Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Day 15 of Lenten Reflections with Fr. Robert Barron

Lent Day 15 - Your Life Is Not About You
In Jesus' last temptation in the desert, the devil led him to the parapet of the Temple and invited him to throw himself down, confident that the angels would support him. What was at stake here was the aggrandizement of the ego. What was the Temple but the place where God himself is worshiped? It was the high-point, the summit of Israelite life. To put oneself there was to place one's ego at the center of everything.

In many ways, this is the very essence of sin; this is what, in a certain sense, all of us do. We make ourselves into God, which is to say, the center of the universe. We really believe that everything revolves around us and our needs, fears, and expectations. Everything ought to serve us.

But one message at the heart of the Christian faith is this: your life is not about you. It is about God and God's purposes for your life. And so Jesus affirmed: "You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test." God tests people all the time in the Bible, but he himself should never be tested.

A good Lenten question to ask is this: Are you the center of attention? Do you allow God to test you?

Lent Day 14 - Disciplining Our Bodies
When it comes to our bodies, Catholics are not dualists or Puritans. We don't think that the flesh is, in itself, sinful or problematic. However, we do know that the desires of the body have become, through the fall, disordered. They are no longer consistently subordinated to reason and, consequently, these desires can appear in exaggerated form or assert themselves disproportionately.

Thomas Merton once commented that the needs of the body--food, drink, sleep, and sex--are like insistent children that demand to have their way. Just as children have to be disciplined lest they come to dominate the household, so the desires of the flesh have to be curtailed lest they come to monopolize all of our energies. Merton said that we fast from time to time precisely to allow the deeper spiritual hungers to surface and be satisfied. The use of bodily discipline is thus a vivid reminder to oneself that the pleasure of the body is not one's determining and ultimate good.

This is not unique to Catholicism. Stop and consider for a moment the activities that go on every day in the typical gym. People labor away on stationary bikes, elliptical machines, and treadmills; they sweat their way through pull-ups, push-ups, and deadlifts. In all sorts of ways, they discipline their bodies so as to overcome the natural tendency toward laziness and self-indulgence. More to it, these same people most likely deny themselves all sorts of pleasurable foods, resisting cravings.

All of this punishment is in service of a healthier body. Why can't we apply similar techniques to produce healthier minds and spirits?

Today, discipline your body in some small way. Maybe give up snacking between meals, only drink room-temperature water, or pray an entire rosary while walking. These simple bodily disciplines will undoubtedly strengthen your soul.

Lent Day 13 - The Portable Monastery
What is prayer? Saint John of Damascus said, "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God." When someone asked Thomas Merton to reveal the one thing he should do to improve his prayer life, Merton responded: "Take the time."

During Lent, we must consciously take the time to raise our hearts and minds to God. We seek communion with God through friendship and conversation. But how do we do this in our busy lives?

One thing I often recommend is praying in the car (or in the subway, bus, train, etc.) For those of us distracted by a thousand things, and who are constantly on the move, the car can be a bit like a monastic cell. It encloses you within a quiet, meditative space conducive to prayer. Also, as an added bonus, when you treat your car as a monastery, traffic becomes a welcome opportunity for more prayer and silence, rather than a cause of frustration.

Now, I understand this will be easier for some than others. For example, mothers of young children may have a difficult time cultivating a quiet space. But to the extent that you're able, consider turning off the radio today. Put away your phone. Use your travel time to raise your mind and heart to God.

Maybe you pray the Rosary, or perhaps you converse with God about your day. But whatever you decide, take the time. Turn your car into a monastery.

Lent Day 12 - A New Pitch of Existence
In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes, after meeting the Risen Lord in a vision, "I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil. 3:8).

Paul encountered the risen Jesus Christ, and in light of that knowledge, everything else in his life seemed like rubbish, like a total loss. Paul became elevated to a new life, a new vision, a new pitch of existence. All his accomplishments and the great things he inherited seemed like nothing compared to this life that was opened to him in the resurrection from the dead.

