Not One of Our Prayers Is Lost – Elisabeth Leseur on All Saints Day

From Elisabeth Leseur, Selected Writings, as quoted in today’s Give Us This Day:

Elisabeth LeseurThis is a lovely feast, the feast of those who already live in God, those whom we have loved and who have obtained happiness and light; it is the feast of eternity. And what a fine idea to make the feast of the dead follow so soon! During these two days a vast stream of prayer and love flows through the three worlds: between the church in heaven, the church one earth, and the church in which souls wait and atone. The communion of saints seems twice as close and fruitful. We feel that the dead and all those we love are close to us in God; and this living doctrine, by God’s grace, gives life to many on earth and in purgatory. Not one of our tears, not one of our prayers is lost; they have a power that many people never suspect. I want to spend this month in prayer, remembrance, thoughts of heaven, as well as in charity and peaceful, courageous activity.


What Are You Asking? – Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Truck Driver HitsWhen I was about eleven or twelve years old,
I was fascinated by the life of long-haul truckers.
I used to listen to songs by Red Sovine and Merle Haggard,
watch movies like Smokey and the Bandit,
and dream about living life on the road.
One year I asked my mom and dad for a CB radio for my birthday
so I could talk to all the truckers on the road from my room at home.
Their response was similar to Jesus’ answer to James and John:
“You do not know what you are asking.”
And it’s true. I had no idea what I was asking.

Have you ever asked for something
not realizing the full implications of your question?
Maybe when you were younger
you asked your parents if you could have a dog or a cat or a fish.
There was no way they could explain to you
just how much work it takes to care for an animal.

And there are those of us here who have popped a certain question.
What if when we asked “Will you marry me?”
the response we got was,
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
But after all, how can a young couple possibly know
how their lives will be affected by that question?
Brenda and I have been married twenty-five years,
and we’re still finding that out.

When James and John ask Jesus to be seated in glory
on his right and left,
Jesus tells them, “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

What does Jesus mean by that?
On one level he means that they don’t know the full implications
of getting what they want.
They don’t yet fully realize what it means to be associated with Jesus.
After all, as spiritual writer Fr. Timothy Radcliffe puts it,
Jesus’ throne of glory is the cross,
and it’s two thieves that are destined to be on his left and on his right.
So Jesus tells them, “You don’t know what you’re asking,”
because they don’t see the full picture.

But on another level, there’s something else they don’t know.
There’s another meaning to Jesus’ question,
“You do not know what you are asking.”

They don’t realize why they’re asking the question.
In other words, they’re not aware of the question behind their question.
Why do they want seats of honor in the first place?

It’s easy for us to be hard on James and John
and see them as overambitious, self-serving and power-hungry,
but the reality is we all have the same temptation.

We all have a desire to be honored,
to be seen as important, to be publicly recognized.
That’s why there’s a baseball Hall of Fame,
why we hold award ceremonies,
why we name buildings after donors.

What is that desire?
Where does it come from?

Think about the last time you hungered for recognition,
either for yourself or for someone you care about.

What’s behind that?

Partly it comes from a need for meaning in our lives.
We want to believe that our lives count for something.
We want to know that our lives are worthwhile.

And so we look to honor and recognition to be validated.

I hear young people all the time talk about how much pressure they feel
to achieve at the highest levels.
They grow up thinking
that if they don’t make their mark in the world
through some grand gesture or accomplishment,
then they don’t matter.

And then when we reach mid-life
we look at where we are and where we’ve been
and we wonder if we’ve done anything important with our lives.
And even if we’ve received awards or recognition or financial success,
it still doesn’t feel enough.

We are all a bit like James and John,
wanting a seat of honor at the banquet.
It’s true even of the other ten apostles.
The gospel tells us they were “indignant” at James and John.
Because they beat them to the punch!
James and John got to Jesus first.
The other ten start to complain and so Jesus intervenes.

“You wish to be great?” he asks.
“You wish to be first?”
“You wish to sit in honor at the table?”

“You’re don’t know what you’re asking.”
It’s as if he’s saying
“What you really want is to be accepted,
to know that you matter, to be loved.”

