A Patron Saint of Rotting Leaves?

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Wouldn’t it be amazing to one day be the patron saint of decomposing leaves. They are one of those little noticed and even sometimes annoying aspects of Fall. Gotta rake them up and get rid of them, right? But if left to their natural condition, perhaps even where they fell, a decomposing leaf adds quality to the earth by fertilizing and enriching the soil for future life.

This may seem like an odd goal. I’m not destined for greatness in this world, and I know my limitations. As far as I know, there is no patron saint of decomposing leaves. So maybe I could apply for the job if I’m lucky enough to make it to heaven. No one leaf is “great” but each one gives back something. Each one makes a difference, even if in a small way. Wouldn’t it be good to make a difference even in a small way.

Aspirations to sainthood should really be a goal for every one of us. Being a saint just means that I am with God in heaven. Isn’t that the hope and dream of everyone? Or at least almost everyone? That’s what I want, though I get sidetracked along the pathway to heaven.  Many aspire to be known, to have power or gather wealth. Fewer people seek the holy shadows of a forest floor where their contribution goes unheralded but yet leaves a mark. If we’re fortunate, that’s where most of us will end up if we at least strive to make a mark.

Leaves are simple and numerous and important but often overlooked. We trample upon them and rake them up to dispose of them, but in the forests and woods and gardens they reinvigorate the soil and provide necessary nutrients as they rot over time.

“It’s not about you!” my Lord once said to me as I stood at the altar during Mass. I held Jesus in my hand and saw his living and breathing face and heard his voice. And he reminded me in gentle but persuasive language that life isn’t about me. It’s about so much more. It’s about HIM, my Lord – our Lord – Jesus Christ. Everything points to Christ whom I hold in my hand every Mass. Everything, everything, everything points to Christ.

Today I hear his voice less directly as I walk and sit in the woods of the Smoky Mountains (helping chaperone a biology class trip to Tremont). But it reminds me slightly of that day. “Be like a rotting leaf”, mostly unnoticed but fertilizing life’s forest floors with a type of wisdom that permeates nature which so wholly reflects the beauty of God and all his works. Strive for sainthood. Strive to be with God! Perhaps if I’m lucky he will make me the patron saint of rotting leaves.

(This was mostly written about three weeks ago while pondering nature in the Smokies)

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Ah, School Has Started

JPII High School 2

No complaints here. I had a wonderful summer and school has started at JPII. I practiced retirement all summer, and I think I “have it down!” The only thing lacking is the financial aspects of retirement, but I’m sure the lottery will pay off soon enough in order to fully fund my retirement.

We’re back at school and the students are in good spirits. I teach Freshmen, so they are currently eager and excited about being in high school. It will likely wear off soon for most of them.

My classes are larger than last year and our Freshmen class is a good deal larger too. That means I’ll have more students to manage and more tests and papers to grade. But I love seeing their eager faces. I love hearing about their lives. And I love being a teacher!

And in my role, I also love being a Pastoral Counselor. It blends well with my teaching, especially when they’re willing to share their lives a little more openly because of whatever problems they are enduring. God bless them in their struggles, and God bless the trying lives of adolescents.

There’s certainly a lot of difficulties in the modern day for teenagers, not the least of which is social media made worse by the proliferation of cellphones which have so changed the landscape of growing up. Constant bombardment with opinions, judgments, a desire for approval, almost anonymous and instantaneous criticisms and attacks, bullying, etc. are new on the adolescent scene. Oh, I know, teenagers have always had to deal with such things, but not on such a large scale. There’s a constant checking, clicking, dinging or subtle vibration of a phone which signals another person’s feedback (good or bad). And we all want to be accepted. We crave the “likes”, the “thumbs up”.

