Call by Name

The following is an excerpt of a homily I delivered on the 3rd Sunday of Lent. If you’d like to hear the complete audio plus a reflection on the content, please listen to my podcast “The Discerning Catholic” which can be found on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

            “We’ve always done it this way.”
            “We’ve always allowed the money changers to have some space in the Court of the Gentiles during Passover. The crowds are so big, how else are we going to get it done? People need to get a half shekel to pay their Temple tax, they need to sacrifice their oxen or their turtle doves. We’ve always done it this way, who are you, Jesus, to change things? Who are you to demand something greater of us!”

Father Nick Adam
Father Nick Adam

            “We’ve always done it this way” The Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent, in which Jesus rebukes the ongoing business in the Temple during Passover, demonstrates that “we’ve always done it this way” is an obstacle to evangelization. The Court of the Gentiles is flooded with pilgrims and money changers and believers, and yet their activity is actually making it more difficult for the Gentiles to get a glimpse of what the faith is all about. If we are not careful, we can flood our own parishes with practices that are stuck in their ways, and in some ways can be obstacles to others joining in. “We’ve always had this kind of music,” “we’ve always had this kind of event.” “We’ve always done things this way.”

            Church attendance in dwindling. Faith in Christ is free-falling. It is time for us to review those practices we’ve always done and talk to the Lord about them. And we must do this at the personal level first. What are those practices that we’ve always done that are actually an obstacle to our love of God and our relationship with him? These might be behavioral habits; we get on our phone first thing in the morning completely shutting off any opportunity for quiet reflection and prayer. These can be relational habits; we speak first rather than listen, we get defensive rather than challenging ourselves to be vulnerable and truly hear another person’s story. 

            But this must go beyond the personal level for our faith communities to stop surviving and start thriving. I’m not a pastor, I’m not even an associate pastor right now, but I am a vocation director. So, the Word of God compels me to look at the way “we’ve always done things” in vocations and discern where the will of God stands in the pecking order. How can I become the most effective evangelist in the way that I promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life? I am shocked to say that the website that I helped create does not get as much traffic as I thought it would. It is a really neat website and is easy to navigate (jacksonpriests.com if you are interested), but the next generation doesn’t really go to websites apparently. And that’s ok, I need to figure out other ways to connect with them instead of doubling down on “we’ve always done it this way.” 

            Jesus wants us to get stirred up. He is looking to stir up the temple authorities and show them that the way “we’ve always done things” isn’t going to get it done. We have to die to ourselves. That’s how we become the best spouses, the best parents, the best priests, etc. Jesus is headed to the cross as soon as he turns over the first table. He is going to be rejected by many for his actions and his words, but he knows that others will be enlivened, will be inspired, and shaken out of their “luke-warmity.” We must willingly head to the cross ourselves, with confidence that the Lord will not abandon us. 

Prediscernment Prayer Nights

Tuesday, March 16 – Our Lady of Victories Cleveland, 6-7 p.m.

Wednesday, March 17 – Christ the King Southaven, 7-8 p.m.