That’s all any of us really want.
From the richest CEO to the homeless veteran, we all seek acceptance.
There are other things wrapped up in it, like power and control,
but at the end of the day it all boils down to wanting to be loved.

And so what message does Jesus have for those of us seeking
the place of honor at the banquet?
If you want to be great, he says,
if you want to be first,
then do not seek to be the guest of honor at the banquet,
do not even seek to dine at the banquet.
Rather, seek to be the waiter or waitress.

“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

That is Jesus’ response to us
when we seek to be honored or recognized.

Being the servant involves an entirely different set of questions.
Instead of asking “Can we sit on your right or on your left,
the servant asks questions like,
“How can I help you?”
“Are you comfortable?”
“Do you need anything else?”

Look at Jesus’ first words in today’s gospel:
“What do you wish me to do for you?”
To be a follower of Jesus means to be a servant.
It means to wait on tables.

The true disciple of Jesus recognizes
that he or she is already important,
that they already matter
by virtue of their creation by God.
All of us are already as important as we ever need to be.
We don’t have to sit in the place of honor at the banquet table,
we don’t have to be recognized in front of thousands of people.
We are already as important as we ever need to be.

This is what we mean
when we say that we believe that all human life is sacred,
from the pre-born infant to the elderly person suffering from Alzheimer’s.
It’s not what we do that gives our lives value,
but rather that we are made in God’s image.

The follower of Jesus recognizes their own worth and the worth of others.
And it’s by serving others that we acknowledge their dignity
and remind them of their value.
“The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.”

When we serve others, we validate their intrinsic worth,
we affirm their dignity.

And so there are two meanings to Jesus’ statement,
“You do not know what you are asking.”
And with each of those meanings is a challenge.
First, we are challenged to understand the implications
of being a true disciple.
We are challenged to move from seeking an honored place at the table
to being waiters and waitresses at the table,
to be servants.

And second, when Jesus asks us “What do you wish me to do for you?”
we are challenged to look at what lies beneath our desires
and to really know what we are asking for.

This last challenge was driven home to me this week
through a meditation I prayed with the other All Saints teachers.
Each morning before the students enter the building,
we teachers gather for prayer—both here at the primary building
and also at the middle building.

This year we’re using a book of meditations called Challenge,
organized and compiled by Jesuit priest Fr. Mark Link
and based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

I would like to conclude by sharing with you the reflection
we prayed a few days ago.
This was found written on a piece of paper
in the pocket of a dead Confederate soldier.

“I asked for health
that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity,
that I might do better things…
I asked for riches,
that I might be happy;
I was given poverty,
that I might be wise…
I asked for power,
that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness,
that I might feel the need of God…
I got nothing I asked for,
but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself,
my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men most richly blessed.”

No More War, War Never Again! – Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI

This weekend is Catechetical Sunday, the day we recognize and commission those who assist parents in the important task of handing on the faith.

While the primary duty of handing on the faith belongs to parents, it’s such a monumental task that it’s good to have some assistance. That’s why Catholic schools and religious education programs exist. It takes an entire community working together in Christ to build the Kingdom of God.

And in the work of catechesis, there are three teaching strategies that are particularly helpful: asking good questions, repetition, and practice.

Good questions are the foundation of a solid education. The best lessons begin with questions. There are science questions like “Why is the sky blue?” and “What makes the tides?” There are math questions like “How can we determine the area of a circle?” and history questions like “Who invented the alphabet?”

The Letter of James today asks a question, a powerful question. “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?”

After two thousand years of Christianity, the question is still relevant. War is still here. It exists not only between nations, but between communities, social groups, and neighbors.

Why do we wage war? Why can we not live in peace?

It’s a question that begs to be asked over and over, by each generation, until war no longer exists.

We teachers here at All Saints recently studied the book Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina. One of the things we learned about brain research and learning is summarized in his rule “Repeat to remember.”

Dr. Medina writes that “The capacity of the memory is initially less than 30 seconds. If we don’t repeat the information it disappears.”

