I was raised in the ambience of all kinds of suspicion of Saint Paul: that he was the one who “invented” Christianity, that he was a misogynist and an enabler of slavery, that he was sexually frustrated, that there is a little too much Paul there and not enough Jesus. But I have always tended to support the underdog; I wrote my very first paper “defending” Paul when I was18 years old. (It was against the charge of misogyny and being a slavery sympathizer, by the way; which is not to say that he wasn’t either of them but just that that is not what was being conveyed in his kerygma.) What that has been replaced with over the past couple of decades is recognizing St. Paul as a mystic. Mind you, I know enough about mysticism to know that someone can have a genuine enlightenment experience, a mystical experience––and still be unenlightened on social issues, and still not get the facts right. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he or she could also be a mystic. And for me the main focus of St. Paul’s mysticism is his sense of the Body of Christ, and it stems back to this experience on the road to Damascus. The poem called “St. Stephen” by Malcolm Gutie is addressed to Stephen but this part is about Saul/Paul: When Saul departed breathing threats and slaughter, He had to pass through that Damascus gate Where he had held the coats and heard the laughter As Christ, alive in you, forgot his hate, And showed him the same light you saw from heaven And taught him, through his blindness, how to see; Christ did not ask, ‘Why are you stoning Stephen?’ But, ‘Saul, why are you persecuting me?’[1] I remember the first time I heard it said explicitly in a homiletics class, and it never stops striking me deeply: when the Risen Christ appears to Saul, he doesn’t ask Saul why he’s persecuting Stephen, or why he’s persecuting “my followers” or persecuting “my church,” but why are you persecuting me. ‘Whatever you did to the least of these, you did it to me.’[2] Is it the intuition of that carries over into Paul’s marvelous teaching in the Letter to the Corinthians chapter 12 with his great description of the Body and all its parts, and even more subtly and more movingly in the Letter to the Colossians when he speaks of making up what is lacking in the sufferings of the body of Christ? For Paul “body” is not a metaphor––the Body of Christ; it is an organic reality, it is...

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The two readings that we were offered for the Feast of Saint Anthony of the Desert today were perfect, though I wished I could have switched them. The Gospel (Mt 19:16-26) was the story of the rich young man, possibly the very gospel that Anthony heard that sparked his conversion. And the reading from Ephesians (6:10-13) was all about our spiritual weapons against the powers of darkness, recalling Anthony’s successful battles with the demons. But there is something else that I found in my notes that I was focused on all day. This and all that follows is from some notes I just have marked “after a conversation with Columba Stewart.”[i]   Why the desert is so important is because the desert landscape is an image of what we want for our hearts, our minds––an uncluttered view through clear air. A calm clear heart allows for a clear eye.   The one theme of Antony’s that is arguably the most important and perennial for the monastic tradition is self-knowledge, or what Columba Stewart calls “radical honesty about the self.” A teaching that Anthony frequently repeats is that “the knowledge of ourselves is the necessary and only step by which we can ascend to the knowledge and love of God.” The necessary and only path to love of God: pretty strong words! In a famous passage recorded by Athanasius, Anthony lays it out this way: St. Paul says don’t let the sun go down on your anger; Anthony says don’t let the sun go down on any sin. And the best way to avoid this is to “Examine yourself and test yourself. Recount to yourself daily not only your actions of the day but also the stirrings of the soul,” the secret thoughts of the heart, which can then become a breeding-ground for sin. Anthony of course is also famous for his bouts of battling with the demons. But even this is really here a metaphor for his work of self-scrutiny. The demons can be understood as much internal as external, those subtle psychological temptations to which we are most susceptible. Here again is the importance of self-scrutiny as an essential and continuing part of progress in virtue. Besides the little instruction he gets from a few elders in his early days, basically Anthony’s hard work of self-knowledge is done alone. Athanasius records that Anthony’s only abba is an angel who is a sort of mirror image of himself. Perhaps this is where Anthony gets the idea later to tell his disciples that, when they examine themselves, even when they are alone they should pretend as if they were laying themselves bare...

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Posted By on Jan 14, 2018

(2nd Sunday Ordinary Time Year B) At the beginning of Chapter 3 of the first book of Samuel, from which the 1st reading for today was drawn,[i] we read the words ‘The Word of God was rare in the land in those days.’ Samuel of course is going to grow up to be one of the great prophets of Israel. It is he who will anoint Saul as the first king of Israel, and then later the great king David as well. But in those days the Word of God was rare in the land… I was reminded of the call of that other great prophet, Elijah, in the first book of Kings, just a few generations later. He was sitting in front of the cave waiting for the Lord to pass by, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, nor in the firestorm, nor in the thundering wind, but the Lord was in the still small breeze or, some translations say, in the sound of sheer silence. The Word of the Lord doesn’t always come on billboards and banners, earthquakes and firestorms, with loudspeakers and spotlights. The Word of God comes out of the sheer silence. Maybe we could say it doesn’t always come from above like a trumpet blast; sometimes it comes from within. One wonders if the Word of the Lord really was rare in the land in those days, or was it that there were so few with the purity of heart or the presence of mind (which may be the same thing) to really hear it, to catch the sound of the still small voice, coming out of the sheer silence. But Samuel, we are led to believe, has such a pure heart, such presence of mind. This is a beautiful image of him, sleeping right next to the Ark of the Covenant, where the Word was stored, like a monk keeping vigil. His teacher Eli doesn’t even hear it (again, maybe because the voice is coming from within?), but he understands that Samuel has the gift, has the presence of mind, the purity of heart, to hear the subtle and quiet voice of the Lord. And so in our day and age and for us, it may seem as if the Word of the Lord is rare in our days, maybe even rarer in our land, but it is not rare in our hearts. St. Paul says The Word is near us on our lips and in our hearts.[ii] It just takes a rare purity of heart, clarity of mind to hear it, and maybe we don’t have that. It all depends...

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(for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God and the World Day of Peace) We in the Catholic Church actually celebrate two different things on New Year’s Day, besides the secular holiday. One of them is liturgical––the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God; and the other one is not necessarily liturgical––the World Day of Peace. Since one of the most common titles we give to Mary is the Queen of Peace, I don’t think she minds sharing. As you know, the pope always issues a message on the World Day of Peace, and I am going to draw my own remarks today from that, because it’s a message that I think oftentimes gets ignored, but one that is ever more important. In a day and age of such political upheaval and polarization, I am relying on the Holy Father and the bishops of the Church to keep calling us back to the highest common denominator, and show us how to be and who to be in our society. Another reason that Mary and this year’s Message for the World Day of Peace go together is because the message this year deals with migrants and refugees, entitled: “Migrants and Refugees: Men and Women in Search of Peace.” There is a strong connection between Our Lady and migrants and refugees. Beginning in 2016 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops named the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a day of solidarity with immigrants and refugees. The Church has also been celebrating the World Day of Migrants and Refugees on August 15th, the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, since 1914. And of course during the Christmas season we remember Mary journeying to Bethlehem with Joseph to give birth to Jesus, and then fleeing into Egypt to escape persecution, as many refugees do in our own time. Given all the indicators of the international situation, it seems as if migrations are going to continue to play a major part in our future across the planet. I love Francis’ response to that. “Some consider this a threat,” he says. “I, however, invite you to gaze upon this with trust, as an opportunity to build peace.” Pope’s have a lofty perspective: they do not speak for a country; they speak as the Vicar of Christ. And they do not speak only to Catholics or Christians; they are speaking to all people of good will throughout the world, whom they know will be listening. This isn’t just about our border walls and travel bans; there is a huge migration crisis going on around the world, in the Mideast, in North Africa and...

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