Letting our desires be our prayers (homily – Dec. 18, 2016)

Happy Advent! Though it doesn’t quite roll of the tongue as well as other greetings, we are indeed joyful as we enter this final week of preparation for Christ’s Nativity. We’ve now entered into the octave before Christmas, with special prayers as well as antiphons (the “Oh antiphons” to Mary), as we get ready.

One of the joys of priestly and religious life is the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, a set of daily prayers offered at different hours of the day (thus the name) every day. One of the hours, the Office of Readings, not only includes the psalms and other selections from Sacred Scripture but also selections from the Church fathers. Last Thursday’s text was from Saint Augustine and I’d like to share it in it’s entirety:

From a discourse on the Psalms by Saint Augustine, Bishop
The desire of your heart constitutes your prayer

In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. There is a hidden anguish which is inaudible to men. Yet when a man’s heart is so taken up with some particular concern that the hurt inside finds vocal expression, one looks for the reason. And one will say to oneself: perhaps this is what causes his anguish, or perhaps such and such had happened to him. But who can be certain of the cause except God, who hears and sees his anguish? Therefore the psalmist says: In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. For if men hear at all, they usually hear only bodily groaning and know nothing of the anguish of the heart from which it issues.

Who then knows the cause of man’s groaning? All my desire is before you. No, it is not open before other men, for they cannot understand the heart; but before you is all my desire. If your desire lies open to him who is your Father and who sees in secret, he will answer you.

For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer. The Apostle Paul had a purpose in saying: Pray without ceasing. Are we then ceaselessly to bend our knees, to lie prostrate, or to lift up our hands? Is this what is meant in saying: Pray without ceasing? Even if we admit that we pray in this fashion, I do not believe that we can do so all the time.

Yet there is another, interior kind of prayer without ceasing, namely, the desire of the heart. Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless. therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire.

The constancy of your desire will itself be the ceaseless voice of your prayer. And that voice of your prayer will be silent only when your love ceases. For who are silent? Those of whom it is said: Because evil has abounded, the love of many will grow cold.

The chilling of love means that the heart is silent; while burning love is the outcry of the heart. If your love is without ceasing, you are crying out always; if you always cry out, you are always desiring; and if you desire, you are calling to mind your eternal rest in the Lord.

And all my desire is before you. What if the desire of our heart is before him, but not our groaning? But how is that possible, since the groaning is the voice of our desire? And therefore it is said: My groaning is not concealed from you. It may be concealed from men, but it is not concealed from you. Sometimes God’s servant seems to be saying in his humility: My anguish is not concealed from you. At other times he seems to be laughing. Does that mean that the desire of his heart has died within him? If the desire is there, then the groaning is there as well. Even if men fail to hear it. it never ceases to sound in the hearing of God.

I don’t know how that strikes you, but I imagine I’m not alone in finding Advent to be a mixed blessing. Oh it’s wonderful, to be sure – I delight in the Christmas music (year-round, in fact!), the festive decorations, and the little traditions that our family has for the season.

But Advent is also a pressure cooker, pretty much starting from Thanksgiving and running through Christmas. We’re making preparations, setting up those festive decorations, hosting other people, cooking, preparing rooms, buying presents (and there’s always that one hard-to-please relative!), and…. the list goes.

Dear God, please let it be done!

Of course it’s all blessing, and we are joyful & grateful for both the Advent season and Christ’s Nativity. But I know that for myself, this extra tension allows to surface the problems that during the rest of the year, I can convince myself are under control. Worries, anxieties, frustrations, sins – they’re suddenly much harder to deal with.  “Pray always”? How am I supposed to do that in the middle of all of this?!?

And then along comes St. Augustine with this assertion – that our desires are prayers.

As if to confirm this, the reading given to us for today from Isaiah has this amazing conversation between Ahaz and God. The Lord says “Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!”. And Ahaz answers in a way that resonates deeply with me:

‘Yeah….I’m not gonna trust that. No way – not doing it.’

Even God’s response is relateable, as exasperated, He basically throws His grace and gift not only to Ahaz, but to all of mankind:

Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.

