Friday, August 29, 2014

Never Entirely Satisfied

                My friend Mike is an Ironman – he just completed his umpteenth Ironman race in July.  Me, I’m more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.  The closest I've come to doing an Ironman was reading about Mike’s races here on his blog.  After his last race in Lake Placid, we exchanged the following messages:

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man:  Congratulations!  I hope you’re happy with your time.

Ironman:  Happy, but not entirely satisfied.  But then again, never am.

SPMM:  There’s a theological explanation for that.

Ironman: Oh God.

SPMM:  Exactly! 

OK, I made up the last two lines, but I’m sure that’s what Mike was thinking, and I certainly would have come back with such a witty retort.  In any event, I owe Mike an explanation.  Here it is.

                We all have goals.  It’s in our nature.  Some may want to travel to exotic locations, learn to tango or climb Mount Everest; others may want to lose some weight, clean out a closet, or just get out of bed in the morning.  And for the certifiably insane, it’s doing Ironman races.  It doesn't matter what the goal is.  Big or small, we all have goals.  We’re hard-wired to strive for new and better things.  Why?  Well, it’s because we’re constantly and persistently called to greater things by “that which nothing greater can be thought”[1] – God.  Just think about it.  Most would agree that we've never seen perfection in this world, but for some reason, we have a concept of what it is, and we strive for it.  That reason is God.  God lives in and around us, incessantly calling us to his perfection.  In fact, the Holy Spirit that dwells within us never stops reaching out of us to be in perfect union with God, and he drags us right along with him.  When we strive to better ourselves and our lives and the lives of others, we’re really reaching out to God, whether we realize it or not.

                Our natural inclination to strive for perfection is also the reason we’re never entirely satisfied.  We can’t be completely satisfied in this world because perfection transcends it.  Perfection resides in God alone.  So until we’re completely united with God, we’ll never be fully satisfied.  As St. Augustine confessed to God, “My heart is restless until it rests in you.”  That’s why God keeps calling us to him; he knows that we’ll never be fully satisfied until we rest in him. 

If that’s the case, why keep trying?  Well, achieving our goals is very satisfying – it may not be completely satisfying, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.  With each goal achieved, we get a taste of what perfection is like; we get a little glimpse of heaven.  That’s what this journey on earth is all about – doing everything we can to live the Kingdom of Heaven as best we can here on earth until the time comes when we experience it, in all of its perfection, eternally.

While I might me puffier than Mike, and I’m certainly more sedentary, we do have a few things in common – we both have goals, and we’re both at stages in our lives when we’re reassessing our goals.  As for me, I’m discerning between two pretty ambitious goals right now (doing an Ironman is not one of them).  I don’t know if I’ll pursue either one.  If I don’t, I’m sure another goal will soon take their place.  It’s just the way I am.   I’ll be setting goals for myself, big and small, for the rest of my days on this earth.  While I know I’ll never be entirely satisfied in this life, I’m happy for each little victory along the way as I strive for the ultimate goal we all share – perfect union with perfect love.

[1] Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In Memoriam: Robin Williams

                If you’re like me, you may have spent some time over the past week watching Robin Williams videos.  Perhaps you laughed along with me at the clip of his first appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where Robin jumps from his chair to mimic a trained seal at the sight of the microphone dangling over his head.  Maybe you were moved by the touching video of Robin Williams tickling Koko, the gorilla who speaks in sign language, or you laughed out loud at his bawdy stand-up routine recalling the experience of having a 300 pound gorilla “interested” in him.  How about the poignant “Your just a kid” scene from Good Will Hunting, the inspiring “O Captain, My Captain” scene from Dead Poets Society or a rousing “Good Morning Vietnam” sound bite?  Let’s face it, to say that Robin Williams had talent is a gross understatement.  He had a quick mind and a quick wit; comedic timing and dramatic gravitas: and, as we all know, Robin Williams was funny.  Damn funny!  Robin Williams made a lot of people, including me, very happy.

