Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Unclean Spirit's Return


Our soul must be a house that accommodates the Spirit of love
A Reflection on Luke 11:24-26
By Fr. Maximilian Buonocore, OSB

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26)

Reading this, my reaction is, “Why bother trying to overcome evil in myself if every good and successful effort to become virtuous and overcome sinful tendencies in myself just results in the introduction of an even harder challenge, seven times harder to overcome than the last?” This can cause me to become disheartened in my pursuit of virtue and holiness. But I think that what Jesus is warning his hearers about in today’s Gospel passage is the same thing that St. Paul warns his hearers about often: the temptation to be presumptuous about the effectiveness of our own abilities and talents for achieving virtue and holiness. 

In the Gospel parable spoken by Jesus, the clean house, swept and put in order, that the unclean spirit finds upon its return, is the house of the soul where order is imposed through ascetical practices and religious observances, not carried out in humble obedience, and that are effective in fostering virtue, but have no capacity to introduce love into the soul. The house of the soul becomes a clean but empty room. St. Paul describes the emptiness of such a soul (1 Corinthians 13:1-3): “. . .if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.” In this state, my soul is perfectly clean and ordered; but it is not tidied and ordered to accommodate the spirit of mercy and charity. Rather, it is better ordered to accommodate the spirits associated with pride and self-interest. In this state my soul is not prepared for the activation of the image and likeness of God in me, but, instead, is prepared for the activation of spiritual pride and human ambition. My soul is not a home where the Spirit of Christ feels comfortable and at home. My ascesis and religious observance do not serve as a preparation for the activation of the image and likeness of God in me by the indwelling and action of the Spirit of Christ in me. Through intense ascesis and religious practices, I may clean and order my soul, making my soul perfectly clean and ordered; but if it is not tidied and ordered through humility and obedience, I may be unwittingly cleaning and ordering my soul to better accommodate the spirit of pride and its associated self-interest spirits, rather than preparing my soul to better accommodate the spirit of mercy and charity. The unclean spirit of pride returns to my soul and is delighted to find a space so accommodating that it invites all of its seven fellow unclean spirits of anger, fear, envy, jealousy, hypocrisy, arrogance and lust. A soul that is not filled with love is a space just waiting to be filled with the unclean spirits associated with pride and self-interest.

A soul, on the other hand, that is emptied and made clean by openness and obedience to the Spirit of Christ becomes a house most accommodating to the Spirit of love, and quickly and readily becomes filled with, and occupied with - the clean and holy spirit of charity. The soul that is filled with the Spirit of charity leaves no space for the self-building ambition of pride and its associated unclean spirits of selfish interest. Let us daily endeavor to do the housecleaning of our soul with humble listening to the Word of God and receiving the Lord in humble obedience, so that our soul becomes ever increasingly a house that accommodates Christ’s Spirit of Love.

The Rich Young Man and the Perfect Gift of Self


Being a Christian Is About Making a Full Gift of Self Through Love
Reflection of the Readings for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year B
By Maximilian Buonocore, OSB

Wisdom 7:7-11
Hebrews 4:12-13
Mark 10:17-30

I read a story about the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley. In this story he had a dream. In this dream, he came to the gates of hell and asked, “What kind of people are here, Catholics?” The answer was, “Yes, many.” “Also, Anglicans?” “Yes, many” was the answer. “Also Lutherans, Baptists and Orthodox?” The answer was always the same, “Yes, many.” And what about the Methodists?” “Also plenty,” was the answer. This made Wesley feel very distressed. So he then went to the gates of heaven. He knocked at the door and asked the same question. “Are there any Catholics here?” “No, not a single one,” was the answer. “And Anglicans?” “No, not one!” “What about Lutherans, Baptists and Orthodox?” “No, none,” was again the answer. Finally he dared to ask, “what about Methodists?” “No, not a single one here.” Wesley was horrified, and, with deep vexation, asked, “Well, what kind of people are there in heaven anyway?” The answer came, “Only Christians.”

