Mass of the Holy Spirit at Benedictine University

And first of all,

whatever good work you begin to do,

beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it…

That quote is from one of my favorite spiritual works, the Rule of Saint Benedict. I think it’s an appropriate sentiment with which to begin a school year. Education is, indeed, a good work, and like any good work, the way to do it well is with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. A Mass of the Holy Spirit is a long-held tradition for the beginning of a school year. Gathering at the beginning of a school year, we recognize that unlocking the mysteries of the universe and the knowledge of the world is a difficult endeavor, and that we are not expected to succeed in that all of our own merit. The Holy Spirit who gives all good gifts, including wisdom and knowledge, longs to pour those out on each of you as you come to this Holy Mass today.

Now I think most people who know the Rule would tell you that parts of it can come off sounding pretty harsh, but that’s only because Saint Benedict recognized well that human nature itself was harsh, and needed to be brought into proper submission in order for the human person to become what God created him or her to be. But that doesn’t mean that the Rule is nothing but gloom and doom; indeed, in its prologue, he makes the promise of living the Rule very clear:

And the Lord, seeking his laborer

in the multitude to whom He thus cries out,

says again,

“Who is the one who will have life,

and desires to see good days” (Ps. 33[34]:13)?

And if, hearing Him, you answer,

“I am the one,”

God says to you,

“If you will have true and everlasting life,

keep your tongue from evil

and your lips that they speak no guile.

Turn away from evil and do good;

seek after peace and pursue it” (Ps. 33[34]:14-15).

And when you have done these things,

My eyes shall be upon you

and My ears open to your prayers;

and before you call upon Me,

I will say to you,

‘Behold, here I am'” (Ps. 33[34]:16; Is. 65:24; 58:9). (Prologue)

Often, when we think of doing God’s will and living according to his plan for us, we are inhibiting our freedom and making our experience of life something less than it could be. That’s an incredible lie, to be honest, because real freedom consists of becoming what we were created for. God always intends the very best for us, and the real problem, the real limitation of our freedom, is that we often accept something so much less that what God wants for us. Accepting the paltry, passing pleasures of a fallen world is precisely what makes us less free: less free to become what we were meant to be; less free to enjoy the happiness God intends for us.

Well, then, does Saint Benedict, using the instruction found in Psalm 34, urge us to “Turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it.” That peace comes from following after the Lord and giving ourselves to his plan for our lives. God indeed has a plan for your life, and if you want to be successful here at BenU, and ever after, you’ll take the time that he gives you at this juncture of your life to find your way in accord with that plan and let it take you on a wild ride through your spiritual and intellectual life to become the son or daughter he has made you to be.

And I really don’t want this to sound like flowery, fluffy, religious-sounding advice that has no real significance. Saint Benedict would certainly not lead us down that path. Because, honestly, the other one who has a plan for your life is the devil, and if you don’t live intentionally and truly seek God’s will in your life, you’ll find it easy to accept that other plan. And the devil really wants you to fail; he really wants the worst for you, and delights in your suffering. But, filled as we believers are with the Holy Spirit, there’s no reason to think that the devil’s plan for you is inevitable: that one is never more powerful than Christ, that Christ who died that you might live.

So, toward the end of the prologue, Saint Benedict tells us what we who are beginning to engage in life must do:

Therefore we must prepare our hearts and our bodies

to do battle under the holy obedience of His commands;

and let us ask God

that He be pleased to give us the help of His grace

for anything which our nature finds hardly possible.

And if we want to escape the pains of hell

and attain life everlasting,

then, while there is still time,

while we are still in the body

and are able to fulfill all these things

by the light of this life,

we must hasten to do now

what will profit us for eternity.

