Monthly Archives: September 2020

Psalms Say It All

I like the way psalms say it all. “Rejoice in the Lord, you just!” one of the psalms says. No need to make a prayer up on your own or think hard about saying something to God the right way. Let the psalms help you pray. “Rejoice in the Lord, you just!”

“Let the earth rejoice in God, our king.” Why not join the earth praying? The “many isles are glad.” Be glad with them.

The psalms have a way of stilling our souls and calling them into the quiet grace of God’s presence. We think everything depends on us. No, it doesn’t. God “melts the mountains like wax” and “guards the lives of his faithful ones.” We think we have to know everything. No, we don’t.  But God does.

We pray, not to know more and more, but to be drawn closer to God. The psalms feed our minds and hearts, little by little. Their special grace is their simplicity as they tell us, for example,  “rest in God as a child in a mother’s arms.”

Most of the psalms in our liturgy are songs of praise. “Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good.” Other psalms cry for help. Just a cry is enough, they say. “I cry to the Lord that he may hear me.”

The psalms call us to a simple, deep prayer. Keep your eye on them in the liturgy of the Mass, Use them in your daily prayer. They’re wonderful basic prayers for everyone.

“Although the whole of Scripture breathes God’s grace upon us, this is especially true of that delightful book, the book of the psalms.” (St. Ambrose)

Every day the church meets the morning praying the psalms; every evening we end the day with these great prayers. A good way to pray always, as Jesus asks us to do.

Contending with God

26th Week in Ordinary Time, Wednesday (Year II)

Job 9:1-12, 14-16; Psalm 88; Luke 9:57-62

Daily I call upon you, O LORD;
to you I stretch out my hands…
Why, O LORD, do you reject me;
why hide from me your face? (Psalm 88:10, 15)

Is God “just”? Job, like the Psalmist, struggled against a God who seemed indifferent to his suffering. Stricken with a skin disease and dispossessed of everything, his friends offered no consolation but only accusation. 

“Reflect now, what innocent person perishes? Where are the upright destroyed?” counseled Eliphaz (Job 4:7).

Bildad also took the side of God against Job and his children: 

“If your children have sinned against him 
and he has left them in the grip of their guilt, 
Still, if you yourself have recourse to God 
and make supplication to the Almighty, 
Should you be blameless and upright, 
surely now he will rouse himself for you 
and restore your rightful home.” (Job 8:4-6)

You deserve it, Job, his friends said. Search your heart and confess your sin, and the Lord will restore your fortunes. God’s justice is an inflexible principle and everyone gets what they deserve. An airtight theological argument?

Job refused to accept it.

It is all one! therefore I say:
Both the innocent and the wicked he destroys. (Job 9:22)

A just God? Not!

When the scourge slays suddenly,
he scoffs at the despair of the innocent. (Job 9:23)

Who, but God, permits evil?

The earth is given into the hands of the wicked;
he covers the faces of its judges.
If it is not he, who then is it? (Job 9:24)

Job held God accountable for his miserable plight and freely gave vent to his complaints. But who can argue against the Almighty and prevail? Job felt powerless.

Job answered his friends and said: I know well that it is so;
but how can a man be justified before God?
Should one wish to contend with him,
he could not answer him once in a thousand times.
God is wise in heart and mighty in strength;
who has withstood him and remained unscathed?

He removes the mountains before they know it;
he overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth out of its place,
and the pillars beneath it tremble.
He commands the sun, and it rises not;
he seals up the stars.

He alone stretches out the heavens
and treads upon the crests of the sea.
He made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the constellations of the south;
He does great things past finding out,
marvelous things beyond reckoning.

Should he come near me, I see him not;
should he pass by, I am not aware of him;
Should he seize me forcibly, who can say him nay?
Who can say to him, “What are you doing?” 

How much less shall I give him any answer,
or choose out arguments against him!
Even though I were right, I could not answer him,
but should rather beg for what was due me.
If I appealed to him and he answered my call,
I could not believe that he would hearken to my words. (Job 9:1-12, 14-16)

Job’s God cannot be cut down to size and slotted into some architectonic system of theology.  Incomprehensible evil and suffering detonate all conceivable systems.

“Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with his presence” (Paul Claudel).

Jesus flowed like water to the lowest places of the earth to fill them with his presence. Even a criminal on a cross identified with him. 

“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, 
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Luke 9:58)

Job eventually learned to love and trust the Giver of all good gifts without the gifts. He was dispossessed against his will to struggle to that spiritual depth. 

Jesus calls his disciples to a voluntary dispossession of any competing goods with the supreme good of the Kingdom of God. 

“No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).


Angels of Christ and His Body

St. Michael, St. Raphael, and St. Gabriel

Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation 12:7-12a; Psalm 138

As I watched:
Thrones were set up and the Ancient One took his throne.
His clothing was bright as snow, and the hair on his head as white as wool;
His throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire.
A surging stream of fire flowed out from where he sat;
Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him,
and myriads upon myriads attended him.
The court was convened, and the books were opened.

As the visions during the night continued,
I saw One like a son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven;
When he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him,
He received dominion, glory, and kingship;
nations and peoples of every language serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14).

The unseen world is full of mysteries too deep for words, mysteries radiating from the all-holy Trinity—“a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (St. Augustine). 

“Christ is the center of the angelic world. They are his angels” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 331). 

“I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19-20).

As the angels surround and interpenetrate Christ, they surround and interpenetrate St. Paul and every child of the Father in whom Christ lives.

As the Body is inseparable from the Head, the Body of Christ is the center of the angelic world. They are our angels.

The battlefield of heaven is the human heart, for the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21). Christ came to conquer our hearts with unconditional, self-emptying love. He sent the Holy Spirit to possess us—body, soul, and spirit—and to transform humanity with his deifying grace. 

War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have salvation and power come, and the Kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed. For the accuser of our brothers is cast out, who accuses them before our God day and night. They conquered him by the Blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; love for life did not deter them from death. Therefore, rejoice, you heavens, and you who dwell in them” (Revelation 12:7-12a).

All external wars with bombs and tanks, words and diatribes, arguments and debates, begin and end in the human heart. The lack of physical war or argumentation is not yet peace, for peace can only be found in hearts free of malice and envy.

St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael, and all the myriads of angels in the circle of the Trinity “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”—come to our aid and draw us into communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with all my heart,
for you have heard the words of my mouth;
in the presence of the angels I will sing your praise;
I will worship at your holy temple
and give thanks to your name (Psalm 138:1-2).


The Caliber of the Human Heart

26th Week in Ordinary Time, Monday (Year II)

Job 1:6-22; Psalm 17; Luke 9:46-50

Why believe in God and follow his commandments? Do motives of fear or gain fuel religious observance? Can lovers of God transcend the fear of loss or the desire of gain (even the reward of heaven)? 

From the divine end, do karma-like principles govern the universe? Must the good always prosper and the wicked suffer?

The Book of Job wrestles with these questions in a scenario of extremes involving a man of impeccable virtue above reproach, numerous and auspicious progeny, and bountiful wealth and prosperity, who loses it all at once in a trial to explore the limits of purity of heart.

In the courts of heaven, an “accuser” or “challenger” (ha satan) facilitates an extraordinary spiritual experiment to filter out all sediment of ulterior motives in Job, as well as turn the retribution principle on its head: What if God’s beloved suffers the lot of the wicked?

The New American Bible (Revised Edition) and a few other translations have rendered ha satan (“the accuser”) as a title and role rather than a personal name (Satan). The word is used of David as an “adversary” (l’satan) to Saul in I Samuel 29:4. An angel of YHWH was sent to oppose Balaam as an “adversary” (l’satan) in Numbers 22:22. In 1 Kings 11:14, a satan (“adversary”) is raised up against Solomon as a political rival (see NABRE footnote). In Zechariah 3:1, the “adversary” (satan) is a figure in the Lord’s heavenly courtroom.

“The satan” might be akin to the role of the “devil’s advocate” in the canonization process of a saint. The accuser, adversary, or challenger plays a pivotal role in bringing to light the truth of a candidate’s life, faith, and heroic virtue. By posing difficult questions and deliberately looking for “chinks in the armor,” obstacles to canonization are cleared away.