What might this mean that there are only Christians in heaven? Does it mean that Jews, Moslems, Buddhists or people adhering to other religious beliefs cannot get into heaven. Well, I believe that the readings today give us clues to the type of person who will be admitted to heaven. The person who qualifies for admission to heaven can indeed be called a Christian, but what, then, is the definition of a Christian? Today’s readings make clear that being a true Christian is about being a true person of God, and being a true person of God is not about perfect adherence to a particular set of doctrines and laws, but about making a total gift of self to God by making a total gift of self to others through love. Solomon does not pray for the ability to adhere to a set of doctrines and laws, but for the living spirit of wisdom - the Spirit of God, which is the Spirit of love - to dwell in his heart, so that he may make a better gift of self in the service of love toward his subjects. The passage from Hebrews speaks, not about the word of God as being conveyed through laws and doctrines and scriptures, but about the word being living and active and penetrating the heart - something that doctrines and laws cannot do. Jesus challenges the rich young man, who is already adhering perfectly to the Law and the doctrines of the faith, to make a total gift of self if he wants to be truly made perfect and inherit eternal life.

I am convinced that being a Christian is more about making a total gift of self through love than it is about adhering to a particular set of doctrines. I don’t know if John Wesley actually had that dream, but if he did, when the Lord says that the only kind of people in heaven are Christians, I would interpret “Christians” to refer precisely to those people who have made a total gift of self through love. This is not to deny that Christians have an obligation to humbly pursue right thinking about the nature of God, his revelations, and his interventions in human history, but this later aspect is secondary to the principal goal of Christianity: that is, to imitate Christ’s total gift of self, who, “. . .emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) This is the true Christian way because it is the way of love. It is the way that we activate the image and likeness of God in us, and thereby activate in ourselves the vehicle by which the Lord channels his faithful loving mercy into the world through us. This is the Christian way, no matter what particular religious denomination one belongs to. Although Jesus set up the one Church, which has continued under the name Catholic for two millennia, through which he conveys and preserves the truths of the faith, and dispenses the graces sacramentally for a life of redemptive suffering and love, one’s receiving of these graces, and exercising of this redemptive love in imitation of Christ, does not necessarily require an explicit membership in the Roman Catholic Church with an explicit adherence to the doctrines that it puts forth through its Magisterium, but an implicit membership and implicit adherence to its doctrines, which is attained by the activation of the image and likeness of God in oneself through a sincere pursuit of truth and a life of love. To prove that one’s faith and membership in the one Church set up by Christ does not have to be fully explicit, Jesus tells us the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). The king invites those on his right to enter their eternal reward because they have given themselves in service to him by feeding him when he was hungry, giving him drink when he was thirsty, clothing him when he was naked, welcoming him as a stranger, caring for him when he was sick, and visiting him when he was confined. These righteous people did not have an awareness of having acted with such explicit faith and knowledge, asking, “. . .when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” The faith of these righteous people, and their membership in the Church as people of God was implicit as the image and likeness of God in them was activated in the service of the Lord. What is more important than explicit membership in he Catholic Church and explicit adherence to its laws and doctrines is the explicit expression of what that membership and adherence to doctrine is meant to facilitate: namely, the activation of the image and likeness of God in us for the service of love. I may be a devout Catholic and I may be able to adhere to the fullness of doctrine that comes from the Magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church; I may (1 Corinthians 13) “. . .have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge” that is made available through the Catholic Church. I may have a Catholic “faith so as to move mountains but [if I] do not have love, I am nothing.” “If I give away everything I own” to be a Catholic, and “if I hand my body over so that I may boast” of being Roman Catholic, “but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

It is true that it is Jesus Christ who bears the Spirit of God into the world, and into human souls, so it is therefore also true that any person in whom the Spirit of God - the Spirit of Christ - dwells actively can, in a proper sense, be called Christian. So, when the Lord tells Wesley in his dream that only Christians are in heaven, it should be taken to mean that only those in whom the Spirit of Christ - the Spirit of God - is active - that is, only those in whom the image and likeness of God is fully activated - are the people who are in heaven.

I want to be in heaven some day, and I am confident that it is the Church that Jesus established, namely, the Catholic Church, which makes it possible for me, and everyone else destined for heaven, to prepare our souls for the heavenly state. To those of us who have an explicit membership in the Catholic Church, St. Paul says (Ephesians 1:8-10), “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” That is why I am so happy to be a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Being a member of the Catholic Church certainly is a privilege, and I certainly feel privileged to have been baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, to be able to be a member of a monastic religious community, and more recently to be ordained a priest. But none of this should be seen by me as something for me to boast about, but rather to be humble about. I must never see my membership in the Roman Catholic Church as giving me an advantage for salvation over other people who are living a life of mercy and love but may not be members of the Catholic Church. I must rather always consider whether I am being true to my Catholic faith by living a life of mercy and charity - that is, a life in which the image and likeness of God is fully activated in me. I must always remember that, no matter what my religious membership may be, the Spirit that judges me is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12-13); remembering always that I will be principally judged on the state of my heart, and on a living faith from which flows love that is a total gift of self.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

