Sunday, February 25, 2007

The 3 Great Fears Of Human Beings, And The 3 Temptations Of Jesus In The Desert

Fr. Benedict Groeschel

(First Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on February 25, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 4: 1-13.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Lent 2007]

Fr. Benedict Groeschel is not only a priest, he’s also a psychologist with a doctorate from Columbia University. That means he understands the workings of the human mind pretty well.

In this regard, Fr. Groeschel makes a very interesting statement in his newest book, The Virtue Driven Life: “Human beings,’ he says there, ‘have three great fears—to be no one, to have no one, and to have nothing—and they cause people to be self-centered and ungenerous.”

I read that line the other day as I was in the process of preparing for this homily, and I said to myself, “That’s amazing! Those are precisely the 3 temptations Jesus faced after his 40-day fast in the desert!” Fr. Groeschel doesn’t make that connection directly in his book, but it’s true nonetheless.

This means that in dealing with these 3 temptations from the devil, Jesus was actually facing the 3 greatest fears that we face in our lives.

Let’s take them in the order Fr. Groeschel mentions them (which is actually the opposite of the order that Jesus experienced them in this Gospel story).

Human beings, he says, have 3 great fears. The first is the fear of being no one—that is to say, the fear of being a nobody; the fear of not being recognized and appreciated for who we are. Satan mistakenly thought he could find this fear inside of Jesus and use it to lead him into sin, and so he took our Lord to the very top of the Temple in Jerusalem. There he said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”

Satan was saying, “Jesus, I know who you are—I know you’re one of those really important people that God the Father will protect. But the men and women here in Jerusalem—they don’t know that. They think you’re just an ordinary man. So show them who you are; throw yourself down from here! Just like it says in the 91st psalm, God the Father will send a whole flock of angels from heaven to catch you—and everybody in the city will see it! They’ll say, ‘Wow, this guy can fly! He must be a special person.’ Then they’ll listen to you; then they’ll take your words seriously!”

Jesus was able to resist this temptation, because he had a PERFECT relationship with his heavenly Father. He knew exactly who he was; he knew he was loved by God the Father with a perfect love—and he was completely secure and at peace in that knowledge. Consequently, he wasn’t afraid of being a nobody.

But sometimes, we can be! And it’s important for us to be aware of that, because this kind of fear can easily cause us to compromise our moral principles: “I want to be accepted by my friends—I want them to think I’m cool like they are—and so I’ll drink with them on weekends”; “I want my co-workers to like me, and so I’ll talk and act just like they do.”

The fear of being a nobody.

This is probably the fear, incidentally, that drove Anna Nicole-Smith to do many of the things that she did in her very short life of 39 years.

Here we have a young woman, who—aside from her appearances in Playboy magazine—was basically famous for being famous!

And you have to ask yourself: Why? Why did she live the kind of life she lived: a life of substance abuse; a life of shallow, broken relationships; a life of moral degradation and sexual promiscuity?

I think it’s all tied in with this kind of fear. People like Anna Nicole-Smith desperately want to be loved; they want others to see that they’re special—that they have value. They’re deathly afraid of being nobodies, and so they’re willing to engage in all kinds of bizarre and even dangerous behaviors for the sake of getting noticed—for the sake of having “15 minutes of fame” (as Andy Warhol would put it).

It’s the same reason a lot of people with terrible voices audition for The American Idol!

The antidote to this kind of fear is a deep, personal relationship with the Lord. (That’s not pious drivel; that’s reality!) This is why our relationship with Jesus—nourished by prayer and the sacraments—needs to be our top priority in this life!

Because the more we know and love Jesus—and even more importantly, the more we really know and understand his love for us—the less this fear of being a nobody will control us.

Put it this way—if Jesus Christ is my best friend; if I really know that he loves me just as I am; and if I know he will always be there for me, then I don’t have to be afraid of being a nobody! Ever! I’ll know—I’ll always know—that I’m a somebody! I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. As long as I’m striving to be faithful to Jesus, I have nothing to worry about.

