Father James Wallace

Irish Family Mass Homily

From the homily for the Irish Family Mass in Honor of Saint Patrick, 3/14/2019

 The theme of this year's St. Patrick's Day Mass, Irish literature, is most fitting.  We cannot think of St. Patrick and the Emerald Isle apart from books.  Two of the greatest writers from the last two hundred years were Irish and Catholic: James Joyce and Oscar Wilde.  Joyce's own sister was a nun—Sister Gertrude Mary Joyce—and Thomas Merton said he owed his conversion to Catholicism from reading Joyce.

The roots of Irish literature begin with Saint Patrick himself.  When Patrick escaped from slavery in Ireland and returned to his native Britain, he had a dream in which a man named Victorinus appeared.  Victorinus gave Patrick letters to read, letters that would inspire Patrick to return to the place of his captivity and evangelize it.  But before he could do this, Patrick had to prepare.  He crossed the channel to France and there trained under St. Martin of Tours, the Roman soldier-turned monk.  Schooled in prayer and theology, Patrick was given a spiritual discipline that would serve him and his companions well.  The great Irish saints—Brendan, Kevin, Columba, Columbanus, Columbkille, Killian—would travel around Ireland, founding monasteries and instilling in the people a life of prayer and study.

God is Fire

Dear Parishioners,

I'm like a Neanderthal when it comes to fire.  I'm mesmerized by it.  Now, I'm not saying I'm a pyromaniac.  All you firefighters in the parish, don't give me the evil eye when you next see me.  I'm just saying there is something so primeval and fascinating to me about a burning fire.  Am I that crazy? I'm sure you all enjoy sitting in front of and staring at a fire in your fireplace.  I know the Boy Scouts enjoy making fires--they did so at their Webelos Crossover Event (when Cub Scouts enter Boy Scouts) last week. 

I don't think I'm in horrible company with this fascination with fire.  Moses liked it too. See the burning bush from the first reading (cf. Exodus 3).  This theophany ('appearance of God') had to be incredibly fascinating. Not only is God fire, which is intriguing in itself, he is fire that does not consume. 

This is more than just a fake fireplace (I hate fake fireplaces by the way...I want to build my own fire!).  This is something 'remarkable', as Moses himself commented. 

God is fire.  He is mesmerizing, appealing, and heartening.  And he does not consume.  There is nothing we lose when God comes more fully into our hearts.  We only gain. 

Firefighters should love this image of God.  Think of a fire that does not destroy.  What more could you want!

She Dies Out of Love

First Holy Communion is received around this time of year by second graders, and it is inspiring to hear stories of saintly First Communicants.  For example, we have that of Blessed Imelda Lambertini from the 1300s.  The age to receive First Communion back then was twelve.  Imelda was nine.  She begged to receive the Eucharist, and though she prayed daily with the nuns in the nearby church and exhibited an understanding of the sacrament, she was denied.  One night, on the eve of the Feast of the Ascension, the young girl was praying in the chapel after Mass.  The nuns present smelled roses and saw a bright light.  Suddenly, a consecrated host floated in the air and hovered above the girl.  The priest was immediately summoned and, placing a paten underneath the host, he gave Imelda her First Communion.  The girl proceeded to enter into an intense, ecstatic prayer.  Her First Communion was her last.  When the nuns lifted her up, she was dead.  Imelda was known to have said in the past when arguing her cause, "Tell me, can anyone receive Jesus into his heart and not die?"  She died out of love.

Saint Gemma Galgani was born in the late 19th Century.  The seven-year-old begged her pastor to give her communion.  He finally relented, saying, "there was no alternative but to admit her to holy Communion; otherwise we will see her die of grief."  He had learned from Imelda's case.  Gemma received her communion and would treat each communion until her death eighteen years later at age twenty-five as if it was her first and last.  "Oh, what precious moments are those at Holy Communion!" she said. "Communion is happiness that seems to me cannot be equaled even by the beatitude of the saints and angels."

Neurogenesis, Prayer, Resurrection

The recent advancements in the field of neurobiology are a fascinating compliment to prayer and the Resurrection.  The firing of neurons in the brain determines our feeling or reaction to an event.   For example, if we were embarrassed in front of the entire class when we were in 6th grade about answering a question incorrectly, when we are in a situation where we have to perform in front of an audience, we may be anxious or we may shut down.  This is because of the neurocircuitry in our brain.

