Thursday, May 26, 2011

An Apple Prayer

Jesus, I know what people mean by that odd expression:
"being the apple of someone's eye."
It means a person is loved and cherished by the beholder.
But why the apple of one's eye?

Stevie Wonder used those words in his song:

"You are the sunshine of my life
That's why I'll always be around,
You are the apple of my eye,
Forever you'll stay in my heart."

But why the apple of one's eye?

I was curious, Jesus, and I had to find out.
So I went online, and there I found it.
"Apple of my eye" comes from the Bible!
In the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 32, verse 10.

Yahweh, your Father, was offering his people encouragement.
In the midst of their present problems, God reminded them
that he saved them from the desert,
and he said of Israel,
"I sustained him in a desert land,
in a howling wilderness waste;
I shielded him, cared for him,
guarded him as the apple of my eye."

I found where it came from, but I still didn't understand
why the apple of one's eye?

I had to dig deeper, Lord, and as usual,
I found a clue more mysterious than before.
I found that the Hebrew word in Deuteronomy
translated as "apple" originally meant "little man."
Ishown in Hebrew means "little man."

Again I had to ask,
"Why the apple (or little man) of one's eye?"
I had to dig deeper, Lord!

And, as usual, it's not clear why or how the Hebrews went
from "little man" to "apple,"
but I think the transition was something like this:

The "little man" was one's own reflection in the pupil of the eye of the beholder.
When I look into another's eyes I see myself!
I see a little person staring back.

But again, Lord, I had to ask why apple?
And as best I can make out,
when the passage in Deuteronomy was translated into Latin,
St Jerome rendered the Hebrew ishown with the Latin pupillam,
which is "pupil" in English.

And because people thought the pupil of the eye resembled an apple...
--well, as they say, the rest is history.

Somewhere, Lord, in all this searching there must be a lesson for me.

If I am the little man in your eye,
may I draw the conclusion that I am close to you, precious in your sight?

I join my prayer with that of David,
I pray,
"Guard me as the apple of the eye,
hide me in the shadow of your wings."

I am not worthy of such care and protection and love,
but I am grateful for your providence.
I still don't know why I would be "the apple of your eye,"
but I am glad that I can be seen there.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Taking The Gospel Seriously

The Gospel scares me.

I like the part about God's love, mercy and forgiveness. I like the assurance, "I will be with you always." I look forward to the banquet in the heavenly kingdom. These benefits make it "Good News" indeed.

What bothers me is the cost. This thing about taking up your cross, this expectation of poverty (especially this being "poor in spirit"), this requirement of loving one's enemies, this directive, "Take nothing for your journey" --all these seem anything but good news.

For 2000 years Christians have stumbled over and struggled with Jesus' radical teaching about "turning the other cheek," about "selling what you have and giving it to the poor," about "being the servant of all." Can he really mean it? Wasn't he exaggerating to make a point? Don't we have to be reasonable, measured, and cautious about how we interpret and respond to his message?

Some have said that St. Francis of Assisi is the only person in the past twenty centuries who was fully and genuinely Christian. He heard the Gospel and took it literally. He put his trust in God's care, he lived a life of poverty, he shied away from power and prestige.

And as a result of his efforts to live the Gospel as well as believe it, we have publicly hailed him as a great saint and privately whispered, "He was nuts."

Theologians and spiritual writers have put forth noble and even persuasive efforts to explain away the starkly demanding nature of Jesus' directives. But every time we hear the Gospel or meet someone living it more faithfully than we do, we are challenged to ask ourselves, "Am I really following Christ?"

I've tried to make peace with Jesus' imperatives by persuading myself that living the radical Gospel is the ideal and I shall always fall short. I can justify having a closet full of clothes, a nice car to drive, more than adequate shelter, and plenty of food by assessing these goods as necessary for my carrying out my ministry as a priest.

Of course I need a computer --it helps me spread the message and stay informed and in touch. Of course I need library shelves full of books --I can be accurate in my exegesis and creative in my preaching. Of course I need my CDs and DVDs and trips to Gettysburg --I must have distractions that will let me unwind and relax.

The world in which I live does not begrudge me these things, but I wonder how these blessings would strike my "foster child" in Nicaragua or the homeless in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine. Most people in Haiti would think they had died and gone to heaven if they had half of what I have.

And sometimes I wonder how these possessions strike Jesus.

I know what he said: "Blessed are the poor in spirit...Take nothing for the journey but a walking stick --no food, no sack, no money in your belts...Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself...Give to the one who asks..."

On occasion I acknowledge that some natural disaster or fire could take away all that I have. Then where would I be? On occasion I admit that someday I shall die. What will my survivors do with my precious junk? On occasion I hear the echo of Jesus' parable, "And where will all this piled up wealth of yours go?"

I have not yet reached the point where I can honestly say, "I don't care about my possessions" or "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away --blessed be the name of the Lord."

I console myself with the thought that I need these things right now, and when death approaches I can pray, "Here, Lord, all that I have I give to you!" And Jesus will smile at the contrast between what I offer him and what he has in store for me.

