Today is the first feast day for the newly canonized Saint Angelus of Acri! Podcast interview with Deacon Br. Angelus who talks about what it was like to attend the canonization Mass in Rome. Listen to learn more!
A film came out of New Zealand recently called “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople”. It’s a comedy. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it by telling you that Ricky Baker is the main character. He’s a 13 year old kid in foster care. He calls himself a “gangster” and names his dog “Tupac”. At the beginning of the movie, he’s adopted by a couple named Bella and Hec. Some crazy stuff happens so that Ricky and his foster father Hec find themselves on the run - on the run from the police but also from Ricky’s former social worker, whose name is Paula. Paula goes on the national morning show to tell the public who they should be on the lookout for. Basically she tells the public, this is how you can know its Ricky:
“We’re talking … disobedience. Stealing. Spitting. Running away. Throwing rocks. Kicking stuff. Defacing stuff. Burning stuff. Loitering. And graffiti-ing. And that’s just the stuff we know about.”
And based on those actions, do you know how she describes Ricky?
Paula calls Ricky “a real bad egg.”
But probably a better description of Ricky Baker based on those actions is simply “orphan.” He’s a son living without the anchor of his Dad.
In the 11th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, just before he teaches the disciples how to pray, we see Jesus praying. And if you were to describe Jesus based on seeing him praying, how would you describe Him?
A real good egg? No!
Pope Benedict says that when we see Jesus praying we see that the best description for Him is “Son”. Not even “Son of God” or “Son of Man,” but simply “Son”.
He actually says that of all the titles for Jesus…like Prophet, Priest, Lord, or Messiah….Son is the best, the most fitting. The one that best describes who Jesus is. He’s “Son”.
So when he teaches us to pray “Father” he’s also telling us that “son” is our best description too.
I was thinking about the “Our Father” in this light and how we pray “forgive us our trespasses”. Another way we might express it is “forgive us for the times we acted like orphans”. Maybe not stealing or defacing stuff or throwing rocks like Ricky Baker, but in some way, slipping back into orphan mode.
Everything Jesus did – his prayer, preaching, miracles, temptations, suffering, everything – all of it in some way shows his awareness of the Father.
When he teaches us to pray “Father” he’s inviting us to share in this awareness of the Father as sons, and ultimately to participate in Jesus’ own awareness of the Father.
In the movie, Hec (or “Uncle Hec” as Ricky calls him) is a pretty dim reflection of God the Father but in his presence, Ricky’s whole world is expanded. And he composes this haiku:
Trees. Birds. Rivers. Sky. / Running with my Uncle Hec / Living forever.
I think when Jesus says pray “Father”, he’s saying “come run with the Father, come live with the Father.” And cause he knows that telling us isn’t enough - cause we can be forgetful sons, and prone to live like orphans - he gives us his heart in the Eucharist, which as Pope Benedict reminds us, is above all else, a son’s heart.
This year has been a very difficult year in our country. We have faced many difficulties this year from massive political division, natural disasters and a horrific tragedy in Las Vegas. How are we to respond to these challenges in 2017? The answer, unfortunately is not simply a political one, an economic one or a social one. Jesus reminds us, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what belongs to God." In other words, we must work and serve others in this world but ultimately our hearts, souls and destiny belong to God. Only when we place him first are we given the "eternal perspective" to view this world appropriately.
Preaching is an essential part of Franciscan life. When St. Francis encountered the love of God in Jesus Christ his life was radically altered. Almost overnight Francis went from a man of this world to one in pursuit of the things of heaven. He traded in his fancy clothes for those of a poor beggar. He said goodbye to his earthly father, who could not accept his son’s transformation, and embraced God as his Father. He abandoned his middle class Italian life, with all of its pleasures and luxuries, and went to live with lepers and those estranged from society.
