Monday, September 15, 2014

The Eucharist is NOT "Comfort Food"

(photo source: Getty)
Here in the Chicago area, we have been experiencing an early cold-snap, with temperatures we normally don't see for about another 6 weeks. Cooler weather typically brings out the cozy blankets, space heaters and puts me in the mood for cooking and baking.. and yes, it brings a craving for comfort food. The thought of a hearty soup when it gets down in the 30's at night and barely into the 60's by day is certainly more attractive than it was about a week ago when it was in the upper 80's and humid!  When we are cold, it's natural to seek comfort.

It strikes me that likewise, when one's discipleship is cool, there can be a tendency to look to God primarily for comfort, while avoiding the challenge of the Gospel, and to see the Eucharist as mere "comfort food." 

Jesus referred to himself as the "Bread of Life" and said that "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him." (John 6:54) He promised eternal life to those who eat.  But what does it mean to allow Christ to remain in us? Is that just about being comforted?  Televangelist Joel Osteen famously preaches the Prosperity Gospel - that "God just wants you to be happy."  But is that what it is all about?

If Jesus is in us, that means all of him - and all of his life. Take a look at what Jesus asked of us. Jesus calls us to do as he has done - to wash feet and to sacrifice ourselves for others in his name. To preach, teach and baptize (evangelize).  He never said, "Come, sit in the pews and feed on me, and then go home and be comfortable."  He never said, "I just want you to be happy and to have everything you want." That is the trap we can fall into when our faith is just about seeking comfort - about us instead of about truly following Jesus Christ in all our thoughts and actions. He is not only the comforting Good Shepherd, but also the "narrow gate."

Instead of simply resting in him, Jesus asked us to live for the sake of the Kingdom - God's will for the world. He said “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."  (Matthew 16:24-25)

And where do we go, what do we do when we follow Jesus? We heard the apostle Paul tell us in this weekend's second reading that Jesus "emptied himself,taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross." (Phillipians 2:7-8)  He did that for us, not for himself.

Discipleship is about learning that obedience, even to death, even death on a cross. The true disciple does not receive the Eucharist as if it is comfort food. It should be received to embody a total union with the One who calls us to submit to the will of God, whatever that may be, and wherever it leads us. It's not about us. It's all about you, Jesus. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"Late Have I Loved You" - Loving the God Who Loves Us

Music has a way of getting into my soul...  That's not particularly surprising, since according to the Called and Gifted process, one of my charisms is music. Anyhow, the song that keeps making me hit the repeat button on my iPod lately is this one from musician and blogger Sam Rocha, based on this famous passage from St. Augustine: "Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!"

It's been about a week since I purchased this song, from the album of the same name, which has been haunting my every waking moment. The question that came to me strongly a day or two ago was "Do I really love God?" Sure, I thought - intellectually speaking. That's not hard. But that answer did not seem good enough. I was gripped by Augustinian restlessness.

I was awakened very early this morning with a strong sense of that restlessness. Rolling around in my brain were lots of fragments, along with the refrain from "Late to Love." I struggled to recall what it was that had hit me as I led another song at Mass recently. Ah, "Servant Song" by McCargill - that old "chestnut!" The phrase "I am your song" had jumped out at me, along with the plaintive "Jesus, Jesus..."  Sure, I love Jesus, I thought. I have come to know and love him more deeply over the years - no problem. And for the past few years, I had come to a deeper love of the Holy Spirit, who fills me with song and inspires my writing.

But the Father. That's another thing entirely. But, I wondered, how could I say I love God, if I only have a formal, reverent respect and awe for one person of the Trinity - an intellectual assent to his authority and power? How does one move from the formal respectfulness of the public prayer of the Church to the Father to a lived sense of "Abba" - the Father who loves and is loved?

I won't go into the complicated history of my own stormy relationship with my father and father-figures in my life. It's messy. Affection, divorce, death, betrayal... yeah. Each person has a paternal relationship story of either presence or absence. Each of us has to navigate that and discover what it means to be loved by and to love the Father.