Imperialism of the human soul

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
In his autobiography, Nikos Kazantzakis shares how in his youth he was driven by a restlessness that had him searching for something he could never quite define. However, he made peace with his lack of peace because he accepted that, given the nature of the soul, he was supposed to feel that restlessness and that a healthy soul is a driven soul. Commenting on this, he writes: “No force anywhere on earth is as imperialistic as the human soul. It occupies and is occupied in turn, but it always considers its empire too narrow. Suffocating, it desires to conquer the world in order to breathe freely.”
We need to be given permission, I believe, to accept as God-given that imperialism inside our soul, even as we need always to be careful never to trivialize its power and meaning. However, that is a formula for tension. How does one make peace with the imperialism of one’s soul without denigrating the divine energy that is stoking that imperialism? For me, this has been a struggle.
I grew up in the heart of the Canadian prairies, with five hundred miles of open space in every direction. Geographically, that space let one’s soul stretch out, but otherwise my world seemed too small for my soul to breathe. I grew up inside a tight-knit community in an isolated rural area where the world was small enough so that everyone knew everyone else. That was wonderful because it made for a warm cocoon; but that cocoon (seemingly) separated me from the big world where, it seemed to my young mind, souls could breathe in spaces bigger than where I was breathing. Moreover, growing up with an acute religious and moral sensitivity, I felt guilty about my restlessness, as if it were something abnormal that I needed to hide.
In that state, as an eighteen-year-old, I entered religious life. Novitiates in those days were quite strict and secluded. We were eighteen of us, novices, sequestered in an old seminary building across a lake from a town and a highway. We could hear the sounds of traffic and see life on the other side of the lake, but we were not part of it. As well, most everything inside our sequestered life focused on the spiritual so that even our most earthy desires had to be associated with our hunger for God and for the bread of life. Not an easy task for anyone, especially a teenager.
Well, one day we were visited by a priest who gave my soul permission to breathe. He gathered us, the eighteen novices, into a classroom and began his conference with this question: Are you feeling a little restless? We nodded, rather surprised by the question. He went on: Well, you should be feeling restless! You must be jumping out of your skin! All that life in you and all those fiery hormones stirring in your blood, and you’re stuck here watching life happen across the lake! You must be going crazy sometimes! But … that’s good, that’s what you should be feeling, it shows you’re healthy. Stay with it. You can do this. It’s good to feel that restlessness.
That day the wide-open prairie spaces I had lived my whole life in and the wide-open spaces in my soul befriended each other a little. And that friendship continued to grow as I did my studies and read authors who had befriended their souls. Among others, these spoke to me: St. Augustine (You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.); Thomas Aquinas (The adequate object of the human intellect and will is all Being); Iris Murdoch (The deepest of all human pains is the pain of the inadequacy of self-expression); Karl Rahner (In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we ultimately learn that here, in this life, there is no finished symphony); Sidney Callahan (We are made to ultimately sleep with the whole world, is it any wonder that we long for this along the way?); and James Hillman (Neither religion nor psychology really honors the human soul. Religion is forever trying to save the soul and psychology is always trying to fix the soul. The soul needs neither to be saved nor fixed; it is already eternal – it just needs to be listened to.)
Perhaps today the real struggle is not so much to accept sacred permission to befriend the wild insatiability of the soul. The greater struggle today, I suspect, is not to trivialize the soul, not to make its infinite longings something less than what they are.
During the World War II, Jesuit theologians resisting the Nazi occupation in France published an underground newspaper. The first issue opened with this now-famous line: France, take care not to lose your soul. Fair warning. The soul is imperialistic because it carries divine fire and so it struggles to breathe freely in the world. To feel and to honor that struggle is to be healthy.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.)

Prayer for gentleness

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
As Christians, we are called to evangelize. Clearly, that’s our primary responsibility. But how do we go about doing it in a world in which things of the spirit are regularly given short shrift? Specifically, when people question our faith, how are we to answer them?
Fortunately, the Scriptures offer sufficient guidance on this question. I Peter 3:15-16 says we should always be ready to respond when our beliefs are challenged, but we must do it “with gentleness and reverence.” No one ever leads souls to Christ by beating them over the head with the truth because, as Proverbs 15:1 tells us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Not surprisingly, we ought also to exhibit gentleness in our dealings with fellow believers (Ephesians 4:1-2). In II Timothy 2:24 we find essentially the same teaching: Christians “should not quarrel, but should be gentle with everyone.”

