Living the sabbath

Living the sabbath

When I was in Israel last May, I was very impressed by the nation’s observance of the sabbath. Saturday in Israel resembles Christmas Day in Australia: businesses are closed, there’s almost no traffic on the roads, and everyone is at home. Work is unimaginable; it’s a day of very intentional rest and recreation with family and friends.

Most Israelis are not religious; they are secular. But they observe the sabbath with the same fervour that secular Australians observe Christmas Day. It struck me that Australia lost something valuable when it repealed Sunday trading laws.

Six months into my psychology degree, I’ve noticed a distinct pattern: modern discoveries of science very often corroborate the ancient wisdom of religion. Studies have established that the best work-rest cycle — the balance which best harmonises the health of individuals and relationships with the productivity and efficiency of the economy — is a cycle of six days of work and one day of rest.

For believers, this should come as no surprise. Men and women, after all, are imago Dei, and just as God worked for six days and rested on the seventh day, so should His children. Perhaps the divine law is as “hardwired” into humans as is the natural law. The secular case for a sabbath is, I think, every bit as compelling as the religious case.

Modern Australia, “the land of the long weekend,” is one of the most medicated, addicted, obese, over-worked and stressed out societies in human history. This is part of the wider malady of twenty-first century Western culture. Maybe the decline of the sabbath has something to do with this. Australians, as a rule, don’t live the sabbath well. I certainly don’t.

Hence, one of my new year’s resolutions is to live a scriptural sabbath. For 24 hours each week, I will do no work. No e-mails. No work phone calls (except from hospitals and the funeral directors.) No scheduling or planning or visiting. Not even household chores. Just prayer, and rest, and recreation with friends and family.

I’m conscious that a Catholic priest can’t be too literal in his observance of the sabbath. Cancelling Sunday Masses is hardly advisable! But I see no reason why a priest can’t translate the sabbath to Monday — or any other day — and sincerely honour the spirit of the Lord’s command to “keep holy the sabbath.”

In the same way, some lay faithful are forced by circumstance to work on Sunday. That’s one of the consequences of the Sunday trading “reforms.” Working on Sunday doesn’t abrogate the obligation to attend Mass. It’s unusual, for city-dwellers at least, not to find the means to satisfy the Sunday obligation.

But what about the command to rest? (In the context, I think rest also includes recreation.) I think we all have to get serious about one day every week dedicated to intentional rest and recreation. Twenty-four hours when we can switch off, without feeling guilty or lazy. And if we can’t do that on Sunday (which is certainly the preference), then another day must be found.

Until I do this myself though, who am I to exhort others? Right now it’s an ideal. An aspiration. By the end of 2018, I hope, it will be a part of my lifestyle.

Happy new year!

Choosing an Advent motto

Choosing an Advent motto

Advent is, lamentably, banished. On this First Sunday of Advent, Christmas trees and decorations are already well established in public places, and Christmas carols are played everywhere. Soon the Christmas parties will begin in earnest.

On Boxing Day, however, trees and decorations are dismantled; carols are retired, and the pleasant pace of summer vacation sets in. By then, many people are exhausted by the frantic Christmas rush — shopping, cleaning, cooking, feasting — and they’re glad to see an end to it.

But it isn’t meant to be this way. There are twelve days of Christmas after all, and it doesn’t end on Christmas Day; that’s when it starts! The Australian summer has something to do with this annual pattern, but I think it’s mostly due to the loss of Advent.

In theory, Advent resembles a “little Lent;” it’s a time of liturgical violet, extra prayer, and penance. In practice, Advent is a casualty of the commercialisation of Christmas and the end-of-year wind down. It’s not practical to fast in the midst of parties, and it’s not feasible to increase devotions when there’s a house to clean and gifts to wrap.

Nonetheless, an intentionally lived Advent is precisely what we need. It’s the perfect antidote to the frenetic demands of Christmas, and it enables us to spiritually prepare for the coming of Christ. Two thousand years ago, there was no room for him at the inn. This Christmas, however, hopefully there is room for him in our homes, and in our hearts.

The key to living Advent resides, I think, in today’s Responsorial Psalm:

Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.

This, I propose, makes an excellent Advent motto. I’ll certainly be adopting it myself. With the help of my guardian angel, whom I’ve asked to prompt my memory, I intend to pray this aspiration repeatedly during Advent. Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.

The desire to see God’s face is, I think, the hallmark of the contemplative spirit. Our Lord alludes to it in his great Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.

