Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John12:24.)
Jesus had said this to his disciples shortly after his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. I’m thinking about the issue of Dying to Self these September days because we’re celebrating a favorite feast day of mine because I have an along association with the Cistercian Abbey of the Holy Cross in Berryville,Virginia, nestled on the Western side of the first ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the shore of the Shenandoah River. I’m also thinking of the issue of Dying to Self these September days because of some personal issues I’m experiencing as I enter the fiftieth year of my priesthood.
Many of us might shudder and quake in our sneakers at the thought of Dying to Self. It goes against everything our American culture tells us we should do—Look Out For No. 1 ~ especially what we put up with from our elected officials, day in and day out these days. There has been talk about the “Me Generation” since the Seventies. I found quite interesting: Patricia Greenfield, a psychological scientist at the University of California in Los Angeles, used the Google Ngram Viewer to scan more than 1 million books. Her findings, which were published in Psychological Science, showed that there has been a distinct rise in more individualistic words such as “choose,” “get,” “feel,” “unique,” “individual” and “self” and a decrease in community-focused words such as “obliged,” “give,” “act,” “obedience,” “authority,” “pray” and “belong.” No sign of Dying to Self here, it seems. Let alone the Cross.
I wonder what will happen to our young people when they hit on hard times? When their climb toward success begins to crumble? When the girl that they’ve fallen head-over-heals in love with cruelly rejects them? Or as I just read in The Writer magazine, after five years of marriage, the successful screen-writer “Brendan” had grown tired of arguing with his wife, also a writer, but insecure and jealous of his success, told her he’s moving out? What happens to any of us when life does not turn out as we planned? When we suddenly lose our job? Or are diagnosed with cancer?
If you name the trauma(s) that have altered your life over the years . . . how did you deal with them? How did they affect you? What about Dying to Self? Can you ~ do you ~ do that?
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24.) Does this make sense to you?
For you? In another place, Jesus says to his disciples . . .
If any wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Luke 9:24-26 ~ NRSV)
Obviously, this is not the wisdom of the world with its emphasis on Power Prestige and Possessions. A priest-friend sent me a Christmas card a couple of years ago that I framed and placed on my dining room table —a quote of St. Paul’s:
My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection. And so I willingly boast of my weaknesses instead, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For when I am powerless, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Now here you have three koans to mull over, dear friends, and to try to grasp:
I / Unless a grain of wheat dies, it will not bear fruit.
II / Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. I
II / When I am powerless, then I am strong.
What is a koan, you might ask? A koan is a Zen saying often used by Buddhist monks to teach their novices: “To meditate on a koan is to engage in an active process, like that we engage in when we try to solve a mathematical problem. As in mathematics, the solution is supposed to come suddenly.”
So, rather than giving all your energy to the three P’s of the world, why not write these three Christian Scriptures on index cards and pull them out when you’re idle waiting for something else to happen? Try it! You just might be enlightened, as I somehow receive the gift of some in wisdom, as I have from time to time when I have been attentive to my prayer-life.
Jesus, of course, shows us the way. Let’s look at the famous “Kenosis” passage of Philippians Chapter 2:6-11 “Kenosis”—meaning here Jesus’ self-emptying . . .
Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
There it is, dear friends! Jesus gave his life for us. The movement was downward. Earthward. Earth-bound. Into the muck. Humility comes from the word humus, meaning muck. So, that’s what Dying to Self involves—getting down into the nitty-gritty of our lives and those of our loved ones and those we are called to serve. Being obedient to what life demands of us. And beckons us to, whether we might like it not. Real Life elicits from our inner depths our best resources. Then . . .
Then . . . God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And so, too, with us! We will be lifted up! I have experienced this several times. My longtime readers know that I’ve struggled with manic-depressive illness, and other issues with it, and later Parkinson’s disease, from which I received some sort of a miraculous release, according to my neurologist and very often financial struggles,like many of you.
But Jesus is faithful! Dying and rising is a continual process in nature and in our lives as well. We are taken down in some burden or crisis but, through faith, we are lifted up again! This is the Paschal Mystery. The Pasch ~ Passover ~ Passage ~Transition ~Transformation ~ Change. The Dying and Rising of Jesus in our lives is celebrated for us Catholics throughout the liturgical year and in every Mass.