What does the Resurrection mean? It means the elevation of this life to a new pitch, a new perfection, a new beauty that we can't even imagine.

Imagine a fish who spent his entire life under the sea, and then is hooked by a fisherman. He's pulled up out of the water and for one moment he glimpses this world of light and color that he had never imagined possible. Then he wriggles off the hook and falls back into the water.

"I saw that world up there," he would tell his fish friends, "which I never knew existed! Yet now, compared to that, this ordinary world seems like nothing to me."

That's what Paul is communicating to the Philippians in his letter. And that's the new vision, the new pitch of existence, we're moving toward this season of Lent.

Lent Day 11 - St. Thomas More and the Theo-drama
The late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, whom I mentioned yesterday, often spoke of the "theo-drama." This is the drama written and directed by God and involving every creature in the cosmos. On the grand stage that is the created universe, we are invited to "act," to find and play our role in God's theater.

The problem is that the vast majority of us live in the "ego-drama." We think we are the directors, writers, and above all, stars of our own dramas. We're convinced the cosmos provides a pleasing backdrop to our own performance. Other people function as either our supporting players or our villains, against whom we shine all the brighter.

The ego-drama is on display in a wonderful scene in Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons. Richard Rich, a promising and ambitious young man, petitions the saintly Thomas More for a position among the glitterati at the court of Henry VIII. But disappointingly for Rich, More offers him a position, not as a courtier, but as a simple teacher.

The young man is crestfallen, and More tries to cheer him up: "You'd be a good teacher." But Rich fires back: "And if I were, who would know it?" The patient More explains: "Yourself, your friends, your pupils, God--pretty good public, that!"

What More assumes is the profoundly spiritual truth that the only audience worth playing for is the divine audience, and the only drama worth acting in--even in the smallest role--is God's.

Rich wants a starring role, but More reminds him that it profits him nothing to play even the biggest part in the ego-drama if he misses his role in the theo-drama. The key is finding the role that God has designed for you, even if it looks like a bit part. And when you find that pearl of great price, you must sell everything else and buy it.

Lent Day 10 - Why was the Cross Necessary?
In the wake of Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ", and now more recently Mark Burnett's film, "Son of God", a lot of people have wondered, why was it necessary for Jesus to die on a cross? Although viewers of both films admired Jesus' courage in suffering through his brutal execution, they still wondered, did God want that? Did God demand that awful, bloody sacrifice?

Han Urs von Balthasar said that what you see on the Cross is the greatest act of love, because the Father, out of love, sent the Son all the way into our human condition-but then, even more, he sent him into God-forsakenness. Jesus went to sinners, the sick, the marginalized, but then even further than that.

In the most dramatic way possible, Jesus ventured into what frightens us the most: death. As St. Paul says, "He accepted death, even death on a cross," which for someone of that time, and maybe of any time, was the most brutal way to be killed.

So the Father sent the Son all the way out into the furthest limits of God-forsakenness, but why? To usher into those places the divine light. Is death a place that God is not? No, because God is present there in Jesus. Is suffering a place that God is not? No, because the Son entered into suffering. Is sin a place where God is not? No, because God became sin on the Cross, says Paul.

Through Jesus, the divine light journeys into our worst darkness. His aim is to divinize us, to allow us to "share his divine nature" in St. Peter's words, even in those dark places and conditions. Sin is a turning away from the divine life, and death is a fearful place that seems alien to God. But Jesus invades all those places, and thereby illumines them. He offers us new life even when we've wandered as far as we possibly can from God.

In that sense, the Cross was necessary for our salvation since it allowed the Hound of Heaven to hunt us down, even in the darkest places.

Lent Day 9 - Change the Way You See
The first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark set the tone for the entire Gospel and, one could say, for the whole of Christianity: "This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Reform your lives and believe in the Good News."

