Extreme Trust

This homily was given at Our Lady of the Mountain Parish, Ashland, OR on the memorial of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, June 21, 2022. The audio is available here.


Two paths lie open before us.

One is a wide road, easy to take.

The other is the way of extreme trust: a little trail beyond a narrow, old gate, which climbs straight up into the wilderness.

Hezekiah faced this very choice, surrounded by the armies of Assyria.

Surrender was the easy way out, but it would end in ruin just as surely as choosing to stand and fight.

Instead of the broad way of cowardly compromise or stubborn self-destruction, he chose the narrow way of trust.

Taunted by the enemy, tempted to disbelieve in God’s protecting care, still he went up to the temple of the Lord and prayed: “Save us!”

And his extreme trust in God saved him and his people. 

We face the same choice whenever the enemy tempts us to take the easy way out rather than the narrow way of trust.

When bad news comes and we’re tempted to despair—do we believe the Devil, who whispers, “God doesn’t care about you. God won’t save you.”

Or do we cry out in faith, “Jesus, I trust in you! Save me!”

Today, at this Holy Mass, Jesus opens the narrow gate before us.

He says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.”

As we receive Him today in Holy Communion, we enter through the gate of trust and recommit to the little way that leads to life.

And on the last day, when we stand before Him in whom we have placed our trust, we will say with St. Paul and all the saints:

“I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

And Jesus will say to us, with a brother’s kindness:

“Come, you blessed of my Father. Receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

What We Lack

This homily was given at Holy Rosary Parish, Portland, OR on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 22, 2022. The audio is available here.


It’s Holy Thursday in the upper room.

St. Peter looks across the table.

There’s Jesus…

And there’s John, his eyes half-closed, leaning against Jesus’ chest.

“Look at him.”

“He’s so young. So innocent.”

“And me? I’m an old sinner, a blockhead. Just the other day Jesus called me Satan!”

“No wonder Jesus loves him more than me.”

Peter notices something in John that he lacks in himself.

We all notice qualities in others that we lack. 

“My buddy can always get a laugh. People light up just seeing him come into the room…”

“My wife is so kind. I don’t know what it is, but everyone loves her…”

“Father Corwin is such a good preacher. When he preaches, people listen!”

As we notice qualities in others that we lack, envy turns us inward, away from the other person.

We tend to curl up around the hole in our heart, sulking over our inadequacy. 

Notice Peter takes his eyes off of Jesus to look at John — and ends up staring bitterly at himself

Like Peter, we long to be loved, but most of the time, we live as if God’s love is really quite conditional. 

As if his love depends on us meeting some standard of perfection.

And so we obsess over our inadequacy. 

I’m not funny enough, not kind enough, not good enough to be loved.

But there is a fundamental law of the spiritual life: we become what we behold.

The more we fixate on what we lack and spiral inward into shame and self-loathing, the more we loathe and envy others for having what we don’t.

The inward turn suffocates love.

The self-hatred we nurture will spawn hatred for others.

And the downward spiral ends in broken relationships, isolation, loneliness, and despair.

But hear what the Lord says to St. Peter and to each of us in today’s Gospel:

“Whoever loves me will keep my word,

and my Father will love him,

and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

At every moment, at this moment, Jesus, with true sincerity in His eyes, asks:

“Do you love me?

Keep my word.”

And His word is simple: “Follow me.”

Loving Jesus and following Jesus begins with a choice to turn toward Him.

As we turn to Jesus with a simple look of love, we find that Jesus indeed dwells in the innermost depth of our souls, deeper than our sins, deeper than our weaknesses, deeper than our doubts, our insecurities and fears.

God is with us, not when we finally feel we’re “worth it,” but precisely when we feel most low, abandoned, unworthy and alone.

To follow Jesus is first to look at Jesus.

As the Devil tries to get us to fixate on our inadequacies, we simply turn our gaze instead to the love of Christ shining through them from within.

We give thanks to God for our inadequacies, because those are the very places where the radiant glory of His unconditional love for us shines forth most brightly from within.

In the very places we are inadequate, God allows us to see that this ardent love depends not on our merits, but on His own goodness.

And instead of shame, we begin to feel in those places the warmth of His love and the peace of His presence … the peace the world cannot give.

Today, at this Holy Mass, call to mind one place where you feel inadequate. 

As we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, ask Him for the grace to see the glory of His love shining forth from that very place.  

And the next time the Devil tempts us to “compare and despair,” flip the script. 

We shift our gaze from what we lack to the light of Christ who dwells within.

Then, affirmed by the unconditional yes of the love of Jesus, we turn back to our wife, our husband, our brother or sister, and return a blessing.

As we turn from the darkness to the light and return blessings rather than curses, shame fades in us, self-loathing dies in us, and love and peace reign in our hearts.

“Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.”