How much the Lord wants to hear and answer the desires of our hearts, the longings that we hold within! And while we struggle to keep them hidden, to avoid putting them to words, we meanwhile wonder how to pray, what is the ‘right’ way to present ourselves to God, and question if we’re worthily presenting ourselves to Him.

And this is what the prophet Isaiah and Saint Augustine are addressing – and what the Nativity of the Lord is all about: that God wants to speak to the desires of our heart.

The word ‘desire’ has been twisted in modern times, given the a salacious tenor, and associated with sin – most often tied to sex and commercialism. But every desire, every longing, is rooted in God, starts with the knowledge that I am lacking something and need to be filled from the Source of goodness.

How has Advent been for you? Maybe it’s been good, maybe it’s been a struggle – perhaps you find yourself echoing the doubt of Ahaz amid the invitations of the season: ‘I’m not so sure….this feels selfish, unworthy, unacceptable to God.’

Again and again, the Lord gently offers the invitation to trust Him, to place ourselves unabashedly in His presence, to open our hearts to Him – and to receive the wonders He has prepared for us, wonders beyond our imagining.

This Sunday marks the second day of the octave before Christmas. What are your longings, your desires? How can the Lord answer your prayers? Maybe they’re specific, maybe inarticulate – but that unsettledness is the very prayer the Lord hopes to hear.

Come, let rest in God. Let us we ask Him to speak to our desires, to give us the confidence to present them without fear trusting that even if they are imperfect He will transform them and make them fruitful, and that we may receive Christ, Emmanuel, the answer to prayerful desires.

Honest to God (homily – Nov. 20, 2016)

Today the Church celebrates the last Sunday of Ordinary Time. Though New Years is still a little ways away, we are celebrating the new liturgical year next Sunday with the first Sunday of Advent. This Sunday marks the last Sunday of ordinary time and even has a special solemnity assigned to it: the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

The Church has in mind for us to not only look at the end of the year, but also the end of all time, and the end of our lives. Keeping in mind all the mysteries we have celebrated over the liturgical year – Christ’s birth, life, passion, death and resurrection – we consider His return in glory Likewise keeping in mind the entirety of our lives, we consider that day when we will be called to meet Him face to face as king.

Some years ago I was in Mexico and had the chance to visit several old convents and monasteries that, though out of use, were preserved as monuments for both visiting and prayer. While I was there, I noticed something I had never seen before – over the doors leading out of the convent there were etched a skull and crossbones. Up to that point, my experience with that particular symbol was limited to pirate ships….not something generally associated with religious life!

It turns out that the skull and crossbones is attached to a phrase: memento mori (“remember death’). This isn’t meant to be a depressing or scary thing, but rather a reminder that any day could be the day God calls us home. Those walking through those doors were being given a visual reminder to be ready, to live such that death wouldn’t catch them off guard.

This is the sentiment the Church hopes to elicit for us as we celebrate today’s solemnity. …..how’s that going for you?

This week I came across a blog post that relayed a story of a priest. The blogger was talking about how this priest was praying in the chapel. Now we know what that is supposed to look – that our prayers should be edifying, they should be respectful, they should be holy – that we return the gifts and love we have been given to the Lord.

So this priest goes into the chapel, knowing that this is the way he is expected to pray. But however he is doing, whatever is happening in his life, it’s not true for him. We don’t know the particulars of his story, except to say that he can’t do it. So he says what’s on his heart.

“Jesus, I don’t love you.”

And this becomes his prayer. Every day he goes into the chapel and says what’s on his heart: “Jesus, I don’t love you”. He does this for a year and a half….until one day he comes to the chapel and realizes that it wasn’t true anymore. He could present himself honestly and be accepted honestly, and God worked through it with him.1

This is how we get ready for the day when we stand before the Lord: presenting ourselves to Him and saying “this is where I’m at”. Maybe today you’re doing great and where you’re at is total readiness to surrender to God. Perhaps you’re distracted and can’t wait for this homily to be done so you can finally have that bacon that is waiting for you at home. Maybe you came in and the burden of the last week and the coming week are weighing you down mightily. Where ever you are at this moment, the Lord wants to hear about it right now.