To be “pure in heart,” I think, means to love whole-heartedly. To love perfectly; unconditionally. Contemplative souls — which include every saint whose lives I’ve read, and more besides — are so madly in love with God, that they see God everywhere, in every creature. They see God in their neighbour — even those neighbours whom they dislike. And they see God in other creatures too: in the sun; in the moon; in the weather; in everyday circumstances. They recognise God even in those things that go wrong. Blessed indeed are the pure of heart.

I think the spirit of Advent is the pursuit of the contemplative spirit. It means imitating Mary when everything compels us to imitate Martha. It means we foster peace and serenity, not only in ourselves, but in the people around us. What a great gift to give at Christmas!

Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved. That’s the aspiration; the goal. What are the means? Here’s one I’m using. In recent decades, psychologists have conducted studies which confirm what spiritual masters have long insisted: people who are habitually thankful are also happy and calm. You and I should number among the thankful, because we are a Eucharistic people. Eucharistia — εὐχαριστία — literally means “thanksgiving,” or gratitude.

Fortunately, it’s not a difficult thing to become habitually thankful. It can be accomplished by a daily task which is easily incorporated into the Advent discipline. This works better if it’s written down: another example of the importance of ‘sacramentality’ in the spiritual life, when we “incarnate” the spiritual by bringing it into the material present. Every day, write down three items for which you’re grateful.

“Thank you, God, for the gift of …” Write that every day, and you’re a step closer to seeing the face of God. And, additional bonus: you’ll still have a good grasp of your sanity by the end of Christmas Day!

The loneliness of the priest

The loneliness of the priest

A holy priest was buried this week. Fr Luke Pirone, OFM. The death of priests like him seems like a great loss, but I suppose their ministry of prayer may be more fruitful than ever in the next life.

I’m thinking now of St Thérèse’s prophetic remarks: “My mission – to make God loved – will begin after my death. I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.”

Having said that, I have no desire to canonise Fr Luke. Quite the contrary. He would insist on his need for ongoing prayers, and I echo his request. Pray for this humble friar, who served God faithfully, who loved God passionately, but who was, like all of us, a sinner too.

Monsignor Cappo preached at the Vigil Mass the day before Fr Luke’s funeral. For many years, Fr Luke was Msgr Cappo’s assistant priest in the Adelaide parish of Hectorville. The monsignor remarked that for a long time he thought Fr Luke was lonely. But eventually, he realised that he wasn’t lonely, he simply chose to be alone.

For example, every year Fr Luke received multiple invitations to parishioners’ places for Christmas dinner. He always refused. He always spent Christmas Day at home. He wouldn’t leave the presbytery. He said he was on call for any emergency. But primarily, he spent the day reading scripture and contemplating the wonder of Christmas and the sacred humanity of Christ.

At the same time, Fr Luke aroused a lot of affection in the people to whom he ministered. The numbers at his funeral, which spanned generations, attested to that. People loved him. Some families “adopted” him. They showed their gratitude and affection by inviting him to family gatherings. (He refused on Christmas Day, but there were other occasions when he happily accepted an invitation.)

Others cooked meals for him and dropped them off at his place. Others left produce at the presbytery door. I can see why it might be said that Fr Luke was often alone, but never lonely. A holy priest, I think, must foster a contemplative spirit. He longs, like Fr Luke, “to be alone with the Alone.”

I’m reminded of St Josemaría’s thoughts on the loneliness of priests. When Josemaría informed his father that he wished to join the seminary, José Escrivá — a pious and thoughtful man — congratulated his son, but warned him that the priest leads a lonely life:

My father answered me, “But my son, are you taking into account that you will not have a love here on earth? A human love? You won’t have a home. But I will not stand in your way.”

And two tears came to his eyes. This was the only time I ever saw my father cry.

“I will not oppose it. In fact, I will introduce you to someone who will give you some guidance.”

Many years later, St Josemaría concluded his father was mistaken. The life of the priest is not lonely.

“People who say that we priests are lonely are either lying or have gotten it all wrong. We are far less lonely than anyone else, for we can count on the constant company of the Lord, with whom we should be conversing without interruption. We are in love with Love, with the Author of Love!”

I think that’s right. As a priest I’ve felt really lonely, truly isolated, when I have wrestled with distressing matters I have heard in the confessional. In this situation — unless there’s a canonical matter which needs clarifying — the priest has no human recourse. No one to turn to. No one to confide in. No one except our Lord, waiting in the tabernacle, longing for his people to visit him and adore him. Longing especially for the company of his priests. How the Lord loves his priests.

Insofar as the priest is lonely, it’s one of the greatest privileges of priesthood I think. In ordinary circumstances, when a priest is emotionally mature, and generous with his people, the gratitude and affection of the lay faithful, and the fraternity of brother priests too, accompanies him. And when such a priest does find himself lonely, I think it is only when our Lord means for this priest to be lonely, because he desires a unique relationship with him. An exclusive intimacy.