Melvin Arrington, Jr

As I look back, I can recall, with sadness, more than one occasion when my conduct did not exemplify the qualities embodied in the eighth Fruit of the Spirit. I’m sure if we reflect long enough, we can all remember times in our lives when our behavior merited punishment, but instead of giving us what we deserved, God was lenient with us. He has certainly gone easy on me. So, if He treats me tenderly and with compassion, I should, therefore, do likewise in my relations with others.
My grandmother was someone who, to paraphrase Philippians 4:5, made her gentleness known to everyone. Some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around my grandparents, who often took care of me when my parents were working. My grandfather was strong, outspoken, and quite a jokester. But my sweet grandmother was, in many ways, the total opposite with regard to her personality. Low key and reserved, she nevertheless always enjoyed a good laugh. She was calm, patient, and kind, and her faith was strong. In short, she was the epitome of gentleness. I never heard her raise her voice or speak a harsh word. The way my grandmother lived her life had a deep and lasting impact on me. If you were to ask me what authentic gentleness looks like, I would say it looks like my grandmother.
But the best model for all of us to imitate is always Jesus. He not only preached kindness, meekness, and humility; He also practiced these qualities. I’m reminded of some of the old hymns that speak of Jesus in these terms, hymns such as “Pass me not o gentle Savior,” “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,” and especially the second verse of “In the Garden:” “He speaks and the sound of His voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing.”
Consider how our Lord dealt with the woman caught in adultery. Unlike her accusers, who were ready to stone her, Jesus employed milder tactics. He could have condemned her, but instead He was merciful, telling her to go on her way and not to sin again. Also notice how He treated His oppressors. Rather than striking them down, He forgave them, even from the cross. If we want to be more like Jesus, we need to follow his advice in Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Now, where and when do we see these Christ-like characteristics on display nowadays in our modern, materialistic society? Well, frankly, we don’t, at least not very often. Examples abound for sure, but they’re typically found in those places where works of charity and kindness are performed quietly, without fanfare, and without recognition or reward. People who do good works for the right reasons don’t seek headlines.
As a consequence, the soft approach is just not that visible these days, at least not on our TV screens. Instead, we see images that are shocking and disturbing to us. For some reason, the actions of the meanest, loudest, and harshest, those behaviors that expose our baser instincts, seem to garner the majority of the airtime. Think of all the violent street confrontations that have plagued our land over the past year – physical assaults, rioting, looting, shouting matches, taunting, not to mention the armed mob storming the Capitol building. Are the ones who engage in these kinds of activities happy? Do they have love in their hearts for others? If they do, I don’t see any signs of it.
As Christians, we have been trained to clothe ourselves with gentleness in our relations with others (Colossians 3:12) and “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” (Titus 3:2) Many today would find this laughable, but in reality it’s the only worthwhile formula for anyone who wants to lead a happy life and find inner peace.
In the Beatitudes Jesus taught, “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” (Matthew 5:5) Whenever I read this verse, I hark back to a former colleague who used to attach various cartoons and humorous sayings to his office door. One of his postings was a little card that simply read: “the meek don’t want it.” That’s a truthful statement because the meek and humble, those who try to pattern their lives after Christ, have no real interest in earthly possessions. They “don’t want it” because their eyes are focused on their heavenly reward.
Since we all want to gain the Heavenly Kingdom, here are some questions worth pondering: How do I conduct my life? Am I doing my part to heal wounds and promote unity? Do others view me as meek, humble, and gentle? If not, how can I possibly be effective in the work of evangelization? It all boils down to this: Do others see Christ in me as I go about my daily life? If they don’t, please have mercy, o Lord, and grant me the grace that I might at least be a little more like you every day.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)

Lent’s radical call to each person and every nation

Making a Difference
By Tony Magliano
“Repent and believe in the Gospel” – the call we received from Christ on Ash Wednesday – is a radical call, the most important call we will ever receive. It directs our attention to uprooting all that is sinful in our lives and to ever more fully live lives of love – for friend and foe alike – with a special emphasis on the vulnerable and poor. It’s a radical call that is meant to be heard, reflected on, and acted upon beyond the season Lent – throughout all the seasons of our lives!

