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March 7, 2011 | Volume 86, Number 10

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» Family Ties

» In Light of Faith

Fr. Anthony Marques  photobelieve as you pray graphic

9th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)
March 6, 2011

Deuteronomy 11:18, 26–28, 32
Romans 3:21–25, 28 17
Matthew 7:21–27

For spouses who have been married for a long time, their wedding band can get stuck to their finger, to the point where it will not budge. In this case, the ring becomes a permanent reminder of a lifelong commitment.

We find a similar image in the first reading. There, Moses exhorts the Israelites to heed God’s commandments: “Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead.”

In our day, commitment is under increasing pressure. As society prizes speed and innovation, patience and permanence are getting left behind.

Yet the Gospel reading emphasizes the value of stability, since this is essential to faith. For this reason, faith requires more than even extraordinary phenomena such as prophecy, exorcism, or “mighty deeds.”

Actually, Christ’s example suggests that faith is something more ordinary and long term: “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.”

The rock is Christ, and belief responds accordingly. In the words of Vatican Council II, “By faith man commits his entire life to God” (Dei verbum, 5). To give God only part of our lives — or, to be faithful only part of the time — is to be “like a fool, who built his house on sand.”

As we know, sand can shift easily.

Today’s Gospel reading is sometimes read at weddings, where it offers sound advice to couples: The union is about more than you, or even your family; Jesus Christ must be the foundation.

Furthermore, the parable’s prediction of severe weather bears a certain resemblance to the marriage vows. Twice, the text says that, “The rains fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house.”

In a similar way, the bride and groom say to one another: “I promise to be true to you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”

In each case, difficulties are presumed; it is a question of when, not if, there will be hard times.

But marriage founded on Christ, like faith that is lived, will endure: “It did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.”

This is why marriage is a gift to the whole Church — because it demonstrates the strength of commitment and the power of faith to overcome difficulties.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Married couples invoke Christ as Lord on their wedding day, and they strive to do the will of the Father for the rest of their lives.

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family ties graphicmary hood hart photo

The lack of certainty is part of life

A bird in hand is a certainty. But a bird in the bush may sing. -- Bret Harte

Something in me wants certainty. I want to know what to expect.

Surprises and last minute changes can be disconcerting. If someone tells me he or she will do something, I want to depend on it.

I suppose we’re all that way. We want to be able to trust in outcomes. We want to depend upon principles and people. We want our expectations to be met.

Still, life doesn’t work out that way. Surprises happen. People let us down.

Events disappoint. Accidents occur. Change is its own certainty. The older we grow, the more likely we are to become uncertain.

What seemed impossible at one time becomes possible. Life’s twists and turns make us more malleable. If not, we become so rigid we break. Or we break others.

Try as we might to determine outcomes, we are limited in what we can control. Other people, our environment, events, accidents, coincidence, divine providence forge our life’s paths. In living, movement is never linear; it involves circles and twists, dips and crests.

Knowing that (and can anyone deny it?) you’d think we wouldn’t be so fond of certitude.

You’d think we’d accept that uncertainty is a natural part of the human condition. Yet the more advanced society becomes, the more inclined we are to delude ourselves into believing we are in control.

Our insistence on certitude seems an offshoot of anxiety and fear. When life seems out of control, we grip tightly to whatever form of security we can muster.

For some people, security is in the form of religious dogma. For others, it is found in science. For others, it is found in political ideology.

Fearful, anxious people become convinced that the certitude they cling to assures them of authority, of salvation, of a superior position. They make it their life’s mission to espouse their certitude and to denounce contrary positions.

The overriding theme of their mission is — I am right and you will be right only if you agree with me. Dialogue is impossible, because dialogue would assume that both positions have merit. Certitude contributes to incivility in discourse. It overrides courtesy.

Ironically, religious people are often the most vehement defenders of certainty. They go to great lengths in attempts to prove the superiority of their beliefs. They find it necessary to exclude others on the grounds that the others are unbelievers, infidels, relativists, secularists, humanists.

The superiority of the religious position often maintains a vast chasm between the “saved” and the “unsaved,” the “upright” and the “fallen,” the “sacred” and the “profane.”

I say this is ironic because religious people are supposed to be people of faith. Having faith is the opposite of being certain.

Faith requires living in doubt. Faith requires an acceptance of mystery. Faith understands that God is greater than the human mind can comprehend.

Jesus taught with authority. In changing the world, Jesus never relied on ideology or doctrine or principles. Jesus was the ultimate authority, but he upset the religious leaders of his time because he questioned their teachings.