We need not, however, be enslaved by our core wounds. It is possible for us to change these negative neural firing patterns, hence changing our internal state in the midst of an experience.  The key is awareness, which is also called interoception.  If we are attuned to our thoughts and feelings, and open to acknowledging the past, we can change.  When we simply notice we grow agitated in a particular scenario, or are consoled by something else, we create new neurons, as well as neural firing patterns.  Myelin, which is a coating around the neuron that allows the electrical pulse to pass to the next neuron, is also enhanced.  With more myelin, we can catch ourselves more quickly in an experience and not fall into the default state of anxiety, accusation, shame or whatever else is negative inside us.  This whole process of re-creation is named neurogenesis.  We could also label it conversion or healing. Something new is created from something old.  Neurogenesis happens, fundamentally, in prayer.

Prayer is the best opportunity to sit in this awareness with Jesus, the Divine Physician.  We lift our history and our emotions to the Lord, and he will literally rewire our brains.  Then, we will be fully alive—sons and daughters of the Resurrection.  

Adauctus - the added man

We do not know much about the life of Saint Felix, other than he was martyred in the year 303 during the persecution of Emperor Diocletian.  The shrewd administrator forced all Christians to turn in their Bible and other sacred texts to be burned.  Felix refused and was ordered to be beheaded. The story has it that a man observed Felix on his way to the spot of execution in Carthage and was so inspired that he yelled out that he too was a Christian.  The man was quickly enchained next to Felix and beheaded alongside him.  No one ever discovered the martyr's real name, so he was called "Adauctus," which means "the added man."  Saints Felix and Adauctus share a feast day.

There have been other Adauctuses throughout the history of the church.  The latest was a West African named Matthew.  He was taken hostage by ISIS in February 2015 alongside 21 Egyptian Christians, construction workers on a job site in Libya.  Though he may not have been Christian, Matthew refused to be separated and had his throat slit along with the others.  He is listed as one of the 'Coptic Martyrs of Libya.' 

Speaking of Libya, who could forget the first Adauctus, Simon of Cyrene?  Cyrene was a Greek town in Libya.  Simon had either lived there or his ancestors had come from that part of Northern Africa.  Returning from the fields to Jerusalem, he happened upon Christ carrying his cross.  For whatever reason, Simon was singled out from the crowd to help.  He may have been unwilling at first, but he made the way of the cross alongside Christ.  To literally help Christ redeem the world by carrying the cross—is there no more saintly action possible?

Let us listen (audire) for our chance to be the next Saint Adauctus.

 

God is Beauty

One of the ways we encounter God is beauty.  Our hearts can be elevated to the transcendent when we see a stunning mountain landscape, gaze upon a priceless work of art, or hear a magnificent piece of music.  Encountering beautiful people (not physically, but on the level of the soul) can also inspire us. It happened in the case of Malcolm Muggeridge, a British journalist who described himself as a "religious maniac without a religion." While working as a producer for BBC he came across Mother Teresa and, after researching her story, interviewed her.  He was mainly responsible for introducing this future saint to the world, thanks to his 1968 documentary "Something Beautiful for God."  The documentary covered the heroic lives of the Missionaries of Charity, who served the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta.  Muggeridge then wrote a book about Mother Teresa.  Author Robert Spitzer writes about the impact of the woman on the 'avowed atheist',

It was at once the beauty of [Mother Teresa's] actions toward the poor, the beauty of her genuine love for them, the beauty of seeing Christ in them, the beauty of her defiance when Muggeridge tried to suggest that it didn't make much difference amid the sea of poverty in India, the beauty in her eyes, and the beauty of her spiritual discipline.

Mother Teresa prompted Muggeridge to become Catholic.  He wrote, "it is impossible to be with her, to listen to her, to observe what she is doing and how she is doing it, without being in some degree converted." The formally-socialist reporter became a defender of Humanae Vitae, opposed abortion, and produced documentaries on prayer.  He titled his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time.

May our simple holiness spur the conversion of those around us.

 

The Prodigal Son

This posture of the prodigal son in prayer, from John Macallan Swan's 1888 painting, is one no person should be ashamed to make.  It is a posture of authenticity.  The boy is in "dire need" (Lk 14:14). He has hit 'rock bottom.'  Does he suppress his agony?  No.  He admits his life has become unmanageable and enters into the depths of the abyss.  He bundles his darkness, shame, and uncertainty into a little gift the outline of his fists, and lifts that gift to God.  He cannot see it, as he raises his meagre offering in trusting torment, but the Father delights.  A heavenly light shines on the prodigal son's exposed back.  In the desolate, early spring landscape, flowers have bloomed.  There is beauty in the vulnerability.