At Last Bone of My Bones and Flesh of My Flesh

Created to be Perfect for the Marriage of Divine Love
A Reflection on the Readings for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Year B
By Fr. Maximilian Buonocore, OSB


Genesis 2:18-24

Hebrews 2:9-11

Mark 10:2-16

Made Perfect through sufferings means being made perfect for a loving relationship

When the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (2:9-11) declares that Jesus was made perfect through suffering, he was not talking about Jesus being made perfect in his nature - which, of course was already perfect - nor was he talking about Jesus being made perfect in grace - in which he was likewise also already perfect. When it says that Jesus was made perfect through suffering, it means that Jesus was made perfect for identifying with and deeply empathizing with human beings in their suffering, and he was made perfect for offering that suffering to our common Father as the suffering of God. Here is a little story to illustrate this point.

A man put up a sign in front of his house that read: “Puppies for Sale.” Soon after, a young boy came in to inquire. “Please, Mister,” he said, “I’d like to buy one of your puppies.” “Well, son,” the man replied, “they’re $25.” The boy looked crushed. “I’ve only got two dollars and five cents. Could I see them anyway?” “Of course. Maybe we can work something out,” said the man. The lad’s eyes danced at the sight of those five little balls of fur. “I can offer you this one here for $2.00. She has a defect in her leg.” said the man. “Oh yes,” replied the boy excitedly, “she would be perfect for me.” “Well, you know,” warned the man, “that dog will be crippled for life.” “That’s definitely the puppy I want.” The man said again, “But she’ll always have a limp.” Smiling, the boy pulled up one pant leg, revealing a brace supporting his leg due to a congenital defect. “I don’t walk good either.” Then, looking at the puppy sympathetically, he continued, “I guess she’ll need a lot of love and help. I sure did. It’s not so easy being crippled.” “Here, take her,” said the man. “I know you’ll give her a good home. Forget the money.” In this story we see a young boy who has been made perfect to be the ideal caregiver of the crippled puppy through what he suffered, namely his personal handicap. Because he has experienced lameness, he is now in the best position to understand and help the lame puppy. In the same way, Christ, by embracing the human condition and experiencing the hardships, weaknesses and temptations of human life, became the perfect candidate to help us along the way of salvation. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The statement that Jesus was made perfect through suffering does not make sense if we apply to it the philosophical meaning of being made perfect. From a philosophical perspective “to be perfect” means to be ideal in every respect, to be altogether excellent, to be absolutely free from any flaw or defect. The Hebrew understanding of perfection, which is more likely the sense of the word that is used in this passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, has a nuance. In the Hebrew understanding of the text, “to be perfect” most likely means “to be ideally suited for a particular purpose” Here perfection can be understood as being relative to an end, rather than as something absolute. Thus, it would be better to understand the statement that Jesus was made perfect through suffering as saying that, on account of what he suffered, Jesus became ideally suited for the purpose for which he came, namely, to be “the pioneer of our salvation” (verse 10). And he became ideally suited to our salvation by becoming perfect in the deep empathic regard for those who suffer that is in someone who himself has suffered as the other has. Today the Church deliberately connects this passage with passages from the Old and New Testaments on marriage. I think that it is because this is what marriage is about: being made perfect for empathic regard - for love - for the perfect activation of the image and likeness of God in us.