Pray for our students at JPII and for students everywhere since such pressures are the norm today. And as a Theology teacher and a Deacon, I beg your prayers for their souls. It’s hard to compete with social media and the desire for acceptance when you want to introduce or deepen a young person’s spiritual life and relationship with the Lord. The Lord doesn’t click the “like” button on our posts or give a “thumbs up” to our selfies. We can’t send him a message via social media, and we can’t FaceTime with him. Instead, we have to set our phones down, and our laptops and iPads and everything else that distracts us, and take a little old-fashioned time in prayer and listen. And it’s hard to listen to Him, but as the Transfiguration demonstrates, God spoke from the cloud and said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

Listen to him. Listen to him. Listen to him.

Omission & Commission – a challenge to us all

wheat

You’ll notice that our gospel reading has three parables in it.
And all three of them deal with “small things” – seeds and yeast.
Interesting that each of these small things are filled with potential,
particularly the seeds.
Within a seed is the potential for something spectacular.
From something small can come something good
and fruitful and nutritious,
OR
something destructive and damaging and hurtful
– weeds vs. wheat!

Or what about the yeast which affects the whole batch of bread
Yeast has long been symbolic for evil.
It “puffs up” the bread or cake, etc.
You might say that if we are full of yeast we are “puffed up”
Or full of hot air.

But I want to stick with the weeds and the wheat parable for a while.
I can’t talk about this parable without pulling out my garden as an analogy.
No surprise there, I’m sure.
I don’t like weeds.
They’re an annoyance and a hassle.

I’ve enjoyed gardening through the years.
But as most of us know,
it takes a lot of effort to keep up a garden,
and there are natural threats to a garden.
Animals, like squirrels and deer and rabbits,
damage your crops.
But the most persistent problems is weeds.
I spend a lot of time pulling weeds.
Most of them pose no real problems but they produce no fruit.
In fact, you might say they are useless.
But then there’s the ones you wonder about,
i.e., whether they actually are weeds or not.
Sometimes you truly can’t tell the difference between a weed and a good plant.

That’s our gospel today.
Jesus tells the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat,
and it provides us with a real challenge.
What happens when you can’t tell the good from the bad?
Seems easy enough.
Most of the time it seems rather obvious. Right?

But in this parable the weed most likely referred to is “darnel”
which is almost identical to wheat in its early stages of growth.
I’ve heard it referred to as “Wheat’s Evil Twin”.
It’s only later in it’s development that you can clearly see the difference
between the good wheat and the darnel.
When they grow side by side, their roots get seriously intertwined.
Pull up one and you may pull up the other.

In the primitive culture of Jesus’ day,
distinguishing and separating the wheat grains from the darnel grains was painstaking.
The color of the grain was the main difference.
But it is important to separate them,
because the darnel is poisonous if too much is eaten.

Think of it this way,
Evil is a type of false goodness which slowly poisons you.
And that poison may feel good going down
even though it is destructive or even deadly to the soul.

It’s in the struggle of good and evil that we live much of our lives
—in that gray area.

And evil is tricky,
because it seems so good and so attractive.
If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be drawn to it.
It’s not really the opposite of goodness,
but it’s a corruption of goodness.
That’s how we justify our sins,
by convincing ourselves that we gained a good.

I stole, but I deserved that money and it’s good to have money.
I lied, but I didn’t want to get in trouble, and it’s good not to be in trouble.
I cheated, but I wanted a good grade, and it’s good to have high grades.
I’m not charitable with my money, because having money is good,
and I have wants.
Jesus said, “the poor will be with you always”, so I don’t really need to do anything to help the poor.
Working with the poor or the homeless makes me uncomfortable, and it’s good to be comfortable.
So many ways we justify our actions or our inaction!

This is why our faith is so important,
and the garden is a good analogy for the soul.
Notice also, that when I find grass in my garden,
it’s a weed!
When the grass is in my yard,
it’s not a weed because it’s where it should be.
That’s the way with sin sometimes too.
Sin is often a good that’s taken at the wrong time or in the wrong place.

And here I’ve spent a lot of time talking about personal sin,
and personal sin is important,
but my Catholic Christian life is not just about me and God.
It’s also about us (the Church) and God.
Otherwise this Church would have just one chair in it
and we would each take turns coming in here alone.