I've also been spending a lot of time wondering how someone who made us so happy could be so sad.  That’s why it’s taken me so long to post about his untimely death.  Robin Williams was very open about his battle with depression, and his family confirmed that he was struggling with it at the time of his death.  But knowing that a person suffers from depression is a far cry from understanding what he’s going through.  I've journeyed with several people who battle with depression, but I don’t suffer from it myself.   So I don’t pretend to know how someone who could make us so happy could be so sad, and I wouldn't dare to hazard a guess.  That would be unfair to Robin Williams and to the many people who do suffer from depression.
So rather than trying to figure him out, I’ll simply appreciate his life and his work.  I’ll marvel at his lightning-fast mind and his wicked sense of humor.  I’ll be grateful for the attention he brought to homelessness and many other important causes.  But most of all, I’ll respect and admire his incredible courage – the courage to stand up in front of millions of people, confronting whatever sadness he may have been facing, to make us happy.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.  And let perpetual light shine upon him.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dare to Believe

“The choice is leave or take a bullet to the head; you have ten hours to get out or die; take nothing but the clothes on your back.” That was the ultimatum given to Iraqi Christians living in Mosul last weekend when Islamic State militants expelled the last Christian families from the city, forcing them to leave their belongings behind.[i] But when one man was told that ISIS was confiscating his house, he boldly replied, “Congratulations, you have the house.” With those five words that man conveyed a much deeper message: “You can take the house, the money, the car, the clothes, but you possess no part of my soul, which belongs to and is fed and sustained by Christ Jesus.”[ii] In the face of death and despair that man dared to believe, and that’s the message of today’s readings.

          Today’s readings talk about faith: daring to believe that God loves us and will never abandon us. Elijah’s on the run - he feels alone and abandoned by God; Saint Paul laments that his fellow Jews may be cut off from God for their lack of faith; and the disciples are caught in a storm at sea, afraid because Jesus isn't with them. But God abandons no one. It would be contrary to his very nature. So Elijah soon realizes that “God was near, providing food for Elijah’s journey as well as an intimate experience of the divine presence . . . as a ‘tiny whispering sound.’”[iii] The disciples see Jesus walking toward them on the water, calling Peter to him, lifting him up when he begins to sink, joining them in the storm-tossed boat, and calming the sea. And Saint Paul, well, you’re going to have to take my word on this one because his concerns are addressed in the passages that follow today’s excerpt from Romans. In the subsequent passages, Paul explains that God will keep his covenant with the Jews; God will never abandon them. They will be saved. God abandons no one and that gives us every reason to have faith.

          Webster’s Dictionary defines faith as “belief in the existence of God.” But faith has a much deeper meaning for us: Faith is a gift from God that invites a response from us - our trust in all that God has revealed to us. What’s the difference? Well, simply believing that God exists requires no understanding of who God is or how God operates in our lives. There’s no connection with God, necessarily - no relationship. But in the Judeo-Christian tradition, faith is all about our relationship with God. Faith is all about the highest form of relationship - love. So for us, faith is an inner certainty, a conviction that God is love, that God loves us infinitely and unconditionally, and that God’s love for us is eternal. Faith is “daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat . . . as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves.”[iv] That’s what God has revealed to us. That’s what we’re invited to believe, if we dare to.

          The life of faith is a beautiful way to live, and I’d argue that faith is the only way to truly live in this storm-tossed world. Faith brings with it “a quiet confidence and joy that enable [us] to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in [our lives], a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and stable no matter what may happen.”[v] In other words, faith brings with it the sure knowledge that God loves us and that our purpose in this world is to share God’s love with others. Faith won’t necessarily stop bad things from happening to us, and it won’t give us superhuman abilities to overcome them, like walking on water, but faith will give us the calm assurance that “All shall be well”[vi] and the courage to step out of the safety of the boat to do everything in our power to make all things well for us and for our neighbors.