Created to be suitable for the marriage of divine love

In the first reading, we hear Adam, as he gazes upon his new partner, Eve, declare, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Adam was not just declaring Eve to be of the same nature as he, but was identifying with her with the deepest empathic regard. This is how God the Father regards each of the beings that he creates in his own image and likeness. He so identifies with them that he sees their needs as his own needs, and their sufferings as his own sufferings. That what he intended to be imitated through the beings that he created in his image and likeness: that each regards the other with the deepest empathic regard, identifying with the other so that he or she sees the other’s needs as his or her own, and the other’s sufferings as his or her own. To prove to humankind that he so identified with us that he regards our needs as his own needs and our sufferings as his own, he becomes incarnate in the second person of the Trinity, the Son who is one with the Father and with whom the Father perfectly identifies with. When Son takes on human flesh, it thereby becomes for the Father “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” not in the sense that God, who is pure Spirit, has flesh and bones, but that the bones and flesh of humanity, is connected, not only to the image and likeness of God in the human individual, but now becomes connected into the Body of the very Son of God, and now becomes perfectly identified as the Father’s own bones and flesh, connected as they are in the Body of Christ to the divine nature. The heavenly Father gazes with an infinite and eternal love at this Body of human beings and says, like Adam, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” It is thus that God became incarnate in Christ Jesus as a Bridegroom to be wedded to humanity, the collective of human beings becoming “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh” in the Body of Christ. He weds humanity with infinite and eternal faithful loving mercy, with a complete gift of self, giving his very self in sacrifice to be consumed sacramentally by us, consuming the flesh of the Son of Man so that we may become “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh” in divine spiritual communion. The Father, who creates many children in Christ his Beloved Son, through this divine marital bond, also brings “many children to glory.” (Hebrews 2:10) And the principal human agency of this divine marital bond is the marriage bond between man and woman. Through the incarnation and self-sacrificial giving of the Son to humanity as Bridegroom, God elevated marriage to a sacramental status - a divine status. It is now a sacramental bond which makes present the eternal self-giving act of the Son of God, emptying himself, and becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8) to manifest his faithful loving mercy by his total gift of self to the other.

God wants to declare to every one of us: “At last bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

God made known through Jesus that he desires the marital bond between two human beings to be the imitation of the love bond between the Father and the Son, through which he begets the Son in eternity, and begets children in creation, with that same infinite and eternal faithful loving mercy. God wants the marital relationship to be the sacramental by which children first encounter God’s faithful loving mercy. It is the bond by which human beings participate in the creative loving mercy of God, and the bond through which human beings receive the grace of birth and rebirth in the Lord. This is why Jesus insists that, even though the Lord previously allowed for a divorce “of convenience” because of the hardheartedness of men, which allowed a spouse, if he or she was not well disposed to great personal sacrifice, to avoid significant self-sacrifice in a marriage by getting out of it, this “divorce of convenience” is no longer tolerable to the Lord, because he now wants total gift of self by each partner in marriage in imitation of his own total gift of self to humankind. Marriage is now to be the primary vehicle for the bonding of humans in the one Body in which humanity becomes for God “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” God wants each one of us so bonded in the the Body of his Son that he can gaze upon each of us with the same infinite and eternal loving gaze with which he gazes upon his Son and say to each of us both individually and collectively, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Although marriage is a major sacramental bond for activating the channel of divine love in us - that is, the image and likeness of God in us - the channel of divine love in us can be activated in other states of life as well, including religious life, whether in a religious order like we are, or in parish or other forms of community life where one is able to make a full gift of self in loving service. The channel of divine love in us - that is, the divine image and likeness in us - is only fully activated in us when we make a total gift of self. Let us pray that the Lord will continue to give each of us the grace to make that total gift of self in the service of love so that the Lord may say to us with delight, “At last, bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

Friday, October 1, 2021

Donning the True Religious Habit


Cutting off the limbs of self-interest

Reflection on the Readings for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

By Fr. Maximilian Buonocore, OSB

There was a man who was a member of several Catholic societies and was very active in his parish, serving as lector, Eucharistic minister and usher. One Sunday, when he was scheduled to serve as usher, he was on his way to church and was running late. Ushers needed to get there early. As he was driving, a car with a young man suddenly changed lanes cutting him off and then was going very slowly. He started blowing his horn and raising his fist. Then he changed lanes to pass the car and, as he was passing, he opened his window and yelled some obscenities at the young driver. Suddenly he sees the flashing lights of a police car behind him and the sound of the loudspeaker telling him to pull over.  He pulled over and the police officer came over to his window and asked to see his license and registration. He gives him his license and the vehicle registration and the officer returns to his vehicle to run a check. He comes back and hands the license and registration back and says, “you’re OK, you can go.” Confused, the driver asked the policeman why he had stopped him to check. The officer replied, “Well, I was driving behind you and I saw the 'Choose Life' license plate holder, the ‘I love Jesus,’ and the 'What Would Jesus Do' bumper stickers, the 'Follow Me to church' bumper sticker, and the crucifix hanging from your rearview mirror. Then I saw you blowing your horn impatiently, shaking your fist, and yelling obscenities. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car." Deeply embarrassed, he arrived at the church, much humbled, and started carrying out his usher duties.

The incident with the policeman that had occurred on the way to church was a real eye-opener for that man. He was “exposed,” as my students would say. What was exposed is that, even though he was very religious and an active member of his parish community, he had not yet fully donned the habit of his baptismal consecration. Christian virtue was still lacking in a certain significant way.