That’s what you’re here for. That’s why you have this amazing opportunity to further your education here at BenU: to hasten to do now what will profit you for eternity. So how do you do that? What is it, precisely, that you need to do in order to “fulfill all these things by the light of this life?” Well, I could tell you to study hard, form great relationships, take care of your health, and apply yourself. But you already know those things, and you’ll do them, one would hope, as best you can. What I want to tell you is to safeguard all that by working on your relationship with God and living your faith. If you’re Catholic, that means going to Mass, attending to your prayer life, and receiving the sacraments. If you’re not Catholic, live your faith as your tradition recommends; that will certainly lead you to the place you ought to be. Those are the ways you will receive strength and grace not only to make the most of your education, but also to reach out in service to your community and the community of humanity.

That will take real work. Ora et labora, as Saint Benedict commanded: work and pray. Give yourself to God who has given himself to you. It can’t be a hastily-uttered prayer ten minutes before the exam for which you decided not to study. It has to be an authentic relationship with your God for it to make any sense.

I once heard an apocryphal story of a woman who was not religious, never prayed, never worshipped. At one point in her life, she was going through some very hard times, and decided that she should pray. Not really knowing how to pray, she reached for the dusty old Bible on her shelf that someone had given her years ago but she never really opened. She decided to open it up, point to a passage, and hope it spoke to her. So that’s what she did. Opening the Bible, she pointed to a passage and read: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” She thought that was frightening, so she decided to try again. This time she opened it up, pointed to a passage, and read: “Go, and do likewise.”

Now obviously, the woman was reading these passages out of context. Had she read the whole story around each of these quotes, she would have been clear that neither of these brief sentences spoke to her situation. But more than that, she was praying without the context of a relationship with God. Prayer can be very effective in times of crisis. But a time of crisis is not the time to learn how to pray. It is our authentic relationship with God as his daughters and sons that makes sense of our praying and teaches us how to speak to God. So don’t wait to do that. And if none of this in in your wheelhouse, if you don’t have a religious upbringing and don’t know where to start, seek out the campus ministry here. They can get you moving in the right direction.

Today, had we not chosen to do a Mass of the Holy Spirit, is the memorial of the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist. This is a man who gave his life in service of the Truth. He proclaimed the coming of the Lord and preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In the end, he refused to condone the current marriage of Herod to his brother’s wife, so he was imprisoned, and as a gift to Herod’s evil wife, put to death by beheading. All of us are here in service to the Truth, all of us will be called upon to sacrifice and witness to the truth. Please God it won’t be quite as life and death as it was for John the Baptist and many other thousands of martyrs throughout history, but it does require true commitment from us. It’s easier to live the Truth if you’re guided by it, so that’s just one more reason to attend to your spiritual life.

Saint Benedict makes it clear the kind of commitment we have to have for the Truth and the spiritual life. Right near the end of his Rule, he tells the monks that they are to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ.” Christ who is the Truth. If you give yourself to the Truth, to God’s plan for you, you will never be lost. If you attend to your spiritual life, you’ll have ultimate success, and will certainly find the way to academic success. May we all pray for ourselves, pray for our world, and pray for each other, and, in the words of the Rule, “may He bring us all together to life everlasting!” (Ch. 72)

Friday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

What kinds of mighty deeds is the Lord Jesus trying to do in our own lives? Is he finding success there, or have we put up obstacles through our own lack of faith?

Today we celebrate a Votive Mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for this First Friday. In this celebration, we realize that the “native place” of our Lord is in our own hearts. As he pours out the love of his Sacred Heart on us, he takes up residence in our own hearts in order to guide us and bring us to salvation. And so we cannot be like those in Jesus’ hometown who would give him no honor in his native place. We must joyfully give Christ honor in our hearts and let his love pour forth in all that we do and say this day and every day.

And just as Moses taught the people to observe the Lord’s commands for worship and rest on the Sabbath and the festivals, so we too must carefully observe time for worship and rest in our own hearts, communing with our God who longs to warm us with his presence as the very blood flows through our bodies and who longs to guide the rhythm of our days just like the beating of our own hearts. May we all find a moment of our day today for contemplation to appreciate the presence of the Lord in our hearts and in our lives. May the mighty deeds the Lord longs to do in us pour forth from his Sacred Heart, which resides in the hearts of all of us.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.

