The Lord’s Prayer
Blessed John Paul II wrote these words to the Church as she embarked on the Third Millennium: “Dear brothers and sisters, our Christian communities must become genuine "schools" of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed … in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly "falls in love".” Thomas Aquinas College, no less than any other Christian community, must be a genuine school of prayer. In our classes we read Aristotle and St. Thomas, Euclid and Shakespeare, but always with our final end in mind: union with the Triune God through authentic prayer. This school is indeed a school of prayer, with its chapel at the head and center of campus, and the curriculum truly culminating in the one thing necessary: knowledge of God.
There is no more authentic prayer than the Lord’s Prayer, given us today in the Gospel. The disciples watched Jesus praying one day, and they realized that up to that moment, they had never really prayed. When he returns from his prayer, they implore him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And so the Lord gives us his own prayer to his Heavenly Father: “Our Father, who art in heaven….” We pray it six times in each rosary, and to prepare ourselves for Holy Communion at every Mass. The Catechism calls this prayer the “the summary of the whole Gospel,” the “fundamental Christian prayer.” In the words of St. Augustine: “Run through all the words of the holy prayers in Scripture, and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer.” If we learned no other prayer in all our Christian lives, if even we taught our children no other prayer but this one, if a pagan in missionary lands discovered only this prayer, it would be enough. It is the only formal prayer that all Christians can agree on.
Bargaining with God
Let us realize what prayer is: when we pray, we do not talk to God so much as he talks to us. As Fr. Barron observed in his Sunday homily this week, we do not pray to change God’s mind; we pray to change our mind—to align our minds and wills with His. Consider Abraham in the first reading. It seems like he is bargaining with God, which is what many attempt to do in prayer. Deftly but respectfully, our Father in Faith negotiates God down from fifty to ten: “if I find ten good men in Sodom, I will not destroy the city.” (As it turned out, God only found four just people in Sodom, and he gave them a free pass out before he destroyed the city.)
Is Abraham negotiating with God? He is certainly persevering in petitionary prayer to save his kinsmen. But what Abraham actually does is persevere in prayer until his understanding aligns with God’s will. The city must be destroyed, even if good men will suffer, because sin has consequences. (Our own cities too are suffering destruction from sexual perversions, as the breakdown of family and social order result from promiscuity.) Abraham comes to understand this, but he also comes to understand how God wills the salvation of every soul. In prayer, Abraham comes to know and love the mind and will of God. We too learn to know God’s will only in and through disciplined, regular prayer. If we have a problem in our life, or with God’s will for us, only in prayer can we find peace. We may need to spend many hours before the tabernacle to learn to love God’s will, but learn to love Him we will, if we persevere in prayer.
With Jesus, Surrender to the Father
The Lord’s Prayer expresses this “Abrahamic faith” perfectly. First of all, Jesus instructs us to address God both as “Our Father” (immanent) and “in heaven” (transcendent). God is my father, understanding my fragility, but God is also the eternal and omnipotent El Shaddai, ruling the cosmos in perfect justice. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that His kingdom come, not ours—His will, not ours. We pray that we can come to love His will, in every circumstance. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I join the Son of God in surrendering my will, my intellect, all that I have and possess, to my Father in Heaven, who alone can bring me to heaven.
So, with Jesus in prayer before his Father, with Our Lady “keeping all these things in the silence of her heart,” let us also put aside distractions and keep silence, listening for God’s still voice. In every time of prayer, following the Church’s own liturgy, let us pray the Our Father, not to change God’s mind, but to change our mind, that it may conform to the mind of God.
Pope Paul VI (Official Vatican photo)
Which Paul was right?
We welcome our seminar guests to Sunday High Mass here at the Thomas Aquinas Chapel, and we thank our choir for assembling during summer vacation. Over the last two days we studied texts on Marriage, and some pointed out the connection between contraception and the decline of marriage. I heard not a few people say that rarely if ever have they heard homilies on this topic. So let me give you a little homily on birth control.
You might ask: What do the scripture readings have to do with contraception? Nothing, but on Thursday we observe the 45th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae. This summer I’ve been giving the seminarians of Sacramento, Santa Rosa, and San Francisco talks on how to create a culture of life in their parishes. I recommended they preach on contraception at least once a year, perhaps on the Sunday nearest July 25. So I had better follow my own advice.
In September 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling The Population Bomb hit the bookstores. It opened with these words: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” The book scared a good many people and governments, who turned to sterilization and birth control to head off the alleged catastrophe. Two months earlier, Pope Paul’s encyclical on the regulation of human births, Humanae Vitae had come out, affirming society’s perennial rejection of contraception (contraceptive drugs were illegal in the United States until 1938). In paragraph 17, the Pope predicted four negative consequences should contraception become the prevailing mentality: “Let us consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. …Another effect is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman…. Finally, …this power [will pass] into the hands of public authorities who care little for the moral law….Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” So which Paul was right in 1968? Whose predictions came true, those of Paul Ehrlich or those of Paul VI?