The second fear according to Fr. Groeschel, is the fear of having no one. Once again, Satan mistakenly thought he could find this fear within Jesus, and use it to get him to disobey his Father. So he showed our Lord all the kingdoms of the world, and said to him, “I’ll give you all this power and glory, if you just worship me.” In other words, “Jesus, you don’t have to worry about your future; you don’t have to be concerned that someday no one will care about you. Just worship me, and I’ll make you the ruler of all these countries. Then you’ll be all set! You’ll have lots of servants—thousands of people at your beck and call at every moment of every day. You’ll never be alone; you’ll never be neglected!”

Once again, this fear—the fear of having no one—was not in Jesus. He knew he was never alone; he knew the Father was always with him. And so he said to Satan, “You shall worship the Lord, your God; him alone shall you adore.”

Jesus didn’t give in to this fear, but we can. Pretty easily.

Politicians who support immoral laws even though they are “personally opposed” give in to this fear. They’re afraid that if they support the right laws, they’ll lose the support of those who helped to put them into office.

Priests who are afraid to teach EVERYTHING that the Church teaches in matters of faith and morals also give in to this fear. They fear their parishioners won’t like them anymore.

Whenever a Catholic fails to speak up for what’s right and true when he knows that he should speak up—be it at work or at school or among his friends—that Catholic gives in to this type of fear.

And we’ve all been there, haven’t we? I know I have!

The last fear Fr. Groeschel mentions, which ties in with the very first temptation of Jesus in this scene in the desert, is the fear of having nothing (or the fear of not having our needs met). This is similar to the second fear in some respects, but the second one related more to persons; this one concerns possessions.

Satan said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to turn to bread.” His message there was, “Jesus, you’re pretty hungry right now, aren’t you? You’ve been fasting for 40 days and 40 nights in this awful desert. Aren’t you worried about your health? Aren’t you afraid of starving? You should be! Well, then, do something about it; satisfy your urge! Give yourself a good meal! You deserve it!”

Jesus, of course, knew that his Father would provide for all his needs, so he rejected this temptation immediately and said to Satan, “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

The fear of not having enough wasn’t present in Jesus Christ; but sometimes, once again, it can manifest itself in us. Why, for example, do people steal? Why do they cheat on their taxes? Why do they cut corners in their businesses? Why are they sometimes less charitable than they should be—or could be?

In many cases, it’s simply because they’re afraid! They’re afraid that they don’t—or that they won’t—have enough!

So there they are—the 3 great fears we face during our time on this earth: the fear of being a nobody; the fear of having no one; the fear of having nothing.

As we’ve just seen, Jesus was able to overcome every one of these fears, in and through the loving relationship he had with his heavenly Father.

But the good news is that we, too, can overcome them! We can overcome these 3 fears by finding our strength, our security and our peace IN OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS!

So let’s resolve today to work very hard at improving our relationship with the Lord during this holy season of Lent—by prayer, by reading Scripture, by attending Mass more frequently, by coming to the parish mission in a couple of weeks, and, of course, by going to Confession. Let’s resolve to improve our relationship with Jesus in these very practical ways, and get rid of the fears that afflict us.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

How To Love Your Enemies—Especially The ‘Instant’ Ones!

David spares Saul.

(Seventh Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 18, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Samuel 26: 2-23; Luke 6: 27-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventh Sunday of the Year 2007]

You’ve heard of instant coffee and instant oatmeal; you know about instant winners and instant rebates and instant feedback and instant messaging.

But you’ve probably never heard of “instant enemies—until now.

And yet we’ve all had them in the past—and in all likelihood we will have many more of them in the future.

So we’ve got to be prepared to deal with them!—because of all the enemies we may have in this life, our “instant” ones are often the most difficult to handle.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel to “love” our enemies. That, of course, includes ALL of them, whether they are the instant type or some other variety!

Now what’s interesting about this command is the fact that Jesus presumes that we will have enemies; he presumes that even the very best among us—even the greatest of saints—will have enemies here on earth. Consequently he doesn’t say, “Love your enemies if you happen to have them”; he simply says, “Love your enemies (i.e., the enemies you ALREADY HAVE—and presumably will have in the future!).”

David, as we heard in today’s first reading, had an enemy in King Saul, who was hunting him down to try to kill him! St. Paul, the author of today’s second reading, made a number of enemies during his missionary journeys. (We know that because he wrote about them quite often in his letters, most especially in his Letter to the Galatians.)