Tuesday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Listen to those words of Jesus again:

“Enter through the narrow gate;

for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction,

and those who enter through it are many.

How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life.

And those who find it are few.”

Those are pretty challenging thoughts, I think. But they are thoughts we can resonate with. Certainly Lot fell into the trap of going through the wide gate into the land of Sodom, the residents of which our first reading says “were very wicked in the sins they committed against the LORD.” And how true for us as well. Isn’t it always easier to take the road more traveled, despite the fact that that road doesn’t take you anywhere you want to go? We might very well take that easy road time and again, and end up, with Lot, well, in a place like Sodom.

Because the narrow gate isn’t easy to find and is harder still to travel. Living the Gospel and laying down our lives for others is hard work, and may often seem unrewarding. We may have to set aside our desires for the pleasures and rewards of this life. And we may even fail to get through that gate by our own efforts, due to the brokenness of our lives and the sinfulness of our living. We may find it next to impossible to travel through that narrow gate by ourselves.

But we don’t have to. The one who is our teacher in this constricted way is also the way through it. Our Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and through him we can all find our way to the Father. He even gives us the key to that narrow gate: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the Prophets.” As we pledge to live our lives by considering the needs of others just as we would consider our own needs, we will indeed find that traveling that narrow road is the way that gives most joy to our lives. As the Psalmist reminds us today, “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”

Friday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning we have to wrestle with the question: is there something in my life that distracts me from living my life as God intended that I need to cut out?  It’s a ruthless image that we find in our Gospel reading: gouge out an eye, cut off a hand – all of that is better than taking the road to hell.  And it really does need to be that ruthless.  Because hell is real and it’s not going to be pleasant.  So we really need to attach ourselves to Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life.  And whatever gets in the way of that needs to be brutally ejected from our lives.

Yes, that might hurt sometimes.  But, as the cliché goes, whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  Saint Paul is a good model of that:  he was constantly subjected to torture and imprisonment and death, but he considered that as gain so that he might have Christ.  And in today’s first reading, he testifies that all he endures is manifesting the sufferings of Jesus in his flesh, for the benefit of the Corinthian Church.

So in like manner, we too need to be willing to put to death in us anything that does not lead us to Christ.  The pain of it can be joined to the sufferings of Christ for God’s glory and honor.  It is something that we can offer to our God, as our Psalmist said, as a “sacrifice of praise.”

Thursday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Every now and then, in the Liturgy of the Word, we hear words that have directly influenced our prayers in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Today is such an occasion.  Just before we receive Holy Communion, I will elevate the host and the chalice and say: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.  Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”  These words are directly influenced by the last line of the first reading this morning.  Here John the Revelator is told to write down specific words:

Blessed are those who have been called
to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

And we all long to be on that invitation list, don’t we?  If not, we certainly should.  Here we will be brought in and given everything we need: at this banquet no one goes hungry, no one is left out, no one is unimportant.  At this banquet, Christ, the Lamb of God, is united most perfectly to his bride, the Church.  Here, all who have been called to the wedding feast are drawn up into the very life of God and are united with God in all perfection.

This is the goal of all our lives, and we get there by following the example of the saints, and by giving our life over to our Lord, the Lamb of God, who came that we might have eternal life in all its perfection and abundance.  In these last days of the Church year, Holy Mother Church reminds us where we’re going so that, should we have strayed from the path, we might make amends and correct our course.

Because not showing up at the wedding feast of the Lamb has eternal consequences.  And forfeiting eternal happiness with all the blessed ones is absolutely unthinkable.

Monday of the Thirty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“What do you want me to do for you?”

I think that is perhaps the important question in the spiritual life. In fact, when I begin working with someone for spiritual direction, I usually have them spend some time reflecting on this Gospel reading. When I myself go on retreat, I reflect on it too. Because unless we’re clear about what we want God to do for us, we won’t ever see any change in our spiritual lives.