Contraception is Intrinsically Evil
It’s pretty clear to everyone that the terrible unrest in our culture results from the breakdown of the family, which hurts poorer people most of all. 60% of white working class women are struggling to raise children in fatherless households, and studies abound demonstrating the personal and social damage resulting from single-parent households. What everyone does not know, but we Catholics had better make it our business to know, is that family collapse results largely from artificial birth control. The Church could not be clearer, in magisterial document after document, on the inherent evil of sterilizing the conjugal act. I quote the Catechism 2370: “Every action which … proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.” How to plan our families? First, love the child, and count your fertility as among one of God’s greatest gifts. And then, if you need to space births, use natural family planning. Again, from the Catechism: “The methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom.” Artificial contraception, which is essentially different from natural family planning, is intrinsically evil—a mortal sin if committed with full knowledge and full consent.
So what to do, given that most of us Catholics contracept? We must begin the long road back to right reason, to submission to the natural law, to disciplined and authentic conjugal love. We must begin to practice the truth ourselves, and then help others to choose nature’s way of spacing births. There. Now you have heard a homily on contraception, and I don’t want to hear any more complaints.
Right Marriage and Right Worship
But there is a little more. The breakdown of marriage and the family coincide with another lamentable phenomena: the breakdown of right worship (in Greek, “ortho-doxy”). In the 1950s, when family life flourished in America, most folks went to church every Sunday. Now only about 25% worship God regularly. In the Catholic Church in particular, a mistaken notion of worship has overcome us, parallel with a mistaken notion of sex and marriage. That is, most Catholics have come to imagine that the Mass is about us rather than about God, and that we “own” the liturgy.
The Scriptures portray divine worship as a sacred banquet, from the Old Testament Passover to the Gospel Last Supper to Revelation’s Wedding Feast of the Lamb. But whose banquet is it—God’s or ours? We have come to think of the Mass as “our” meal. It’s “our” church (after all, we paid $23 million for this chapel). We set the altar. We provide the bread and wine. We say the prayers. But consider more carefully. Whose chapel is this, after all? Who provides us with everything we have?
In the First Reading (Genesis 18), Abraham puts on a banquet for the mysterious “three men” at Mamre, the famous Old Testament Trinity. He serves God—it is an act of worship—but who is really serving whom? One of the “men” tells Abraham he will be holding his firstborn son within the year, the fulfillment of the Promise. Abraham makes no mistake: even though he gives his best to these three men, he knows that they are giving infinitely more to him.
In the Gospel, Martha puts on a banquet for Jesus, a fine act of worship. But gradually she slips into the “ownership” mentality, becomes controlling of her sister Mary, and ends up ordering God to do her will: “Lord, tell her to help me!” Martha makes the mistake Abraham didn’t make: she thinks she is doing Jesus a big favor by serving him. And so most Catholics come to Mass a bit begrudgingly: “Lord, I hope you appreciate what I’m doing for you this Sunday morning.”
Our marriages, our bodies, our homes and families, our jobs, our Mass: it is all from God. And it is all going back to God. St. Paul describes himself as a steward in the second reading. Read it again after Mass. We are stewards, not owners. Let us follow the example of the saints, and especially of Our Lady, who received God’s gifts with joyful humility, never imagining that we actually deserve his blessings. Let us use these gifts in accord with his will, in submission to the revealed laws of His Church, so that we may live peaceful and ordered lives here on earth, and so attain perfect joy in the life of the world to come.
I’ve been away from my College attending some conferences and taking some vacation with other priests and old friends. One of those “old friends” has increased since I last knew him. He still weighs the same (even a bit leaner) but he and his wife now have two more children, bringing their family size to nine children (plus one indispensable and quite energetic grandmother). He and his beautiful wife have been faithful to God’s simple and first commandment: "Be fruitful and multiply; … have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth." The Judeo-Christian notion of “dominion” does not mean “power” over nature, but rather the reverent stewardship of nature’s bounty in the name of the only Dominus, the Lord God. We are stewards, not owners. Since Adam and Eve, man has always been tempted to possess, to manipulate, even to destroy out of the sheer will to power. “It’s mine and I will do what I want with it!” shouts the little boy. In our technological era, which began with Francis Bacon 400 years ago, we have largely surrendered to this temptation. The line between stewardship and control of nature is not always clear, but in marriage and family life, the line is distinct. We artificially force nature when we contracept and abort, interrupting the natural processes of our bodies. We respectfully steward nature when we respect the physiological cycles and processes of our bodies.