The satan in the first chapter of Job, who is not a sinister character, plays the auxiliary role of  “devil’s advocate” to test the mettle of humanity at its finest, and to challenge the divine retribution principle widely assumed to be incontestable. 

One day, when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, the satan also came among them. The Lord said to the satan, “Where have you been?” Then the satan answered the Lord and said, “Roaming the earth and patrolling it.” The Lord said to the satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him, blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil.” The satan answered the Lord and said, “Is it for nothing that Job is God-fearing? Have you not surrounded him and his family and all that he has with your protection? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his livestock are spread over the land. But now put forth your hand and touch all that he has, and surely he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to the satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on him.” So the satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.

One day, while his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the house of their eldest brother, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys grazing beside them, and the Sabeans carried them off in a raid. They put the servants to the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” He was still speaking when another came and said, “God’s fire has fallen from heaven and struck the sheep and the servants and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” He was still speaking when another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, seized the camels, carried them off, and put the servants to the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” He was still speaking when another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the house of their eldest brother, and suddenly a great wind came from across the desert and smashed the four corners of the house. It fell upon the young people and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

Under God’s watch, Job is dismantled of every external good that he considered precious—children, servants, property and possessions. His foundational faith and piety remained unshaken at this stage: 

Then Job arose and tore his cloak and cut off his hair. He fell to the ground and worshiped. He said,

“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb,
and naked shall I go back there.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
blessed be the name of the Lord!”

In all this Job did not sin, nor did he charge God with wrong.

Job recognized his existential poverty: the God of the universe owed him nothing. From the dust of the earth in his mother’s womb he was formed, and to the dust of the womb of Mother Earth he shall return. 

Job mustered up all his faith in God’s goodness and blessed (barak) him. Unbeknownst to the suffering servant, the “devil’s advocate” had predicted a curse (barak) from the saint. The Hebrew word for “bless” is used euphemistically by the satan in Job 1:5 and 11.

To explore the hidden caverns of human motives and intentions, Job’s heart was dipped in a fiery cauldron to purify it of all dregs. To what heights of disinterested love (agape) can humanity soar? 

The heart is a complex, incomprehensible spiritual organ: “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) The hearts of Jesus’ disciples were also put to the test, not by a satan, but by the Son of God himself:

An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest. Jesus realized the intention of their hearts and took a child and placed it by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.” 

A disciple of Christ does not serve God for individual profit—power, prestige, or position. Actions flow from identification with the eternal, divine Child in the Womb of the Father.

The prayer of David is the prayer of Jesus and his disciples:

“Though you test my heart, searching it in the night,
though you try me with fire, you shall find no malice in me” (Psalm 17:3).


Health Care, Then and Now

Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, Rome

We celebrate the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian September 26th. They were two brothers who practiced medicine in Syria in the fourth century and were martyred during the reign of Diocletian. Tradition says they gave their services freely to anyone needing medical help, and so followed Jesus’ teaching, “Freely you have been given, freely give. “ (Matthew 10:8) 

The brothers are honored widely from earliest times in the Christian churches of the east and west. In the  great 7th century mosaic in the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Rome they’re shown being presented to Christ holding their medicine boxes in their hands, good and faithful physicians. They appear later as patrons of doctors, pharmacists, nurses, barbers. 

We lack exact historical information about them, but let’s not miss the example of holiness Saints Cosmas and Damian offer. In his own ministry, Jesus had special care for the sick and suffering, and showed his concern in miraculous cures that restored them to health and enabled them to return to their families and communities. Those who heal and care for the sick and suffering– whether doctors, nurses, caregivers of every kind, people involved in medical research– follow him in what they do.

Cosmas and Damian remind us health care  is more than a job you may– or may not – get paid for. It’s sharing in the divine power to heal. “I was sick and you visited me,” Jesus says at judgment time. Health care is vital to every society and culture.

It’s a burning issue in our society today. Health care is a basic human right to be honored and supported. 

Saints Cosmas and Damian pray for us.