Thursday, June 30, 2011


Re-gifting, that is, giving to someone else a gift one has been given, is considered by many to be "politically incorrect."

It is said to be an insult to both the original giver and to the second-hand recipient.

It is said to be a breach of etiquette, even if one thinks of it as a form of re-cycling.

What brought this to mind was that line in Matthew's Gospel, "Without cost you have been given, without cost you are to give" (10:8). We used to translate it, "Freely you have received, freely give."

And some have interpreted it, "What you received as a gift, give as a gift."

Jesus, then, thinks it's perfectly OK to re-gift. In fact, he recommends it.

A popular saying suggests that "grief shared is divided in half; happiness shared is doubled."

Does one lose any of God's blessings by sharing them?

Jesus described such a gesture as "laying up treasure in heaven." The economy of the Kingdom differs from the economy of the world.

When Jesus took pity on the crowds, he healed them, protected them, fed them. And he more than implied that what he did we are to do as well. He told the apostles,"You feed them!"

He wants people to serve other people by giving to others what they themselves have received.

I remember stopping at a yard sale, and as I browsed the family's junque I heard one woman say to her sister who was holding the sale, "Hey, Cynthia! This is the purse I gave you!"

It wasn't exactly re-gifting, but it came close.

Re-gifting in terms of the world's goods requires delicacy, diplomacy, and discretion (some say, deception) lest we offend the original giver or the new recipient.

Re-gifting in terms of the gifts of the Kingdom requires generosity, gentleness and grace (some say, goodness)in order to benefit both the giver and the recipient. In this case, we need not fear offending the original Giver.

God is delighted when we re-gift the gifts he has given, and thereby make the Kingdom grow.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Only The Open Hand

Christian writers return again and again to Jesus' sermon on the mount to establish a foundation and direction for our spiritual lives.

Matthew's Gospel is formulated around five major sermons. Scripture scholars generally agree that these discourses are made up of a number of Jesus' teachings from various times and settings in his public life.

The first discourse begins in chapter five, with the Beatitudes.

These verses focus on basic attitudes that reflect the values of God's kingdom. Jesus presents these attitudes and values in paradoxical sayings. Listeners are challenged by the apparent contradictions: how can anyone be considered "blessed" if he is poor or mourning or meek?

Jesus' usual pedagogy is not to impose rules, but to invite thinking. He shies away from imposing values or constraining obedience. Instead he invites people to reflect on what he says and make a personal decision. He urges his listeners to "repent," that is, to think things through and regret their bad choices.

True conversion cannot be coerced. Effective and lasting change of heart comes voluntarily, from within.

Take, for example, the first beatitude: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God."

On several occasions Jesus warns his followers about riches and possessions: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth" (Mt. 6:19), "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Mt. 6:24), or "Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven" (Mt 19:21).

On first hearing it sounds absurd to congratulate those who are "poor in spirit" (I suspect the "in spirit" is a recognition that even a financially poor person can be greedy and focused on wealth.) But on second thought congratulations are due to those who can let go of the riches of the world in order to be open to the treasures in heaven "where neither moth nor decay destroys, not thieves break in and steal" (Mt. 6:20).

Jesus' teaching in general and specifically his first beatitude invite us to confront the seeming contradiction and discover the truth.

The poor in spirit are those who are open to letting go of any possession, whether material or spiritual, so that they can be enriched by the things of heaven.

This poverty of spirit includes the willingness to let go prejudices, pre-conceptions, practices, plans, prescriptions, and possibilities --all possessions-- in order to free onself to be blessed with the riches God has to offer.

The young Jewish philosopher and mystic Simone Weil noted decades ago that the only obstacle standing in the way of our receiving God's gifts is our refusal to accept them.

She recognized that a hand grasping the material goods of this world is incapable of receiving the spiritual goods of the world to come.

To acquire heaven we must be willing to let go of earth.

Congratulations then are due to those who have the wisdom and courage to yield the worldly for the sake of the heavenly.

The rich young man could not bring himself to give away his possessions in order to become Jesus' follower. He went away sad.

Jesus knew it was a most difficult choice. He said it was harder to thread a rope through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Even his closest associates asked, "What's in it for us?" And Jesus promised, "And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life" (Mt. 19:29).

Spiritual writers return again and again to Jesus' sermon on the mount, and especially to the Beatitudes. Here we find the basic attitudes expected of those who would really be Christian.

