Saturday, March 31, 2012


Enough! It is the word of condemnation.

Some people use it to condemn themselves. “I do not pray enough,” they say in confession. “I do not love my children enough,” or “I am not patient enough with my kids,” they say.

I ask you, though, and often will ask them: Who does pray “enough?” How much prayer is enough? Only Jesus and Mary managed that. Who does love enough? Who is patient enough? Again, only God and His sinless mother really manage that; it is why we are so attached to them.

Some people say, I don’t go to Mass enough. But that is different: our obligation is every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, except when impeded by specific circumstances like sickness. More accurate is to say: I missed Mass last week for no good reason. That is a quantifiable reality, and thus we have a chance to remedy our shortcoming. The obverse would be, I lied too much. How much is the right amount (enough, but not too much) of lying? Zero! So, I lied several times, is a more honest self-analysis, and an error we can amend, with the help of God.

With quantity impossible to set, as for prayer, or love, or patience, the accusation of not enough is guaranteed to condemn. If we accuse ourselves of that, then we are damning ourselves to continual misery, since we are in fact constitutionally incapable of loving God, our neighbor, or even our spouses or children enough. We are all wounded by Original Sin, which leaves as its scar a large streak of selfishness and limitation.

Unfortunately for us, our culture has lost sight of the reality of Original Sin, and thus the universal insufficiency that characterizes the human race. The scientific and technological model of predictability and tolerances has been thrust onto human beings, and our laws and our society frequently pronounce judgment on whether someone did enough.

But if we cannot of ourselves ever do enough, then we are all vulnerable to outside accusations of insufficiency. If someone is injured on your property, then you obviously failed to do enough to prevent it. According to our legal system, that makes you liable. If terrorists fly an airplane into the World Trade Center, someone failed to do enough to prevent it. But who? The government? The airlines? The architects? According to our norms, we must find out, so liability can be assessed.

All that remains for us is to hope that we not be found out. I cannot do enough to prevent an elderly Mass-goer from falling and being injured approaching out church; I pray that no one be injured that way. Any time you read an article saying someone did not do enough – to prevent an injury, or death; to solve a problem, or make something fair; to avoid injustice, or thwart evil – say a prayer for that person as you say, there but for the grace of God go I! All power lies with those who publish and accuse our insufficiencies. Whoever they say did not do enough is already condemned – because they are right.

I do not do enough. I stand condemned. But: this day the Son of God handed Himself over to be crucified, in fulfillment of His Father’s will. He handed over His spirit, and said, It is finished. It is consummated; it is completed; it is sufficient – this, and this alone.

I am redeemed; it is enough.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 17, 2012

NOT what you want

Lent gives me power. Not accustomed to much in that regard, I am astonished by the feats I can accomplish when it is Lent.

Any other time of the year, whatever task I am engaged in, if there is something I want, I stop my work, and get it. I can sense that I am hungry or thirsty, and immediately get myself something to eat or drink. I can remember a book I wanted to read, or something in the rectory that broke, and I can go online and with a few clicks arrange for it to be delivered to me. If I am annoyed by the noises coming from the next room - which is the kitchen, home to a broad spectrum of noises -- I can turn on iTunes to provide covering fire. And when I am distracted, nervous, anxious, irritated, or bored, I can anaesthetize that unpleasant feeling by clicking on my browser and surfing the internet.

You may think that all this sounds like power, but it is the opposite. My appetites dictate my actions. Not just the appetites that I need for survival, either, like actual hunger for nourishment; but these are appetites that are desires beyond what is necessary for my life, more like the munchies. I am, all too often, their abject slave.

But that’s okay. Or at least there are a lot of people telling me that’s okay, which is one of the reasons I fail to rebel against this serfdom. As a matter of fact, there is a steady stream of opinion and information telling me that this is, in fact, the pinnacle of power: to be able to get what I want, how and when I want it, because I want it. So I can be remarkably attuned to what I want, just to be able to prove how powerful I am in getting it. So why do I feel so weak and helpless?

But then comes Lent. Suddenly, I break the bonds of ennui and agitation to assert this strange new power that I have: the power to NOT. The power to NOTfeed my face; the power to NOTwaste my time. The power to NOTavoid responsibility, or prayer, or someone else’s need.

This power is ours for the using, but only against our own wants. We can NOTeat that second helping, NOTbuy those new shoes, NOTsay that funny but sharp remark, and NOTsleep past the alarm. Soon enough, we are better and stronger at NOTgiving in to our appetites.

Let’s face it, this is a great power in a society where it is becoming increasingly difficult, even impossible, to NOToffer someone else something that they want. For one thing, almost everything is possible, thanks to our incredible advances in technology. And if it is possible, who are you (or who am I) to say someone can NOThave it? If it is too much for you or me to provide, then it falls to a Company, a System, or a Government, and where a want is sufficiently funded, or sufficiently demonstrable, they are constitutionally unable to NOTprovide it.