Even Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, had some enemies—among them the scribes and the Pharisees and the other religious leaders of the day who were closed to him and his message.

Sometimes, of course, we may be the cause of the problem; we need to admit that in a spirit of humility. Someone, in other words, might be our enemy because we have sinned against them in some way. This is what makes us different from Jesus. Jesus was perfect; if somebody was his enemy we can be absolutely certain that it was not his fault. That’s not the case with us! St. Paul says in this text from 1 Corinthians 15 that we all “bear the image” of the “earthly man” (i.e., Adam). That means we all have within us the residual effects of original sin; we all have the potential to harm other people in pretty serious ways.

So if that’s the reason someone is our enemy—because we’ve intentionally harmed them in some fashion—then the solution is for us to admit it. We need to come to terms with our guilt and repent and seek reconciliation!

That having been said, Jesus in this passage is speaking specifically about those times in life when someone else’s sin is at the root of the problem. He’s speaking about those situations when someone else’s evil action has caused them to become our enemy.

And those situations can come upon us very quickly, can’t they? As we all know, a person can move from the “friend” category to the “enemy” category in a matter of only a few seconds. And I submit to you today that it’s those people—our “instant enemies”—that we usually have the most difficulty dealing with.

Osama bin Laden, for example, is definitely an enemy to all of us, but he’s a rather distant one. He’s somebody, in other words, that we don’t deal with directly and on a daily basis (thank God!). For us to desire the good for him (which, incidentally, is what love is: to love is to make a conscious decision to desire “the good” for another); for us to desire Osama bin Laden’s good (which would include his conversion and repentance and sanctity) really isn’t all that difficult. It might be a lot harder for us if we’ve lost a relative or friend in the Iraq War, but bin Laden is far enough removed from the daily experience of most Americans that “loving him” in this way is relatively easy.

It can be much more difficult to “desire the good” for the guy who suddenly cuts us off on the highway, or who makes an obscene gesture to us in a crowded parking lot (not the St. Pius X parking lot, of course—no one would ever do such a thing there!).

It can be very hard to love your own sister when she takes your toys or video games without your permission and ends up breaking them; it can be hard to love your brother when he connives with lawyers to take more than his rightful share of the family estate! It can be very hard to love your spouse or your child when they lie to you about something really important; it can be hard to love your co-worker when he steals the credit for something that you did, and then happily gets the raise that you should have gotten.

What makes these situations so difficult is that these are people for whom we have had good feelings (or at least no negative feelings). Then, all of a sudden, they do something to us and we have really bad feelings toward them. In effect, they become our “instant enemies”!

So-called “crimes of passion” are committed by “instant enemies”. The violence that comes from “road rage” is caused by instant enemies. How often have people said things they have later regretted very deeply because they overreacted to an instant enemy?

It happens all the time.

This is why we must pray daily and ask the Lord to fill our hearts with his love—his forgiving, merciful, patient love.

But that’s not sufficient. Prayer is essential, but it’s really not enough. In addition to prayer, we also have to train ourselves to “think rightly” about other people. That can help us to respond to them in a loving way whenever they become our enemies.

Here we can definitely take a lesson from David in the Old Testament. Now if there’s anyone who had a good reason to hate his enemy, it was this man. Saul, as you will recall, was the first king of Israel; but he had disobeyed God in a very important matter, and so the Lord took the kingship away from him, and he promised it to young David.

That wasn’t David’s fault! It was Saul’s fault; but Saul hated David because of it and wanted to kill him. And so he began to track David all over Palestine; he began to hunt him down. Well, at one point the tables suddenly got turned: the hunter became the hunted. Saul and his men were asleep in their camp, and David and his men found them. Needless to say, Saul and his soldiers were like sitting ducks. And Abishai, David’s general (as we heard in today’s first reading), immediately wanted to kill Saul in David’s name.

But David refused to let him do it. And he refused because of how he thought of Saul. He recognized this man—evil though he was—as “the Lord’s anointed”. And so he said to Abishai, “Do not harm him, for who can lay hands on the Lord’s anointed and remain unpunished?”

