While all the runners in the stadium take part in the race,the award goes to one man. In that case, run so as to win!Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things. They do this to win a crown of leaves that withers,but we a crown that is imperishable. (1 Cor 9:24-25)
I ran cross country and track throughout college. All four years of college we had 6am practices. We had to learn to be disciplined: watching what we ate, how late we stayed up, how much we went out. If not, we could easily get hurt, or – even worse – slow! In the end, after 10 years of races in total, I had collected a small box worth of trophies, ribbons, and plaques. Although I never won a laurel wreath, this trophy box is now sitting in some closet at my parents’ house, collecting dust.
In addition to my own running, I zealously followed the international track, cross country, and road racing circuits. At that time the Kenyans dominated the distance running world, and so I followed the Kenyans. I was amazed at how effortless they often made running look. It was art, it was beauty, it was poetry in motion. They have some natural advantages -- they tend to be very slender, and they live at altitude -- but I’d say that their true advantage lies between the ears. The “secret” of their success is their relentless single-mindedness. Here in the Unites States, runners have to make time to train before and/or after school or work. The Kenyans go to extended, isolated training camps; no family, no job, no friends to distract them. They eat a very basic diet. They train in large groups, and these groups are made up of the best runners in the world, with each runner trying to prove that he is the fastest one there. A race can break out at any time. These camps have a very high drop-out rate, as there is no room for mediocrity. Bernard Barmasai, the former world record holder in the steeplechase, would train four times per day: an easy run in the morning, then intervals before lunch, then a tempo run in the afternoon, before closing out the day with a long run in the early evening – that’s a week’s worth of workouts for most people!
They do this because their focus is not on a withering crown of leaves, but something more important. The average income in Kenya was just over $1000 per year back in the mid-90s. Elite runners can earn over 100 times that for a single race, but even second-tier runners could earn 10 times that much in a summer of European racing. They ran to make money in order to support their families, and to support their futures. They would use their winnings to buy farmland back in Kenya, or to build a house. The Boston Marathon winner a few years ago announced he was looking forward to buying some cows. Younger Kenyans have also increasingly come to the United States to compete collegiately, as their running skills have netted them scholarships. They then return home afterwards with degrees in their pockets, often in business, political science, or agriculture. When I ran, it was a hobby and so the “crown” I pursued has faded. The Kenyans tend to run to improve their lives, and their crowns last a bit longer, but are still oriented towards this life, and so, they too, will eventually fade.
The questions we Christians must ask: What is the crown we desire? What are we aiming at? Now that Lent has begun, what is the purpose of our penitential practices? What do we desire from them? Do we mortify ourselves out of pride, or humility? Or to say – to ourselves or to others – simply that we’ve done them? Or do we do them for higher purposes? Does our fasting remind us of our hunger for God? Do we give alms from our surplus, or do we give “until it hurts," until it affects our lifestyle? Do we spend a lot of time online or in front of the TV, or do we spend it in prayer and in conversation with Jesus? In the end, we each get the crown we deserve: either withering or lasting, rusty or glorious, material or spiritual, faded or eternal.
As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him. (Mark 1:16-20, from the Gospel for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Recently, my classmate Br. Dennis and I flew down to the UC San Diego Newman Center at the invitation of our brother, Fr. John Paul Forte. Our novices visit them every year on the “southern tour” (as they are doing now) and offer reflections on their discernment journeys at the Masses. Fr. John Paul felt it would be beneficial for the Newman Center community to hear from some of us who have already been in the Order for a few years to describe our lives now (Br. Dennis & I entered the Order in the summer of 2010, and are now students at St. Albert's). What is our life like, now that we have abandoned our nets? What has changed over the years? What supports do we have?