It’s telling that on this Sunday, we would hear the Gospel of Jesus on the Cross, the last moments before His death. Almost the entirety of the Gospel focuses on those who are jeering, mocking, and insulting Him – rulers, soldiers, even one of those crucified alongside Jesus. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.”

Did you ever notice how throughout the Gospels, Christ never rebukes anyone – anyone! – for speaking to Him disrespectfully? Of all the people who could say ‘you can’t talk to me like that’, Jesus has the most legitimate claim to indignation. And yet, He always receives what is given to Him, even mockery. Jesus wants us to be authentic, to give ourselves as we are.

I wonder what would have happened if the rulers, the soldiers, and that man on the cross had made a habit of coming to Jesus regularly with their disbelief and mockery. What would that have looked like? What healing and conversion might have come about from being accepted even in the apparently ugly honest of doubt and jeers?

We see Christ’s response to that kind of frank honest in that one thief on the other side, who rebukes the mocking thief and makes that key plea of remembrance. His amazing response is what we are left with at the end of the Gospel: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

How many of us desire to hear those very words, to be affirmed by Christ Himself, clearly chosen to be with Him in heaven?

How do we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ the King? We start by doing it right here and now: to be before the Lord in church, in the car, at work, at home, wherever and say ‘Lord this is me, this is how I am right now. ….will you accept me as I am?’

We are looking to mock or jeer or insult the Lord, but sometimes we have harsh things to say. And may we not be afraid to say even those things to Jesus, because He wants to hear everything we have to say. This is the only way we will be healed and converted: if we invite Christ into every part of who we are.

Today we celebrate the kingship of Christ at the end of this liturgical year. And thank God, we start over again – practice makes perfect and we’ve got practice aplenty with our liturgical cycle! May we end this year and begin the next with total honesty to God. Praising the good, presenting the bad, but giving it all to Him.

May we make ourselves constantly honest with the Lord, and presenting ourselves to Him every day. Then, when the day comes that we stand before Jesus, it will be like every day because we’ve been doing it our entire lives – and there we might here those same words: ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’.


  1. This was actually a story told twice, originally by Joseph Prever at www.stevegershom.com and slightly more recently by Simcha Fisher at www.simchafisher.com. Both posts are excellent – and the blogs are worth visiting on a regular basis!

Sodom & Gomorrah, ‘Our Father’ and mercy (homily – July 24, 2016)

Thanks to the generosity of many generous donors, my seminary has a pilgrimage program for seminarians in their third year. So about ten years ago when I was in my third year, I was able to spend about two and a half months in the Holy Land – a month in Bethlehem, a month in Jerusalem and about two weeks in Nazareth.

Among many neat places was the Dead Sea. The salt content of the Dead Sea is so high that it is toxic to all life. There is so much salt that the floor of the sea is covered in rocks of salt, the size of your fist. Our guide warned us that staying in the water overlong wasn’t advisable, and that we should be especially cautious of getting the water in our eyes. Too much and our vision could be damaged – to the point of blindness even.

Happy swimming!

But swim we did, because there is another, neat thing about the Dead Sea: buoyancy! You practically can’t drown, as even a person with the lowest possible body fat will float with ease. I have a picture of one of my classmates sitting in the water, feet up, with a newspaper in his hands looking for all the world as if he was in a recliner.

Though interesting, these are just details. See, the most significant thing about the Dead Sea is it’s location: it is the site of Sodom and Gomorrah.

If you know a bit about the history of warfare, you might have heard about a particularly thorough method of wiping out one’s enemies. After conquering their soldiers, after burning their villages and farms to the ground, armies would then salt the earth. In this way, they made even their enemy’s land useless: nothing would grow for quite some time after.

This is what has happened at the Dead Sea, and for thousands of years!

Knowing that this is the site of Sodom & Gomorrah, it seems wise to find out what prompted God to deal out such a serious and lasting statement. What were the actions that cried out to God for a response?

If you were to continue to read Genesis past the passage of our reading today, you’d quickly see the nature of the sins – they’re sexual sins. When Abraham and his companions (later revealed to be angels) arrive in Sodom, the entire town accosts them. That’s not hyperbole, by the way: the Scriptures are careful to highlight that every townsman was guilty.