Back to my friends. Along with their nine children, Dino and Cathy have “dominion”— respectful stewardship—over four cows, four goats, 54 chickens, a few dozen cats, three pigs, and one perfect little beagle, not to mention 20 acres of woods and fields with lots of buzzing bees and chirping birds. Dino and Cathy preside over their small farm, respecting the natural rhythms and needs of all God’s creatures. Among the many books on their shelves, James Herriot’s volumes are favorites. I love to spend a few days in such a community of beasts and men. I can hear the children’s sounds throughout the house and in the fields by day, at times laughing, or yelling, or talking, or crying. From the newborn infant to the 14-year-old elder sister, the children apply themselves to building real community from sunup to sundown. I can hear the gentle voices of mother and father, and the excited prattling of grandmother bouncing a baby on her knees. I hear the cows’ lowing, the goats’ eager bleating, the clucking of chickens, the mewing of kittens, the wind in the willows, the gurgling of a stream, and I hear tweets—not artificial tweets from a little machine but twitters from real birds.
Folks seem under some nameless fear these days. The media plays on this, of course, by bothering us about some alleged disaster every morning. I don’t remember this vague, pervasive anxiety when I was growing up. And, spending a few days with my friends in rural Missouri, I didn’t sense it among them. The folks that preach disaster and spread fear, I suppose, live in New York and Los Angeles. I suspect they unthinkingly try to control, rather than cultivate, their environment. Might I suggest to those folks who feel trapped in urban fears—make a little summer visit to your country cousins. Get back in touch with the land, and the big family, and the God who presides over all creatures, great and small.
Today’s Gospel, the Good Samaritan—how we love to hear this story! We generally avoid people, trying not to make eye contact—on the street, in the subway, on the freeway, in the grocery store. But here is a story of one man who made eye contact with a stranger. He stopped what he was doing and looked at him as his brother. He loved his neighbor as himself.
The whole question revolves around the word “neighbor.” In the Gospel, a lawyer honestly questions Jesus—he really wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies: you know what to do—love God and love your neighbor. The lawyer cannot resist a bit of legal quibbling: “and who is my neighbor?” So Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. Question: “Who is my neighbor?” Answer: Every man is my neighbor. The word “neighbor,” after all, comes from the German “Nachbar,” which simply means the “nearby” one—your neighbor is anyone nearby. Treat every man, every woman, every child with mercy, and you will go to heaven. If the lawyer were looking for a loophole, Jesus does not afford him that satisfaction. Every man is my brother.
Every man is Jesus
In fact, every man is Jesus. So said Mother Teresa. It was the first thing I ever heard her say, and I realized immediately only a saint sees Jesus in every person. So the Samaritan finds a man beat up and bloody, and he knows that God is lying in the gutter. The Samaritan treats the wounded man with mercy, and so God treats the Samaritan with mercy. That’s how we get to heaven. Indeed, God is invisible to those who do not show mercy. As St. Paul says in the second reading: Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God. And Mother Teresa adds: the poor man is the image of the invisible Jesus. Jesus comes to us in every person we see every day, and he reveals the face of God to us in them.
“You have only to carry it out”
Moses tells the Israelites in the first reading: If only you would keep the commandments of God! You would increase and prosper and find true joy. And the command of God is not mysterious or remote: it is in your hearts already; you have only to carry it out. You can be a saint. I can be a saint. We can all go to heaven, and live in peace and joy here on earth. We have only to carry out the command of God already in our hearts. That command is so simple: love God, and love your neighbor.
Today you will leave Mass and see many people. Some will irritate you. Some will insult you. Some will weary you. Each one of them is Jesus. He walks the earth disguised as troublesome people, to teach us how to love. Love isn’t a feeling; it is a decision, and only this decision to love brings us true joy. Make the effort to love the people you don’t want to love. Practice charity again and again until you get it right. Take a deep breath and exercise patience. Force yourself to think of others even when your own head is hurting. Anticipate the other person’s needs and serve him, even when he doesn’t deserve it. Forgive that person who disrespects you.
Love hurts, at least in the beginning. Mercy costs us, sometimes a great deal. Mother Teresa was talking to a group of American professionals one time. “Smile at each other,” she said. “Smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other—it doesn’t matter who it is—and that will help you to grow in greater love for each other.” One of the men (perhaps a lawyer) asked her, “Mother, are you married?” She responded: “Yes, I am, and sometimes Jesus asks a great deal of me, and it is hard to smile at him.” But she kept on smiling, and that is why she went to heaven. We can do the same, if we put our minds to it.