By noting "the time of fulfillment," Jesus is referring to something humans have been longing for, hoping to see arrive. It's as if he's saying, "The privileged time is here." These words provide a sort of wake-up call, a warning bell in the night. They're similar to what worshipers hear repeatedly in the Byzantine liturgy: "Be attentive! Let us be attentive!"

But how should we be attentive? Jesus is eminently clear: "Reform your lives and believe in the Good News." The Greek word for "reform" is metanoiete, a term derived from two words, meta (beyond) and nous (mind). Thus in its most basic form it means something like "go beyond the mind that you have."

Jesus is commanding a change that takes place at a an elemental and all-embracing level of one's being. He's telling his listeners to change the way they see, the way they think, the way they imagine.

Change your attitude. Change your perspective. Change your angle, your mode of vision.

The new state of affairs has arrived, but you are not going to see it unless you change. Today, go beyond your mind and see through the eyes of Christ.

Lent Day 8 - Give to Everyone Who Asks
Why do we give alms? Because when we share gifts or charity with those in need, we're acknowledging the fact that we're not in this alone, that the things that we own are meant for others. Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that we have the right to private ownership, but not the right to private use. The use of private property must be for the sake of the common good.

How do we signal that public use? We give alms. Lent is the perfect time to survey our material possessions, which often results in realizing we have too many, and then give some away.

There are many practical ways to do it. For example, during Lent, whenever you get a letter in the mail from some reputable organization asking for money, give them something. Now I know you're probably on every mailing list in the entire world, and maybe you only give $1 or $5 to each request. But decide that over the next six weeks, whenever a respected person or group asks you for money, you give them something. This is a tangible way to follow Jesus' command from the Gospel of Matthew: "Give to everyone who asks you" (Mt 5:42).

Here's a similar idea: whenever you see a homeless person or beggar asking for help, give them something. Don't ask questions, don't weigh the pros and cons, just give them something. It doesn't have to be money, in case you're worried about enabling an addiction--you could give them gift cards, bottles of water, or bus tickets. But give them something.

One final suggestion: this Lent, whenever you buy something--whether a big purchase like a car or television, or a smaller purchase at a restaurant--choose the option you like best and can afford, and then buy the next cheapest alternative. Take the difference and give it to the poor.

Commit yourself to these simple but challenging choices, and you'll discover concrete ways to give alms throughout Lent.

Lent Day 7 - How to Make Room for Life's Biggest Questions

The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal said that most of us spend our lives seeking diversions in a desperate attempt to avoid the hard and simple questions: Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? What does God want of me?

We eat and drink, gamble and gossip, seek out the most banal entertainments, surrender to television and social media, attend party after party--all in order to avoid those questions.

Right now, identify the diversion that most distracts you from these questions. Then take some practical steps to rid yourself of it, or at least reduce it.

Are you preoccupied with eating and drinking? Then fast regularly. Do you watch too much television or spend too much time on Facebook? Then give yourself a specific limit. Do you indulge in idle chatter? Then resolve not to say anything mean about anybody (you'll find that your conversations are a lot shorter!) Do you socialize too much? Then refrain from non-essential parties for the rest of Lent.

Clear the ground. Clean out the system. Make room for yourself to ask and reflect on life's most important questions.

To follow Jesus into the desert is to divest yourself of diversions. It is to sacrifice the superficial so that the depth may rise. It is to still the chatter so that God's voice might be heard.

Day 6 of Lenten Reflections with Fr. Robert Barron

Lent is a time to deepen our prayer lives, and thankfully there are a number of things the Church recommends. Here are just five simple examples. Choose one, preferably one you're not familiar with, and commit to it this Lent:

1. Pray before the Blessed Sacrament - Spend some time if you can, everyday or maybe once a week, praying in front of Our Lord. Don't just talk--be still and listen.

2. The Jesus Prayer - Pray this simple prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Repeat it over and over again throughout the day, for one minute, five minutes, or half an hour. Pray it at the beginning and end of the day. Let its calming rhythm focus your mind on God.