Tony Magliano

In the Gospel the biblical word used for repent is the Greek word “metanoia” – a radical change of mind, heart, soul and action. It happens when one changes course and turns around to walk in the right direction – walking out of the darkness of our lives and into the light of Christ. Metanoia means a life-changing conversion. That’s what Jesus is calling us to when he says “repent!”
Think of some of the great saints who deeply repented, who truly experienced a metanoia.
St. Paul did a complete about face. He went from persecuting the followers of Christ, to championing their cause and suffering with them.
St. Augustine of Hippo turned from fleeting unmarried sexual pleasure and unsatisfying philosophical pursuits to a totally fulfilling surrender to the will of God. In his famous autobiographical “Confessions” he sums it all up so well: “You [God] have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
When you and I allow our heart to rest in God, we become a new creation, fully dedicated to advancing his kingdom. But this takes humility, honesty, selflessness, much prayer and hard work. True repentance (conversion) is not for the faint-hearted!
The renowned Catholic English writer G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
And making it even more difficult, a life dedicated to listening to the Holy Spirit concerns itself not only with personal repentance/metanoia, but also with the conversion of the nation, that is, praying and working to change in our country what St. Pope John Paul called the “structures of sin” – everything from abortion to war – into structures of life, love, social justice, peace.
In this year’s Lenten message, Pope Francis encouragingly writes, “To experience Lent with love means caring for those who suffer or feel abandoned and fearful because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In these days of deep uncertainty about the future, let us keep in mind the Lord’s word to his Servant, ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you’ (Is 43:1). In our charity, may we speak words of reassurance and help others to realize that God loves them as sons and daughters.”
“Only a gaze transformed by charity can enable the dignity of others to be recognized and, as a consequence, the poor to be acknowledged and valued in their dignity, respected in their identity and culture, and thus truly integrated into society” (Fratelli Tutti, 187).
As one important concrete way of charity, please consider a selfless Lenten donation to the poorest of the poor.
Let us pray that the God of love, the God who is love, will transform all our gazes into gazes of charity, thus inspiring us to recognize the dignity of each poor person near and far, and to therefore do all in our power – as individuals and governments – to help lift our brothers and sisters out of poverty into the decent dignified conditions of life they deserve.

(Tony Magliano is an internationally syndicated Catholic social justice and peace columnist. He is available to speak at diocesan or parish gatherings. Tony can be reached at tmag6@comcast.net.)

The triumph of good over evil

A colleague once challenged Pierre Teilhard de Chardin with this question. You believe that good will ultimately triumph over evil; well, what if we blow up the world with an atomic bomb, what happens to goodness then? Teilhard answered this way. If we blow up the world with an atomic bomb, that would be a two-million-year setback; but goodness will triumph over evil, not because I wish it, but because God promised it and, in the resurrection, God showed that God has the power to deliver on that promise. He is right. Except for the resurrection, we have no guarantees about anything. Lies, injustice, and violence may well triumph in the end. That is certainly how it looked the day Jesus died.

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Jesus was a great moral teacher and his teachings, if followed, would transform the world. Simply put, if we all lived the Sermon on the Mount, our world would be loving, peaceful, and just; but self-interest is often resistant to moral teaching. From the Gospels, we see that it was not Jesus’ teaching that swayed the powers of evil and ultimately revealed the power of God. Not that. The triumph of goodness and the final power of God were revealed instead through his death, by a grain of wheat falling in the ground and dying and so bearing lots of fruit. Jesus won victory over the powers of the world in a way that seems antithetical to all power. He did not overpower anyone with some intellectually superior muscle or by some worldly persuasion. No, he revealed God’s superior power simply by holding fast to truth and love even as lies, hatred, and self-serving power were crucifying him. The powers of the world put him to death, but he trusted that somehow God would vindicate him, that God would have the last word. God did. God raised him from the dead as a testimony that he was right and the powers of the world were wrong, and that truth and love will always have the last word.

That is the lesson. We too must trust that God will give truth and love the last word, irrespective of what things look like in the world. God’s judgment on the powers of this world does not play out like a Hollywood film where the bad guys get shot in the end by a morally superior muscle and we get to enjoy a catharsis. It works this way: everyone gets judged by the Sermon on the Mount, albeit self-interest generally rejects that judgment and seems to get away with it. However, there is a second judgment that everyone will submit to, the resurrection. At the end of the day, which is not exactly like the end of the day in a Hollywood movie, God raises truth and love from their grave and gives them the final word. Ultimately, the powers of the world will all submit to that definitive judgment.

Without the resurrection, there are no guarantees for anything. That is why St. Paul says that if Jesus was not resurrected then we are the most deluded of all people. He is right. The belief that the forces of untruth, self-interest, injustice, and violence will eventually convert and give up their worldly dominance can sometimes look like a possibility on a given night when the world news looks better. However, as happened with Jesus, there is no guarantee that these powers will not eventually turn and crucify most everything that is honest, loving, just, and peaceful in our world. The history of Jesus and the history of the world testify to the fact that we cannot put our trust in worldly powers even when for a time they can look trustworthy. The powers of self-interest and violence crucified Jesus. They were doing it long before and have continued doing it long after. These powers will not be vanquished by some superior moral violence, but by living the Sermon on the Mount and trusting that God will roll back the stone from any tomb in which they bury us.

