Sunday, 31 October 2010

Solemnity of All Saints (transferred from 1st Nov), Shaftesbury


1 Jn 3:1-3; Mt 5:1-12
Today we keep the solemnity of All Saints and part of what we celebrate today is the glory of heaven that the saints enjoy. The Bible gives us a number of different images to describe heaven: sometimes it is referred to as an "banquet"(Isa 25:7), other times Scripture uses the image of "verdant pastures”(Ps 23), while the book of Revelation describes a radiant city as clear as crystal (Ref 21:11). But there is another image I want to refer to, namely, that of “seeing” God.

To “see” God is not something that we can do while we live in this world: God is spirit, God is invisible, God is so utterly transcendent that He is beyond the ability of our physical eyes to see. Nonetheless, Scripture repeatedly uses the language of "seeing” with respect to God. As we heard in the Beatitudes, the “pure of heart” are blessed because they “see” God.

St Gregory of Nyssa makes a useful comment on this when he notes that in the language of Scripture to "see" something means to possess it (Breviary, Office of Readings, Wk 12, Fri, Vol 3, p.235). For example, the Old Testament uses a blessing that says, "May you see the good things of Jerusalem"(Ps 128:5), and this seeing implies not merely observing without possession, but the seeing that one enjoys when you look at what you possess. In contrast, the ungodly will not “see the glory of the Lord”(Isa 26:10).

Our second reading today indicates something more about the significance of “seeing”, namely, that seeing CHANGES us. In particular, St John says that when the glory of God is fully revealed “we shall be like Him BECAUSE we shall SEE Him as He really is”(1 Jn 3:3): the very act seeing God will change us.
Now, even in this world we know how seeing something can have an effect on us. When I see the beautiful landscapes that fill the countryside around Shaftesbury, the very act of seeing has an effect in me. When I see a table filled with delightful food, that sight emotionally excites me. And , When I see someone I love that too changes me. That last point is perhaps the clearest analogy with seeing God: when we see the One we love it will change us from glory unto glory.
But, it will only change us if we do love Him –when we see something that we do not love it fails to have an effect in us.

When we die we will get what our heart desires. If our heart is set on the passing and corruptible things of this world –we will get corruption. If our heart is set on God –we will see Him and in seeing Him possess Him. And if our heart is only partly set on Him then we will not see Him with the fullness that the greatest saints with the greatest love enjoy.

To return to the Beatitude about the "pure of heart": to be "pure" indicates something about the heart and the desires of the heart -it indicates that those desires are purely focused on one love. With respect to God, purity means that our desires are focused on Him, and that we thus love other things as He loves them because He loves them and in the way that He loves them -not with the disordered desires for passing things that so easily inflame us.
Those who are "pure of heart" will see God. And they will see God not merely because of some extrinsic reward that God will give them for their purity, rather, their very purity is what will enable them to see God: the purity of the focus of their love will mean that they will lack the distractions that cloud the vision of those with impure desires.

To return and conclude with the point I made before: when we see something we love it has an effect on us, it causes an excitement within us. The saints in heaven continually see God, and because they love Him they are continually filled with an excitement that is beyond our feeble comprehension. God surpasses our deepest desires and wildest imaginings. If we would enjoy that vision more in heaven let us seek to know and love Him more here on earth.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury


Lk 18:9-14; Ecclesiaticus (Sirach) 35:12-19
Many people in Shaftesbury think that they are among those people who are to be considered as “personages”. Shaftesbury is full of people who attended the finest schools, the great universities, many have fine houses and secure pensions, and perhaps you might add that you are popular among your friends.
But God could not care less about any of these things. There is not one of these things that mean that you stand more or less in God's sight.
Thus it is that we heard in our first reading about how "The Lord... is no respecter of personages... [it is] the humble man's prayer [that] pierces the clouds”(Sirach 35:12ff).

I have been thinking these past few days especially, as I’ve pondered this Bible text, how I might view myself in the same way. I might think about how I stand before the world and before God: I have a degree, from a respectable university, a degree in a respectable subject, as a priest I have studied in Rome, even now I am a professor in the seminary, surely I am a “personage”. And yet, God couldn't care less about any of these things. There is not one of these things that mean that I stand more or less in God's sight.
God surely laughs at our pretence of being some kind of "equal" to Him.

Now, it might seem that this is not fair. Surely, you might say, my achievements should mean something to God. “Surely”, you might say, “God must think more of me than that person over there because I am” whatever-you-might-think-yourself-to-be.
Well, and this is perhaps the key point:
our achievements do have a value, and our achievements do change how we stand before God, but how our achievements affect our standing before God depends not so much on the external matter of the achievement but the inner humble spirit with which we did that thing –or not.