For myself -- and I feel for many of my brother Dominicans -- that first moment of abandoning our nets to follow Jesus turns out -- in hindsight -- to have been rather easy. We really don’t know what we’re in for when we receive the habit. The image, the idea, the fantasy of religious life is one thing, the reality is often much more complicated. We give up much of our autonomy, we are thrust into a community of men that we don't personally choose, and we have to adapt suddenly to an entirely new daily schedule. After the first year, we begin studies in earnest and take on more ministry duties, as well as chores around the house. The ongoing challenge is to persevere in following Him our Lord after the initial excitement wears off, after we lose the emotional high we feel when we first receive the habit. We must base our vocation on prayer and God’s active grace in our lives. Our energies fade, our willpower at time fades, but God’s grace will continue to support us all unfailingly. When we forget that, we no longer live up to our call as friars preachers and simply become a community of men.
All four of the men that Jesus called that day at the shoreline went back to fishing after Jesus’ death. Unsure of what to do, all of them pick up their abandoned nets once again and headed back out to sea. Only by God’s grace did they recognize the risen Christ, and abandon their nets to once again become fishers of men. We must always remember to do the same.
We recently celebrated the final Sunday of the liturgical year, the Solemnity of Christ the King. On this day the readings focus on the freedom that we have been given in Christ. I examine this freedom as it is expressed in the second reading (Revelation 1:5-8), and what this freedom means for us today.
St. Dominic founded in the 13th century the itinerant and mendicant Order of Preachers. Now at the start of the 21st century, we are still attempting to be both itinerant and mendicant – though in different ways. Earlier this month, two of the student brothers from St Albert’s Priory traveled (itinerancy) to help our ministries fundraise (modern-day mendicancy).
Br. Justin flew up to Anchorage, where he spent last year as a resident student, to help the Holy Family Cathedral as the friars thank their current donors and kick off the next phase of the Mission West Campaign. I flew to Las Vegas – my home for about six weeks this summer – to participate in the St Therese Center’s Circle of Roses event. The St Therese Center is a food pantry serving the HIV & AIDS community in Las Vegas. Fr Joseph O’Brien, OP founded it in 1998 and has seen it grow exponentially since then.
The Circle of Roses is a dinner and auction to support the center, but also an opportunity to recognize those people who have in some way gone above and beyond in their service to the center and its clients. I’m sure Dominic did not predict a dinner & auction in a casino ballroom, with over 600 people present, when he envisioned the mendicancy of his future brothers. The Circle of Roses is not a simple event, but quite an effective fundraiser for Fr Joseph, Br Frederick and all the staff, volunteers and clients of the St Therese Center. As David, Fr. Joseph’s most-capable assistant attests, “every cent we are able to spend was fundraised”.
In many ways, mendicancy has a different face than it did 8 centuries ago. But it still requires us to say that we need help. And not just “we need help” but “we need your help,” through funding, service, and prayers. Such a request requires humility, that virtue most out of place in 21st century America. So thank you for your support of all of our ministries, for allowing us to continue to preach the Gospel in many and various ways. May God bless all of our ministries, and most especially all of you who help us continue to be God’s witnesses in the world, and God’s witnesses to the world.
Szczęść Boże!Or, “God bless you,” a greeting Br. Brad and I along with our student master Fr. Michael Fones heard many times when we went to Poland this summer. We went for a preaching camp focused on Pope Benedict’s apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini. The camp, now in its third year, was held in English and consisted of 12 Dominicans – 6 student brothers and 6 priests, with representatives from the US, Ireland, and Poland (including one Pole from the Vicariate of Russia and the Ukraine). The camp took place in Korbielów, a ski town near the Slovakian border. We were made up of a mix of friars – some with decades of priestly experience, some more recently ordained, and some of us still in initial studies for the Order. We looked at points from the document such as how we “enable the people of our time once more to encounter God” (paragraph 2). As Dominicans – the Order of Preachers – how do we do that in our existing ministries? What new opportunities can we look for, or start up? What does it mean to “encounter God?” Such discussions were mixed with plenty of time for rest, hikes, or trips to the nearby towns – all of which naturally included further discussions of ministry, liturgy, and theology.
The three of us from the Western Province were blessed to have some time after this camp for some of the more standard “tourist fare” in Poland, mostly around Krakow. We visited sites from the somber and horrific (Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp) to the beautiful and inspiring (Czestochowa – the home of the Black Madonna icon). In between, we saw more churches than I thought could ever fit in an area that size. Fr. Michael described the route he walked one day in Krakow just by mentioning the churches along the way – it seems like there was one on every corner!