The story about the usher was a fictional story, but I have a true story of something that happened to me very recently. I was driving along Avenue C in Bayonne with my friend Nagui in the passenger seat. I started feeling very frustrated because of what seemed to me a very slow speed that the cars ahead of me were driving. I even turned to Nagui and complained about the slow speed of the traffic. Some distance down the road I realized that at the head of the cars was a police vehicle. Then I looked down at my odometer and noticed that the traffic was moving right at the speed limit. I was exposed!

There is a danger for religious people: to have the expectation that membership and active participation in a religious society or group guarantees that they are virtuous. As a member of a Benedictine religious community, I engage in daily exercises of prayer and work with the expectation of growing in grace and virtue. I wear a habit made up of a tunic, scapular and hood. It serves as a strong symbol of what I strive to be as a monastic consecrated religious. But none of this guarantees that I am virtuous. My wearing of the habit and all of the ritual exercises that I perform every day, alone do not serve as guarantors of my virtue. These daily exercises must be accompanied, as Jesus advises in the Gospel today, by authentic inward efforts at cutting off the limbs of vice which cause me to stumble, and cause my heart to turn away from the light of Christ and toward the darkness of sin. I must daily pluck out the eye of envy and jealousy and prejudice which color my perceptions and cause me to react in sinful ways toward others, and, as I myself, my inner vision darkened by sinful self-interest, act as a child of darkness, rather than a child of the light and of the day, as St. Paul says (1 Thessalonians 5:5). I may thus cause others to turn their hearts from the lighted path of the spirit. I must daily cut off the hand of anger which causes me to ignore the presence of Christ in my brother or sister, and causes me to “return evil for evil; rather, always seek what is good for each other and for all” (1 Thessalonians 5:15); resulting not only in myself not being at peace, but also preventing me from promoting peace among my brothers and sisters. I must daily cut off the foot of pride which causes me to walk in the way of self-advancement and self-building, at the expense of the interests and advancement of others, causing me to stumble along in the drunken stupor of illusion of control, and not only prevent my own heart from dwelling in heaven, but turn my brother’s or sister’s heart from the heavenly path. I must always be conscious of how my calling as a Christian, in general, and as a monastic, specifically, is meant to give inspiration, and help people to come to an awareness of God’s presence and of his loving mercy. As a Christian and especially as a monastic, my heart must continually dwell in heaven through contemplation even as my body and mind dwell on earth engaged in the business of the world, transforming that business into loving service that transmits heaven into the daily lives of myself and others. I must always be aware that bad behavior on my part, especially as a monastic, serves, as Jesus said, to put a stumbling block before the little ones who believe in him. It is through people like me and you that they come to a knowledge of Jesus. What impression of Jesus am I giving them? Therefore I must strive daily to don the true religious habit: the most beautiful habit, and the most authentic habit. That is, the habit of faithfulness and charity. This is the most beautiful and authentic habit that a religious person can put on. It is a habit that one does not put on from the outside, but it is put on from the inside. It radiates outward, and it radiates with the love of Jesus!

Bearing the Marks of Christ


A Reflection on the Meaning of Suffering through the Wounds of Jesus
By Fr. Maximilian Buonocore, OSB

When we think of saints like Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, whose memorial we celebrate on September 23rd, and Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we celebrate on October 4th, we think of the stigmata, which were a manifestation in the flesh of these saints of the sacrificial mercy of Jesus realized in a very high way in them. But each and every one of us is also called to bear the marks of Christ in our body and soul. The stigmata by which we, as ordinary Christians, manifest the sacrificial mercy of Christ in the flesh is our compassion for those who suffer, our joyful readiness to bear suffering ourselves, and our joyful readiness to come to the service of others in need. We are called to bear the wounds of Christ by suffering with him. Although Christ’s death on the cross was final, his redemptive suffering is ongoing. St. Paul (Romans 6:10-13) makes clear that the death of Christ was once for all, perfect in fulfilling its purpose: “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all. . .” But we also know that Jesus’ redemptive suffering continues vicariously through us and all who suffer across the ages. When Jesus invites us take up our cross daily to follow him (Matthew 16:24-26), he invites us to share in his ongoing redemptive suffering for sin as a way of participating in his evangelical mission of drawing souls to his Father as adopted children and heirs of God (Romans 8:17): “The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God . . . and fellow heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” But, we are assured that bearing the wounds of Christ, suffering with him, comes with the redemptive power of the resurrection (Philippians 3:10): “. . .that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death. . .” “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)

