Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Pharisee vs. the Tax Collector

After last week's post about Father Delp's reflection on the call of Matthew in Luke 5, I came across another "tax collector" reflection while re-reading Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth.  This time the reflection focused on the parable told by Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 19:9-14):
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Parisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God I thank you that I am not like the other people: theives, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.  
I don't know why, but I seem to be brought back to Luke's focus on Jesus' call and relationship with the tax collector, whether it be the specific, individual call of Matthew to follow him in righteousness, or this contrast with the Pharisee.  One thing I've learned is that when the Spirit leads you to water, it behooves you to follow and drink.  And so I will with this; the humility and repentance of the tax collector makes a perfect and convenient point of reflection for the rest of Lent.

In Chapter Four (p. 61-62) of Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Father elaborates on Jesus' contrast:
The real point is...that there are two ways of relating to God and to oneself.  The Pharisee does not really look at God at all, but only at himself; he does not really need God, because he does everything right by himself.  He has no real relation to God, who is ultimately superfluous - what he does himself is enough.  Man makes himself righteous.  The tax collector, by contrast, sees himself in the light of God.  He has looked toward God, and in the process his eyes have been opened to see himself.  So he knows that he needs God and that he lives by God's goodness, which he cannot force God to give him and which he cannot procure for himself.  He knows that he needs mercy and so he will learn from God's mercy to become merciful himself, and thereby to become like God.  He draws life from being-in-relation, from receiving all as gift; he will always need the gift of goodness, of forgiveness, but in receiving it he will always learn to pass the gift on to others.  The grace for which he prays does not dispense him from ethics.  It is what makes him truly good in the first place.  He needs God, and because he recognizes that, he begins through God's goodness to become good himself.
How often to we who call ourselves believers walk around in our daily lives looking outwardly at others, subtly (or not so subtly) judging them by our standards, all the while thinking like the Pharisee and thanking God that we are not "like them"?  For the rest of Lent - and beyond - I for one know that I need to focus more inwardly on returning to the humility of the tax collector.  It will not be a one-time, 180-degree turn.  If we think that we can turn toward Christ and then march through life and approach the throne of grace because we are "good enough," we grossly deceive ourselves and are in a freefall directly into Satan's trap.  Instead, we need to fall on our faces in shame and daily - even hourly and in every encounter with others - remind ourselves that it was for us, not just for them, that he had to hang there and die.  This is what our Lenten sacrifices should be about, not giving something up for the sake of making ourselves better, but rather emptying ourselves of our own temporal comfort and satisfaction to remember how desperately we need to approach the cross.  Approaching and embracing that cross will inevitably shake us out of any false sense of material comfort and self-righteousness, but is the only way for us to share in the gift of resurrection that comes at Easter.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Setting Free of Matthew

February 20th's Magnificat reflection (Vol. 11, No. 13, p. 289) on the Gospel reading from Luke 5 (27-32) offered a striking commentary on the nature of true human freedom that puts a worldly sense of freedom back in its proper perspective; namely, that true human freedom lies in nothing more and nothing less than hearing and answering Christ's call to "follow me" (5:27).
Humans need freedom.  As slaves, fettered and confined, they are bound to deteriorate.  We have spent a great deal of thought and time on external freedom; we have made serious efforts to secure our personal liberty and yet we have lost it again and again.  The worst thing is that eventually humans come to accept the state of bondage - it becomes habitual and they hardly notice it.  The most abject slaves can be made to believe that the condition in which they are actually held is freedom.
During these long weeks of confinement I have learned by personal experience that a person is truly lost, is the victim of circumstances and oppression only when he is incapable of a great inner sense of depth and freedom.  Anyone whose natural element is not an atmosphere of freedom, unassailable and unshakable whatever force may be put on it, is already lost; but such a person is not really a human being anymore; he is merely an object, a number, a voting paper.  And the inner freedom can only be attained if we have discovered the means of widening our own horizons.  We must progress and grow, we must mount above our own limitations.  It can be done; the driving force is the inner urge to conquer whose very existence shows that human nature is fundamentally designed for this expansion.  A rebel, after all, can be trained to be a decent citizen, but an idler and a dreamer is a hopeless proposition.
Human freedom is born in the moment of our contact with God.  It is really unimportant whether God forces us out of our limits by the sheer distress of much suffering, coaxes us with visions of beauty and truth, or pricks us into action by the endless hunger and thirst for righteousness that possess our soul.  What really matters is the fact that we are called and we must be sufficiently awake to hear the call.
                                                                                                         Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.

Father Delp (+1945) was condemned to death in Germany during WWII.