Many people, perhaps most people, believe there is a moral arc to reality, that reality is bent towards goodness over evil, love over hate, truth over lies, and justice over injustice, and they point to history to show that, while evil may triumph for a while, eventually reality rectifies itself and goodness wins out in the end, always. Some call this the law of karma. There is a lot of truth in that belief, not just because history seems to bear it out, but because when God made the universe, God made a love-oriented universe and so God wrote the Sermon on the Mount both into the human heart and into the very DNA of the universe itself. Physical creation knows how to heal itself, so too does moral creation. Thus, good should always triumph over evil – but, but, given human freedom, there are no guarantees – except for the promise given us in the resurrection.

 (Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher, and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website  www.ronrolheiser.com.  
Now on Facebook 
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Called by Name

Even though I was “frozen in” for a nearly a full work week the work of promoting vocations is going strong. Prediscernment Prayer Nights are off and running across the diocese. Bishop Kopacz and I teamed up for our opening night at St. Richard and I have since presided at adoration and benediction in Vicksburg and Gluckstadt. I have enjoyed getting to see young people and supporters of vocations from across the diocese and this is just the beginning. In the next few weeks, I’ll be in McComb, Natchez, Greenville, Greenwood, Cleveland, Southaven and beyond. These prayer nights are doing the job of helping me identify young men and women who need the diocese’s support in going a little deeper in their discernment. As I get to know men and women dedicated to following God’s call, I can help plug them into experiences that will help them come closer to making a decision which can often be intimidating.

I have also launched a new podcast project called “The Discerning Catholic Podcast.” It is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. The podcast is not a “vocations project” per se, but I do hope that it attracts the ears of men and women who are actively discerning. Podcasts are very popular with millennials, at least they are popular with this millennial, and I believe that I can provide content that is helpful for any Catholic looking to apply the faith to their life. The show is geared toward analyzing our culture through the lens of the church. I do not seek to give my opinion, but rather I try to give the public the church’s view on various issues. “The Discerning Catholic” is released on Sunday and Wednesday nights. The Sunday podcast includes my homily from the weekend with a commentary attached in which I go deeper into the topic that I preached about. The Wednesday podcast deals with an “uncomfortable” issue and I seek to apply church teaching to said issue. In between these segments are more fun things where I do give my take on pop culture, sports and other topics. The broadcasting bug has never left me I suppose, and again I hope that this is a life-giving source of information. Tell your friends!

So, lots of great things in the works, please keep our seminarians in your prayers! I was able to check in with all of them while I was snowed-under and I continue to be grateful for the quality men that are studying for our diocese!