Never is that more clear than with the issue of war and peace. How soon we forget the terror of war. How easily it seems so distant to us.

50 years ago, on October 4, 1965, Pope Paul VI came to the United States and spoke to the United Nations. He told the nations of the world,

“No more war, war never again! It is peace, peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and of all [humanity]…Peace, as you know, is not built solely by means of politics and the balance of forces and of interests. It is constructed with the mind, with ideas, with works of peace…”

Ideas and works.

And then thirty-six years ago, on October 2, 1979, Pope St. John Paul II spoke to that same body, the United Nations. He said,

“Paul VI was a tireless servant of the cause of peace. I wish to follow him with all my strength and continue his service. The Catholic Church in every place on earth proclaims a message of peace, prays for peace, educates for peace…”

Twenty years ago, on October 4, 1995, Pope St. John Paul II returned once more to the United Nations to tell them again,

“When millions of people are suffering from a poverty which means hunger, malnutrition, sickness, illiteracy, and degradation, we must…remind ourselves that no one has a right to exploit another for his own advantage…”

And it was only just seven years ago, in April of 2008, that Pope Benedict came and spoke to the United Nations.

“…questions of security,” he said, “…protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate, require all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law, and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet.”

Pope Francis arrives in our country in just a few days. He touches down in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday he will be welcomed by President Obama, will pray with all the bishops of the United States at noon, and that evening he will canonize a new saint.

On Thursday he will address congress and on Friday he will address the United Nations. What will he say to those political bodies? What we will he say to us?

If history is any indication, we probably already know.

He will talk about
distribution of material goods;
protection of the environment;

Will anyone listen this time?

But our faith is about more than listening and remembering. It is also about doing. Several weeks ago, when we first started reading from the Letter of James here at Mass, we heard “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”

To do anything well takes practice. Practicing skills is the third essential teaching strategy.

One effective way to teach skills is the “I do, we do, you do” strategy.

It’s the way most of us learned math.
The teacher stood at the chalkboard and said
“Watch while I do long division.”
And then he or she turned to the class and said,
“Now we will do some problems together.”
And finally, the teacher said, “Now you do these problems.”
“I do, we do, you do.”

It’s is a good way to teach skills.

Peacemaking is a skill. It’s an active, deliberate set of actions.
It takes practice.
The Church has been teaching it for a long time.

In our day, it is Pope Francis who is standing at the chalkboard now.
Like the teacher who demonstrates the math problem,
he says, “Watch, while I do peacemaking,”
and he invites the leaders of Israel and Palestine to the Vatican to meet.
He takes in two families of war refugees from Syria.

Now he comes to the United Nations, and like the popes that have come before, I imagine he will say something along these lines:
“Let us do peace together.
Let us show the world that we can resolve differences without war.”
And after that it will be up to us to do peace on our own,
in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and families.

“I do peace, we do peace, you do peace.”

Asking good questions,
repeating to remember,
practicing with “I do, we do, you do.”
These are hallmarks of good teaching.

And Jesus was the greatest teacher of them all.

He knew how to ask powerful questions:
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
“Who do people say that I am?”
“Simon, do you love me more than these?”

He also understood the importance of repetition.
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
“Love your enemies.”
“Remain in my love.”

And he practiced “I do, we do, you do.”
He accepted the cross himself;
he taught his disciples to take up their crosses and preach the good news;
he sends his Holy Spirit to each of us individually at Baptism and Confirmation and he feeds us here at this Eucharist so that we can take up our crosses and preach the good news, so that we can be peacemakers.

But as any teacher will tell you, the best teaching strategies only go so far. All the questions, all the repetition, all the demonstration of skills mean nothing if the students do not engage, if they refuse to learn.

Today’s liturgy is an invitation to be a lifelong learner.
It is a challenge to go from here today
and spend some time in silence contemplating the question,
“Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among [us] come from?”
It is a call to find those places of conflict in our own lives
and practice the skills of peacemaking,
and to continually repeat the words of Pope Paul VI
in order to remember them for longer than thirty seconds,

“No more war, war never again!”