St. Francis did all of this, not because of political or economic motivations, but because he wanted to imitate Jesus who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6). Francis’ desire was simple: to live the Gospel and share with the world that “pearl of great price” he had received. The rich, the poor, young, old and even animals listened to this “troubadour of the Lord,” as he went about proclaiming the Gospel to all of creation. The whole world was not only his cloister, but also his audience.
I too share the same passion that St. Francis did for preaching. When I first heard the Gospel it was like fresh spring water washing over me. It was purifying, refreshing and humbling. For some time I simply bathed in those waters, not trying to understand, but just enjoying its freshness and vigor. Fairly soon, however, I would realize, this good news was not meant only for myself. I needed to share it.
My own Franciscan life is not an ordinary one. I am a part time hermit and a part time preacher. In my community we have a few full time preachers, called itinerant preachers, but no hermits. I am somewhere in between. I love the silence and solitude of hermitage, yet I also love the opportunity to preach the Gospel. Like St. Paul I believe, “an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it” (1 Corinthians 9:16).
Whether it is a retreat, a parish mission, a day of recollection or some other preaching event, I am generally excited and anxious to share, what I believe, is the heart of the Gospel: that no matter who you are, where you are from, or what you have done, God is deeply in love with you. Jesus is the proof.
Perhaps I am a bit naïve, but every time I venture out to proclaim this message I expect a smooth takeoff. Within moments, however, I encounter turbulence. Traffic jams, car problems, flight delays, headaches, stomach pains, difficulty sleeping, and miscommunication are just some of the commotion that I encounter along the way.
Followed by this is what I like to call “mind turbulence.” It begins with questions: Why am I preaching here? Why did I choose this topic? Did I really discern this properly? Are my talks too long, too short? Are they too theological? Next comes an endless array of thoughts plagued with doubt and insecurity. Nobody is going to come. The pastor thinks I’m too young. I shouldn’t have left my hermitage. I’m such a hypocrite; I shouldn’t be preaching on something I’m not living, etc.
Finally, there is the “environmental turbulence.” Like clockwork, as soon as I arrive for the event something goes wrong with the sound system, electricity, air conditioner or heater. Coupled with that is a whole group of enthusiastic people waiting to tell me their hopes and their expectations for the event. Somewhere inside this crowd there is that one person who does not hesitate to tell me everything that is wrong with this place, its people, its pastor, its programs and that my being there, despite good intentions, will not really change anyone.
By this point my head is usually spinning, my stomach is in pain and I am convinced this event will be a disaster. Clearly this cannot be God’s will. I turn to prayer for confirmation. There is no consolation, no affirmation and no sense of God’s presence. If God does “speak” to me in these moments, it is often with the same words he gave to St. Paul in the midst of his own struggles he encountered in proclaiming the Gospel. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness"(2 Corinthians 12:9).
When the time has arrived to begin preaching I approach the microphone with a deep awareness of my own poverty. I have been completely stripped. I have no confidence, no wisdom and no strength. I am not exactly sure what I will say or how I will say it. I feel alone. I open my mouth and suddenly it happens: everything disappears. The turbulence ceases, and I feel, quite literally, as if I am floating, being carried by a Presence much stronger than anything of this world. Somehow the words flow and most importantly, in a way my audience can understand. The Gospel, despite all these difficulties, is being proclaimed, and strangely enough, I am its messenger.
After the event is finished I go to the door to say goodbye to people and thank them for coming. Most people shake my hand, nod in appreciation and say thank you. A few approach me and look directly into my eyes and say, “thank you, I really needed to hear that.” A few more people come forward with tears in their eyes, “I really experienced the love of God in your words today. I can’t thank you enough for coming.” Humbled and somewhat embarrassed, I simply respond, “God bless you.” Occasionally, someone will say, “This event has changed my life, thank you.” I am left speechless. I simply smile at them and embrace them, while tears of my own begin to well up inside of me.
I have often used the words of St. Paul, “When I am weak, it is then that I am strong,” (2 Corinthians 12:11) to encourage people in their own ministry when they become overwhelmed by their inadequacies. God can do a lot with nothing, I tell them, if you are willing to surrender even that to him. St. Francis stripped himself of his clothes to become utterly dependent on God. I too, when I preach, am stripped of any self -reliance so as to learn the same message: God’s grace covers our weakness.