Prediscernment Prayer Night Schedule

Tuesday, March 2, 6-7 PM – St. Joseph Greenville

Thursday, March 4, 6-7 PM – Immaculate Heart of Mary Greenwood

Tuesday, March 16, 6-7 PM – Our Lady of Victories Cleveland

Wednesday, March 17, 6-7 PM – Christ the King Southaven

Indexing your life – a spiritual excercise

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
I watched a webinar sponsored by Ave Maria Press given by Jonathan Montaldo on “The Spiritual Exercises of Thomas Merton” a few weeks ago. Montaldo was the director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He also served a term as President of the International Thomas Merton Society. I was struck by the unpretentious manner in which Montaldo spoke of Merton. It was evident that Montaldo appreciated the very human, very ordinary Merton. He went so far as to caution against elevating Merton to some kind of guru status. He also reminded the viewer that Merton did not advocate a particular spiritual practice; rather, Merton was calling others to find their own authentic path to a greater intimacy with God. In the spirit of Dom John Chapman, OSB, Merton would have us pray as we can, not as we can’t.
Pointing to the simplicity of Merton’s message, Montaldo shared an entry from one of Merton’s notebooks from the time period he was novice master. In it Merton instructed the novices:
Enter deeply into the school of life itself. Your life is a school of wisdom. Ruminate on the text of your life as a spiritual exercise to excavate God’s loving-kindness to you through your life’s thicket of relationships. Receive every event and learning as a secret instruction from God. Reflect on the action and Grace and detect the innumerable movements of divine Love in your life.
The term “school of life” deeply resonated with me. As Catholic Christians we are called to lifelong conversion. We are called to continue to journey deeper into the mystery of God’s love. Reflecting on our own school of life should not become overly scrupulous or self-centered. We should heed the directive to “receive every event as a secret instruction from God.” Filtering one’s life experience through the lens of what lessons we learn is powerful. Given the correct context, what would ruminating on the text of your life reveal? In journeying back through time ask yourself, who taught you to pray? Who in your church community taught you how to live a life of faith? Who loved you into the “now” of your life?
Merton’s editor compiled an index for his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. The index detailed the myriad of people who contributed to Merton’s faith journey. It served as an alphabetical listing of who’s who over the decades of his life. Reportedly the index was Merton’s most prized part of the book.
What would the index of your life look like? What people, places and situations over the course of your life have made you who you are today? Who are the people you owe your life to because of their love for you? Who are the people who have caused you to suffer? Who are the people who have given you wounds that have turned into blessings? What are the places and events that shaped and formed you?
Making an index is a spiritual exercise that can lead to greater gratitude. A thankful heart inevitably leads us into greater intimacy with God.
During our recent ice and snowstorm, I was talking to a friend about the powerful events that seem to continue to drive us indoors. In addition to the ice and snow we are still in the middle of the pandemic that has drastically curbed our exterior lives. As I sat in prayer on Ash Wednesday morning, I reflected on the previous few days of being sheltered in place. I began seeing this situation as a gift rather than a limitation. With our mobility restricted and literally restrained indoors, I wondered what the next few days would look like if I allowed myself to shelter in place in my interior life as well. What would it look like if I invited God in to the icy, slushy, and messy places in my heart?
I thought about the Merton webinar and replayed it. I am working on an index of my life. It is something I plan on working on throughout Lent adding a few names, places, and events every day. So far, each remembrance has reinforced my gratitude for the gift of my journey. Merton believed that each person in his index was an essential part of his salvation story because he was able to see it all as a gift from God.
I am reminded that some of my best teachers taught me by their example of who I did not want to be. In the same way I recognize the giants whose shoulders I am privileged to stand on. And, not just people, but places and events. I am reminded that my maternal heart was first stirred by a calf I received for my seventh birthday. I wrote Hubert letters and signed them “Love, Your Mother.” Hubert is named in my index.
Many people have asked what does one give up for Lent in the middle of a devastating pandemic when we have already given so much up. It is a legitimate question. Maybe this year instead of giving up we can add up. Yes, add up all the lessons from our school of life and offer them back to God in the form of thanksgiving. And to the extent we are able to, give others a reason to be included in their index by loving and living authentically as Jesus calls us to.

(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Fasting – not just a health trend

THINGS OLD AND NEW
By Ruth Powers
It seems that the secular world has recently discovered a practice that his been part of religious disciplines for millennia. Magazine articles, health and wellness blogs and social media feeds are full of material touting the latest diet and health trend — periodic or intermittent fasting. While modern proponents focus on the benefits of fasting for everything from weight loss to energy levels, followers of several religious traditions have known of its spiritual benefits for much, much longer.
The roots of fasting in our tradition go far back into the Hebrew Scriptures, where fasting was an important part of Jewish religious observance. It was practiced for a wide variety of reasons.