          The challenge we face, then, is “trying to stay so focused on God’s enabling presence that the resistant winds do not defeat us.”[vii] It’s easy to lose faith. Sickness, death, unemployment, famine, religious persecution, even genocide - these are real challenges that real people are facing today. And in a highly secularized society, faith is often greeted with ridicule and scorn. It seems like the challenges of life are playing a game of pile on and we’re at the bottom of the pile. If we let these challenges distract us from the one who is life, we will sink into despair, hopelessness and meaninglessness. Just look at Saint Peter in today’s Gospel. Peter doesn't become frightened after he begins to sink. Peter becomes frightened first and then he begins to sink. Peter lost focus on the only one who can carry him across the raging sea. And what happens next? Jesus doesn't abandon Peter for lack of faith. “Jesus . . . is there to answer his call despite inadequate faith. What counts is not strength of will or courage but Jesus’ saving presence.”[viii] God is there for Peter in the person of Jesus Christ. Dare to believe that God is there to carry us across the raging seas, too, no matter what we may face.

          “Stranded on a barren mountaintop, thousands of minority Iraqis are faced with a bleak choice: descend and risk slaughter at the hands of the encircled Sunni extremists or sit tight and risk dying of thirst.”[ix] I wonder if those Iraqis feel like God has abandoned them. But when I read this story, I couldn't help but think that when Jesus left his disciples to go up the mountain to pray, he climbed Mount Sinjar to be with the persecuted Iraqis. God abandons no one, and that gives us every reason to have faith. For the sake of the persecuted Iraqis and Syrians and all who suffer, dare to believe. Dare to believe in the face of death, and despair, of evil incarnate, that God is with them. But more importantly, dare to believe in the face of ridicule, complacency, indifference and helplessness, that God is calling us from the boat to make his presence known to them by doing all we can do to help them. Dare to believe!

[i] Mark Movsesian, “A Line Crossed in the Middle East,” First Things, online edition (July 22, 2014),
[ii] Elizabeth Scalia, “Expelled Iraqi Christians Give Witness to ISIS Fascism,” The Anchoress (July 24, 2014),
[iii] Patricia Datchuck Sánchez, “Three O’clock and All is Well,” National Catholic Reporter, vol. 50, no.20 (July 18-31, 2014) at 25.
[iv] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994) at 329-330.
[v] Charles Hefling, Why Doctrines, 2nd ed. (Chestnut Hill, The Lonergan Institute, 2000) at 20, quoting Wilfred Cantwell Smith.
[vi] Julian of Norwich, The Showings.
[vii] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: On Earth as it is in Heaven, Matthew, Year A (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2004) at 250-251.
[viii] The Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman, eds. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001) at 863.
[ix] Loveday Morris, “Iraqi Yazidis Stranded on Isolated Mountaintop Begin to Die of Thirst,” Washington Post, online edition (August 5, 2014),

Friday, August 8, 2014

On the Feast of Saint Dominic

A flashback to the 1960s in honor of the feast of Saint Dominic:  Dominique

Try getting this little ditty out of your head!  For those who surrender to the temptation to sing along, here are the lyrics in French and English.

Saint Dominic by Luca Giordana

Refrain :
Dominique, nique, nique
S'en allait tout simplement
Routier pauvre et chantant
En tous chemins, en tous lieux,
Il ne parle que du bon Dieu,
Il ne parle que du bon Dieu.

À l'époque ou Jean-sans-Terre
D'Angleterre était le roi
Dominique, notre père,
Combattit les Albigeois.
        (Au refrain)
Certain jour, un hérétique,
Par des ronces le conduit,
Mais notre père Dominique,
Par sa joie le convertit.
        (Au refrain)
Ni chameau, ni diligence,
Il parcout l'Europe à pied
Scandinavie ou Provence
Dans la sainte pauvreté.
        (Au refrain)
Enflamma de toute école
Filles et garçons pleins d'ardeur
Et pour semer la Parole
Inventa les Frères-Prêcheurs.
        (Au refrain)
Chez Dominique et ses frères
Le pain s'en vint à manquer
Et deux anges se présentèrent
Portant de grands pains dorés.
        (Au refrain)
Dominique vit en rêve
Les prêcheurs du monde entier
Sous le manteau de la Vierge
En grand nombre rassemblés.
        (Au refrain)
Dominique, mon bon père,
Garde-nous simples et gais
Pour annoncer à nos frères
La Vie et la Verité

        (Au refrain)

Refrain :
Dominique -nique -nique
Went about simply,
A poor singing traveller.
On every road, in every place,
He talks only of the Good Lord,
He talks only of the Good Lord.