Matthew discovered the opportunity for true freedom in Jesus' call, and immediately left everything behind, got up and followed Him (cf Lk 5:28).  Lent presents us with a unique opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to the same; to separate ourselves from the world, reflect on our own Baptism and repentance, and figure out where we can improve in our walk as children of God.  It's our chance to rediscover and renew our sense of freedom from everything in our lives - including our very selves - that holds us back from responding fully and completely to Christ's call, and to remember that to choose anything less than him leaves us only as hopeless, empty slaves.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Now Comes the Best Part...

Confession has been a powerful and joyful sacrament for several years now, but it didn’t start off that way. Like the other sacraments, the power has become apparent only after growing, praying, and learning through Catechesis the truth about what it conveys. I still remember making my first confession in Second grade, terrified that I was walking into a room of judgment where a grown-up—and not just any grown-up, my pastor—would pass judgment on the bad things I had done and held the ultimate standing of my soul in his authority to “bind and loose sins” (cf Mt 16:19). I saw it as a necessary task to be done, but now I realize that I was only a child with a child’s limited (mis)understanding of the purpose and power of all of the Sacraments, including Reconciliation.

Fast forward twenty-one years. Yesterday, completely unexpectedly, I was blessed with what I can only describe as a transformational experience in the confessional. It’s one of those experiences—I describe them as spiritual “milestones”—that we have once every few years at best, and many times when we least expect it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never held confession in a bad light, at least since I’ve come to fully understand what the Sacrament is and does. That said, it is often a (necessarily) painful experience to own up to and voice one’s own shortcomings in the struggle to live a faithful Catholic Christian life, sort of like ripping the bandage off of a self-inflicted wound so that the surgeon can get to work mending it. I usually want it to be as quick as possible and get on my way. That was the way I walked into the confessional yesterday, expecting it to be an unspectacular celebration of the Sacrament for the first time at our new parish.

Let me back up a bit. I suppose—no, I know—that each confession is transformational in a way, in that the confessor brings the full power of Christ to not only wash us clean, but with His authority to absolve the sins as though they had never been committed. Think about it for a minute. That’s a mind-boggling gift, to be able to remove all the baggage, big and small, that we accumulate during the many times daily that we stumble and fall. Thank you, Jesus! But, frankly, despite the power and authority under which the priest is ordained and operates--outside any human capacity--he is still a human being. He may be tired, ill, or have other things on his mind distracting him just like the rest of us. And so many experiences in the confessional, though spiritually powerful, are mentally and emotionally lackluster. Every once in a while though, Christ breaks through the hum-drum to reawaken us to the reality of his grace that is conveyed. That happened, for the first time in a long time, yesterday.

As my wife and I sat waiting, I found it incredibly difficult to focus. The pressures of the work week passed and upcoming, and the list of things I needed to do at home, kept crowding in and made it difficult to focus even enough for a quick examination of conscience. As she walked out, she tapped me on the shoulder and mouthed, “That was awesome!” “Hmmm…” I thought. “She’s never said that walking out of confession before.” So I walked in and sat down across from the priest, with only a couple of rather mundane things to confess. Sins, yes, but nothing earth-shattering (or salvation-shattering I guess). It was going to be a quick in-and-out, no problem. Oh boy, was I wrong.

“Hi, I’m father Bill (not his real name). Thanks for coming in. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Maryland originally, but…” we went on to exchange pleasantries for a bit. And then something completely out of the blue happened. He prayed over me. It was not in the sense of offering a blessing (at least not yet); he prayed simply that my heart would be opened to make a good confession and his ears would be opened to hear the words and his hands blessed absolve them. “I’m not here as a shrink or a guru,” he offered, “just as a fellow sinner here to maybe help you out a bit.” Intrinsically, I guess I knew that was true, but I was still caught off guard and stuck back at the “Let’s pray together.” Something strange was happening. This was not going to be an “ordinary” confessional experience.

I went on to confess the few things I’d thought about, and even asked for some advice on how to prevent falling into the same repeated traps in the future. He responded with wisdom, patience, and—most importantly—forgiveness and love. It was almost as if I could hear the words of Christ being emanating from his person and mannerisms as much as his words: “Your sins are forgiven you.” But if I had been off guard already—and I was—I was knocked on my heels by a burst of joy at his next words.

“And now comes the best part.”

Wow! WOW! Hold on a minute, hit the pause button. What did he just say? “The best part?” Those words hung in my mind as he offered the prayer of absolution, and they quickly sank with the grace conferred to the rock bottom of my soul. “This is the best part,” I thought. For the first time in a few years, I didn’t just know that he was speaking the words “I absolve you from your sins...” in the authority of Christ, I felt it. It was as if Christ himself were speaking the words of absolution. Tears of joy began to well up, and so as not to be completely embarrassed, I thanked “Fr Bill” and made my way out of the confessional to pray and thank God for the gift of experiencing what it is to be close to him.

Because of the gift of having found a good confessor, I eagerly look forward to returning to confession, and regardless of the individual experiences in the future, the objective truth is now and forever will be all the more real.