Ruth Powers

One purpose of a fast was to purify oneself in preparation for an important spiritual event. Moses fasted for 40 days while preparing the tablets of the Law (Exodus 34:28) to present to the Hebrew people. Elijah fasted for 40 days as he travelled through the desert to Mount Horeb to meet God after he fled from Jezebel’s threats on his life (1 Kings 9:8).
Fasting was also seen as a way to avert calamity or punishment by eliciting God’s compassion. Individuals like David fasted in hopes of saving his child from death (1 Samuel 12: 22-23), and Ahab’s punishment was mitigated because he fasted and humbled himself (1 Kings 21:27-29). Sometimes the whole community fasted in times of war (Jeremiah 36:3), natural disaster (Joel 1:14), or foreign oppression (Nehemiah 9:1). These cases imply that fasting is basically an act of penance: a ritual expression of remorse, submission, or supplication.
Although community fasts may have been proclaimed as needed before the Babylonian Exile, there is evidence from post-exilic writings like Zechariah that regular fast days did not enter the calendar until after the return to Israel. Fasting as a pious act of self-discipline seems to have developed later, possibly in the Maccabean period.
Fasting as preparation, penance, and pious practice also appears in the New Testament. Anna the Prophetess fasts in supplication for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:37). Jesus fasts for forty days in the desert in preparation for the beginning of his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11), and he warns his disciples not to fast for pious show “as the hypocrites do” (Matthew 6:16-18).
The practice of regular fasting continued into the early Christian church. The Didache, written sometime between 70 and 140 A.D. speaks of fasting twice a week (on Wednesday and Friday as being an important part of Christian discipline, and many of the early Church Fathers also spoke of the importance of regular fasting.
Perhaps the most well-known fast in Christianity is the Lenten fast. In the ancient church originally it was the catechumens, those preparing for Baptism at Easter, who participated in a fast. It is thought that this fast was originally for the six days before Easter (which became Holy Week) but was lengthened to a period of 40 days to commemorate the forty days Jesus spend in the desert praying and fasting. It became a common practice for other members of the community to participate in the fast as well, but this was apparently not a universal practice.
The Council of Nicea in 325 spoke of a church-wide 40-day fast in preparation for Easter, but how this was observed still varied from place to place until Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) regularized it. Fasting would begin 46 days before Easter with a ceremony of Ash. Sundays were not to be counted in the 40-day observance since they remained a day of celebration of the Resurrection. The fast was strict, with only one meal a day after 3 p.m. with no meat, fish or dairy.
We continue the practice of fasting today for many reasons. The forty day fast is meant to direct our thoughts toward the coming celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter and so prepare for it. It is an expression of sorrow and repentance for our sins as we remember that it was for our sins that Christ died.
Finally, it is a form of self-discipline where we give up something good (food) in order to turn our minds to a greater good – union with God. The obligation to fast today applies only to those under 60 years of age on only 2 days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. However, the common practice of “giving up” something pleasurable is also a form of fasting, and becomes more meaningful when it is consciously connected to the purposes of preparation, penance and spiritual discipline.

(Ruth Powers is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)

Called by Name

The start of this month marked the start of our “Prediscernment Prayer Night” series. As I’ve explained in previous issues, these evenings give young men and women an opportunity to pray to the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament about their own call, whether that be to marriage, holy orders or consecrated life. These events will also help me network with people who need accompaniment on the journey and invite them to post-pandemic events like retreats and dinners for discernment.

Father Nick Adam
Father Nick Adam

“Prediscernment” is not a word that rolls off the tongue, in fact it may not be officially a word at all! But let me remind you why I like to use that term when it comes to working out God’s will for our life. The seminary or the religious house of formation is where formal discernment happens. Often, we think that the decision to go to seminary means that we are completely sure that priesthood or religious life is our vocation, and this is not the church’s expectation. I want men and women who are serious about their faith and open to God’s call to seriously consider entering the seminary or other formation, and to let them know that they do not have to have it all figured out by the time they decide to apply. The two biggest signposts I look for when considering one’s fitness for formation are 1) a consistent desire for what the seminary or religious house offers (more resources and to be formed with men or women who share this desire), and just as importantly 2) they need to have demonstrated the maturity necessary to enter into the program.

I tell men and women that I work with who are considering entering formal discernment that they don’t need to wait until they are sure they are going to make it to the end, but to enter once they are willing to commit two years to that discernment process. During that two years they will be given the resources that they need to discern well whether or not God is calling them. If they go into the program with that intention and after two years they discern that they are not called, they will leave a better Catholic and they’ll be ready to bring the gifts that they developed back into their parishes and their life in the diocese. They will also have the peace of mind that they discerned well.

This is why I am dedicated to this idea of “prediscernment,” which by the way, is a term I have happily borrowed from Father James Wehner, the Rector of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. About half of the men who enter seminary do not get ordained. Far from proving that the system is broken, I believe this proves that the system works. I do not take the gifts of the People of God for granted. I know that our seminaries and houses of formation have their doors open because of the generosity of people like you, and I want you to know that it is good that not everyone gets ordained or takes vows, because that means that the church and the men and women discerning are taking it seriously! Using this word prediscernment is really just a way I can start a conversation, I can tell a young man or woman what the church wants to provide for those who take their call from the Lord seriously, and I can invite them to discern well if they have a desire and the maturity to take the time to discern.