At the time when Bad King John
Was the sovereign of England
Dominic, our father,
Fought against the Albigensians.
One day, a heretic,
Led him through the brambles,
But our father Dominic,
With his cheer does convert him.
With neither camel nor haste,
Throughout Europe he goes on foot
Scandinavia and Provence
In holy poverty.
He sets alight at every school
Girls and boys full of ardour,
And to spread the Word
The Dominican Friars he did found.
For Dominique and his brothers
Bread did become sparse
When two angels did appear
With them great chunks of golden bread.
Dominique sees in a dream
Preachers all around the world
Under the cloak of the Virgin
In great number assembled.
Dominique, my dear father,
Keep us simple and jolly
To call to our brothers
The Way and the Truth.
Lyricist:  Soeur Sourire
Copyright: Belinda Music

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Sowing the Seeds of God’s Love

A wonderful man died earlier this week.  I was privileged to give the homily at his funeral this morning.

The Sower, by Vincent van Gogh (1888)
You gotta love John Burns.  Any man who loved manly dogs and even little toy dogs; any man who could be bribed with a maple-frosted donut; who ended his busy day with a Comfort Manhattan; who called his wife Honey Bunny and who had nicknames like “John John” and “Mr. Jabooboo,” can’t be all that bad.  But John wasn’t just “any man” because John’s capacity to love was much deeper than these simple things would suggest.  John loved God, and John loved us, and he made sure we knew it.  In his quiet, simple way, John sowed the seeds of God’s love.  And that’s what our scripture readings call us to do too.

          Our Gospel passage recalls the parable of the sower, where Jesus teaches us that those who hear the Word of God and embrace it with a generous and good heart will bear abundant fruit.  God’s Word, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, can be summed up in just one word – love.  As our second reading tells us, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.”  (1 John 4: 16)  So “God’s love for us is the source of our power to love.”[1]   Love is dynamic, not static.  It has to move.  So if we embrace God’s love with a good and generous heart, we won’t be able to hold it in.  Like the sower, we’ll scatter the seeds of love far and wide.  We will, ourselves, become sowers of the seeds of God’s love.  And we will produce abundant fruit.

          That’s our challenge from today’s readings – to embrace God’s Word; to embrace God’s love and share it with others.  I’m told that there’s a saying hanging on a bulletin board in John’s classroom that goes something like this:  “God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.”  Now, in light of John’s illness and death, we might be tempted to think that God gave John his battle with cancer.  But that’s not true.  God can’t harm us or hurt us.  It’s inconsistent with his very being, which is love.  In fact, God already conquered death through the passion, death and resurrection of his only Son.  God won that battle.  We’re celebrating Christ’s victory over death and his gift of eternal life in this Mass today.  No, God’s toughest battle is convincing us to receive his boundless love and to share it with each other.  That’s the battle that God gave to John.  That’s the battle God gives to all of us.  And God gave us the only weapon we need to win it – love.  So the only question that remains, then, is whether we’re willing to take on that battle – whether we’re willing to sow the seeds of God’s love. 

          John was.  It took Debbie and me all of 5 minutes to choose today’s readings because sacred scripture spoke so vividly to us of John.  John lived a scriptural life.   He embraced the Word of God, he embraced God’s love with his good and generous heart, and he sowed the seeds of that love among us.   John wasn’t boisterous or preachy about his faith, like me.  John, like Elijah in our first reading, found God in the “tiny whispering sound.”

+ John sowed the seeds of God’s love playing that organ for us every Sunday in his beaten up, band aid-bound shoes;

+ John sowed the seeds of God’s love by sharing his love for God with his students and colleagues at Pius X High School;

+ John sowed the seeds of love perfecting his “Crater Cakes” recipe for Katie and never missing a performance or recital; and

+ John sowed the seeds of God’s love loving Debbie, even when, in her words, she wasn't very lovable.  