And the first of those attitudes is described as poverty-in-spirit, the willingness to let go of anything that is an obstacle to following Christ.

Only the open hand can accept the gifts God has to offer.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Taking The Gospel Seriously

What if we took the Gospel seriously?

It is the life-long struggle of every Christian to translate Jesus' message from words into action. Most of us fail.

Jesus made it clear that following him was like picking up a cross.

He said that we must change. And as most of us readily admit, change is hard.

In 13th century Europe a man named Francis of Assisi changed, and in an outstanding way translated the Gospel into action. He embraced voluntary poverty, and became known as Il Poverello. His story continues to challenge and inspire to this very day.

In 20th century America a French immigrant named Peter Maurin underwent a conversion experience and translated the Gospel into action. He embraced voluntary poverty, and became with Dorothy Day the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. His story continues to challenge and inspire to this very day.

Maurin spend the last years of his life working with and for the poor. He asked clergy and laity to set up rooms for hospitality, a "Christ room" which would be available to the homeless, hungry, and broken members of society.

He reminded Catholics of the instruction given by the Church's Council of Carthage in 436, that bishops should have hospices near their churches to care for the needy. He spoke often of St. Basil, the fourth century bishop, who built a complex in Caesarea to meet the needs of the sick who could not afford medical treatment.

In the October 1939 issue of The Catholic Worker Maurin wrote a brief essay on the subject:

"People who are in need and not afraid to beg give to people not in need the occasion to do good for goodness' sake. Modern society calls the beggar bum and panhandler and gives him the bum's rush. But the Greeks used to say that people in need are ambassadors of the gods...

"Mohammedan teachers tell us that God commands hospitality. And hospitality is still practiced in Mohammedan countries. But the duty of hospitality is neither taught nor practiced in Christian countries."

Maurin recalled that in the early days of the Church bystanders noticed how Christians treated one another and said, "See how they love one another."

He lamented, however, that in modern times, "the poor are no longer fed, clothed and sheltered at a personal sacrifice but at the expense of the taxpayers. And because the poor are no longer fed, clothed and sheltered at a personal sacrifice, the pagans say about the Christians, 'See how they pass the buck.'"

Maurin irritated many when he noted that parishes have houses for priests, buildings for educational purposes, gyms for recreational purposes, but they do not have parish houses for hospitality.

"The poor," Maurin maintained, "are the first children of the Church so the poor should come first. People with homes should have a room of hospitality so as to give shelter to the needy members of the parish. The remaining needy members of the parish should be given shelter in a Parish Home."

Moved by Maurin's message and lifestyle Dorothy Day would later write, "Every house should have a Christ Room. It's no use turning people away to an agency...It is you yourself who must perform the works of mercy...we must act personally, at a personal combat the growing tendency to let the State take the job which Our Lord Himself gave us to do."

A hundred and one excuses come to our minds, reasonably arguing why we can't do that. And perhaps we're not all called to be a Francis of Assisi, a Peter Maurin, a Dorothy Day.

But at the very least their example and the instruction of Jesus' Gospel are meant to make us sensitive to the poor around us.

I have often rationalized my not responding to the needy or giving a dollar to the poor: "They wouldn't be in this situation if they just got a job" or "He'll just use the money to buy a beer." I conveniently forget that many are mentally ill, unable to work, or that I'll spend more than a dollar to buy a beer for myself.

And yet, there's the Gospel teaching: "Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on the borrower" (Mt 5:42) and "I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink..." (cf. Mt 25:42).

What if we took the Gospel seriously? What if each diocese set up a house of hospitality? What if the bishop instructed each parish to establish a home for the homeless? What if each Catholic household opened a "Christ room" for one indigent neighbor?

What do you think would happen? What if we took the Gospel seriously?

(Donations may be sent to the St Francis - St Joseph Catholic Worker House, PO Box 14274, Cincinnati OH 45250-0274.)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The "I"s Or The "We"s?

Beginning Sunday, November 27, 2011, we will no longer say "We believe in one God..." in the Profession of Faith.

The new translation will be "I believe in one God..."

Why the change from We to I?

The answer is: the new translation more literally reflects the Latin text, which is credo (the singular "I believe") not credimus (the plural "we believe").

The Latin text of the Nicene-Constantinople creed as found in the liturgy is the singular "I" not "we."

Further justification in favor of "I" rather than "we" focuses on the personal profession of each member of the assembly. On Sunday, November 27, the language of the assembly will affirm that each individual person is directly for himself or herself acknowledging his or her avowal of the theology of the creed.