Botticelli: "St. Augustine in his Study"
The only answer to falling in love with an ineffable being is to see the face he showed us: Jesus. It's still a journey, but I feel like I'm getting closer to discovering the kind of love that Augustine found within the struggle to know God...
Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken and transcending my mind: not this common light which every carnal eye can see, nor any light of the same order; but greater, as though this common light were shining much more powerfully, far more brightly, and so extensively as to fill the universe. The light I saw was not the common light at all, but something different, utterly different, from all those things. Nor was it higher than my mind in the sense that oil floats on water or the sky is above the earth; it was exalted because this very light made me, and I was below it because by it I was made. Anyone who knows truth knows this light. 
O eternal Truth, true Love, and beloved Eternity, you are my God, and for you I sigh day and night. As I first began to know you, you lifted me up and showed me that, while that which I might see exists indeed, I was not yet capable of seeing it. Your rays beamed intensely on me, beating back my feeble gaze, and I trembled with love and dread. I knew myself to be far away from you in a region of unlikeness, and I seemed to hear your voice from on high: “I am the food of the mature: grow, then, and you shall eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me”.
Accordingly I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is also God, supreme over all things and blessed for ever. He called out, proclaiming I am the Way and Truth and the Life, nor had I known him as the food which, though I was not yet strong enough to eat it, he had mingled with our flesh, for the Word became flesh so that your Wisdom, through whom you created all things, might become for us the milk adapted to our infancy.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
Confessions of St. Augustine, Office of Readings for August 28, Feast of St. Augustine
There's a reason this song is haunting me. God is calling. Thank you, St. Augustine... and Sam Rocha for being "the bell that chimes."

Friday, September 5, 2014

Evangelizing, Joyful Ministry: Embodying Jesus for Others

A friend of mine just posted this on social media after his daily Mass attendance:

"My Eucharistic Minister had such joy in her eyes it was like she was handing me the freshly swaddled baby Jesus. She snapped me out of my shameful inward focus with which I was approaching the altar." 

Wow. Just wow.

Do your parish liturgical ministers bring joy to their ministry? Do they see the encounter each member of the Assembly as important?
How can parishes form ministers for joy?
What can we do for our priests to help them find and radiate joy?

"The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice."
                 (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 5)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Beginning the Catechetical Year with Meaningful Prayer

Last week I saw a request on an email group for DREs asking for ideas for an opening prayer for the first catechist meeting of the year.  I put on my "If I were doing this" hat and came up with this little plan, which has connections to liturgy, scripture and Christ the Teacher. Here is a fuller version of that prayer suggestion.

When catechists arrive, distribute their materials, including the class rosters. 

Begin with the Sign of the Cross.

Let us pray.
you bless your people with many gifts for the good of your community.
Be with us today as we  prepare to share the Good News 
of your Son Jesus Christ with the children of our parish.
Fill us with your spirit of love and awaken in our hearts a sure knowledge of you.
Grant that all we do here will be for their good.
We ask this through Jesus Christ your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you in the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. AMEN.

(GOSPEL: Matthew 19:13-15. Use a Bible or Lectionary and hold the book up as you carry it from the table to where you will stand)

A reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked them,
but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
After he placed his hands on them, he went away.

The Gospel of the Lord.

Ask the catechists to reflect on how Jesus would have looked at the children and how he would have spoken to them. How would he have taught them if he spent time with them? Give them a short silence to do that. Then ask them to take out their class rosters and when all are ready, ask them to read aloud slowly the first names of the children who will be in their class - all at the same time. If you  have the ability to do so, project group photos of children and activities from the program from previous years on a screen while they are proclaiming the names. (h/t Sister Caroline Cerveny.)

Let us pray. 
Lord, you have called each of us by name. 
Grant, we pray, the things we ask for this night (morning/afternoon)

INTERCESSIONS - (Have a few ready - pray for the parish, the families, all catechists, etc... and invite them to pray for needs they know of.)

Our Father....

Let us offer one another a sign of Christ's peace.

Then, the meeting can begin. What has happened is that the catechists have been invited to love their young students and to call each by name. You might also invite them to keep a copy of their roster at home in their prayer space, and to pray for each child by name regularly. 


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Review: The Spirituality of the Catechist

The Spiritualityof the Catechist: Feeding your Soul, Growing in Faith, Sharing with Others, by Sr. Janet Schaeffler, OP,  is a beautiful, deeply invitational short book for catechists who teach Catholic faith to people of all ages.

Sr. Janet, a national expert in adult faith formation, is a gentle soul and a wonderful storyteller. The pages of this simple and direct book are sprinkled with memorable, well-chosen  quotations and stories about spirituality and prayer, illustrating the dynamics of a fully-activated prayer life and relationship to the Risen Lord. She invites the reader to explore the possibilities inherent in spirituality in a deeply direct way.

Although the beginning is general enough to apply to any Catholic adult, the later chapters are more specific to how this should play out in the life of a catechist, who should pray for those he or she teaches as well as share prayer with them.

Yes, there is practical advice - lists of prayer types to explore, for example, and there are reflection questions at the end of each chapter, which makes this a great tool for further reflection or for discussion with others.