So how can we help these enslaved people, if our power is only to deny our own desires? For them and for their benefit, we can NOTdo things that we want for ourselves. This is the truly amazing, even God-like power that we have: to sacrifice. And unlike the simple power to NOT, it is strongest when turned on others. Unleashed in the world, this is the astonishing power of love. This Lent, feel the power!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Vulnerability Our Strength

If you stand outside in the rain with your guitar and sing, men will scoff and dismiss you for a fool. But if you do it for love, they will cheer and perhaps even join you. If you stop traffic and block commerce to make yourself known, men will revile and dismiss you for a miscreant; but if you do it for love, they will bear with you and perhaps even help you.

Now, from my place overseeing the center of the life of the parish, I can sit and marvel at the astonishing things that I behold, and ask myself what motivates such wonders of human behavior.

Last week you brought to our pews and school an astonishing quantity of food (2,242 lbs). Once boxed, it seemed a mountain, not only to me, but also to the men from the Capital Area Food Bank who came with their truck to collect it. I could commend you just for generosity, but I think that would leave out something essential.

I look at not only the number, which has grown quite significantly in Lent, but also the affectionate, often wordless, mutual regard of people who rise before dawn and participate in the 6:30 weekday Mass before racing off to their day's obligations. I watch the prayerfulness and interaction of surprisingly many parishioners large and small, new and old, who have been praying the Stations of the Cross the past two Friday evenings, and enjoying one another's company at the simple supper in the MSR before or after.

Tuesday evening, Bishop Martin Holley was here to confirm sixty-four of our young people. Their sponsors, family members, friends and neighbors filled the church for the long ceremony. I noticed the altar servers, students themselves out on a school night when doubtless they had work of their own to be doing. But they manifested such care for the Mass, such respect for the bishop, and such joy in seeing the Spirit poured into those young lives, I was moved to pride – but I hope the good kind.

Last week I was handed an article from the Wall Street Journal admiring the life-giving and nurturing aspects of life in religious communities; the fellowship and support, the rituals and relationships. The author speculated that surely the expertise and methods of these religions could be harvested and applied to benefit and enhance the lives of modern souls who have moved beyond faith to an informed secularism. His prescriptions, many lifted from his observation of the life of our Church, were plausible and attractive, up to a point.

The point beyond which his proposal could not pass is the simple but urgent question of why. People will do many things with one another and for one another and even for a cause. But people, real people, will not make themselves vulnerable for the sake of a group or idea.

Here among us, however, vulnerability underlies even the simplest daily act we do. One is willing to be wounded, to pay a price of one's own dignity and identity, for one motivation, and one alone: love. We have seen God's vulnerability poured out in the life of His Son. Called to respond, we extend the acts of love that ordinarily would reach no further than family, or friends, to strangers near and far, who are neighbor to us. Uniting our common life is more than shared purpose, more than a desire for company. Our hearts are willing to be wounded, for we are in communion with the pierced heart of God Himself, who is Love.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 03, 2012

What goes in

To point out the limits of computer technology, there used to be the reminder GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. Computers are limited in what they can accomplish and produce by the software and data that are put into them. If these are weak or poor, so will be the computer’s output.

We are smarter than computers, so we think ourselves capable of filtering the images and impressions we take in over the course of our days, choosing what we wish to retain and accept into our worldview.

Alas, it is not so, as any of us can tell you who watched a movie that scared us when we were younger. What goes in, stays in, with a staying power all its own. What’s more, what goes in, shapes what comes out. You know this if someone has ever asked you about a word or expression you used, and then you thought back and realized that someone you spend time with uses it.

In Lent, we get the chance to modify this process. By spending less time with some or all of the media that ordinarily dominate our days – television, radio, internet – we can identify not only how much violence, greed, lust, and all-around nastiness they pour into our heads, but also how they pollute our own thoughts, words, and deeds. Garbage in, garbage out.

When we put aside these "inputs" and put prayer in their stead, and the Scriptures, or the biography or writings of a saint, or some other study of our faith, we are not necessarily, nor only, uploading new data. Just by putting this before our eyes, we are influencing the thoughts, images, and ideas that stand before our mind's eye. This, in turn, shapes what we say and do, definitely for the better. GIGO comes to mean God in, God out.

Truth and goodness are but two of the essentials that we must include in our diet if it is to nourish us. The third is beauty, equally transcendent, thus equally proper to God and to us. So while weeks ago I encouraged you to clear out much of the audio input from your life for Lent, one benefit of silencing all that noise is that it leaves an open channel for beauty, and attunes us to recognize it. That could be the voice of your child or the song of a bird, both of which reveal something of God's glory for those who have ears to hear.

Toward that end, I would like to draw your attention to next Saturday's concert by Chantry. Not only is this music richer and deeper in composition and performance than the common music that fills our days, but it illuminates texts that specifically meditate on the mysteries of God and our salvation. Psalm 51 is the prayer of a repentant sinner, and can shape and describe our own hearts especially during Lent. Gregorio Allegri’s setting of it in his Miserere for centuries attracted travellers from around the continent to the Sistine Chapel to experience its ethereal and plaintive beauty. It is a gift to be able to hear it live; do come.

Precisely because we are not simply processors and keepers of data the way computers are, truth, goodness, and beauty are to be sought and savored. Study the Truth. Embrace only Goodness. Make the choice and take the time look at, listen to, and enjoy Beauty. When you absorb these aspects of the Divine Being, they will shape your own being and doing. GIGO, for you, will mean when grace goes in, grace flows out.

Monsignor Smith