I think that question – “What do you want me to do for you?” – is especially important in our world today. Too many people don’t think God does do or can do very much in our world today. We in particular are from a society that prizes its independence and can-do spirit, and so that starts to seep into our spiritual lives. Or perhaps we don’t think we should bother God by asking for what we truly need, as if he had better things to do than deal with us. Let’s be clear: he made us in his image and likeness, breathed us into life, and so he certainly has concern for our welfare.

But maybe the most prevalent reason people don’t ask enough from God is that they don’t think about him very often. Maybe as a last resort, yes, but not so much that there is that ongoing conversation and relationship with God which enables us to ask whatever we need in his name and trust we can get it, as Jesus famously promised.

Honestly, I’ve struggled with this question at various times in my own life. Because to really answer that question, you have to get over the struggle of asking for what you think he wants to hear. You have to get past the embarrassment of asking for something you think you should be able to get all on your own. You have to truly acknowledge where you are in your relationship with him, and ask for what you need. It’s not easy, but it’s a question we should ask ourselves often.

We’re coming to the end of the Church year. We’ve lived another year in his grace. It’s time for us to reflect on where we are, how far we’ve come, and what we still need.

What do you want Jesus to do for you?

Saturday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There are a lot of pitfalls on the road through our spiritual lives.  We ourselves experience that all the time.  Making our confessions, we have a firm purpose of amendment, but it seems like the devil knows that, and so we barely make it to the parking lot and there’s a new temptation or frustration.  Those pitfalls in the spiritual life are many, and frequent, and exasperating at times.

Jesus said it would be so.  Listen to what he says in the Gospel reading again:

The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man
who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.

Did you catch that?  The Kingdom of heaven will be like that.  It will be planted with good seed, but the enemy will sow weeds.  That’s still the Kingdom of heaven.  So when we are frustrated by the pitfalls we encounter, we can at least take some relative comfort in that our Savior said it would be like that, and we’re still in the Kingdom of heaven.

But what we can’t do is accept that to the point that we decide we can participate in it and still be forgiven.  We can’t love our sins and expect God to save us.  That’s called presumption, and it too is a sin, and a pitfall in the spiritual life.  Presumption is what was going on in our first reading this morning. Jeremiah calls the people out on their practices of worshipping and then as soon as they leave, sinning gravely. He tells them they can’t murder, commit adultery, and worship false gods only to say, “We are safe; we can commit all these abominations again.” God is a God of justice; he sees that kind of nonsense and calls it what it is.

So here’s the take away.  Yes, there will be pitfalls in the spiritual life.  But when we run into them, it doesn’t mean we’re not still in the Kingdom of heaven.  What we have to do is call them what they are, repent, reform our lives, and call on God’s mercy.  But we can’t presume God’s mercy so that we give ourselves permission to sin.  We have to love God more than our sins; love eternity more than today’s passing pleasures.  We have to be like the Psalmist today who recognizes the pitfalls and cries out:

My soul yearns and pines 
for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and my flesh
cry out for the living God.

The Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So here’s one of those occasions when we have what seems to be a pretty odd parable in the Gospel reading.  It’s a story that challenges our notion of who Jesus is and what he was about – it almost seems in this story that he’s being “un-Jesus-like” or even unchristian in the story.  But bookmark that for a second.  I always maintain that when a Scripture gets us riled up, then God is trying to tell us something important, and I definitely thing that’s what’s going on here.

So, first, we have to understand the parable. Wedding customs in first century Palestine were a little different than those we know today.  The wedding was a rather drawn-out affair, beginning with the betrothal.  After that, the couple was basically married, but would not live together until the complex negotiations regarding the dowry were complete.  When that was done, the bridegroom would go to the bride’s house and bring her to his own house.  Then there would be a splendid feast that would go on for several days, complete with feasting and flowing wine and all the rest.

So the parable we have in today’s Gospel puts us in the moment of time just as the negotiations are complete and they are expecting the bridegroom to go to the bride’s house.   The virgins are there ready to begin the great feast, but the bridegroom is delayed a bit, and they all fall asleep.  However, that is not the problem.  The problem is that half of them were unprepared.