Jesus suffers vicariously through us in all of our sufferings and in the sufferings of all those who suffer in the world. Henri Nouwen articulated this mystery so profoundly when he said (Christ of the Americas): “We have come to the inner knowledge that the agony of the world is God’s agony. The agony of women, men and children during the ages reveals to us the inexhaustible depth of God’s agony that we glimpsed in the garden of Gethsemane. The deepest meaning of human history is the gradual unfolding of the suffering of Christ. As long as there is human history, the story of Christ’s suffering has not yet been fully told. Every time we hear more about the way human beings are in pain, we come to know more about the immensity of God’s love, who did not want to exclude anything human from his experience of being God. God indeed is Yahweh Rachamin, the God who carries his suffering people in his womb, with the intimacy and care of a mother. This is what Blaise Pascal alluded to when he wrote that Christ is in agony until the end of time. The more we try to enter into this mystery the more we will come to see the suffering world as a world hidden in God.” This is why St. Teresa of Calcutta invites us to see in the poor, and in all those who are suffering, Christ on the cross saying “I thirst,” and invites us to satisfy that thirst through deeds of love. Our sacrificial works of charity are not carried out in order to get us into heaven, but they are the means by which heaven gets into us who are members of that “suffering world hidden in God”. Our works of charity guarantee that our heart dwells in heaven even while our body and mind dwell on earth engaged in the business of the world.

The prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 9:11, 16, 20; 10:4) repeats the phrase: “. . .and his hand is still outstretched!” In this passage, Isaiah expressed the punishing - the wounding effect - of his outstretched arm, but he adds elsewhere with great emphasis that the ultimate effect of his outstretched arm is healing and forgiveness and mercy. In Old Testament times, the Lord stretched out his arm with a punitive effect toward the sinner in order to gain mercy for the most vulnerable and suffering - for the widow, the orphan and the stranger - while at the same time humbling the sinner so that he would become open to the redemptive mercy of the Lord. Likewise, in New Testament times, Jesus stretches out his arm to us, inviting us to take up our cross in self-sacrifice for the sake of others, especially the suffering and needy, inviting us to take up our cross daily to follow him, bearing his wounds in our body and soul, interceding with him to the Father, to gain mercy for the poor and downtrodden, while, at the same time, his same outstretched arm provides strength and healing to our own sinful soul, humbling our hearts in preparation for receiving his redemptive mercy.

After his resurrection Jesus stretched out his arm so that Thomas and the other apostles could touch his wounds now glorified. Jesus did not not say to Thomas, “Touch my side.” No. Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your hand into my side.” He wanted Thomas to do more than touch his wounds. He wanted Thomas to touch his heart, and thereby to touch the heart of God. Jesus invites us daily, also, to put our hand into the wound in his side, to touch his heart, so as to touch the very heart of God, and thereby to become channels of the excruciating love that flows from the heart of so loving a Father, through the heart of Jesus, flowing through his wounded side. The wounds of Jesus are an opening in creation to the heart of God. They are an opening to touch the heart of Jesus, and thereby to touch the heart of God. The wound in Jesus' side is an opening to a most intimate heart-touching-heart relationship between God and human beings. Whenever I put my hand into the side of Christ, reaching with the hand of charity, to touch his heart, the water and blood of grace and mercy flow through me into the world. In contemplating the wounds of Christ, I can see how, with a lance, a human being opened up the passageway between time and eternity; how, with a lance, a human being pierced the divine heart of love, piercing the heart of a man nailed to a cross, that the water of divine holiness and the blood of divine goodness and love may flow forth from the divine heart of love of the Father, through the wound in the heart of a human being, into men and women to sanctify them quicken them with true and eternal life.

It is in this way that Jesus invites us, with outstretched arms, to touch his wounds, so that we may be healed and that we may offer his healing touch to others. Like the apostles, I feel the wounding of the Lord’s outstretched arm as I take up my cross in order to, as St. Paul said, “fill up in [my own] flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.” (Colossians 1:24) And it is thus that I, like St. Paul and the other apostles, bear the marks of Jesus on my body.” It is thus that I become a channel for the healing flood of grace and mercy which flows forth from his glorified wounds to flow into the world. Whenever I perform an act of mercy, a self-sacrificial deed of charity, an act of forgiveness, I touch the wounds of Christ, and I gain the healing grace that pours forth from his wounds not only for myself, but for others as well, because I am in that moment an earthbound channel of the heavenly channel of his wounds. Thus, every person who is living a truly evangelical life bears the marks of Christ in his/her body and soul, and bears the evangelical message, also forecast by Isaiah (9:1-2): “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing. The suffering of the cross, of the wounds, is not for suffering’s sake, but for the channeling of mercy into the world.