God knows us all so well. He knows his priests well. We are weak men. Wretched. And it’s only when we are deprived of human consolations that we turn to him, and show him the love and affection he desires from us. It is a great thing to be a priest. And it is a privilege to have known, and learnt from, Fr Luke. May he rest in peace.

Fr Luke spontaneously venerates the just-anointed hands of Fr Michael Romeo, during the sign of peace at Fr Michael’s ordination.

You walk weird, and you don’t even know it

You walk weird, and you don’t even know it

So I watched an online video yesterday which blew my mind. There’s plenty of dissent in the Youtube comments, but that’s par for the course. I find it pretty compelling.

Roland Warzecha runs a European martial arts school in Hamburg, and he’s apparently obsessed by all things medieval. In a video he published a month ago, he claims that medieval Europeans walked very differently to you and me. They walked “toe to heel,” not “heel to toe.”

So many lessons can be derived from this revelation. Here are two which captured my imagination:

  • So much of what we do, we do unconsciously. It has never occurred to me that we might walk differently from medievals. It raises the question: what else do we think and do almost instinctively, which people in other ages didn’t think or do? And what don’t we think or do, which people in other ages thought or did all the time? While all of us are free agents, we are nonetheless substantially conditioned by our environment, and we don’t even know it.
  • Human beings are lazy. If a shortcut is available, we’ll take it. It’s not really much of a surprise that an evolution in footwear has changed the way we walk. Technological change is always prompting behavioural change. A century ago, people spent the best part of a day doing laundry. I don’t know anyone who still launders that way. We all use automatic washing machines now. What about your smartphone? I bought my first iPhone (second hand) in 2009. Now my digital devices are an integral part of my life. Who has time to check their e-mail on a desktop?

That brings me to this Sunday’s Gospel. The villainous vineyard tenants slay the landowner’s servants, and then they seize and kill his son too, hoping to steal his inheritance. I think something similar has happened in our own time, via insidious secularisation. Our Lord has been “seized and thrown out of the vineyard” by a post-modern culture which in the name of tolerance removes mention of the name and person of Jesus Christ. Our Lord is removed, and we ourselves are replaced as the “heirs of the vineyard.”

Pope Francis warns against this:

“Secularization reduces the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. By completely rejecting the transcendent, it produces a deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 64.)

I think that medieval walking video shows how all of us — including the most devout believers — are susceptible to this. You and I live in a secular age. Consequently, invariably, you and I are secular in our thinking and our doing, and we don’t even know it. As Marshall McCluhan sagely observed, “fish did not discover water.”

Here’s the danger: we become the centre of everything we do. We decide what is true and what is right. We mould God into what we want Him to be. When instead, we should permit God to mould us into what He wants us to be.

But there are many remedies available to us. St Paul provides one in the Second Reading:

Fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise. (Phil 4:8.)

We must fill our minds. We need good formation. We need constant formation, to counteract the secular environment we inhabit. One such example is the reading of Sacred Scripture — especially the life of Christ in the Gospels — every day.

I recommend ten minutes scriptural reading every day, followed by ten minutes of contemplation. That means sitting still, doing nothing for ten minutes. Ideally, your mind is filled with thoughts related to the scriptures you just read. But even if your mind is instead filled with all the things you must do today, and all the things you didn’t get done yesterday, sitting still for ten minutes is a worth activity.

The merit lies in doing, not thinking. A 20 minute respite, consisting of ten minutes of scriptural reading, and ten minutes “wasting time with God,” helps foster a contemplative spirit. It is profoundly counter-cultural. And unless you want to join the mob who seize our Lord and throw him out of the vineyard, counter-cultural is what you must be.

Christians in a heavy sea: the gay marriage vote

Christians in a heavy sea: the gay marriage vote

Today’s Gospel presents a perfect analogy of our situation – yours and mine — as Catholics in Australia today.

Our Lord has sent us ahead, on a boat, to cross the Sea of Galilee. He will meet us on the other side. But now we are battling in a heavy sea, and we’re sailing into a headwind.

This is the destiny of Christians in every age. As Christians, we have to navigate against the current. There’s no other way.

Jesus himself had to go against the current. So did the Apostles, and every disciple since. Every single person, in every age, who wished to be a faithful disciple of Christ, had to go against the current.

It’s good to remind ourselves of this. It is not the teaching of Christ which should adapt itself to our time. It is the times, that must open themselves to the light of Christ.

