Saturday, March 30, 2019

We got POWER

Lent gives me power.  Usually not accustomed to having much of that, 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.  And what I should be doing remains undone.
You may think that all this sounds like power, but it is the opposite. My appetites dictate my actions – yes, these appetites are dictators in my world! These are not just the appetites that I need for survival, either, like actual hunger for nourishment; these appetites are desires beyond what is necessary for life -- more like “the munchies.” I am, all too often, their abject slave.
But that’s okay…or is it?   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. 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, with a very different lesson about those appetites. Suddenly, I should – and can -- break the bonds of ennui and agitation, and 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 against our own wants. We can NOTeat that second helping, NOTbuy those new shoes, NOTsay that funny but caustic remark, and even NOTsleep past the alarm. Soon enough, we are better and stronger at NOTyielding to our appetites.  Slaves no more!
This is a great power, but let’s face it: we live in a society where it is increasingly difficult, even impossible, to NOTprovide someone else something, anything that they want.  For one thing, almost every desire can be satisfied, thanks to our incredible advances in technology. And if satisfaction can be obtained, who are you (or who am I) to suggest it would be far better for someone to NOThave it? Where a human desire is sufficiently funded (that is, the desirous one can afford it) or relentlessly demanded, the obligation to sate that desire falls to a Company, a System, or a Government, that is 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.  Our self-denial can benefit other people who cannot or will not deny themselves what will harm them. This power comes with the opposite of the usual warning: Please DO try this at home!
This is the most amazing, even God-like (yes!) power that we have: to sacrifice. And unlike the simple power to NOT (for our own good), it is strongest because it is directed toward others. Unleashed in the world, this is the astonishing power of love. This Lent, feel the power!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 23, 2019

National Image

For folks who still follow local news, bald eagles have been very much a hot topic.  The saga of Liberty and Justice, two eagles nesting near the DC Fire Academy; the importuning Aaron Burrd; and the masked destroyer of their unfortunate eggs has been on everybody’s lips.
But when I emerged from the chapel this week on Wednesday morning, and joined the folks who were looking up, I found that we had our own distinguished visitor.  Perched on the cross atop our spire was the first bald eagle I have ever seen or even heard of on the property.  I do not know, however, if this is one of the celebrity eagles from the tabloids.  
Our visiting eagle looked dignified, but a little rough. It looked as if his feathers were ruffled, and maybe there was a wound above his eye.  That same morning another bald eagle, badly injured, was found on the metro tracks over in Prince George’s county; I have heard no suggestion that anyone witnessed a fight between that one and another eagle, but such things are hardly rare.  The private lives of bald eagles are complicated things.
The crows who often perch on that same cross were offended by the eagle’s presence, and tried to intimidate him into leaving, to no avail. Stupid crows.  You can tell by looking at the photograph how impressed he was by their taunts and threats.  The eagle stayed precisely as long as the eagle wanted, then left for places that are doubtless lofty and imposing.  
To be a bald eagle, you must always be ready to be photographed, clearly.  Karyn Zanger caught this shot with a long lens she had handy.  
Such events were interpreted by the ancients as omens or portents of impending dramas.   It is good to be liberated from such superstitions, but perhaps it is a commentary on the shrinking vistas and limited interests of our society that instead of messengers of the gods, our commentators see them instead as characters in a soap opera.  
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Patrick Who?

Always to be found in the middle of Lent, the feast of today’s saint generates much celebration and precious little consideration of what the saint himself said or did.  It’s not green, and it does not involve corned beef or beer, but your observance of your heritage – as a Catholic– should include reading his words.  Slainte!
Monsignor Smith
My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.  My father was Calpornius.  He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburnia.  His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner.  I was about sixteen at the time.  At that time, I did not know the true God.  I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others.  We deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments. We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved.  The Lord brought his strong anger upon us, and scattered us among many nations even to the ends of the earth.  It was among foreigners that it was seen how little I was.
It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith.  Even though it came about late, I recognized my failings.  So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness and had mercy on my youthful ignorance.  He guarded me before I knew him, and before I came to wisdom and could distinguish between good and evil.  He protected me and consoled me as a father does for his son.
That is why I cannot be silent – nor would it be good to do so – about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.
This is because there is no other God, nor will there ever be, nor was there ever, except God the Father.  He is the one who was not begotten, the one without a beginning, the one from whom all beginnings come, the one who holds all things in being – this is our teaching. And his son, Jesus Christ, whom we testify has always been, since before the beginning of this age, with the father in a spiritual way.  He was begotten in an indescribable way before every beginning.  Everything we can see, and everything beyond our sight, was made through him.  He became man; and, having overcome death, was welcomed to the heavens to the Father. The Father gave him all power over every being, both heavenly and earthly and beneath the earth.  Let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, in whom we believe and whom we await to come back to us in the near future, is Lord and God. He is judge of the living and of the dead; he rewards every person according to their deeds.  He has generously poured on us the Holy Spirit, the gift and promise of immortality, who makes believers and those who listen to be children of God and co-heirs with Christ.  This is the one we acknowledge and adore – one God in a Trinity of the sacred name.
He said through the prophet: ‘Call on me in the day of your distress, and I will set you free, and you will glorify me.’  Again he said: ‘It is a matter of honor to reveal and tell forth the works of God.’
Although I am imperfect in many ways, I want my brothers and relations to know what I’m really like, so that they can see what it is that inspires my life.