No, we have social obligations too.
My sin does not only affect me, but it affects others.
And beyond that, I not only commit sins of commission
but also sins of omission.
Have we ever really thought about all the things we should have done, but didn’t?
People around the world are also part of our Christian obligation.

My awareness of others and their needs and my willingness to respond to those needs
is ever bit as important as personal sin.
The poor and the suffering, victims of war, etc.
are part of our body, the Church.
What have I not done that I should have done?
How charitable am I?
How prayerful am I?
How willing am I to learn about injustice and do what I can.

So I leave us today with a challenge.
Don’t consider the sins of commission,
but think instead about the sins of omission.
What have we not done for our neighbor,
including our world neighbors,
that we really should be doing?
That may be our biggest area necessary for growth.

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Homily based on Matthew 13:24-43

Rocky Mountain High

Version 2

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written a blog post. Some of you may remember me. My name is Brian. In the last week, I’ve grown more and more aware of my nothingness. I don’t mean to say this in a self-denigrating way. It’s just the simple truth. I’ll explain what I mean shortly.

This past week my wife, Cathye, and I took a rare vacation, just the two of us, to Colorado. Colorado was one of my must-see states. I had never before visited and Cathye had only driven through briefly on one occasion before we married. Even though I’m writing words, I’m at a loss for words to express the sheer majesty of the mountains and the wildflowers, the wildlife, etc.  I’m also struck by the ingenuity of humanity in constructing roads up the sides of such high and steep mountains, and into such seemingly inaccessible regions.

I’ll share just a few of the 580 or so of our pictures. Otherwise, I risk becoming the old cliche uncle that everybody avoids with the boring slideshow of his most recent vacation. If that’s already true, then don’t tell me. I’d rather think I’m at least somewhat interesting.

We experienced firsthand wild elk and goats and sheep, shedding their winter fleece. We saw a yellow-bellied marmot, or at least that’s what I think the little fella is called.

The only wildlife we didn’t see (but really wanted to) were bears and meese, mooses, a flock of meese? Though we never saw a bear, we were told that one lives on the guest house property; and another visitor snapped a shot of a moose walking through the pond as we were having breakfast inside. So close, yet so far!  We also gazed upon hummingbirds by the hundreds as well as a variety of other birds we had never seen before.

After a steep ascent in our rented vehicle and a short laboring walk to the peak due to the thin air, stopping frequently to take deep breaths, we viewed in 360 degrees the most beautiful mountains stretching out as far as the eye could see. I’m sure that any visitor to Tennessee might be struck by sights that I’ve come to take for granted. But the newness of the mountains and the unfamiliar sights made me particularly prayerful and pensive. I found a little nook in the rocks while on top of Mt. Evans at more than 14,250 feet and spent time just praying and thinking and feeling overwhelmed.

Maybe it’s because it was all so new to me – sights I had not yet become numb to and had not yet learned to take for granted – that I could see God’s handiwork, God’s unspoiled creation. But while the majestic mountains garnered the greater attention, I was also notably struck by the beauty of the wildflowers growing in such harsh conditions between the cracks of rock or in the dusty rocky soil or even meekly poking their heads out of the slowly melting snow. Wildflowers of such diverse varieties could so easily be overlooked if not for the intentional eye. And each wildflower was unique and no less God’s beautiful creation.

I considered the words of St. Therese of Lisieux who compared herself to a “little flower”. She described herself in a very humble way as being like a little flower in God’s grand garden. She didn’t see herself as one of the beautiful roses that would get special attention, but instead she imagined herself as a simple common flower content to receive the fleeting gaze of Almighty God.

And this is where I return to one of my first comments. I am nothing but for God’s creating hand. I would be nothing were it not for God’s creative mind. Alone I am nothing. Only through HIM does my existence make any sense. And because of that I must serve him and love him.