3. "Come, Holy Spirit" prayer - Simply praying, "Come, Holy Spirit" works anytime, anywhere--it's always a good prayer. For more, try praying the entire Veni, Sancte Spiritus.

4. The Rosary - If you haven't prayed the Rosary in a long time, pick it up during Lent. If you're unsure how, or if you've forgotten which mysteries to pray, here's a simple guide.

5. The Mass - If you don't go to Sunday Mass, go--you're obligated if you're a Catholic. If you go to Sunday Mass, go to daily Mass during Lent. Decide to attend one extra Mass each week. Visit to find daily Mass times at nearby parishes.

All of these are simple, straightforward ways to deepen your prayer life during Lent. You don't have to do them all, but just choose one and commit yourself.

Lent Day 5 - Truly Risen from the Dead
When we recite the Creed, we don't say a word about Jesus' teaching, but we do profess that Jesus was "crucified under Pontius Pilate." He did not simply die; he was put to death, precisely as a political criminal. He was killed on a Roman instrument of torture--overwhelmed, it seemed, by the hatred, violence, and dysfunction of the sinful world.

In that case, why don't we see Jesus simply as another in a long line of tragic heroes, raging in vain against the powers of the world? Because, as the Creed puts it, "on the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the scriptures."

Throughout much of the period after the Second Vatican Council, too many theologians, teachers, and preachers have tended to downplay the reality of the Resurrection, turning it into a vague symbol or an expression of the faith of the disciples. But if this is all the Resurrection means, then forget it!

Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has commented incisively that if Jesus had not been raised bodily from the dead, Christianity would never have survived as a messianic movement. Wright says that the clearest indication, to a first-century Jew, that someone was not the Messiah would be his death at the hands of the enemies of Israel. That the church of Christ endured as a messianic religion is possible only on the assumption that the crucified one was, nevertheless, objectively alive. Claims that the disciples were inspired by a dead man would never have stood up against the early critics of Christianity.

Truly risen from the dead, victorious over sin and violence, Jesus is now the Lord--the one to whom we owe total allegiance, the one who should become the dominant force in every aspect of our lives.
Lent Day 4 - Mother Teresa's Secret to Joy
When she was still a Loreto nun, Mother Teresa made her way by train to Darjeeling for a retreat. And on that train she heard a voice inviting her to carry the light of Christ to the darkest places. When she returned to Calcutta, she began the process that led to the founding of the Missionaries of Charity, an order whose purpose would be to respond to that summons. That work is carried on today by her sisters in more than 500 establishments around the globe.

A couple year ago I personally experienced this extraordinary work. While producing the ten-part CATHOLICISM series, our team filmed in a small hospital in Calcutta, India where the Missionaries of Charity care for children with mental and physical disabilities. When we arrived, the electricity had just gone out, and the room was stiflingly hot. Everywhere, the sisters and a large team of volunteers milled about, providing medical assistance, speaking to the kids, teaching some of them to sing simple songs, or just holding them.

There was one sister who was carrying in her arms a small girl of perhaps a year and half or 2 years old. The child was blind. I asked sister how they had come to care for this girl, and she told me that she had simply been abandoned on the street. "She is my special baby," the sister said,. And then she flashed this absolutely radiant smile, which told me that she had found a deep joy precisely in this hot, crowded hospital, in the midst of one of the most squalid cities in the world.

All of us human beings want joy. Everything we do and say, all of our actions and endeavors, are meant to produce contentment, peace, happiness. Even the most morally corrupt person, ultimately, wants joy. But how do we find it? The most elemental mistake--made consistently across the centuries to the present day--is to seek joy by filling up in ourselves something that we perceive to be missing. We tell ourselves that we'd be happy if we just had enough pleasure, enough power, enough security, enough esteem. But this does not work.

