to find the same thing – Mass, Jesus, the Word, the Eucharist, the Faith -- and some different things: historical church, funnier priest, a congregation that can sing in four parts. And of course, refreshment, light, and peace.

So take your rosary as well as that beach novel, and one pair of long pants for Mass, because prayer and worship are integral parts of our rest and recreation. If you catch yourself leaving these things out of your suitcase, or out of your plans, ask yourself how productive it could be to leave behind prayer when vacationing from work? If being busy is usually your biggest obstacle to prayer, when better to pray than on vacation? Worship of God refreshes us in the worst of circumstances, so how much moreso will it enhance our refreshment in the best?

So, as you approach that tollbooth, realize that the vacation you are enjoying is almost as new an invention as the EZPass. But with apologies to Steve Jobs and his sort, new inventions are not enough to bring us joy. Bless him, all who worship the Lord, the God of gods, sing praise to him and give thanks to him, for his mercy endures for ever. (Daniel 15:68)

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Hanging out day

One of the things Father Thompson left me that I still love to use is a good United States flag on a pole to hang outside the rectory door. I forgot to put it up on Flag Day (14 June) and am still kicking myself for that. So every day this week, I have been asking myself whether it is too early to put it up for Independence Day.

The flag is remarkably important to me. Usually we have a fine one flying from the pole on the campus during school days. My first year here I insisted on getting a new one because the old one was visibly tattered and quite faded. Now I still get agitated if it is raised incompletely or incorrectly. That flag means a lot.

It is not just that I am a Boy Scout. If you think about it, I spend a lot of my time taking care of various symbols to show regard for the things that they signify. The church itself – the building, not the institution – is a symbol of Christ’s presence here in Four Corners. So, I insist that it not be tattered or faded, as far as economical reality permits.

That is why a number of our parishioners put their time and effort into taking care of all the things around here. Our landscape volunteers and donors, for example, pour their sweat into making the grounds beautiful – maybe even letting their own yards languish. Industrious folks work in the sacristy, or with the altar flowers and decorations, to keep the things inside the church beautiful. Similarly, our CYO Board not only keeps the back field and playground ready for play, but cares for it as a part of this parish that welcomes guests, and hosts activities. Other parishioners fix or paint, as their skills allow.

In every case, the object that we can handle and care for is not as important in itself as is the greater reality it represents. We can’t completely express our love for Christ with a gesture, but we can care for His church, the chalice that holds His Precious Blood, and the pew where His sisters and brothers will kneel to adore him.

Our faith informs us of the importance of relationships, both human and super-human. You can hug your kids today, as the old bumper sticker says, but you couldn’t hug God any more than you could kiss our country. So, how do we show our care and respect for these very large but very real entities in our lives? By caring for the objects that connect us to them.

Our Catholic worship contains many symbols for us to interact with. One of my favorites is the Holy Altar that symbolizes Christ Himself (particularly in his entombment), and so it is with great affection that I greet Him with a kiss when I arrive in the sanctuary, and similarly bid farewell as I leave. Of course, one of the symbols in our church is more than just a symbol, for it truly is what it signifies: the Holy Eucharist, Christ’s Body and Blood. And as we celebrated last week, our relationship with our Lord in the Eucharist is more than symbolic.

So this weekend, let’s fly the flag both literally and figuratively, thanking God for the gifts He has given us in our Church and in our nation. Regardless of who else salutes, you and I can and will revere these symbols of the source and place of the freedom we cherish.

Monsignor Smith