So here we are, clutching to the sides of a dubious-looking boat: decades of clergy abuse; diabolical cover-ups; hypocrisy and clericalism; immorality and worldliness. The boat is collecting water, fast.

Here we are, battling a heavy sea, nearly overcome by the headwind: abortion on demand; state-sponsored euthanasia; religion banished from our schools, replaced with gender ideology. And now there’s another wave closing in, as we prepare for a national vote on same-sex marriage.

The Apostles struggle against the wind, but their efforts seem useless. The boat lurches around, tossed by the waves. So what do we do? We can clutch to the sides of this sinking boat, or we can do something. Be responsive! Show some initiative!

We could leap overboard, and hasten back to shore. To that place of happy memories and a secure future, where we left Jesus not so long ago. In other words, we can withdraw from modern society. Disengage, completely, from this pernicious culture. Concoct and inhabit a Catholic bubble, where we look after our own and leave the rest to their own devices. Back to shore: there we will find our feet, and bask in the warmth of the sun.

Or, alternatively, we could embrace the storm, negotiate the wind, and conform to the current. In other words, we could integrate the ‘medieval’ teachings of Christ with a modern, more tolerant outlook. Abolish the old hierarchy – inaugurate a new priesthood. Embrace abortion rights; mercy killing; trans-theory; gay marriage. As long as we “judge not,” and “tolerate all,” as long as we follow the Lord’s general moral principles, adapted and modernised, we can save the boat, save ourselves, ride out the storm and, eventually, get to the other side.

But Jesus Christ is not merely a moral teacher, confined by his times and culture. Jesus Christ is Lord of history, Son of God, God Himself. He is our Creator and our Redeemer. He is the Alpha and the Omega. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Heb 13:8)

He went against the current, and anyone who follows him will go against the current. So we don’t abandon ship and swim back to shore. We don’t change course, and sail with the wind. We persevere, like the Apostles, faithful to our Lord’s request. He placed us in this boat; he set our course.

To persevere, to be faithful, we must be able to love. As the public campaign heats up, many proponents of gay marriage — activists and politicians on TV, and maybe even friends and family in our own lives — will call us bigoted and homophobic. But we’re not.

Many of us have close friends and relatives who are gay. Colleagues too. As a priest, I serve many gays and lesbians. Some of them embrace the gay lifestyle; some of them embrace Catholic teaching and Christian chastity. Some of them support gay marriage; some of them oppose gay marriage. So let’s be clear — at least in our own hearts and minds: gay marriage isn’t about “accepting gays or opposing gays;” it isn’t about “tolerance versus bigotry.” Gay marriage is about marriage. At least in our own hearts and minds.

If the “no” vote wins, if marriage is not redefined, many hearts will be broken. The Church is not in the business of breaking hearts. You and I, as disciples of Christ, aren’t in the business of breaking hearts. But nor is the Church in the business of being nice; sparing feelings. The Church’s business is saving souls. You and I, as disciples of Christ, are in the business of saving souls.

A “yes” vote, which redefines marriage, won’t save a single soul. But voting “no” won’t save souls either. We don’t fulfil our Christian obligations by opposing gay marriage. That’s simply dodging another wave, battling against the wind, navigating the heavy sea.

Discipleship demands much more. Discipleship demands heroic love. It means seeking men and women — our brothers and sisters: friends, relatives, colleagues, acquaintances — who are out in the water, at the mercy of the storm. Praying for them; befriending them; loving them.

As a young man, Joseph Sciambra became immersed in San Francisco’s hedonistic gay sub-culture of anonymous sex and multiple partners. After a near-death experience in 1999, he found Christ. Or rather, Christ found him. Now he dedicates himself in full-time Catholic ministry to gay men.

In his blog last week, he laid down the gauntlet to Christian husbands and fathers: “If you know a gay man, call him. Hang out with him. Offer him sincere friendship. Offer him authentic masculine camaraderie. Give him a reason to withdraw from toxic gay culture.”

I’m nervous just repeating that. It sounds intolerant, doesn’t it? Many will call it homophobic. But this is what love looks like. This is what Christian discipleship looks like. It demands we go against the current. It demands courage. Reaching out to people in the sea, loosing our grasp of the boat, leaves us vulnerable. But we have to be vulnerable, if we want to love.

So we persevere. The Apostles struggle against the wind. Their efforts seem futile. Jesus wants them to grow strong through adversity, but he doesn’t leave them on their own. In the fourth watch of the night, he came to them. He will come for us too. And with him at the helm, we will get to the other side of the sea.

Don’t jump overboard and head back to shore. Resist the urge to construct a Catholic fortress with raised drawbridge. And don’t change course to conform with the current and wind. Resist the urge to modernise and “improve” the perennial wisdom of God. Stay the course; persevere with the Apostles; sail against the wind. And reach out to others, with sincere love and friendship. Love is action, not sweet words.