Divine Mercy Sunday

1 - 1st Divine Mercy

With the readings from both John and Acts,

as well as the theme of Divine Mercy Sunday,

I found it rather difficult to narrow down the topic for this homily.

So I picked several.

It may seem as if I’m bouncing around a bit,

but in the end it should mostly come together.

Bare with me, please!

2 - Mary & Jesus 2

Six times this week I’ve watched The Passion of the Christ,

the 2004 movie directed by Mel Gibson.

It was a bit controversial at the time,

but there was one scene which touched me tremendously.

Here’s the scene:

Mary sees her son Jesus fall

under the weight of the cross.

She remembers running to him when as a child he fell. Despite the crowd and the Roman soldiers,

she races to her grown son.

Raising his tortured face with her hand

she offers the comfort only a mother can give,

as she says, “I am here.”

Jesus sees and hears her,

and gives her the hope that only a divine Son can give

in such circumstances.

In this scene,

a line is inserted from Revelation 21:5.

It’s slightly reworded for the setting

since it is directed to his Virgin Mother,

“See, Mother, I make all things new.”

This is the ultimate in divine mercy.

Christ’s love for his own creation is so great

that he willingly takes on the sins of the world to bring us, you and me,

to a new beginning,

a new era.

If you went to the Vigil Mass for Easter,

you were hopefully struck

by the wash of lights at the Gloria

which heralded the New Testament readings.

Why?

Because it visibly demonstrated

the dawn of the New Testament Era –

the era of Christ,

the light of the world,

the light which dispels the darkness,

The dawn of God’s merciful redemption

The Vigil Mass is full of deep symbolism.

An article from America Magazine shares the following:

“In the mystery of his Incarnation,

God the Son comes to die.

God takes all that is ugly and old and rotten in this world

and draws it into himself.

Here death dies.

Here the old gives way to the new.

Here hope is reborn.

This is why St. John in his gospel records Jesus

speaking of his passion as his hour of glory.

Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. (Jn 13)

The image of Jesus as The Divine Mercy

Is also a powerful image.

Pope St. John Paul II canonized St. Faustina Kowalska

who was a favorite of his.

As far as I’ve learned, the image with the red and blue rays shooting out

Represent the blood and water that flowed from Jesus side.

That’s the kind of love and mercy the Lord had for each of us.

He gave his life which included the pain and suffering of his passion and death.

St. Faustina wrote this in her diary:

All my nothingness is drowned 

in the sea of Your mercy. 

With the confidence of a child, 

I throw myself into Your arms, 

O Father of Mercy.

How many of us have thrown ourselves into the arms of Christ?

The image of the Divine Mercy says at the bottom of the image,

“Jesus I Trust In You”.

Do we trust truly,

completely,

in his divine mercy?

St. Faustina knew that there is no substitute for Christ.

Hopefully we know it too.

Nothing substitutes for Christ.

That is why Jesus talks to Pontius Pilate

the way he does in the gospel of John:

Pilate says,

“Then you are a king?” 

Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. 

For this I was born and for this I came into the world, 

to testify to the truth. 

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

 

Buddha cannot substitute for Christ.

Neither can Mohammed nor his teachings

substitute for Christ.

Other gods cannot substitute for Christ.

New Age spirituality, nature religions,

money, power, our own egos,

None of these provide salvation or redemption.

None of them!!!

Only Jesus Christ has redeemed us.

Only Jesus Christ can give us the gift of salvation.

We spend 60 or 80 or 100 years in this world

if we are fortunate,

but Christ has redeemed us for eternity.

He made this world and founded our Church

in the nitty grittiness of everyday life.

He entered into that nitty grittiness too and blessed it.

He experienced the love of his mother Mary

and his earthly father Joseph.

He probably had misunderstandings at times

and was misunderstood even in his childhood.

He made deep friendships

with Mary and Martha and Lazarus,

Peter, James and John and others.

They challenged him,

and he challenged them.

The everyday life that we live

with its frustrations and temptations and the unexpected problems

is at the heart of our everyday human experiences.