And one day, as we meet our loved ones in the Kingdom of Heaven, beholding together the radiant face of the One who loves us so well, we shall hear Him say:

“Well done, good and faithful servants. Enter into your master’s joy.”

The First Key of Prayer

“True prayer, like true love, is a decision, not a feeling.”

Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB, “Twelve Keys of Prayer,” in Prayer of the Hours, pp. 231-2

To the Neophytes

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

Today, at the conclusion of the Easter octave, we heard this beautiful entrance antiphon: “Quasi modo geniti infantes…” “Like newborn children, cry out for the clean and pure milk of the spirit!” (1 Peter 2:2). You, my dear brothers and sisters, are those children, who eight days ago emerged from the fount of Baptism as newborn sons and daughters of God. For eight days, we have rejoiced in calling you fellow members of God’s family, the Church! Now it is our task to teach you something of what it means to live this new life in Christ. 

St. Peter has taught us the first and most essential lesson: “Cry out for the clean and pure milk of the spirit!” What is this “spiritual milk” but the grace of the Risen Lord? And how do we cry out for it but by prayer? Little children do not hesitate to cry out to their parents in every need. If they are hungry, thirsty, tired, lonely, sad, or afflicted in any way whatsoever, they naturally cry out for Mommy or Daddy to fix it! 

Crying out is a necessity, not just for newborns and neophytes, but for all who would like to “change and become like little children” (Matthew 18:3)—and all of us must do this if we want to enter into the kingdom of Heaven! Therefore, like little children, cry out to the Lord in every need. Set aside moments of prayer throughout your day to lift your heart to Him, to pour out your heart to God, with all of your experiences, pains, desires, hopes and joys. 

However, there are two truths you must remember. First, “true prayer, like true love, is a decision, not a feeling.” You may go to your prayer and feel that nothing changes. Very well! Feelings come and go. What is important is that you choose to pray and remain faithful to your commitment, continuing to come to Him with childlike simplicity even when it feels dry and God seems far away. It is in the dryness and absence that the gold of faith and trust is forged. 

Second, we do not “‘use’ prayer to deal with crises or passing desires.” The point of prayer is to be with God, “to be alone with Him who we know loves us” (St. Teresa). Like any relationship of love, the point is not what we get out of it. On any given day, prayer may make us feel better, or it may not, just as the company of a friend (or spouse!) may delight us one day and annoy us the next. However you feel, simply tell the Lord about your distress and leave it in His hands. His solution may not look like what we would have planned or designed for ourselves, but isn’t that often the way with children? He knows how to deal with our crises better than we do.  Our part is to cry out … and leave the rest to Him.

Iconoclasm

“The liturgy requires an artistic transposition, originating in the spirit of faith, of the music of the cosmos into human music that glorifies the Word made flesh.”

Ratzinger, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, pp. 480-93

To the Parish Choir

Let’s be honest: church music has been in a state of crisis for many years now. Those of you who lived through those years after the Second Vatican Council know what I am talking about. One Sunday, there was a parish choir which sang Gregorian chants and beautiful, traditional hymns in four-part harmony. The next Sunday, there was a folk band strumming out feel-good music on banjos and guitars. In this parish, we are blessed to have an excellent choir once again, devoted to singing beautiful music for the glory of God and to leading our people in prayer and praise. Nonetheless, we must ask— What happened in those years? Why did the Church change her music at all? 

On one level, it’s a pastoral question. The Second Vatican Council did, in fact, call for the actual participation of the faithful in the liturgy. Certain liturgists took this to mean that everyone in church must be doing something at all times. They took it as a pastoral need, therefore, to disband the old choirs, with their “elitist” music, and start singing simple tunes so that everyone could join in. Music was reduced to something purely functional, “community-building” at our community meal. Beauty, artistic value, was relatively low on the priority list. 

However, there is a deeper theological reason for the change, and that is a resurgence of iconoclasm. Iconoclasm is a perennial temptation in the Church. It is as old as the origins of Christianity, when Christians left the Temple to worship in the house churches. Many theologians regarded Christianity as opposed to Temple, cult, and priesthood and concluded that Christian worship must therefore be “profane,” commonplace. The spirit of iconoclasm sprung up in the East in the seventh and eighth centuries with the destruction of icons; it ravaged the West after the Protestant Revolt, when John Calvin and his followers whitewashed churches, toppled statues, and desecrated the Blessed Sacrament in the name of a purer, reformed Church. 

Like the iconoclasts of old, many Catholics today are convinced that “Puritan functionalism” and a liturgy of the commonplace is truer to the original spirit of Christianity. But they are mistaken. “Church music with artistic pretensions is not contrary to the nature of Christian liturgy but, rather, is a necessary way of expressing belief in the universal glory of Jesus Christ” (Ratzinger, 491). Our liturgy, like the Tempe liturgy of old, is supposed to be glorious, “disclosing … the glorification of God that lies hidden in the cosmos and causing it to resound” (ibid).  To do this, sacred music must be beautiful, the words must be comprehensible, and the beauty of words and melody together must draw the hearts of the listeners upwards to the harmonies of heaven. This is noble work. Psallite sapienter!