And here I think is the point that gets us riled up a bit.  I think we bristle at the whole notion of the wise virgins’ refusal to share their oil with the foolish.  Jesus was always for sharing and charity, so what’s the deal here?  Well, since we know Jesus regularly encourages such sharing, I think we can safely conclude that is not the point of the parable and move on.  The point of the parable then, may well be the oil itself.  What kind of oil is he really talking about?  Of what is this oil symbolic?

The Church Fathers help us a bit there.  They talk about the oil as the oil of salvation.  This would be an oil that can only be had in relationship with Jesus.  It’s an oil that can’t be begged, borrowed, stolen or bought at an all-night Walgreens.  We fill the flasks of our lives with that oil through daily prayer, devotion, the sacraments, and a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ, our Savior.  So the foolish virgins were looking for oil too late — too late not just because it is midnight, but too late because they should have been filling their flasks with this oil all along.  It’s not the wise virgins’ fault they did not share: indeed this is an oil that cannot be shared, any more than one could live another’s life for that person.

What astounds me is that five of these virgins showed up unprepared.  We may not be familiar with first-century Palestinian wedding customs, but they certainly were.  So they would have known the wedding would go on for some days.  How is it, then, that they forgot to bring extra oil?  Even if the bridegroom had not been delayed, they certainly would have needed it!  What was so important to them that they forgot to attend to the most basic part of their job in preparation for the wedding banquet?

Just so, we certainly have nothing more important to do than to show up at the wedding feast of heaven with our flasks filled with the oil of salvation.  No other concern should distract us for our most basic job on earth, which is preparing for our life in heaven.  We must not be deterred from prayer, devotion, good works of charity, fasting, and zealous reception of the sacraments lest we hear those awful words the bridegroom spoke to the foolish virgins: “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”

When we get to the feast, if our flasks are not full, it is already too late.  As we approach the immanent end of this Church year (there’s just less than three weeks left), this is a very good time to take a look back and see how well we have filled our flasks in the last year.  Have we been zealous to attend to our spiritual lives?  Have we been careful to be sure we have received the Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis?  Do we take time to reflect on our relationship with God and try our best to live our lives as we have been called?  Have we even thought about what our calling is at this stage of our lives?  Are we, at this point in life’s journey, walking with our Lord through good times and bad?  Or have we veered off the path, in search of inferior oil with which to fill our flasks?  Have we been content with oil that does not burn brightly and which runs out just when we need it?

If that’s where we have found ourselves this year, then we have some work to do in the coming weeks.  As we wind up this year and begin the next, we need to steadfastly resolve to fill our flasks to overflowing with the oil of salvation in the year ahead.  The only way we can do that is by zealously seeking our God, praying the prayer of the Psalmist:

O God, you are my God whom I seek;
for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.

Friday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

One of the great obstacles to the spiritual life is when we come to believe that we ourselves have all the answers. When that happens, we may often hold to relative truth, even if we wouldn’t say that we do.   Or perhaps we insist on acting according to our opinions, instead of acting on consciences formed by Truth. You’ve heard it before, when having a conversation about a moral issue. People might say, “well I think…” whatever, as if that were the gold standard of morality and truth.

It’s cold comfort to see, in our gospel reading this morning, that we aren’t alone. Jesus’ generation was much the same. John the Baptist came across too strict, and Jesus came across like a drunkard and a partier. But the real problem was that they both proclaimed the truth; Jesus, obviously even stronger than John. But the crowds dismissed them both, because both required them to change their lives and their ways of thinking. If John and Jesus were right, then they weren’t, and that was unsettling.

It’s unsettling for us too, but we have the benefit of centuries of Church teaching to help us. And so we are called to leave behind our own opinions and think with the grace of Truth. It’s time that we considered that perhaps our own point of view isn’t the be-all and end-all of wisdom. Advent is about dispersing the darkness with the light of Christ, and the light of his Truth. The psalmist said it best: “Those who follow you, Lord, will have the light of life.”

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