We don’t, as Catholics, seek to escape this world

but we embrace it as a means to salvation.

Just as Jesus embraced the world.

God’s creation was and is good

And the incarnation brought a unique sanctification to these mortal bodies of ours.

We use the materials of the world,

good materials made by God to bring us to God.

Bread and wine – for the Eucharist

Water – in Baptism, simple water

Olive oil/Sacred Oils blessed by the bishop – for Anointing the Sick, Anointing

of Catechumens, Confirmation,

The sexual intimacy which seals the Sacrament of Marriage

The laying on of the Bishop’s hands and rubbing Chrism Oil on the hands of priests

The spoken words and priestly presence of Reconciliation.

Pope St. Leo the Great captured the deepest meaning

of the Mass when he wrote,

And so what our redeemer made evident 

(in his presence among us) 

has passed over into the sacraments.

Today’s readings are all about the mercy of God.

The incarnation is all about the mercy of God.

The crucifixion is all about God’s mercy.

And the gospel reading emphasizes God mercy

in the very earthy element of Christ breathing

on the apostles the gift of the Holy Spirit

and sending them out into this material world

to forgive sin

and to announce the Kingdom of God.

We sometimes get to feeling like there is no hope

When times are bad.

We can get discouraged easily

when a job doesn’t come through

Or our marriage is faltering.

We can experience great loss

And wonder why God is punishing me

Or even whether God cares.

But Jesus is divine mercy

He’s walked in our shoes

and suffered our pains and our temptations

and in doing so,

nd in his crucifixion,

he has made all things new

and proves that he will be with us at all times.

This is divine mercy.

This is God’s infinite mercy.

Lent & Slavery

When you hear the word slavery, you tend to think about the Civil War and the Old South; or in the modern day, human trafficking. Human trafficking may itself be too soft of a term. The word slavery is more direct and to the point and captures the ugly and stark reality. This kind of slavery is a horrendous problem in so many places around the world, and here at home as well, especially sex trafficking.

But there is another slavery that is just as bad and still affects everyone.

Slavery to sin.

Sin isn’t a popular word. It sounds judgmental or antiquated. But the truth is that sin is an insidious spiritual disease that eats away at our souls and at the fabric of our society. We can feed it or starve it but we can’t remain neutral. Do nothing, and it continues to attack our souls. Feed it and it continues to eat away at who we are. Starve it, and you begin to take back you identity, your life. Fight it and you begin the journey back to God and to spiritual health. Ignoring it does not make it go away.

Some would suggest that there is no such thing as sin and that we are inclined toward sin because God made us this way. If I’m tempted or lean a certain way, then it must be because God designed me as such. Others would suggest that regardless of what we do, God loves us so much that he will not bar anyone from heaven. They espouse a type of universal salvation. That’s certainly not the gospel message I’ve ever read, and the Church doesn’t support that kind of theology. God’s love is absolute. Of that, there is no doubt in my mind. But God is a God of love and mercy and a God of justice.

How can God be the fullness of love and mercy as well as the fullness of justice? I can’t even begin to imagine. But if we believe he is fully God and fully man, then this wouldn’t be hard to accept. And since God is God, he probably has a wisdom greater than my own, as hard as that may be for me to accept.

Lent is the time set aside in the Church’s calendar to make that extra effort to starve out sin. It’s a time to take stock of the sin that lives in us and breathes in us is. It’s a necessary endeavor, though never a fun one. I find comfort in my sins. If I didn’t find comfort and pleasure, I wouldn’t commit them. Sin seems so good even when it is so bad. Harboring a grudge feels good because we feel justified. Lust feels exciting. Pride puffs up our ego and makes us feel like we’re better than others. Gluttony always tastes delightful as it goes down the gullet. Each of these feels mighty good. None of them would be tempting if they weren’t appealing, right? We don’t want to give up our sins. We want to cling to them, but sin isn’t God, and God doesn’t abide in sin. And clinging to God is the ultimate good – a good which endures forever.