The prodigal son "comes to his senses." He makes the decision, in the words of the Third Step, "to turn his will and his life over to the care of God."  He does not know how his story will end, but he trusts God.  There is no greater experience of love than remaining with the Father in pain.  This sets him on the path to awakening—to resurrection.  He will journey home.

It was only because the prodigal son entered into the fullness of pain in prayer that he could be healed.  We might not have 'watershed moments' on the level of the prodigal son or a recovering alcoholic, but there are experiences of darkness we all face.  The choice is to suppress the situation or embrace it.  When we embrace it, we turn it over to God.  He will accept our gift.  What exactly he will choose to do with it and make of it, we are not sure.  It turned out well in the prodigal son's case.

 

The Edge of Sadness

The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1962.  Set in a New England town, it is a story of priesthood and an Irish-American family scenario with which most people could probably resonate.

Father Hugh Kennedy is the protagonist of the story.  He and his best friend, Father John Carmody, are middle-aged pastors.  They battle their demons of darkness, both related to their fathers.  Kennedy slipped into alcoholism after his father's slow and painful death, and Carmody a general misanthropy stemming from his father's challenging nature that meant a difficult upbringing.  You might already be thinking, 'This sounds depressing. Why would I read this?' Because it is a beautiful story that provides profound psychological insights.

Kennedy realizes that a genuine prayer life was non-existent in his active life as a young priest.   He was not tapped into the "continuing current of love," as he describes it.  Kennedy says:

What the priest may not see is that he stands in some danger of losing himself in the strangely engrossing business of simply 'being busy'; gradually he may find that he is rather uncomfortable whenever he is not 'being busy.' 

The problems of priesthood are not all that dissimilar from the married or single life.  The heart of a priest's identity is his love of God.  Everything else in his ministry comes second.  If he falls away from his heart, his life will begin to disintegrate.  Likewise, if a married couple falls away from the essence of their love and is swept up into the current of 'busyness', their relationship will deteriorate. 

The story is hopeful, for Kennedy is able to re-center himself in God and persevere in the priesthood.  If we find ourselves on the edge of sadness, may we do likewise.

 

Create Your Own Prayer

It can be beneficial, every now and again, to create your own blessing or prayer.  We do not always need to rotely recite the ones provided by the Church.  Creating your own prayer, which is certainly a valid thing to do, puts you in the company of the Trinity.  God, of course, is a creator and a ‘blesser’.  If we are called to be like God, then we can create our prayers.

Here is an example of someone's created prayer.  Maybe it can inspire you.  It is "A Blessing for March's Saints" by Andrew Greeley:

May you dance a reel for St. Paddy's sake

And toast the many united in one

May St. Joseph guard you as soon as you wake

And safely lead you home when day is done

From Aquinas may you learn wisdom and truth

And from Gregory tradition's faithful way

May Casimir teach you courage and hope

And Gabriel surprise you each new day

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Or, "A Blessing for March Seventeenth" by the same:

May it be a grand day for all of you

Be ye Irish or as Patrick as you'd like to be

May your jars be limited to just a few

May you revel in God's great diversity

In a land where Moslem, Protestant, Catholic, Jew

Enjoy a constitutional variety

Modestly raise a quiet cry and hue

To give thanks for peaceful ethnicity

And praise for pluralism's brightest jewel

Drink joyous toasts, in all sobriety

To the one from many ‘neath red, white and blue

And may God bless you this glorious day

The Father who holds the world together

The Son who walked among us

And the spirit who makes each of us unique

The Contemplative Life

Dear Parishioners,

There are some who think there is no place for the contemplative life in Christianity.  Quiet, interior prayer is an aberration.  To be a Christian, they would say, means to serve our brothers and sisters.  Jesus did remark, after all, "whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:31-46).  When we are just praying like monks, we are not serving anyone.  Hence, there is no room for recollected prayer.  That takes us away from the mission of Christ.  Such is the claim.

I brought up this argument in my first talk on prayer a couple weeks ago.  There are many flaws in that argument; many ways to rebut it.  The Transfiguration, which we read about this weekend, is one such way.

Jesus climbs Mount Tabor with his apostles, Peter, James and John (the three whom he will take apart with him in the Garden of Gethsemane). He is elevated and experiences a mystical encounter with Moses and Elijah.

Yes, Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets, but they also both represent interior, contemplative prayer.  Moses for 40 days was on Mount Sinai, communing silently with God.  He was immersed in a sort of luminous cloud, which the Hebrews called the shekinah.  When Moses comes down the mountain after 40 days, his countenance is changed.