Jesus Christ doesn’t need any of us. And yet he needs all of us! And we need him. Let’s be souls of prayer. Let’s open our hearts to him, every day. When we open our hearts to him, he will open his heart to us. And then we will be filled with the courage of Peter. We, too, will make headway.

The scandal of religious hypocrisy

The scandal of religious hypocrisy

There’s nothing to add to this self-explanatory headline, nor even much reason to follow the link. The title says it all: SCANDAL: Vatican police raid cardinal’s apartment to stop drug fueled gay party.

The lede is easy to believe: “Pope Francis is reportedly furious at the news as he has worked hard to clean up the Vatican.” It evokes the anger Jesus directed at the scribes and Pharisees. The Lord, who was a friend to sinners in other contexts, always eager to minister divine mercy and foster conversion, had no time for hypocrites:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Mt 23 ff)

This is a reaction I think many of us intuitively share. Priests who hear confessions are well acquainted with the wage of sin, so we’re not easily scandalised. But I am scandalised by exposés of priests leading double lives. I’m sure I’m not the only one to share our Lord’s visceral reaction against the scribes and Pharisees. But why? Why do some sinful contexts cause more scandal than others?

It might be a case of “there but for the grace of God go I,” but that’s no explanation. We can all think that about any number of sins, and they do not possess the shock value of the deliberate and systematic hypocrisy of double lives. What makes this sort of sin so different?

In today’s Office of Readings, St Augustine sheds light on the matter. Augustine, you might recall, is famous for praying “God, make me good, but not yet.”

“We should be displeased with ourselves when we commit sin, for sin is displeasing to God. Sinful though we are, let us at least be like God in this, that we are displeased at what displeases him. In some measure then you will be in harmony with God’s will, because you find displeasing in yourself what is abhorrent to your Creator.”

It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? We should hate sin, because God hates sin. And if we do hate our sins, then even in the midst of sin, there is some harmony with the will of God. This is not only perfectly intelligible, but also widely experienced. Who doesn’t identify with St Paul’s quandary?

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Rom 7:15-18)

But here’s the rub. When a person is systematic in their hypocrisy, when they lead a double life, they have accommodated sin. Far from hating sin, this sinner plans his life around it. And so, by Augustine’s suggested measure, there is no semblance of harmony with God at all.

Hence we have the Lord’s prayer in today’s Gospel:

“I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.” (Mt 11:25)

I think children are probably incapable of leading a double life. They are perfectly capable of sin, but in their simplicity they don’t accommodate sin. And, in their humility, when children are in trouble, they are quick to seek a remedy. The “learned and clever,” by contrast, have the means to lie about their sin — even to themselves — which is the first step to a pharisaical double life.

We can, all of us, adapt Augustine’s prayer: “God, make me good.” (There’s no need for temporal qualifiers.) None of us can be saints by force of will — we need God’s grace. We’re sinners obliged to start again and again and again — like small children, learning to walk, recovering from every fall, always persevering. We should avoid sin, and with God’s grace we can avoid sin. But in those moments we do sin, so long as even then, we hate the sin, we avoid, I think, the pharisaical mire.

Ab insidiis diaboli, libera nos, Domine.



Full disclaimer: in my first hour in the Holy Land, I gazed at the desolate horizon several times and wondered at it. “This is the Chosen Land? Wars have been fought, and countless lives lost, over this?”

On second thought, I recalled this underwhelming choice is God’s typical MO. He often chooses the most unassuming, the most unimpressive — like the shepherd children at Fatima who became some of the greatest prophets of the twentieth century. Or the timid and illiterate farmhand, who became Curé of Ars and parish priest to the world. Or the impetuous Galilean fisherman upon whom Jesus founded his Church.

Having recalled these lessons, I reserved judgement, and by the end of the day I had changed my assessment. By then I had toured the archeological digs of the City of David and walked around the Old City of Jerusalem. I discerned a spiritual power which is literally indescribable — one has to be there to experience it for oneself.

Upon returning to Australia I bought and read Simon Montefiore’s Jerusalem: A Biography, which I highly recommend. (Not perfect — Montefiore goes off the boil, for example, when he describes Paul as the founder of Christianity. But for the most part, an epic history which is as fascinating as it is informative.) In that book, Montefiore quotes Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993:

“Everybody has two cities, his own and Jerusalem.”

I think that’s true. Jerusalem certainly stirred something in me, as it did in our Lord himself:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:37)

If it’s not on your bucket list already, add it: a visit to Jerusalem.

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