Lent

“The liturgical year is the life of Christ lived out in liturgical time … from his Birth to the Passion, from his Death to the Resurrection, and from his Ascension to Pentecost.”

Fr. Samuel Weber, “Introduction to the Liturgical Year,” 11-12

On a Catholic Radio Program

The Roman Catholic liturgy is made up of sacred signs. Signs point to something beyond themselves. And in the liturgy, all the signs—the sounds, the smells, the sacred music, the vestments, the sacred art and architecture—point in some way to the mystery of Jesus Christ, our beloved Lord, God and man, who suffered, died, and was buried, and rose again for our salvation.

Now there are signs which are more than signs. We call these sacraments. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass contains the sacrament of sacraments, the Body and Blood of Our Lord., which are not merely a sign, but the Real Presence of Jesus. But there are many other sacred signs which, although they are not sacraments, help to dispose us to receive the grace of the sacraments. 

Think of holy water, which reminds us of our baptism, when we were cleansed from sin and born into the new life of grace. Holy water is a sign of our need today, and every day, for repentance, cleansing, redemption and grace. Or think of the ashes sprinkled on our heads at the beginning of Lent: “Dust you are, and unto dust you shall return. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The ashes are a sign of our mortality, but also of life. On our own, we are only dust, but it is from this dust that Jesus raises up, making us participants in his glory, if we only allow our lives to be renewed through his mercy. 

The liturgical year is the Church living out of the life of Christ, from his Birth in Bethlehem to the Passion, from his Death on Calvary to the Resurrection, and from his Ascension into heaven to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The season of Lent corresponds to the forty days Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism, praying and fasting, acquiring the strength to reject the temptations of Satan and to carry out his ministry of mercy. With Jesus, the Church enters the desert, praying, fasting, and doing works of mercy.

It is no coincidence that this season of Lent occurs in the spring, when the world is waking up again after a long winter. The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, yet in our churches things are more austere. We have no flowers, less music. The priest and the altar are dressed in somber violet vestments rather than joyful white or gold. The Passover is celebrated in spring, and the Lord’s Passion and death on the cross occurred on the Passover Sabbath. The spiritual significance is clear: through death to life. The natural world speaks of the eternal life to come, but the only way to that life is through a prior death. There is no Easter without Lent.

The Mass as Listening

“Listening is a vital aspect of the active participation of the faithful. One participates fully when one listens.”

Bishop Athanasius Schneider, “The Mass is Listening,” in The Catholic Mass, 139

A Homily

We live in an incredibly noisy age. I don’t know about you, but from the first moment of the day until I go to bed again, I feel constantly bombarded by emails, texts, phone calls and every other kind of alert. When we go to the store, there’s music. When we drive in our cars, there’s podcast or a radio program. And then there is the never-ending background hum of modern life – the traffic noise, the sirens, the advertisements, the chatter. 

Like fish in the ocean, we swim in a sea of noise. We grow accustomed to it. And little by little, over days and weeks and years, the bombardment of noise changes us. We find ourselves restless in rare moments of quiet. We are uncomfortable to be alone with ourselves.  

We have become addicts of distraction. And the worst is this: In our distraction, we have become deaf to the “still, small voice” of God. “When we come in from the outside our ears are filled with the racket of the city, the words of those who have accompanied us, the laboring and quarreling of our own thoughts, the disquiet of our hearts’ wishes and worries, hurts and joys. How are we possibly to hear what God is saying?” (Romano Guardini, qtd. in Schneider, The Catholic Mass, 139)

At every Holy Mass, Christ, the Word of the Father, speaks to us. And His Word is spirit and life (Jn 6:63), bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (6:33). Do you long for that life (cf. Ps 34:12)? Then first, learn to “be still, and know that I am God!” (Ps 46:10) “The liturgical life begins … with learning stillness” (Guardini, qtd. in Schneider, 140). Stillness is the natural state of a child at rest in the arms of his Father. Like a child, then, before we pray, we cast ourselves into the arms of God, whispering to Him all our anxieties and cares. 

When there is nothing left to say, we will be still and silent in the arms of God. Then we may begin to listen. We will “pay attention and make a real effort to understand what is being said” (139-40) in the readings, the prayers, the hymns and chants of the Mass, knowing that each word is spoken directly to us by the “One whom we know loves us” (St. Teresa).

Silence and stillness take practice. Today, at this Holy Mass, resolve to keep silence in the car on your next drive to church, and get here at least 10 minutes early to settle into the arms of the Father. As we learn to listen, we will taste that peace the world, with all its distractions, cannot give (cf. Jn 14:27), “and [that] peace, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6), both now and ever, unto the ages of ages. Amen.