A much-needed book, which goes beyond the usual catechetical approach to how to pray with others and reaches the catechist where he or she lives, so that  having a deep and living relationship with God is foundational to sharing faith with others. This is a book not just for catechists and school teacher-catechists, but for catechetical leaders, RCIA teams and parish faith formation advisory boards.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

God is...

What is your image of God?  That's a good question.

I am facilitating a course on prayer, which asks as its first exercise, how the image one has of God affects how one prays, so I have been reading a number of descriptions of what the students think God is like.  For many of them, God is friend. For a few, God is an almighty theological construct to be feared and respected. For others, God has been a watchful judge.

Who is God for me?

Never Absent. Always. Forever.
A sometimes palpable presence I sense deeply near me and in me.

Yes, this presence is a Person. As I grow older, I am ever more aware that God is near. Even when I have been in the depths of pain or despair, I have known for a long time I am never alone. In the good things, God is with me, and we rejoice together.

Which Person? More and more, a triune presence - Jesus, trailing streams of the Father's glory and the
Spirit's encompassing warmth. Father-God, perhaps even more compassionate because of the suffering of his Son, oozing Spirit. Spirit - present in every breath, bringing Father and Son closer to me.

It has not always been this way. As a child, I only had a vague image of God as an old man with a beard watching me from heaven, usually with disapproval (no doubt the baggage of stern church ladies who watched us toddlers in the church nursery.)  As a teen during the 60's God was a mere intellectual exercise. Was God dead? That sappy sentimentalized Jesus guy - he was for people not smart enough to know better, right?

When did it change? Over time. With experience. With listening to the promptings of my heart. With the support of a community of faith. With the discovery that when I could rely on no one else, God was there. Over and over. Through it all. Once, when deep in meditative prayer, I saw myself walking through the corridors of the interior of my own heart toward a light glowing from just around the corner - a light I was in too much awe to approach...

When do I feel this Presence? Whenever I am mindful. When do I not? Whenever I let the tasks of daily life overtake and preoccupy me. Yet, beneath even that, I know.

I just know. God is...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Helping Young Children Appreciate the Mass

All of us have seen families who struggle to keep their young children "under control" at Mass. It's not pretty. Although this is understandable with children from birth until age 2-and-a-half, setting an early basis for a child's full participation at Mass not only helps them get through the experience with fewer tears, it can yield a big payoff when the child is older.

  photo from )
I have seen children as young as three who can lisp Mass responses, sing acclamations and familiar songs, and stand, sit and kneel when everyone else does - all because their parents participate in the Mass and expect that their children will too. These are the same little ones who remain reasonably quiet during the homily, perhaps while looking at a children's Bible or board-book about the Mass or the saints or while playing quietly with a Jesus or saints doll.

Sadly, most parishes are not helping parents with this piece. Interaction with parents of young children after baptism is one of the most-neglected areas of ministry in parishes today. The basis for young children's participation and understanding of the Mass actually begins with liturgical catechesis for youth, young adults and candidates for marriage. If parents participate fully in the Mass and make the effort to teach their children to do so as well, it makes a difference - for the experience of both parents and child.

Failure to do that is possibly one of the biggest reasons families don't go to Mass. Although we tend to blame it on the culture, sports and other distractions, many parents admit it's because they don't want to fight with their kids about going to Mass. Of course Mass is "no fun" when you sit on the sidelines and only marginally understand what is going on and why. Some families go anyway, but don't seem to be fully present. As a cantor facing the assembly, I have seen quite a few families in which neither parents nor teens sing, say responses or do anything other than sit, stand and kneel, all while staring straight ahead with a bored expression. (Happily most at least do the Sign of the Cross, say the Our Father and participate in the Sign of Peace.)

More than simply helping kids to participate, though, helping then to make real-life connections so they understand the meaning of the Mass is even better. (File this under things I wish I had understood better 25 years ago!)

Dan Gonzalez, a father of two, creator of The Mass Explained app for iPad and author of The Mass Explained blog has just posted this great explanation of what he is doing with his own children. He has also posted the priest paper doll for learning about vestments, the first of 10 art and activity lessons for young children on the Mass, to which he will add to each week of the summer. 
If you think about it, Jesus didn't just suddenly walk into the Temple at age 12. He had been raised to participate in worship by Mary and Joseph. When my own boys were young, they went to Mass every week, and learned to sing and respond because I helped them follow along in the missalette and hymnal. While they may not go to Mass as often today as I would like, now that they are 29 and 31, when they do, they participate fully - because that was what was expected of them from the beginning. That's how it works.