The following is a transcript of Br. Kevin's preaching for Vespers on Sunday, March 3.
Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18:
God put Abraham to the test. He called to him, "Abraham!" "Here I am!" he replied. Then God said: "Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you." When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the LORD's messenger called to him from heaven, "Abraham, Abraham!" "Here I am!" he answered. "Do not lay your hand on the boy," said the messenger. "Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son."
As Abraham looked about, he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So he went and took the ram and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son. Again the LORD's messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said: "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing- all this because you obeyed my command."
How do we define sacrifice? What is an appropriate sacrifice? How do we repay God for creating us, for redeeming us, for blessing us, and for continuing to guide us?
Abraham didn’t ask these questions when God tested him. Notice his change in character. Previously, he had challenged God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and he and Sarah both doubted God’s ability to bless them with the child Isaac. Not here, not now. He cries, “Here I am!” when God calls him. Any questions, any doubts he may have had, are long gone. God had promised to give him a new land, and an everlasting heritage. Both of these promises came very clearly and directly from God and no other source. The land was not the land Abraham would have inherited from his ancestors, and the heritage would come through Isaac, the son God provided to Abraham by Sarah when he was 100 years old, and she was 90. Neither of these gifts could be attributed to purely natural causes –to Abraham’s own work. Abraham recognizes this and is willing to freely hand back to God what he had freely received.
Thankfully, God no longer tests his people as he tested Abraham. As the ram took Isaac’s place on the wood of the altar, God’s own Son Jesus Christ takes our place on the wood of the cross. However, Abraham’s willingness and gift is still a very powerful and productive symbol for us today. We are still called today to offer sacrifice, to give back from the blessings we have received. Our chapel’s altar of sacrifice is directly behind me, where each and every day we celebrate the Eucharist. And in this daily sacrifice, we recognize again and again how all we have received, every blessing in our lives, is a gift from God. Every one of our blessings today –food, study, leisure, and all the rest – are analogous to God’s blessing of Isaac to Abraham. Following the same analogy, we must in the same way be ready to give them all back freely to God.
In the new translation of the Mass, the text for the Preparation of the Gifts reminds us of the nature of our sacrifices: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you…through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you.” We can’t say, “Look, God, look at what we’ve done, what we’ve made, what we through our own merits have brought you.” No, when we bring our gifts to the altar, we first of all recognize that all we can offer to God are the gifts themselves that God first gives us.
G.K. Chesterton discusses another aspect of sacrificial offerings, in his article Enjoying the Flood and other Disasters. He points out that “the beast fitted for sacrifice must be spotless, healthy, and perfect.” Jokingly, he imagines sacrificing to God the London cab-horses, then the cabmen, and finally the cab owners (the city’s wealthy elite who in his words “simply cry out for the sacrificial knife”). He points out, however, that the necessary standard of perfection “seldom applies to the cab-horse, not often to the cabman, and never to the man in the cab.”
We too cannot offer to God imperfect sacrifice. We cannot offer our vices as sacrifice. One cannot say, “For Lent, I’ll give up dishonoring my parents, or stealing, or lying, or coveting.” While it is good for one to recognize these vices, and through effort and prayer to give them up, this is not sacrifice.
We also cannot “hold back” when we sacrifice. We cannot say, “For Lent, I’ll give up going out to lunch, and therefore have more money to spend.” “For Lent, I’ll give up junk food and work out 4 times a week…and that way I’ll lose the 10 pounds I gained between Thanksgiving and Christmas.” Our sacrifices may have beneficial side effects – giving up TV may give one more time to read or pray, giving up internet use may give one more sleep, giving up “lunches out” may very well give one more spending money. But these effects cannot be our primary motivations when we bring our sacrifice to the altar of God.
Are we offering back to God the good things with which he’s blessed us? Or are our intentions less pure, less focused? It is a good time to examine our hearts, and turn our gaze towards Him who is all good and deserving of all our love.