It is the supreme paradox of the Christian spiritual tradition that we become filled with joy precisely in the measure that we contrive a way to make of ourselves a gift. By emptying out the self in love for the other, we become filled to the brim with the divine life. The smile of that Missionary of Charity, which was the same smile Mother Teresa bore, signaled the presence of a joy that no wealth, no security, no pleasure, no honor could possibly provide, and that can emerge even in the most miserable context.

The secret to joy is self-giving love. Mother Teresa imparted that to her sisters, and she offers the same lesson to us.


Lent Day 3 - Polishing the Diamonds
There is a regrettable interpretation of the cross that has, unfortunately, infected the minds of many Christians. This is the view that the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was "satisfying" to the Father, and appeasement of a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this reading, the crucified Jesus is like a child hurled into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its wrath.

But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the well-known passage from John's Gospel: "God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life." John reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic divinity whose bruised personal honor needs to be restored; rather God is a parent who burns with compassion for his children who have wandered into danger.

Does the Father hate sinners? No, but he hates sin. Does God harbor indignation at the unjust? No, but God despises injustice. Thus God sends his Son, not gleefully to see him suffer, but compassionately to set things right.

St. Anselm, the great medieval theologian, who is often unfairly blamed for the cruel theology of satisfaction, was eminently clear on this score. We sinners are like diamonds that have fallen into the muck. Made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God, claimed Anselm, could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven, but this would not have solved the problem. It would not have restored the diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to reestablish the beauty of creation, God came down into the muck of sin and death, brought the diamonds up, and then polished them off.

In so doing of course, God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt-this divine solidarity with the lost--is the "sacrifice" which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It is the sacrifice expressive, not of anger or vengeance, but of compassion.

Jesus said that any disciple of his must be willing to take up his cross and follow the master. If God is self-forgetting love even to the point of death, then we must be such love. If God is willing to break open his own heart, then we must be willing to break open our hearts from others. The cross, in short, must become the very structure of the Christian life.

Lent Day 2 - No Way Up But Down
Something I have noticed over the years is that the holiest people in our tradition are those who are most aware of their sinfulness. Whether it is Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, or Mother Teresa, the saints are those who are convinced of their inadequacy.

When Isaiah encounters the Lord he says, "I am a man of unclean lips!" When Peter is in the presence of the Messiah he says, "Lord, leave me, for I am a sinful man." G.K. Chesterton once said, "A saint is someone who knows he's a sinner."

The holy person has no illusions about himself. It is an extraordinary and surprising phenomenon that the saints seem to be those who are most conscious of their sinfulness.

At times we are tempted to think that this is a form of attention-getting, a sort of false humility. But then we realize that it is proximity to the light that reveals the smudges and imperfections that otherwise go undetected. A windshield that appears perfectly clean and transparent in the early morning can become opaque when the sun shines directly on it. Standing close to the luminosity of God, the holy person is more intensely exposed, his beauty and his ugliness more thoroughly unveiled.

There's no way up but down; no real holiness without awareness. At least part of being a saint is knowing you're a sinner.

Lent Day 1 - Judged According to Love
The Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross said that in the evening of life we shall be judged according to our love. In Matthew 25 the nature of love is specified. It is not primarily a feeling, an attitude, or a conviction, but rather a concrete act on behalf of those in need--the hungry, the homeless, the lonely, the imprisoned, the forgotten. It is the bearing of another's burden.

Here's a challenge: Over the next forty-seven days, resolve to perform a particular and sustained act of love.

Make several visits to your relative in the nursing home. Converse regularly with a lonely person on your block. Tutor and befriend a kid who might be in danger of losing his way. Repair a broken friendship. Bring together bickering factions at your place of work. Make a number of financial contributions to a worthy organization that needs help.

Numerous spiritual masters have witnessed to something odd: Belief in God is confirmed and strengthened not so much from intellectual effort as from moral action.

When a man once asked the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins what he must do in order to believe, Hopkins replied, "Give alms."

As you love through tangible acts, you will come to believe more deeply and to enter more fully into friendship with God.


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