On average, a person takes 16 breaths a minute, 960 breaths an hour and 23, 040 breaths a day. Like most people, I have spent my life oblivious to this ordinary human act, until recently.
I was sitting in my backyard reading a book and closed my eyes for a few moments of reflection. Suddenly, my thoughts disappeared. The ideas I was meditating on had reached their limit. Out of that silence I felt my chest expand as I inhaled fresh air. I calmly listened as I exhaled and continued to watch, in almost childlike wonder, the sound of each inhale and exhale.
I put the book down and remained sitting, paying attention to my breathing. After about 20 minutes or so had gone by I opened my eyes and almost didn’t recognize where I was. I hadn’t moved yet something was different. The pine trees I see everyday as I look out my window were still there. The neighbors’ blue truck had not moved from their driveway and the pond a few hundred feet away from my house was still resting in its usual place. Externally, life was normal, but, internally, a shift had occurred. It was as if I were looking at the world around me, not with the familiar eyes that tend to gloss over each moment, but with the eyes of a child, in whom everything is fresh and exciting.
What amazed me was not that I was breathing, but that I had never paid attention to it before. How have I lived 38 years and never reflected upon this ordinary human act? Perhaps what is ironic about this experience was that paying attention to my breathing was not simply a physiological or psychological experience of myself. It was an experience of God, who felt closer to me than my own body. It was as if God were breathing inside of me.
Many of the world’s religions speak of paying attention to one’s breath as a valuable spiritual practice. It is used, not as a tool to escape reality, but as a way to transcend the endless dialogue that occurs in our over active minds. Once we can move beyond that chatter, many religions say, we see things in a purer light. The reason is because breathing lacks the rigidity of an overly rationalistic outlook that many of us in the West seem to possess. One stands then, from this perspective, before reality, not as a teacher, but as a student. It is this posture that allows one a more genuine experience of the Ultimate Reality that we call God.
Some people can be uncomfortable or suspicious speaking about the spirituality of breathing because they associate it with Eastern meditation practices. However, breathing has been an essential part of Christianity from the beginning. The book of Genesis tells us that, “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). On Easter night, after Jesus “recreated” the world by his Passion, death and resurrection, he met his fearful disciples and “breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). It is the breath of God that gives us life, both physically and spiritually. Every breath we take then is a reminder not only of our dependence on God but also of our union with him.
As a priest I often find myself pulled in many directions. I am constantly juggling what I believe are three areas the Lord is calling me to: prayer, writing and preaching. Despite these activities, there is always somebody to help, there are many communal and familial responsibilities always at hand, and then there is just life, with all its surprises and annoyances. Lest anyone think I am walking around in the beatific vision, I, like the majority of people, spend most of my day without a sensible or consoling experience of God’s presence. In other words, I stumble around from one moment to the next, attempting to walk more “by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Despite my best efforts, I often find myself bumping into everything around me because in reality I walk more by sight than by faith. Though I believe in God and know He is present to me, and providing me with every grace I am in need of, I often do not feel this in any tangible or sensible way.
Stopping, if only for a few moments, and becoming aware of my breathing has provided me an opportunity to ground myself in reality. On days when I try to control life this truth can be utterly terrifying because it reveals my own poverty and need, something all of us, including myself, would rather talk about than experience. On days when trust is greater and the desire to surrender myself to God permeates my heart, this truth is liberating because it enables me to place my hope where it belongs: outside of myself and onto God.
Paying attention to one’s breathing, I have realized, can also be a way of prayer. If the simple act of breathing can remind us of the reality of God, that same breath can also be a means of surrender to God. Through my breathing I am saying yes to life, not as I want it, but as it really is. This “yes” to our life is essentially a yes to God, since it is “the breath of the Almighty that gives me life” (Job 33:4).