Because of the power of the resurrection in the wounds of Christ which we bear through our suffering, we are able to embrace great suffering because this suffering, joined to the wounds of Christ Crucified, can now serve for us as a vehicle of contemplation: a vehicle of the contemplation of the profound compassion and faithful mercy of God the loving Father, expressed through his incarnate Word, who embraced death on the cross as an expression of excruciating love. In our own suffering, we contemplate the wounds of Christ, to see how Jesus was pierced with sorrow and deep compassion for the sins which keep souls from being open to God’s love, and we ourselves become pierced with Christ with that same sorrow for sin and deep compassion for souls.

Created To Be An Ev-angel

A Reflection for the Feast of St. Michael and the Archangels
By Fr. Maximilian Buonocore, OSB

In a homily by St Gregory the Great (PL 76, 1250-1251), St. Gregory says that the word “angel” is denotative of a function, much more so than of a nature. The nature of the beings that we usually refer to as angels is to be incorporeal spirits. It is their function to be the holy spirits of heaven who are personal intermediaries between the Holy Trinity and corporeal creation. As St. Benedict says (RB 7:13), our “actions everywhere are in God’s sight and are reported by angels at every hour.” They are spirits, and they can only be properly called angels to the extent that they deliver some message. As St. Gregory points out, the spirits who deliver messages of lesser importance are referred to simply as angels; while those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels. And so, it was not merely an angel, but the archangel, Gabriel, that was sent to the Virgin Mary, to convey the message of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, by which the second person of the Holy Trinity would become incarnate. It is only fitting that the highest angels, the archangels, should come to announce the greatest messages. Although all angels have a perfect knowledge of God that comes from the direct vision and intercourse with the Holy Trinity, it is only the archangels who are given proper names to denote the service they are empowered to perform. The three names that we are most familiar with are, Michael, which means “Who is like God”; Gabriel which means “The Strength [or the Power] of God”; and Raphael, which means “God’s Healing Remedy.”

We too, like the archangels, are given names, because we are embodied spirits with a specific mission. The same root, angelos, is in the word evangelical, which means bringing the good news. Created in the image and likeness of God, each of us is made “little lower than the angels and crowned with honor and glory.” (Psalm 8:5) We do something that the archangels cannot do: we embody God’s love. We are embodied spirits. We are not arch-angels, we are ev-angels, good news bearers. As ev-angels, we are created as mission - our very being is a mission. We are created as personal messengers - ev-angels - of the Holy Trinity, to convey, in the world, God’s faithful mercy. That is the meaning of our personhood: to sound through the mask of corporeality the spiritual reality of the greatness and glory of an infinite and eternal loving creator. We are like angels especially when we become truly evangelical persons, living a life rooted in contemplation and prayer; living a holy life continuously conveying the message - the good news - of God’s faithful and merciful love, through our words and good deeds - by our very lives. Like St. Michael, by our words of praise and our humble obedience to the Word of God, we proclaim, “Micha-el!”, “Who is like unto God!” Like St. Gabriel, our deeds of loving service proclaim “Gabri-el”, “The Strength of God.” Our compassion and care for the sick and for those most vulnerable, and especially our acts of forgiveness and mercy toward our enemies, proclaim, “Rapha-el!” “God’s Healing Remedy!” We have this mission by the very fact of being human persons, but this mission is elevated to a higher plane of spiritual - angelic - mission when we become truly evangelical persons. And we become truly evangelical persons when our hearts are dwelling in heaven through contemplation, even as our minds and bodies remain on earth engaged in the business of the world. When we become truly evangelical persons - ev-angels - it is then that we are made perfect in what God has created us to be, and it is then that God’s business in the world becomes our daily business in the world, and our daily actions and interactions become angelic actions and interactions, imbued with the message of the greatness and glory, strength, and healing remedy, of the faithful mercy of an infinite and eternal loving Father, conveyed to us through his Word, Christ Jesus, with the aid of the heavenly spirits - the Archangels - which we, in turn, convey to other people. May God, through his Spirit dwelling in us, and with the assistance of the Angels, continue to perfect in us our nature and mission as messengers of his faithful loving mercy: as ev-angels.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

A Personal Response to the Lord's Question to me: "Who Do YOU say that I am?"


Who Do You Say That I Am?"