One of John’s students captured him perfectly when she said, “I love the way love shines in you.”  John was a strong soldier, a generous sower, and a great example for us. 

          So I return to our challenge:  Will we embrace God’s Word with good and generous hearts?  Will we sow the seeds of God’s love like John did?  Well, I already know the answer to that question . . . because I've seen it happening. 

+ John’s family and friends sowed the seeds of God’s love by offering prayer, food and support during John’s difficult illness;

+ The students and staff at Pius X sowed the seeds of God’s love in the cards and messages you sent John that brightened his days and moved him to tears;

+ Katie:  You sowed the seeds of God’s love by loving those “Crater Cakes” more than the Spinning Wheel Diner’s pancakes (or at least pretending to), but most importantly by sharing your triumphs and your challenges with him and making him so proud of all that you do; and

+ Debbie:  you sowed the seeds of God’s love by loving John in sickness and in health, and even when he extended his summer vacation to a vacation from showering and shaving.

“In Christianity, love is the reason, the means, and the end of life.  God is love, and love is life’s driving force.  God created out of love, has sent his son into the world out of love, and in the end that Love and all that Love has loved return to the Creator to live eternally.”[2]  John loved, so I have no doubt that he lives in perfect health and happiness in the comforting embrace of the one who is perfect love because “love never dies.”  (1 Corinthians 13: 8)

          I don’t remember when I first met John.  We knew each other as fellow parishioners who exchanged pleasant greetings on Sundays; later as brothers in ministry who collaborated at Mass; and finally, by the grace of God, as friends.  I came to know John best in his darkest hour, and what a gift that time with John was for me.  We shared our hopes and fears.  We had deep theological discussions, and we chatted about the weather.  We mused about why he loved to watch golf on TV but couldn't understand what people found so entertaining about soccer.  But most of all, we talked about love.  He told me that Debbie and Katie were the loves of his life.  He told me how much he loved all of you.  He told me how deeply he felt your love for him and how your love carried him through his illness.  And he told me that he truly believed that God loved him more than he could imagine.  Even in dying, John sowed the seeds of God’s love.  You gotta love John Burns.

Readings:  1 Kings 19: 4-9a, 11-15a; 1 John 4: 7-16; Luke 8: 4-10a, 11b-15

[1] C. Clifton Black, “The First Letter of John,” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XII (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998) at 429.
[2] Michael Patella, Angels and Demons:  A Christian Primer of the Spiritual World (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2010) at 81.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


          One day, Hans and Fritz were resting on a hay bale at the side of the road when a young, American exchange student approached on his bicycle. The student asked, "Do you know the way to Frankfurt?" Not speaking any English, Hans and Fritz just shrugged their shoulders. Having majored in foreign languages at Georgetown University, the premier language learning institute in the nation, the exchange student was undaunted. He tried the question in French, but with no luck. He tried again in his best Italian, then Spanish. He even threw in some Japanese for good measure, but with each translation, Hans and Fritz just shrugged, unable to understand what the young man was asking. When he ran out of languages, the exchange student realized that he was getting nowhere, so he rode on. After a few moments, Hans turned to Fritz and said, "You know, we really need to grow. We should learn a foreign language." But Fritz replied, "Why? It didn't help him." Fritz didn't understand that if we really want to grow, we have to help ourselves. That's the message of today's Gospel.

          In today's Gospel we hear the familiar story known as the Parable of the Sower. But oddly enough, the parable isn't really about the sower. All we learn about the sower is that he went out to sow, and he sowed freely and liberally. Seeds were flying everywhere. The parable really focuses on the seeds and the soil – God's Word, and those who hear it. 