These are the sins that still exist today. So often we dance around sexual sin, so let’s take a moment to name some of the more prevalent sexual sins in the world:

  • pornography
  • masturbation
  • fornication
  • adultery
  • contraception
  • sodomy

These are the sins of Sodom & Gomorrah, and the sins of our time. And they cry out from earth to God for a response.

What is God’s response? We know how Abraham thought God was going to respond – with a blind vengeance that would strike down both innocent & guilty.

There’s a real temptation in that presumption, one that we’ve seen played out over & over. People have heard this story and come to the conclusion that they are empowered, sent forth even, to go out and strike down, to condemn, to vilify anyone who has been part of, anyone who has participated, anyone who has even been tempted by sexual sin.

I know that there are people in our parishes, perhaps who sat next to us at Mass today, who struggle with sexual sins, for whom the sins named above or other sins are an ongoing battle, who are enmeshed in temptation, in a relationship outside of marriage, in a lifestyle that on one hand is clearly sinful and yet on the other hand seems inescapable.

To you first I want to speak. Because it is an undeniable fact that many within the Body of Christ, perhaps even in positions of authority, have made you to feel condemned, have told you that you are not welcome, that you are ‘other’. To you I want to say – on behalf of the Church, on behalf of Her clergy, and on behalf of Her members: I am sorry. For every time that you have been made to feel less than fully welcomed  and at home here in this community, I apologize. This is not the message God has for you, or for anyone.

 

So what is to be our response to grave sin – to the sins that call out for a response? We can look to today’s Gospel, at this moment of Christ’s disciples petition Him to teach them how to pray. And so He teaches them the ‘Our Father’.

Take a moment to consider just those first two words: “Our Father”. How could God bestow His fatherhood on us? We, who are guilty of so many sins – grave sins, no less? The betrayal of misusing God’s gifts, of perverting the treasures He has entrusted to us – these deserve castigation and punishment.

This is the goodness of God on display. In the face of terrible, grave, awful sin – sin that calls from the earth to the heavens for a response from the Creator, His response is ‘I choose you to be my beloved child. I choose to adopt you.’

How do we reconcile this assertion, implicit in the ‘Our Father’, with the reality of Sodom & Gomorrah, with the salted, ruined earth that even when covered in the Dead Sea still now stands lifeless?

I suggest two things for our consideration. The first is this: grave sin doesn’t just destroy our earthly lives – though we can see that it does indeed do that as we observe the rampant depression, suicide rates and ruined families that sexual sin leaves in its wake. But more than that, grave sin destroys souls. God, seeing that grave sin was eating away at the very essence of His beloved children, takes away their earthly lives so that their eternal souls might be saved.

But that isn’t the end! Because we must also consider the prayer that we pray with every rosary – the Apostles Creed. Recall the part where we talk about Christ descending into Hell. We believe that! We truly believe that Christ went into the depths of that inferno, and offered to all who had preceded the Word becoming flesh the chance for salvation.

Those same townsmen who attempted to molest Abraham’s companions, who were destroyed by God, we also chosen as His adopted sons.

This is the response of the Lord. This is what we assert, affirm and celebrate each time we pray the ‘Our Father’.

I’d like to offer three invitations. The first is directed especially to anyone steeped in grave sin, especially sexual sin. To anyone who has wondered if they’re lovable, to anyone who has questioned if God would really forgive the terrible things of their past. To  you especially, I invite you to come to confession.

People at my parishes know that this is my favorite invitation to make, and that I make it often. As a priest it is a special privilege and a particular joy to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation. But even before I was a priest, I was – am –  a sinner. I too know what it is like to question God’s love for me, to carry the secret shame and sorrow of grave sin, and live in a shadow of doubt. Because of confession, I also know the great joy and peace of having those doubts – along with my sins! – washed away. This gift is available to us all.

The second is to those who are living in an irregular situation, in a relationship that is contrary to God’s call. To you I want to extend the invitation to come talk to a priest. Find a priest, your pastor, the parochial vicar, the priest you’ve heard good things about – any priest! – but find one and go speak with him about how the Church can help you, can support you, can assist in making the irregular regular.