Abishai probably wanted to say to David, “Are you crazy? This guy hates you; he’s out of his mind; he’s been tracking you for days, and now you’ve got him exactly where you want him. End it; kill him, and stop this madness!”

But David, to his great credit, had trained himself to “think rightly” about his enemy, and so he responded to him with love and mercy instead of hate. David didn’t always do that with respect to his enemies, but he did do it here. He “thought rightly” about Saul; he didn’t simply pray.

The fact is, every person we encounter in our daily lives is also “the Lord’s anointed”. Did you realize that? Every single person we meet on this earth has either been anointed—literally!—by God in the sacrament of Baptism; or if they’re not baptized they’ve at least been anointed with the “image” of God when their human soul was created.

We need to train ourselves to think of other people in this way—as God’s anointed sons and daughters—so that if they ever become our enemies (especially our “instant” enemies) we will still be able to love them and desire the good for them.

Because remember what Bishop Sheen once said: “The real test of a Christian is not how much he loves his friends; [the real test of a Christian] is how much he loves his enemies.”

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Dolores Hart: What’s Your ‘Gut’ Reaction To Her Story?

Dolores Hart, then . . .

(Fifth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 4, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 5: 1-11.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of the Year 2007]

What is your personal, “gut” reaction to the following true story?

Her name was Dolores Hart. She was born in 1938, the daughter of actor Bert Hicks and the niece of world famous tenor Mario Lanza. In the late 1950s and early 1960s she was a young actress whose star was definitely on the rise. In 1957 she co-starred with Elvis Presley in Loving You. The following year she was in another Presley film, King Creole. In 1960 she had one of the lead roles in the popular teen movie, Where the Boys Are.

In 1959 she was doing a play in New York City, when a close friend invited her to meet some nuns at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis, located in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Dolores responded to the invitation by saying, “Nuns! No, I don’t want to meet nuns.”

But her friend was persistent. She said, “[These sisters] are very special. Did I ever steer you wrong?”

Finally Dolores decided to go. And she enjoyed her visit. So she went back again—and again—several times, in between shows. Eventually she asked the Reverend Mother, “Do you think I have a vocation?”

The Reverend Mother answered, “No, no—go back and do your movie thing. You’re too young.”

So she went back to acting. She did Where the Boys Are, and then another film on the life of St. Francis of Assisi—a film in which she played the role of St. Clare.

When she was in Rome making the movie about Francis, she had the honor of meeting Pope John XXIII (the pope who convened the Second Vatican Council). When she was introduced to the Holy Father, she said, “I’m Dolores Hart, an actress playing Clare.” The pope responded, “No, you are Clare!”

Dolores thought the Holy Father had misunderstood her so she repeated the statement: “I’m Dolores Hart, an actress portraying Clare.” The pope looked right into her eyes this time and said, emphatically, “No. You are Clare!”

She was engaged at that point to a man named Don Robinson. In a recent interview, she said this about her engagement:

It was a very wonderful experience for Don Robinson and me. He had a feeling that I might have a ‘calling’. He wanted to try the engagement. “Let’s give this a try.”

Several days went by, and we were driving down the road when he stopped the car. Don said, “Something isn’t right. Do you love me?”

“Of course, Don. I love you.”

He asked again, and then said, “Something in you is not with me.”

When I returned home at 1 a.m., I called and got a flight for 6 a.m. to Regina Laudis. God is far from all of us until we get into the reality of ourselves. I finally came to say—in my heart more than anything and then openly to myself—“my search for God was a marital search.”

When I spoke to Don again, he knew, because a man knows—every human being knows—when something is real. We were at supper, and I didn’t have my ring on.

Don said, “I know—I’ve known it. This is what you’ve got to do—and I’ve got to do this with you. We’ve got to do this together.”

That was an amazing gift—and all these years he’s been like that.

Don says, “Every love doesn’t have to wind up at the altar.”

Many relationships can wind up a lot worse. He never married. Don comes every year at Christmas and Easter. He wants to do whatever he can for the community.

You have to be open to a larger family in a vocation. When you don’t have children of your own, you realize your children may be of a high order—as a test of faith.

Dolores Hart has lived in the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut since 1963. In 2001, she became the prioress of the community, which means that her official title is now, “Mother Dolores Hart”.