… I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God.  Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland.  May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done through ignorance.  Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

An Odd Coupling

There I was, sitting at my desk signing checks, and I realized I was smiling.
No, that does not happen often.  Oh, I smile often enough; and I sign checks more than enough; it is the combination of the two that is rare.
Ron Farias, Saint Bernadette Business Manager Extraordinaire, governs our outflow judiciously.  He prepares checks in response to bills and other obligations, and gives them to me by the batch for my signature.  He uses his distinctive Red Folder so I know the pile inside is from him, and tries to leave them on my desk when I am not looking, because he knows smiling is not my usual response to a pile of checks.
But right there in the midst of my midweek stack of checks, I was signing and smiling, because I was sending out what you had given to the Community Fund. 
It always cheers me to send something to the Little Sisters of the Poor.  Likewise, Centro Tepeyac, Saint Joseph House, Gabriel Project, and MUSST (ministries United of Silver Spring/Takoma Park).   Others among our joyful disbursements include A Wider Circle, Catholic Charities, Gift of Peace, Holy Cross Hospice, House of Ruth, SOME, Shepherd’s Table, the Spanish Catholic Center, and of course the Mulholland Foundation. 
How do we decide who gets what from your contributions? Our Allocation Committee, under the leadership of the indomitable and inimitable Ruthann Arnsberger, reviews the requests we get, watches the contributions we receive, and assigns amounts.  The checks go out in batches, the ones that make me smile.
Most of the recipients are “frequent flyers” – that is, groups we routinely support. Because of our relationship with them, sometimes they will call for a particular need the agency lacks the resources to meet.  For example, Catholic Charities may call about a family on the verge of a utilities cutoff, and if we can cover half the bill, they can cover the rest.  Maybe MUSST calls with someone who cannot meet rent payments and is on the verge of eviction, and could we provide $400 toward that.  We respond quickly to those, as we can, because the agency verifies the need and the recipient, and makes certain that the funds go directly to the declared purpose.  Because we here at the rectory lack the resources to do that sort of control, we in turn refer people with larger needs to these same agencies.  We may then wind up providing most of the funds, but the agency helps with this necessary verification.
When I looked up from my happy check-signing and remembered that this is the weekend for our monthly collection for the Community Fund, I thought it was a good time to let you know how your contributions go to the assistance of the local poor, as you have heard it said so many times.
It also might help you find yourself signing a check, and smiling.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Feast and Fast

Nobody goes to Birmingham, Alabama for Mardi Gras. Believe me – I used to live there. Likewise, nobody goes to Raleigh, Seattle, or Geneva.  Why not? Because Birmingham, Raleigh, Seattle, and Geneva are not Catholic cities!  For Mardi Gras, people go to Mobile, Alabama.  Don’t believe me?  Look it up! People go to New Orleans, Rio de Janiero, or some other very Catholic place.  They go because they want to have fun, and Catholics have the most fun.
Mardi Gras is fun where people are Catholic, because Mardi Gras is authentic where people keep Lent.  That’s right; in order to enjoy Mardi Gras, one must also observe Lent. Mardi Gras finds its joy in anticipating the fasting, prayer, and almsgiving of Lenten penance.  We do penance because of our sins, our lack of righteousness, our poverty of goodness.  If we were good enough, we would not need the mercy of God in Christ; we would have no Lent, and therefore no Mardi Gras.  We know that we need to do penance, which is why we know we had better have fun now.  
The other thing you should be doing this weekend is planning your penance.  Don’t have a second-rate Mardi Gras, and don’t settle for the cartoon notion of Lent: “This year I am giving up (insert one: a) chocolate; b) dessert; c) beer; d) other food product).”  Remember: Lent is not a diet.  Lent should leave you leaner, but that’s a side effect, not the goal. Devise your discipline according to these principles, and you will have many reasons to be grateful.
Seek the silence. Our days are filled with so much noise -- visual, mental, and social, as well as audio. All of it, all of it, misshapes our relationships and understanding.  So this Lent, turn it off:  the radio in the car, the television in the home, the web-browser on the screen.  Sure, make specific exceptions for yourself: except when I need to check the traffic and weather together on the eights; except for watching March Madness; except for ordering Mom’s birthday present online. But get rid of the noise that becomes constant; the default distraction of hypnotizing visuals; the aimless poking about the web for useless information and harmful stimulation.  Be still, and know that I am God.  (Psalm 46:10)   
Seek the other.  Do not reduce Lent to your personal goal, where you yourself are the principal beneficiary of your new self-control (in your waistline, your budget, or your productivity); make sure you offer something to someone else.  “Giving alms” is indispensable to a good Lent; that includes but is not limited to giving money and other gifts to the poor. It also means giving time to the lonely, attention to the ignored, and love to the one we have so much trouble loving.  Remember, too, what a gift it is to ask someone to help you.  Life is not solitary; neither is our struggle against sin. Your Lent should be not private, but personal -- and therefore interpersonal.  Seek also the One who desires your company in prayer.  Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor, and to find help in time of need. (Heb 4:16)
Seek the cross.  Jesus Christ is never more fully revealed as God than in His death on the cross.  If you would share that divinity, that holiness, share too his cross.   Lay down something that you cannot picture yourself living without.  Give something you think you cannot afford.  Take up something you think you cannot carry. Then look at your crucifix, each day. The real sacrifice of the cross is available at Mass, so add one to your week, i.e., every Wednesday near your office, or every Thursday after you drop off the kids.  
If there is some pain or privation in your life not by your own choosing, then Lent gives you something to do with it.  Your illness, your embarrassment or failure; your pain, your mistreatment by a false friend; your devaluation at work. Embrace it as your Lenten cross, what you and Jesus are doing together this Lent.
So, yes, eat less.   Wear your ashes until they rub away.  Eat fewer sweets and fewer treats.  Go to Stations of the Cross on meatless Fridays, and write bigger checks to help folks who need.  Talk less, and pray more.  But that is just the background; this year, take it higher.
Take it seriously, and Lent will be one of the best times of your whole year.  And it will make your Mardi Gras that much better, too. 
Monsignor Smith