And finally to all, the invitation is to pray. Whatever your situation is – whether you’re struggling with sexual sin, whether you’ve never been tempted or you find yourself no longer tempted – the invitation to prayer is universal. Pray that we overcome the temptation and the scandal of divisions against each other. Pray that we may never make anyone ‘other’, that we may never say ‘You aren’t welcome here’ to another person. Pray that those suffering in our very midst may never doubt that God’s love and our love is available to them.

May we reflect the Father’s adoption of us as His by claiming each other as our brothers & sisters. God does hear the cry of the poor, and as we call upon Him as our Father, may we support each other in receiving & rejoicing in His mercy.

Corpus Christi homily (May 29, 2016)

Holy Thursday, Last Supper (Isaac Jogues Missal)
The Last Supper

Happy Feast of Corpus Christi! Today is the celebration of the mystery of the Body & Blood of Christ.

Today’s celebration has a special place in my heart, as it is the anniversary of the first Mass I celebrated after my ordination – or as a friend coined the phrase my ‘liturgical anniversary’.

The feast of Corpus Christi is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Mass. In short: why do we come and celebrate Mass?

A quick answer might simply be ‘because I have to’! Sometimes our default motivation comes from the various shades of pressure, guilt or outside expectation to come to Mass. We may also be driven by our desire for fellowship, prayer, song and inspiration.

Though these are valuable aspects of our celebration, they’re not exclusive to the Mass, right? I mean, we could find fellowship at a BBQ, prayer at a football game, songs in our shower and inspiration from the bookshelf.

At its core, our celebration is about offering sacrifice.

The idea of sacrifice, reasonably, makes us uncomfortable. It calls to mind thoughts of having to give up or lose something, that we’ll be called upon to give our ‘pound of flesh’ as the saying goes.

…. sacrifice implies debt, something we owe to someone else. …. sacrifice is necessary because of sin. We often avoid the language and reality of sacrifice because we want to avoid the reality of sin – that I am a sinner, that you are a sinner, that we all are sinners.

“O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

Do you remember this line? It is from the Exultet – the chant offered at the beginning of the Easter vigil Mass.

“O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

With this one line, after having recounted much of the faults and failings of mankind, we are reminded of God’s great mercy, of His wondrous love for us – incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Yet we can not truly know our Redeemer without acknowledging that we need one.
Tomorrow we celebrate Memorial Day weekend. We honor those who have willingly sacrificed their lives in defense of our lives and freedom. We show our appreciation with a feast, often with a barbeque of some sort, music, fraternity and maybe even a patriotic song or reading.

At some point in the celebration, drinks are passed around – age appropriate, of course! – as someone calls for silence. Particular names of the fallen are shared, and then we raise our glasses in honor of them, and of their comrades. It is a fitting memorial to the brave men and women who offered so much out of love of our country.

In the Usus Antiquior or the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, there was a psalm that the priest quoted before receiving communion – a tradition received from the practice of our Jewish forbearers:

“How can I repay the Lord for all the great good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”

Sound familiar? We won’t just do that tomorrow for our soldiers – we’ll do that in a few minutes here at this altar. ‘Do this in memory of Me’, He told us. And so we do, at every Mass.

We can’t possibly repay the debt we owe for the forgiveness of our sins – that cost is ever beyond our means. But we have been given a gift that we can worthily offer in our thanksgiving – the gift of Christ Himself, the gift of His perfect self-sacrifice on our behalf: His Body – broken on the battlefield of sin – and His Blood – shed for sin’s forgiveness.

If you find yourself not entirely understanding the Mass and the Eucharist, you’re in good company! It’s all a bit heady, and a lot to take in. Thankfully, complete understanding isn’t necessary to join in the celebration – by God’s grace that may come later. What is necessary, what is vital, is that we enter into this mystery, that we take this cup of salvation, that we offer it to the Lord in thanksgiving and that we receive it with gratitude. May it transform us, so that the sacrifice Jesus made for our us may not be in vain.