Prediscernment Prayer Nights: Each event is from 6 – 7 p.m. unless otherwise noted. Tuesday, Feb. 23 at St. Alphonsus McComb; Wednesday, Feb. 24 at St. Mary Basilica Natchez; Tuesday, March 2nd at St. Joseph Greenville; TBA – Immaculate Heart of Mary Greenwood.

Questions? Email nick.adam@jacksondiocese.org

God cannot tell a lie

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Lying is the most pernicious of evils, the most dangerous of sins, the worst of blasphemes, and the one sin that can be unforgiveable. Perhaps we need to be reminded of that today, given our present culture where we are in danger of losing the very idea of reality and truth. Nothing is more dangerous.

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

There’s a line buried deep in scripture that is too seldom quoted. The Letter to the Hebrews states simply: It is impossible for God to lie. (Hebrews 6:18) It could not be otherwise. God is Truth, so how could God lie? For God to lie would be a denial of God’s very nature. Consequently, for us to lie is to go directly against God. Lying is the definition of irreverence and blasphemy. It is an affront to the nature of God.
If we are aware of that, we haven’t taken it seriously lately. Everywhere, from countless social media tweets, texts, and blogs to the highest offices of government, business, and even the church, we are seeing an ever-deteriorating relationship with reality and truth. Lying and creating one’s own truth have become socially acceptable (to a frightening degree). What’s changed? Haven’t we always lied? Who among us can say that he or she has never told a lie or falsified information in one way or another? What’s different today?
What’s different today is that, until our generation, you could be caught in a lie, shamed for telling it, forced to accept your own dishonesty. No longer. Today our relationship with truth is fracturing to a degree that we no longer distinguish, morally or practically, between a lie and the truth. A lie, now, is simply another modality of truth.
What’s the net effect of this? We are living it. Its effects are everywhere. First, it has broken down a shared sense of reality where, as a community, we no longer have a common epistemology and a shared sense of right and wrong. People no longer relate to reality in the same way. One person’s truth is the other person’s lie. It is becoming impossible to define what constitutes a lie.
This doesn’t just destroy trust among us; worse, it plays with our sanity and with some of the deeper moral and religious chromosomes inside us. As I wrote in this column several months ago, we believe that there are four transcendental properties to God. We teach that God is One, True, Good, and Beautiful. Because God is One, whole and consistent, there can never be any internal contradictions within God. This might sound abstract and academic, but this is what anchors our sanity. We are sane and remain sane only because we can always trust that two plus two equals four, ever and always. God’s Oneness is what anchors that. If that should ever change, then the peg that moors our sanity would be removed. Once two plus two can equal something other than four, then nothing can be securely known or trusted ever again. That’s the ultimate danger in what’s happening today. We are unmooring our psyche.
The next danger in lying is what it does to those of us who lie. Fyodor Dostoevsky sums it up succinctly: “People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others. And having no respect, they cease to love.” Jordan Peterson would add this: If we lie long enough “after that comes the arrogance and sense of superiority that inevitably accompanies the production of successful lies (hypothetically successful lies – and that is one of the greatest dangers: apparently everyone is fooled, so everyone is stupid, except me. Everyone is stupid, and fooled, by me – so I can get away with whatever I want). Finally, there is the proposition: ‘Being itself is susceptible to my manipulation. Thus, it deserves no respect.’”
Jesus’ warning in John’s Gospel is the strongest of all. He tells us that if we lie long enough we will eventually believe our own lies and confuse falsehood for the truth and truth for falsehood, and that becomes an unforgiveable sin (a “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit) because the person who’s lying no longer wants to be forgiven.
Finally, lying breaks down trust among us. Trust is predicated on the belief that we all accept that two plus two equals four, that we all accept there is such a thing as reality, that we all accept that reality can be falsified by a lie, and that we all accept that a lie is falsehood and not just another modality of truth. Lying destroys that trust.
Living in a world that plays fast and easy with reality and truth also plays on our loneliness. George Eliot once asked: “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?” So true. The loneliest loneliness of all is the loneliness of distrust. Welcome to our not-so-brave new world.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.)