In the meantime, however, the Gospel still scares me.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

To Be A Saint

What does it take to be a saint?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the Church's "canonizing" some of the faithful is its way of saying that these people have practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God's grace (cf. #828).

The process does not imply that these canonized saints were perfect.

Jesuit priest and writer James Martin proposes in his book Becoming Who You Are that to be a saint one must be himself or herself. He borrows that insight from Thomas Merton's description of sanctity in his New Seeds of Contemplation.

As comforting as that insight is, the problem connected with it is the struggle to be authentic, to be really and truly who we are.

The Catechism says that in canonizing saints the Church is proposing them as models as well as intercessors (cf. #828).

It is the idea of saints as models that becomes treacherous, for it sounds as if we are supposed to become St Francis of Assisi or St Therese the Little Flower.

The modeling worth imitation is not to wear brown robes or live as an intinerant preacher; it is not that we enter a monastery and ape Therse's patience with nuns who were irritating.

The modeling that is to inspire us comes from our awareness that both of them became saints by being who they were --unique personalities set in the culture and circumstances of their times.

If we try to be St. Francis or St. Therese we fail to be ourselves, we fail to be authentic --we are taking on a false persona.

Father Martin selects Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen as two examples of uncanonized saints, and notes that both were flawed and sometimes sinful, revealing in their writings the difficulties they faced in trying to be patient, generous, kind, compassionate, open to others.

The test of true sanctity is whether we are willing to be who we are, and whether we seek to grow and mature into the full person we have the potential for being.

Martin recalls an episode in the life of Mother Teresa when she told an admirer, "Find your own Calcutta." She meant, you don't have to go to India to become a saint; find the place where you belong --the "bloom where you are planted" advice.

I doubt I'll live long enough to see Dorothy Day canonized. We know how dedicated she was to the poor, how faithful to the Eucharist, how self-sacrificing --all traits that fit in the criteria for canonization ("heroic to God's grace").

But we also know how flawed she was --her having an abortion, her having a child out of wedlock, her sometimes cantankerous moods and harsh words.

There has been a tendency to sanitize the lives of the saints, to paint a one-sided picture of their personalities and nature. Since we know much about Dorothy Day's life, will the Church be able to accept this flawed person and recognize her virtue and fidelity?

One of Dorothy's friends remembers discussing with her the report that it cost about $7 million for the canonization of Elizabeth Seton. Teasing Dorothy about her canonization some day, Mary Lathrop asked, "How much should we put in the kitty for yours?" Dorothy smiled, and said, "Oh, about fifteen thousand" (cf Dorothy Day: Portraits By Those Who Knew Her by Rosalie Riegel, p. 195.)

On another occasion someone suggested to Dororthy that she was indeed a saint, and Miss Day responded, "Don't call me a saint; I don't want to be dismissed that easily."

Dorothy wasn't opposed to saints or canonization, but she knew the tendency to sanitize their lives and perhaps thereby defuse the power that a social activist needed to accomplish good things for the poor.

The first step toward canonizing Dorothy Day was taken in March of 2000; the Vatican officially declared her "a servant of God."

I won't hold my reath until the process moves to the next step, declaring her venerable. But in the meantime I will enjoy the consolation that one of her friends suggested, "Knowing Dorothy's dark side, I can live with my own."

In the final analysis canonization is a nice honor but it doesn't make one a saint. Sanctity is what Thomas Merton noted, "For me to be a saint means to be myself," authentically.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

My Commonplace Book

I hadn't looked at it for a long time --my commonplace book. It's a note book in which to record quotes and comments I find noteworthy. I started this one back in 1975.

It reminds me of what I was reading in those days, and what struck me as insightful.

If you have the stomach for it, I'll select some:

"The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them; that's the essence of inhumanity." (George Bernard Shaw)

"Many a man wishes he were strong enough to tear a telephone book in half, especially if he has a teenaged daughter." (Guy Lombardo)

"In your marriage it only makes sense for both of you to paddle in the same direction. Otherwise you'll only go in circles." (Marabel Morgan, The Total Woman)

"I was in love with a beautiful blonde once --she drove me to drink-- 'tis the one thing I'm indebted to her for." (W. C. Fields)

"Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest." (Mark Twain)

"Sometimes the only thing it takes to get an elephant out of your way is to drop a peanut." (Unknown)

"America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature." (G. K. Chesterton)

"She's been knitting with only one needle for years." (Unknown)

"Omnia videre, multa dissimulare, et pauca corrigere." (St Bernard) I think Pope John used to say that too: "See everything, turn a blind eye to much, correct a little."

I still keep a commonplace book, especially to help my poor memory when I want to add some flavor to a homily or what I'm writing.

When some unfortunate soul comes to clear out my belongings because I've gone either to nursing home or cemetery, he'll come upon this commonplace book and wonder, "What's this?"

He probably won't guess that it's a chronicle of the insights I picked up along life's journey, but if he does figure it out I hope he'll notice where the wisdom came from --from many people of various backgrounds, but all of whom gave a second thought to the meaning and humor of life.