At the beginning of my homily, I asked you to monitor your personal, “gut” reaction to this true story. Here we have a beautiful, talented young woman with a bright future in the entertainment industry, who gave it all up to serve Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church as a religious sister. She gave up marriage and a natural family—as well as fame and fortune—to live in a cloistered monastery in nearby Connecticut for 40-plus years.

In all honesty, what is your reaction to that story?

Or better yet, imagine that you were Dolores Hart’s mother or father. Truthfully, how would you have felt about her decision to enter the convent?

Would you have said, “What are you doing? What a waste!”? (I know Catholics who would have done that!)

Would you have been a little more diplomatic and said, “Well, go ahead and do it—if that’s what you want.”? (Translated, that means, “Well, if you insist on throwing your life away, go ahead. I know I can’t stop you—but don’t expect me to be happy about it!”)

Or would you have rejoiced that Dolores was finally fulfilling God’s perfect plan for her life by following the Lord’s call and becoming a religious sister?

I suppose your reaction would be determined to a great extent by your general outlook on life. If you look at life in purely natural terms (as many people do), then you obviously would say that this woman made a mistake—a very big mistake!

But if you truly believe that God has a plan for every single person he has created; if you believe the words of Jeremiah 29, where the Lord says, “I know well the plans I have in mind for you, plans for your welfare, not for woe!—plans to give you a future full of hope”; and if you believe that a person will only be truly happy to the extent that they follow the Lord’s call and plan during their time on this earth, then you will praise God for what happened to Dolores Hart! You will rejoice that this woman finally heard the call, recognized it, and responded to it, in accord with God’s plan for her life.

Speaking of responses to religious vocations, I often wonder how the families and friends of Peter, James and John reacted once they learned that these men were leaving their fishing business to follow an unknown rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus. As we heard in today’s Gospel text from Luke 5, after blessing them with a miraculous catch of fish (probably their best catch ever, ironically enough!), our Lord called these 3 men to be his very first apostles. And they accepted the invitation, knowing that it involved a complete, radical commitment on their part. As it says in the last line of the story, “When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”

They left EVERYTHING! That included, incidentally, not only their boats and their business, but also their families and friends!

They were to go on the road with Jesus of Nazareth, to be full-time “fishers of men,” with nothing—and with no one—to hold them back!

Here’s an interesting question: What do you think Peter’s wife said when he went home that day and told her what he was planning to do?

“By the way, dear, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is I met this incredible man today at work. The bad news is I’ll be leaving with him tomorrow!”

Until she met Jesus for herself, and experienced her own personal conversion, she probably didn’t have too many good things to say about the situation!

More than likely, her support for her husband’s religious vocation came only gradually.

Hopefully we will always be very supportive of people we know who are trying to discern a vocation either to the priesthood, the diaconate or religious life—even if they happen to be from our own family!

Our desire should be for them to discern God’s will correctly, and then to follow it faithfully in their lives—since that’s where they will find their greatest fulfillment and happiness.

And so our prayer for them should be, “Lord, if it’s your will for them to be a priest, deacon or religious, help them to see it; if that’s your call for them, help them to hear it! If, on the other hand, that’s not your will or your plan—if in fact you’re calling them to another state of life and to another vocation—then help them to see that as well.”

Let me give Mother Dolores Hart the last word this morning. That seems most fitting. When she was asked, “What would you say to someone considering a vocation?” she responded as follows:

I can only go back to my own experience, which was a long and severe test, and it was not easy. I would say you can never allow anyone to take you out of a vocation. The fact is, there is a promise given in a vocation that is beyond anything in your wildest dreams—there’s a gift the Lord offers and he is a gentleman.

I have not been profoundly missed by any means [in the outside world]. My vocation has been totally gratifying and I wouldn’t want anyone thinking that in leaving Hollywood I was disappointed.

For every generation, the call of a vocation is different because the needs of the Church are different. Young men and women today who are seeking God in this new era really have to listen to their heart. This age must have its own witness.

Dear Lord, may all those whom you are calling right now to the priesthood, diaconate or religious life listen to their hearts and follow your good and loving plan for their lives—in imitation of faithful disciples like Peter, James, John—and Mother Dolores Hart.

. . . and Dolores Hart, now.