Each member of the congregation will publicly acknowledge (as he or she sees it, as he or she individually believes it) the dogmas of the Roman Catholic understanding of the faith as spelled out by the Council of Nicea in 325 and revised and supplemented by the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Both Councils were gatherings of Church leaders who were directly charged with the responsibility of determining and promulgating sound doctrine. Among the controverted issues they addressed were the divinity of Jesus and the relationship of the Spirit to Father and Son.

Later Councils handed on the doctrinal decisions and dogmatic tradition of these two Councils.

So, on the one hand, the new language of "I" rather than "we" more literally translates the Latin text and makes more personal and individual the acceptance of the teachings of the creed.

On the other hand, however, the profession of faith as formulated by Nicea and Constantinople and handed on by later Councils uses the expression credimus (the plural "we believe"), or in the Greek language (the language of the two Councils) pisteuomen (the plural "we believe.")

So the question is, why did the Latin liturgical text become the singular "I believe" when the documentation of the Councils has the plural "we believe"? (A copy of the Nicean creed as written by Eutyches in 449 has the singular, but scholars are divided on its reliability.)

Historically, the plural "we" finds support in the traditional wording of the creed, and theologically, the "we" connotes that the doctrines are not an individual's statement of belief but rather the official and formal declaration of the catholic (whole) Church.

"We believe" affirms the communal expression of faith, placing each one who professes belief by means of this creed into the context of the Body of Christ. The plural further echoes the more traditional profession made by believers for centuries, and reflects the full communion of saints.

Both the singular and the plural have their proponents and both support their theologies with significant argumentation.

But once again we are caught up as Church in a distraction. We argue and theologize about such minutia, and thereby avoid more significant matters. No wonder we are often accused of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

In the final analysis I doubt it really matters whether one says "I" or "we."

And I suspect when November 27 rolls 'round, there'll be a mixture of the singular "I" and plural "we" as the People of God (or more likley the priest-presider) expresses faith in the words of the creed.

It will be interesting to see who gets more upset: the "I"s or the "we"s!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jesus, It's Hard To Love You

"Jesus, do you know how hard it is to love you?"
Those words, Lord, are Dorothy Day's,
but that sentiment is mine too!
"How hard it is to love you."

It was a rough day at the Catholic Worker House.
Dorothy had dealt with a litany of problems --
breaking up fights among her "guests,"
preparing enough food to feed them,
trying to rid the house of lice,
welcoming another alcoholic who returned her kindness
by throwing up on her shoes.

It was a rough day at the Catholic Worker House.
And when evening came, when finally she found some quiet time
to pray, to bring her troubles before you,
her usual calm and patience gave way,
and from her troubled heart and anxious soul, Lord,
came those most honest words,
"Jesus, do you know how hard it is to love you?"

Dorothy knew:
you measure our love for you by our love for others:
"Truly I tell you,
just as you did it to the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did to me."

The Beloved Disciple put it boldly:
"Those who say, 'I love God,"
and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars;
for those who do not love a brother or sister
whom they have seen,
cannot love God
whom they have not seen."

I come to the conclusion, Lord,
that love for my neighbor
is the horizontal bar in the cross.

You just won't allow a "me and Jesus relationship."
It would be so much easier,
so much neater, so much more focused --
a vertical relationship,
a stairway to heaven,
peaceful, holier, so very consoling!
But "No!" --you won't allow it.
You insist on bringing other people into the equation.

I can understand why the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said,
"Hell is other people."
I know what Lucy Van Pelt meant:
"I love humanity; it's people I can't stand."
I feel the same as Dorothy Day:
"Jesus, do you know how hard it is to love you?"

The two great commandments:
"Love God and love your neighbor"
allow no separation.
You can't do the first without the second.

When I have to deal with somebody I don't like,
when a stranger causes me inconvenience,
when someone dear to me gets on my nerves,
I have to remember:
God loves that person,
and so must I.

If Dorothy found it hard to love you, Lord,
at least she never stopped trying.
She never stopped looking for you in the face of others.
She never gave up because your image stunk
or was drunk or mentally ill.
She never quit trying to love you
no matter how hard it was.

What welcome she must have had in heaven,
when she was met by all those marginal,
rejected, and forgotten reflections of yourself.

All the time she had been entertaining angels,
and never knew.

Jesus, how hard it is to love you!