A reflection on the readings for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

By Fr. Maximilian Buonocore, OSB


Isaiah 50:5-9
James 2:14-18
Mark 8:27-35

Four famous theologians find themselves all at the same time at the historic district of Caesarea Philippi for a theological conference. They decide to take a walk together through the village. Who should appear to them but Jesus, who asks the four famous theologians the same question he asked his disciples 2000 years earlier, “Who do you say that I am?” One of them spoke up quickly and confidently sayinging in reply: “You are the totaliter aliter, the vestigious trinitatum who speaks to us in the modality of Christo-monism.” Thinking the first’s reply rather sparse, the second theologian chimes in: “You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the ground of all possibilities.” Then, the third of the theologians, with great confidence, clearing his throat, says: “You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming oughtness in the midst of our fraught condition of estrangement and brokenness in the contiguity and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships.” Finally, the fourth theologian, not to be outdone by the others, gets up, and raises his voice: “You are my Oppressed One, my soul's shalom, the One who was, who is, and who shall be, who has never left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed struggling for freedom, whose blackness is both literal and symbolic.” Jesus then looks up to heaven and says, “Father, I hate to tell you; these guys don’t know me and they don’t know you.”

The first time Jesus asked his disciples the question, he asked it in the third person: “Who do people say that I am?” He got what I am sure that he was expecting, an answer based on theological reflection applied to Scripture, especially the passages which seemed to predict the return of Elijah or others of the Prophets. This is the type of reply which is comfortable and not personally demanding. It is the type of response that the Pharisees would be comfortable with, which the philosopher-theologians are comfortable with. There is a place for faith expressed through theological reflection, but it is not a living and redemptive expression.  Jesus then poses the question to his disciples in a very direct and very personal way: “Who do YOU say that I am?” Posed in this way, the question demands a very personal response from a personal experience of, and personal relationship with Jesus.  

In every moment, in every event of my life, Jesus asks me the question, “Who do you say that I am?” In every person I encounter, Jesus presents himself to me asking the question, “Who do YOU say that I am?” He directs this question to me especially when I am engaged in the most trying and challenging circumstances, with people who are most difficult and challenging to work for or work with. He directs this question to me - “Who do YOU say that I am? - most directly, most poignantly, and most personally, when I am feeling most frustrated or angry or resentful or fearful, or mistrustful. He asks me this question when he presents himself in the form of a person in need of my attention and concern. “Who do you say that I am?” He asks me this question when he presents himself in the form of a person in need of my forgiveness and mercy. “Who do you say that I am?” Hopefully, my response will be like that of Peter: “You are the Christ.” This response need not be expressed in words. In fact, my response: “You are the Christ,” must especially be expressed by my actions. My response to Jesus: “You are the Christ,” must be expressed by my loving deeds and my kind response to the other person or persons who are being the most challenging to me. And it must not be done in an artificial way. Loving acts that fulfill the needs of the person before me, whether they be emotional needs or physical needs, guarantee that my expressions of faith are living and redemptive expressions of faith. My loving service to others, especially to those who require mercy and forgiveness, guarantees that my belief, that Jesus is the Messiah, becomes a true faith expression. For, as St. James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? . . . If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? . . . faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” If I look at my brother or sister in Christ, and I refuse to show him or her mercy or offer them loving service, I rebuke the Lord just as Peter did, who esteemed the humiliation of rejection, and self-sacrifice associated with bearing persecution, as something that was inconsistent with a Messianic, apostolic mission. If I refuse, in any moment, the cross of humiliation and self-sacrifice, in that moment, the Lord says to me, just as he did to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind, not on divine things, but on human things.” When Jesus sternly ordered his disciples not to tell anyone about his messianic mission, it was not because he did not want them to give testimony to others about this messianic mission, but it was because he wanted them to declare his Messiahship more by deeds and example than by words.

Jesus comes to me in every moment, in every circumstance of my life, and he most especially comes to me as people who challenge me to be patient and merciful, asking me in a very direct and very personal way, “Who do YOU say that I am?” I must answer the question, more with deeds than with words, from the simple facts of my personal experience and relationship with Jesus. My response must flow from the simple acknowledgement of Christ present in the other person, and from the simple response of loving gratitude for that loving presence. My acts of mercy and loving service say to Jesus, “You are the Christ.” If we have a personal experience of him through a life of prayer and good works, then in every moment we can respond with a living and personal faith to his question, “Who do YOU say that I am, from the heart: “You are the Christ.”