The importance of humility can perhaps be most clearly seen when we recognise the destructive effect of its opposite, namely, pride. As I think St Augustine said: It is the distinctive quality of pride that it can enter into ANY outwardly good action and turn it into something evil.
ANY task or chore can be done in pride for our own achievement, or, it can be done as an act of service to God using the talents He has given me as He wishes me to use them.

To turn to the example in today’s gospel, let us consider the good deeds of that Pharisee. There was nothing wrong with his deeds at the outward level. As he said himself: he fasted twice a week, he paid his tithes. However, his good deeds were destroyed by the pride that animated them: his deeds were something that he did not refer to as serving God or as serving his fellow man, rather, his deeds were something that he used to rank himself, as he himself put it, above “the rest of mankind” and especially above “this tax collector here”(Lk 18:11).

A humble person is capable of doing outwardly great things –the same outwardly great things that a proud man does. The difference is that the proud man attributes all of his greatness and all of his success to himself, and he achieves things for himself and for his own greatness, whereas, in contrast, the humble man attributes all of his gifts and talents to the Lord who bestows those gifts and talents, and a humble man achieves great things not for himself but in service to others.
Hence, as we heard in our first reading: it is such a “man who with his whole heart serves God” and it is such a man who "will be accepted"(Sir 35:16). "The Lord... is no respecter of personages”(Sirach 35:12ff).

Sunday, 10 October 2010

28th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year C, Harvest Festival, Shaftesbury


Lk 17:11-19
Today we keep our harvest festival. The primary thing that this involves is giving thanks to God for the fruits of the harvest, and in this giving thanks to God for all the good things He gives us.
Today's gospel gives us one of the classic texts where we see thanksgiving in action: 10 lepers were healed. One leper came back to give thanks.
I want to say a word about the connection between faith, thanksgiving, and salvation, and to start by looking at the words that Jesus said to the healed leper who had returned to give thanks.

Jesus said to that leper, "Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you"(Lk 17:19). Now, I think this is interesting, because it indicates something of what "salvation" means.
All 10 of the lepers were healed, all 10 were "saved" in their body.
But it was only the one who had enough “faith” to return and give thanks, it was only that leper who Jesus said was "saved":

"Salvation" is not just about the body. Often, especially when we are sick, we can reduce our problems and reduce our concept of salvation to just being about matters of the body, just being about material issues, whether it is health, money, and so forth.
However, Jesus's words point out to us that salvation is more than just about material things. Ultimate salvation, in heaven, will have the perfection and satisfaction of both our bodily and spiritual needs. But, while we journey though this world it is important to remember that it is the spiritual soul that is the higher part of us, and if we are saved in our body but not in our soul then we are not really saved at all.
And this is something we experience even at the psychological level: my body can be healthy, my house and my wealth might be secure, but I can still lack that peace of soul that is the more precious commodity.

The words of Jesus to that leper not only praised him for what he had but also point out to us how it is that we might have that salvation: by having faith.
If we believe in God, if we believe in what Jesus Christ has told us in the words of Scripture and through the teaching of His Church, IF we believe then we see the realities that this passing world fails to see and we rejoice in the realities that this passing world fails to rejoice in. And if our faith enables us to see these things then it enables us to give thanks to God for them.

But, this said, many of us often feel how we lack faith, how our faith is not as strong as we would like it to be.
We can pray the prayer we heard in last week’s Gospel: “Lord, Increase our faith”(Lk 17:5).
I would like, however, to point out something else that we can do to increase our faith, something that is important for us to do even if we think our faith is strong: we can give thanks.
If I want to deepen my awareness of God, deepen my faith in Him, deepen the amount I see His workings and gifts all around me, then an important way to deepen my faith is to thank Him for the gifts that the little faith I already have enables me to recognise.
When I go to bed at night I can pause to thank Him for the good things I have enjoyed during the day;
when I wake in the morning I can thank Him for the gift of the new day and for what will lie ahead;
and, the more I remember to thank Him at the start and end of the day the easier it will be to remember to thank Him during the day,
and, the more I thank Him then more that habit will enable me to clear my sight so that I will see better with the eyes of faith,
and, possessing ever deeper faith I will possess a deeper share in salvation,
so that one day Christ might say to me as He said to that leper, "Your faith has saved you"(Lk 17:19).