He revealed a God who was much greater, more loving and merciful, than the God of their limited understanding. He mingled with the fallen, the sinners, the sick and contagious. He was drawn to the people others scorned and isolated.

In anxious times, our quest for certainty may lead us to grasp tightly to what we think we know, to what makes us feel safe, secure. We may retreat into an enclave of people who are just like us. We may grow to fear and judge people who are different from us.

Yet in doing so, we close ourselves off to the power of the Holy Spirit to work within us and among us. Faith depends upon our willingness to live in uncertainty. God’s plans for us and for all His children exceed our wildest dreams.

Rather than clinging to certainty, our minds, hearts, and hands must be open. And the Spirit will sing.

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barbara hughes photoin light of faith graphic

Making God visible

The late Henri Nouwen wrote, “No one can say, ‘I make God visible,’ but others who see us together can say, ‘They make God visible.’”

The more I get to know the community here at Old Mission San Luis Rey, the more I appreciate Nouwen’s words. Individually, we are an interesting conglomeration of people from various parts of the country and even the world. We come with different life experiences and skills sets, which not only make for some wonderful dinner conversations, but allow us to appreciate diversity.

There is Kay, a widow who had worked as a Jesuit volunteer prior to her joining the covenant program. She is well traveled here and abroad, but still claims Fairfax, Virginia as her home.

As the senior member of the covenant volunteers, Kay is the “go to” person for those of us who are still trying to get beyond the learning curve.

For the past two and a half years Kay can be found in the mission gift shop where her attention to detail and an eye for beauty help to make it run like a well oiled machine. But it is her gracious way with people that has them lingering and coming back again and again. Kay’s obvious love for God has helped transform a retail business into a ministry.

Then there is Marie who was born in Scotland, and lived in Chicago for the past 45 years. A widow and mother of six adult children, Marie quit her job as an addiction counselor three years ago, sold her house, gave away her furniture and joined the covenant program.

She still laughs when she recounts the story of her boss asking, “Have you lost your mind?”

photo: Members of the San Luis Rey Community. At the far left are Mike and Barbara Hughes who recently joined the community.Marie’s sense of humor and her no nonsense approach keeps us all honest. As a former nurse, she is the first one to notice if one of the friars is having health issues and immediately takes charge.

Three weeks before Mike and I arrived, James joined the covenant program and so the three of us are learning the ropes together. Born in New York, James has lived in many parts of the country, including Hawaii and most recently San Francisco.

He took early retirement after 22 years with an airlines company and has been assigned primarily to the mission museum. His prior work experience with DisneyWorld has equipped James with an appreciation for customer service. His exuberant spirit makes him a natural magnet for visitors to the museum, especially the fourth grade students, who arrive by the busload to learn about the California missions.

And that leaves Mike and me, the newest covenant members at Old Mission San Luis Rey.

Mike is working with Father David, the executive director, getting to know volunteers, helping to expand the support base for mission events and lending his expertise to the capital campaign. The 2015 deadline to retrofit mission buildings for earthquakes is the driving force that keeps the momentum going.

As for me, I have been assigned to the retreat center full-time, and am currently scheduled to present at 26 weekend, daytime or twilight retreats.

Fortunately, there are three full-time staff members that handle the administrative and marketing details so I am able to devote most of my time to writing talks and providing spiritual direction. Plans for an interreligious prayer service in the Mission cemetery, marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11 are also under way. Consequently, my to-do-list includes getting to meet some of the religious leaders in the area.

Needless to say, life here is very full, but living in community is about more than carrying out assigned tasks. It’s about being other-centered. In many ways it’s not so different from living in a family, where small acts of kindness make God visible in every day life. Whether it’s folding clothing that a covenant member left in the dryer, or sitting at the bedside of an elderly friar or filling in for a volunteer or a staff member so they can go to lunch, living in community reminds us that each person is part of a much larger body.

When we were on retreat at Mission Santa Barbara, Father Richard, executive director of the mission could be found in the kitchen preparing meals for about 75 people so the cook, who was celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary, could have the day off.

The humble witness of the friars, who have opened their home and their lives to us truly exemplify the words accredited to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel always and if necessary, use words.”

Scott Peck once wrote that community can’t be created, but that it happens when people roll up their sleeves and work side by side.

To that I would add that when we are aware of God’s presence, community acquires a sacramental character. Every encounter is an encounter with Christ.

“Where two or three are gathered I am in their midst.” That makes every encounter holy, be it with family, friends or strangers because together we make God visible.

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