Think about how you have experienced—and continue to experience the Paschal Mystery ~ this dying and rising ~ in your own life. And so, dear friends, I will bring this missive to a close by returning to the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and conclude with the wonderful words of the hymn Lift High the Cross. I remember when I first heard it. Trumpets and timpani sent shivers down my spine and goose bumps all over!
Lift high the cross The love of Christ proclaim,
Till all the world Adore His sacred name
Led on their way By this triumphant sign,
The hosts of God In conquering ranks combine. Refrain:
Each newborn servant Of the Crucified
Bears on the brow The seal of Him who died. Refrain
O Lord, once lifted On the glorious tree,
As Thou hast promised Draw the world to Thee. Refrain.
So shall our song Of triumph ever be:
Praise to the Crucified For victory. Refrain:
Now here is the hymn for your listening pleasure. Click here. Be sure to turn up your speakers.
And here are today’s Mass readings, if you’d like to reflect on them. Click here.
The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity ~ Sunday, June 11, 2017
This is the Sunday when we give praise to God as we Christians understand and know God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
For me, it’s all about being caught up in ~ getting lost in ~ finding my true self in the awesome dynamic relationship with our God as we come to know that God is love.
The Christian religion is different from the other world religions in that it sees God is intrinsically relational. Other world religions see God in relationship with creation and of course, with humanity. But as the Bette Midler song suggests, there’s no personal relationship there: “God is watching us—from a distance.”
The all-embracing love of the Father and the Son and the Spirit sustains us in existence. We are drawn into the dynamism, exuberance and power of that love.
In God, as Richard Rohr shows us “Everything belongs.” God splashes [his] love on us all with such abundance and exuberance that we’ve discovered that within one galaxy there are billions of suns! You and me included! (Today’s Gospel is John 3:16 ~ God so loved the world . . . we’re all included!)
The Holy Trinity ought to be for a Christian the foundation for a whole new way of being! But we have made the Holy Trinity into a dry, boring doctrine that we dismiss as beyond our comprehension and therefore, irrelevant to our lives.
William Young’s book The Shack brings the doctrine of the Trinity—the very foundation of Christianity—to life in a clever, imaginative description of how three persons in one God might interact with each other and with us. It reveals a God who is so easy, relaxed and delightful in God’s self that we are eager to be caught up and sustained in that delight and love. The image above is the famous Rublev ikon. When I was out west a few years ago, the refectory of the Benedictine Monastery in Abiqui, NW had a painting of this ikon that filled the whole wall behind the Abbot’s place.
Sadly, however, so many of us Christians—Catholic or Protestant—relate to God as if he is eager to trip us up and send us to hell! If that is what we believe, we’re not going to be very interested in relating to him, are we? We’ll want to stay away as far as possible; to relegate God to the periphery of our lives.
The revolutionary notion of Christianity is that we are the “Thou” to whom God relates! We are not just part of God as Eastern religions view the divine. We are co-creators of our world. For me the Father, my elder Brother Jesus and the Holy Spirit are even more real and involved with me than my neighbor Loreto who my dog Shoney and I visit when we walk in the evening as we watch the sun setting.
Here is a story I love to tell when I’ve preached on Trinity Sunday.
My first assignment as a priest was to Holy Name of Jesus Parish across the street from the Atlantic Ocean. I have fond memories of that place, not only of the whole parish but also of its geographical and ecological setting. Today I see it as one of the finest parishes in the continental United States in the wonderful ways in that hundreds of parishioners are involved in 85 ministries.
And so, that first year of priesthood rendered a story that I’ve told on Trinity Sunday almost every year of my priesthood. It’s about some sea turtles. You’ll probably be wondering as you read what turtles have to do with the Trinity. But I’ll save that for the end. It is a powerful connection.
Indialantic, Florida, summer 1969. I had just arrived in the parish and was meeting my new parishioners. Several asked, “Have you seen the turtles yet?” I assumed they were talking about turtles who came to our beach but I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. So I accepted Tony’s invitation, a teen from the youth group I had just met: “Meet me on the beach at 9:00 tonight; bring a small flashlight.”
I was a little early, so I sat on the steps watching the 2-foot waves lap the shore. It soon learned what a joy it was to live across the street from the ocean! I lived there the first three years of my priesthood. That night was a quiet, dark night; there was no moon. I took off my shoes and put them beside a small-sized dune. I could see the light of flashlights bouncing across the sand towards the south but the beach was dark to the north. Apparently, prize turtle-watching happened on the south stretch of beach. Indeed, the most active area for loggerhead turtle nesting is south of Cape Kennedy.