So even if we are, in a way, unsuccessful during Lent, the attempt is vitally important and critical to our well-being. Attempting to starve out sin is never futile. The Lord knows our weaknesses and he knows our hearts. He knows our efforts and he knows our struggles. What is very clear, however, is that without Christ, there is no hope. But with Christ dwelling within us, hope is eternal!

The Transfiguration – 2nd Sunday of Lent

We have what seems to be two impossible storylines in our readings today.  Abraham who has been promised by God that he would be the father of a great nation. And as he looks out over the land of Canaan, he’s promised that all of that land would belong to his descendants, and his descendants would be a blessing to the world. That’s extraordinary when you consider that Abraham was an old man with a rather old wife, and they had no children. I’m sure Abraham thought, “How could this possibly happen?” But of course, nothing is impossible for God. Nothing.

I think we sometimes forget that nothing is impossible for God. We easily get caught up in the face of difficult situations and find ourselves feeling helpless or hopeless, believing that nothing will work out. We convince ourselves that nothing will turn out for the best, especially when depression sets in, like when we lose someone we love. How will I ever get through this? The anxiety and discouragement that comes in facing an addiction and not knowing how to manage it, or the fearful feelings we get when a family member is alcoholic or addicted, has a severe health problem like cancer, or a mental health problem, etc. How am I ever going to get through this? How can I help when the other person doesn’t want to be helped? In these situations, life can be quite overwhelming. But again, regardless of the situation, nothing is impossible for God! Nothing!

And then there’s our Gospel reading – the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Three apostles, Peter, James and John, are invited by Jesus to go up on the mountain with the Lord and witness the Transfiguration. They witness the impossible. They see Jesus transfigured before them. And who is with Jesus?  Moses and Elijah, two of the most important prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus face shines like the sun, reminiscent of Moses face which shone with the glory of God because of his encounters on Mt. Sinai. Moses was transformed on Mt. Sinai. And Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, except that in this situation, Moses is at Jesus’ side. Moses, the most important and central prophet of the Old Testament is attending to Jesus, not the other way around. This clearly indicates to Peter, James and John that Jesus is even greater than Moses.

It was just a chapter before this reading in Matthew that Jesus asked the apostles the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  And it was Peter that gave the most insightful answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And in essence Jesus says to him, “You couldn’t have known that on your own. God the Father revealed that to you.”

Strangely, right after that Jesus says that he will have to suffer much in Jerusalem, be killed, and on the third day rise again. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Right after saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Peter refuses to believe that something like that could ever happen to Jesus, and he challenges him over it.  Then Jesus sternly rebukes Peter by saying, “Get behind me Satan! You are thinking as man thinks, but not as God thinks.” God revealed to Peter the reality of who Jesus is, and yet Peter attempts to rebuke Jesus? That’s because it all seemed so impossible to Peter. The incarnation seems so impossible. God becoming human flesh, a man, and walking this earth all seems so impossible. But nothing is impossible for God.

Once again on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter sees Jesus for who he is. But that doesn’t settle it for Peter. He still has his questions. He still denies Jesus on the night before Jesus died. Deep down he has faith, though – a very real faith.

There are so many situations in life that seem impossible. And then there’s the gospel reading which emphasizes God’s voice from the heavens testifying to Jesus as his Son in whom he is well pleased. And the Father said, “Listen to him.” “Listen to him.” Such an important command from God the Father to all of us, not just Peter, James and John. It’s hard to listen when we really want to tell God the best way to answer our prayers. It’s so hard to listen when we think we know better than the wisdom of God.

Answers may not come the way we want or expect, but God does not abandon us. He does not leave us in times of trouble. It may feel like it at times, but he never leaves our side. He is at our side, within our hearts and souls, suffering with us in our losses, whispering to us in our pain. So as difficult as it may be, “Listen to him” and nothing, no matter how overwhelming, will ever be impossible.

(Readings based on Gen. 12:1-4a and Matt 17:1-9)