          God's Word is freely and liberally sown. The "salvific seed of God's good news [is] sown freely and indiscriminately so that anyone with ears to hear and a heart willing to understand might listen and learn the ways of God.”[1] God's Word is available to all of us. "The sower does not make distinctions between different soils; he simply throws the seed.”[2] And that seed, God's Word, is always effective. It always finds good soil. As God says through Isaiah in our first reading, "my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55: 11)

          That leads us to the soil: those who hear God's Word – to us. The parable speaks of four different types of soil, but only one produces an abundance of good fruit: the rich soil; the soil that's been cultivated. As the Gospel tells us, the rich soil is "the one who hears the word and understands it." (Matthew 13: 23) But let's face it, Scripture can be difficult to understand, and Jesus speaks in parables. He can be so confusing that his own disciples even challenge him, asking him why he speaks that way. What's the big secret? Is God trying to hide the ball from us? No. "The reason the secret 'has not been given’ is not that Jesus desires to hide the truth but that he wants his followers to seek the truth.”[3] We play an important part in cultivating God's Word. "In order to understand parables, hearers must be attentive and open to the things of God.”[4] Ultimately, each one of us is responsible for our own journey of understanding – the journey from God's Word to the good fruit we produce with it. We have to help ourselves. "[W]hen the word and soil come together completely and effectively, the result is an abundance and an excellence beyond imagination.”[5]

          So the challenge of this Gospel for us begins with the obvious question: "What kind of soil am I?"

  • If I hear God's Word, but make no effort to understand it, I'm the path where the seed will be stolen away from me;
  • If I find great joy in God's Word but don't let that joy take root in my heart, I'm the impenetrable rocky ground, where the fruit of God's Word will quickly wither when times get tough;
  • If my life is a tangled mess of worries and material desires, I'm the thorny land that chokes God's Word so that it bears no fruit in me.
  • But if I receive God's Word in my heart, ponder it and act upon it, I'm the rich soil, and I will bear much fruit.
The reality is that we're probably all of these types of soil at different times in our lives. "At one time or another every person loses the word to the evil one, is enthusiastic but not persevering, pursues riches at the expense of soul, and also bears abundant fruit.”[6] Every one of us has the opportunity to be rich soil for God's Word. So not only does the seed always find good soil, it finds good soil in each one of us. As Pope Francis so beautifully put it, "Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow.”[7]

          You know, "[t]he purpose of life on earth is that the soul should grow. So grow!"[8] But we all know that growth requires nurturing, some hard work, and we may even need to get our hands a little dirty. It's the same with our faith. God wants us to enjoy the fruits of his Kingdom now, and he's given us the seeds and the tools we need to do just that. The rest is up to us. We need to cultivate our lives to be receptive to God's Word; we need to remove the stumbling blocks and thorns that keep us from bearing good fruit. If we really want to grow, we need to help ourselves. It's our choice: We can choose to grow and bear good fruit, or we can just sit on the side of the road like Hans and Fritz shrugging our shoulders as we watch the fruits of God's Kingdom pass us by.

Readings: Isaiah 55: 10-11; Romans 8: 18-23; Matthew 13: 1-23

[1] Patricia Datchuck Sánchez, “A Missiology to Make Our Own,” National Catholic Reporter, vol. 50, no. 18 (June 20-July 3, 2014) at 27.
[2] Madeleine Baumont, Days of the Lord: Ordinary Time Year A, vol. 4 (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1992) at 125.
[3] John W. Martens, “Listen!” America, vol. 211, no. 1, (July 7-14, 2014) at 45.
[4] Baumont at 124.
[5] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: On Earth as It is in Heaven, Matthew, Year A (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2004) at 228.
[6] Shea at 228.
[7] Antonio Spadaro, SJ, “A Big Heart Open to God,” La Civiltà Cattolica (September 19, 2013) at 11.
[8] Zelda Fitzgerald, letter (1944), reprinted in Nancy Milford, Zelda (New York, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2011).  

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Speakin' Deacons 2014!

Deacon Mike Meyer will join Deacons Michael Martini and Joe Campbell to answer your questions about our faith:  Thursday July 24, 2014 at 7:00 pm.  Immaculate Conception Church, Parish Hall - 316 Old Allerton Road, Annandale, NJ 08801.  Disclaimer:  The Deacons are not responsible for the advertising associated with this event. . . .