Tony came along and we walked south and the waves washed further up the shore. He quietly explained that loggerhead turtles grew to about 38 inches and had huge heads with short necks and powerful beaks that can break open mollusk shells. He said they weigh from 200 – 350 pounds.
We were silent for a while. I noticed that the flashlights were all turned off; apparently the sea creatures are spooked by light. A dark night is best.
“What will we see?” I asked.
“The huge creature will lumber slowly up the beach to reach an area above the high water line. The tracks she makes resemble caterpillar or tank tracks. She will then turn around facing the ocean and use her rear flippers to dig a hole. Sometimes she will not leave any eggs and fill in the hole again to fool us turtle-watchers. There are sometimes egg poachers around. But if she does lay eggs there will be about 100-126 white-colored eggs about 2 inches in diameter.”
We soon saw some turtle tracks, leading out of the surf up the beach. None of us used our flashlights, keeping some distance and, interestingly, even the children kept silent, as if there were a spell over us.
That was my first experience of turtle watching. I had many more. But there was one night I will long remember. It is that night that I have told in my Trinity Sunday homilies all these years.
I was alone that night — no companion, no other turtle-watchers. The moment opened up for me to be a profound mystical awareness, a moment I still remember vividly. I watched the giant turtle lay her eggs and slowly make her way back toward the surf. I moved a little closer as she came to the edge of the water. It was really dark.
I felt drawn to her by some compelling or impelling force. I wanted to follow the turtle! As it disappeared beneath the waves, I was drawn to follow her, to enter the unknown world beneath the sea.
But I hesitated. I pulled back.
I was on the edge of mystery.
The turtle has its own mystery; the turtle is at home in two worlds — land and sea. We also live in two worlds — the physical and the spiritual, the seen and the unseen. For a brief moment, I was drawn to follow the turtle down beneath the waves. But actually I was drawn into the mystery of the life of God which the feast of the Holy Trinity celebrates for us. And there, too, I hesitate. I pull back. I prefer to get close, but not too close. I prefer to stand upon the shore, to walk along with my toes only in the water, not to plunge in.
The shoreline is highly symbolic. It is the liminal space (the margin) between land and sea. As such, it is a powerful space, a place of mystery in its own right, as any liminal space can be. I have stood on several of the shores of the world and it’s always a powerful experience. Perhaps the shoreline runs down the middle of my soul.
So, what do we make of this feast of the Holy Trinity?
In having this feast the church is telling us we live on the edge of mystery. We live on the edge of God’s wonderful life — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This is not to be solved like a Perry Mason or Agatha Christie mystery. In religious experience, a mystery is to be lived and to be unfolded as we uncover its multifaceted dimensions, as we allow it to envelop and sometimes enrapture us.
The immensity of God’s love is a mystery for us, for sure. But we should not be afraid of mystery. We should not be afraid to immerse ourselves in the mystery of God as the turtle immersed herself in the mystery of the ocean.
The day will come, sooner or later, for me and for you to let go of our hesitancy and fear and to fall into the ocean of God’s love. To no longer live on the edge of mystery but to be immersed fully in the mystery of God’s love — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I had the experience a couple of years ago when I got off the shore and onto a dive boat. After three years, I finally got my Scuba certification, and like the turtles went below the surface of the Atlantic ocean for the first time and entered a brand new astonishingly beautiful, silent world!
There’s a similar story told about the great St. Augustine who lived in the Fourth Century. The story or legend goes that he was walking on the beach contemplating the mystery of the Trinity when he saw a boy in front of him who had dug a hole in the sand and was going out to the sea again and again and bringing some water to pour into the hole. St. Augustine asked him, “What are you doing?” “I’m going to pour the entire ocean into this hole.” “That is impossible, the whole ocean will not fit in the hole you have made” said St. Augustine. The boy replied, “And you cannot fit the Trinity in your tiny little brain.” The saint was instantly confronted with the mystery of God.
And so, dear friends . . . .
Follow a turtle!
Before we sign off, let’s ask, what about the baby turtles?
They hatch in sixty days and are completely on their own. The hundreds of condominiums on the Florida shoreline are in themselves a threat to the newborn because the little ones are drawn to the light and away from the ocean where they should be. There is a law that only a few lights are to be on the sea-side and these are to be covered. Like so many other little babies they are endangered. May we protect them all!
Now, before you go, here’s a cute music video about “Caretta, the Sea Turtle.” Click Here. Be sure to turn up your speakers and enter full Screen.
And here are today’s Mass readings. Click here.
And to complete our feast day celebration, here’s a lovely rendition of Holy God We Praise Thy Name. Click here
“I give you a new commandment—Love one another as I have loved you.”
The scene is the Last Supper . . . .
When Judas had left them, Jesus said,
“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
If God is glorified in him . . . .
Our Scripture scholar-friend William Barclay will unpack these rather mystifying words of Jesus for us.
The glory of God has come and that glory is the Cross. The tension has gone out of the room because Judas has left; any doubts that remained have finally been removed. Judas has gone out and the Cross is now a certainty. The greatest glory in life is the glory that comes from sacrifice.
In Jesus, God has been glorified. It was the obedience of Jesus that brought glory to God. And God will glorify Jesus. The Cross was the glory of Jesus; but there was more to follow—the Resurrection, the Ascension and the full triumph of Christ in his Second Coming. The vindication of Christ must follow his crucifixion; the crown of thorns must change into the crown of glory.
But here begins Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to his disciples as recorded in the gospel of John . . . .
My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.
I give you a new commandment: love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”
It is not an insult to be called my children by the Lord Jesus, but a privilege (1 Jn. 3:1) Jesus is a father to us because receiving everything from the Father (Jn 16:15) he generates within us the new life of grace. We delight in being called children, freed from the burden of having to be independent or self-sufficient. In Matthew 18:1-5, Jesus teaches his disciples that becoming the true way to greatness is through spiritual childhood, of being shamelessly dependent on him. (Magnificat ~ Lectio Divina on today’s Gospel.
Jesus was laying out his farewell commandment to his disciples. The time was short; if they were to hear his voice they must hear it now, Barclay dramatizes. He was going on a journey on which they could not accompany him; he was taking a road that he had to walk alone. He gave them the commandment that they must love one another as he loved them.
What does that mean for us, and for our relationships with others? How did Jesus love his disciples?
Barclay says he loved them selflessly. Even in the noblest human love there remains some element of self. We think of the happiness we will receive, along with what we give. But Jesus never thought of himself. His only thought was to give himself and all he had for those he loved.
Jesus loved his disciples sacrificially. There was no limit to what his love would give or to where it would go. If loved meant the Cross, Jesus was prepared to go there . . . .
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Jesus loved his disciples understandingly. He knew his disciples intimately. We never know people until we have lived with them. Sometimes we say that love is blind. Real love is open-eyed. It loves, not what it imagines a person to be, but what that person really is. Jesus’ heart is big enough to love us as we are.
Jesus loved his disciples forgivingly. Their leader was to deny him. They were all to forsake him in his hour of need. They never, in his days in the flesh understood him. They were blind and insensitive, slow to learn and lacking in understanding. In the end, they were cowards. But Jesus held nothing against them; there was no failure that he could not forgive.
The love that has not learned to forgive cannot do anything else but shrivel and die. Barclay concludes by suggesting that we are poor creatures and there is a kind fate in things that makes us hurt those who love us best. For that very reason all enduring love is built on forgiveness, for without forgiveness, love is bound to die.
I had written seven letters to friends asking for reconciliation and forgiveness. Two were returned for insufficient address; the others did not responded; yet I continue to pray for them and hold out hope for reconciliation and if not, that they have accepted my best wishes.
Jesus, You have given us a New Commandment,
To Love one another as You have loved us.
That’s a tall order.
And I know I fall short all the time.
I have hurt people and have tried to make amends to some.
If we would just rely on your strength and grace, Jesus,
we would do better in our loving.
For they say—
They will know we are Christians by our love.
They did in the early Church.
Allow us—allow me—the grace to do so in the Church
and in our world today.
To You, Jesus, be all Glory and Honor and Praise
And now, before you go, here’s one of the first “guitar Mass” songs from the Sixties! “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Click here.
And here are today’s Mass readings. Click here.
Acknowledgments: The Image: Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper
William Barclay / The Daily Study Bible Series / the Gospel of John – Volume 2 – Revised Edition / The Westminster Press: Philadelphia 1975 (pp. 147-9)