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Advent

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

Another Advent is upon us: one of the ways by which Christian people mark their journey through the years. According to some religious writing, Advent ideally is a time for quiet reflection on the meaning of the Incarnation, time to think about the different ways in which Christ has come or will come into our lives. It might be seen as a time for quiet walks on moonlit snow, or a time to sit by the fire and read the Bible and other religious materials. The ideal is one thing; our reality may be different.

For some, Advent and December become times of feverish activity. Quiet reflections give way to shopping and decorating and perhaps attending too many Christmas parties long before the day itself. Though in this year the pandemic may take care of that problem.

With the best of intentions, some people might get discouraged as Christmas draws near and feel the season “got away” from them again. Maybe that’s why we need to repeat it every year, as with other aspects of our spiritual lives: try and try again.

Also, during this season, there may be warnings in church about crass secularism and materialism and “leaving Christ out of Christmas.” Dire warnings may do more harm than good.

It may be helpful to be more intentional about the things we ordinarily do in this season. If there is baking and cooking, perhaps we could see a connection with the table fellowship of Eucharist, which is at the center of our worship. As we choose gifts, let this be truly out of love and care for persons. When we write and address cards, we can let this be a moment of prayerful gratitude for the good memories we have of these people in our lives.

For Advent, there ought to be formal times of prayer, but we can let our spirit of prayer flow over into the other practices of the season.

Passage of Time

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

I am writing this on the 57th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy. Many of us remember what we were doing when we heard this news. I was doing some cleaning in our seminary. Those were grim days. We wondered if the country was in some danger. I’m sure the military were on high alert.

Now all that is in the past, part of our history. I think of that as we go through our own historical time. The pandemic. We would rather not be experiencing this, but here we are. It is important to note that someday all this will also be our history. Some of you will tell stories to your grandchildren.

In the meantime, we, as people of faith, need to keep our perspective in the present moment. How shall we live our faith in the face of sickness and death and financial struggles? We wonder when this will end. Will there be a “new normal?” Even in this tedium, one friar recently mentioned how quickly the weeks seem to be passing. That may be a perspective of some of us who are older. He is well beyond 80.

In our lives of prayer and spirit, we think of past, present, and future. We look back on the past, remarking how quickly things fade into our history. About the future, we know little and wonder. The teachers of prayer urge us to find the presence of God in our present moment, whatever it is handing to us. We ask for what we need. We find things for which to give thanks.

National Attitude

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

Recently I was struck by a comment from a man on the radio. He was discussing the mood of the country. With some sadness, and maybe sarcasm, he suggested that many people in this country are not all about freedom and equality and caring about their fellow citizens, but that the attitude of many is “No one can tell me what to do!” He suggested that is what it means to some people to be a U. S. citizen: “No one can tell me what to do!”

Of course, there was no scientific survey to determine how many people might think this way, and it was one man’s opinion. But, judging by much behavior reported in the news, the man may be on to something. And if it is at all true among many of us, then we are in some trouble. Well, we have been in some trouble, especially since March, when the world changed.

We, as a country, are badly in need of reconciliation, healing, and acceptance of each other. We are in need of respecting each other, even as we acknowledge our differences. We need to move beyond our tribalism and party loyalty, when the “other side” is always wrong, or even dangerous. “How could anyone vote for that guy?” say both sides.

Even among some who call themselves Christian, we seem to have moved far from “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the peacemakers” and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We need to move beyond “no one can tell me what to do” to a spirit of looking around to see what we can do for someone else.

Blindness and Sight

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

The Gospel for Monday of the 33rd Week is the story of the healing of a blind man . The stories of healing the blind are not only about the cure of one person; they are meant to point further to the issue of personal or spiritual blindness.

I can still hear an old recording by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr where he says emphatically, “It’s all about seeing, brothers and
sisters!” And he and other wise people have reminded us that when we look at anything, we see things not so much as they are, but we see as we are. In other words, as we look at the world, at current events, at our relationships, we see from a foundation of our own bias, perspective, and prejudice.

If we want to grow and deepen and mature in our spiritual lives, or in our human lives even aside from religion, we are invited to be aware of our own biases as we look at the world and people around us. We are invited to admit we may not be seeing clearly, with our eyes and our minds. This admission enables us to be open to more learning and understanding.

A classic example is the husband and wife who, after the children have left home, look at each other and say “I don’t know you.” They need to look and look again. The message is there for all of us. We can look and look again at our world, and keep praying the prayer of the blind man, “Lord, please let me see.”

November

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

We are about halfway through November. For many people, this month has two major themes: remembering those who have gone before us and giving thanks.

For Catholics, this month begins with All Saints Day, on which we celebrate all those millions of persons who have gone before us in the Church and who remained faithful in their lives. We honor those whose names appear in the calendar of the Church year. There are many more whose names can be found in collections of the lives of the saints.

Beyond those, there are others who remain anonymous to us, but who indeed lived good and faithful lives. Often these holy ones also suffered much on their life’s journey. Being holy and faithful does not guarantee an easy life!

We can include in the collection of holy people those whom we have known personally, who were our teachers and guides and good example for us along the way.

The day after All Saints is the Commemoration of the Dead, or All Souls Day. It has been Catholic tradition to pray for the dead who may still need further transformation after death on their way to final eternal happiness. This remains in the realm of mystery. But November can be a time of memories about our relatives and acquaintances who have gone before us.

November also calls us to gratitude, giving thanks. That can be a great part of our remembering the saints and our beloved dead. We are grateful to God for them. And then we give a special day to giving thanks. Thanksgiving Day is not a feast of the Church, but in our faith we can easily make it a kind of Holy Day, not by any law or obligation, but simply because we see the value of giving thanks for all our blessings. This year, there may be a certain flavor to our Thanksgiving, because of all that has happened in our world.

But it is part of our life of prayer and worship to be thankful. Eucharist, a word meaning thanksgiving, is at the center of our lives, no matter what is happening to us, good or bad. This year it may take a bit more discipline to find things for which to be grateful, but we are called to do that as part of our faith, not to mention our mental health.

Spiritual but not Religious

In recent years we have become familiar with the term, “spiritual but not religious.” This refers to people who believe in God or the spiritual realm or the universe, but do not belong to an organized church or religion. There can be many types or degrees of such spirituality.

Some come from families who never belonged to organized religion, but who still show some interest in spiritual things. Some have belonged to a church but have simply drifted away from participation and now vaguely connect with the idea of God or the spiritual realm.

Some others have left organized religion after careful thought and prayer. They may have disagreements with their church, its teaching and practice. They find they are not “being fed” in their personal lives. These can be very active seekers, trying to find meaning and who still may be open to an organized church that appeals to them.

Critics of the “spiritual” people may consider them “flighty” or selfish or wanting to be their own religion. We should be careful in judging. First of all, we who belong to organized churches ought to be careful that we are also “spiritual” in the sense of developing our own personal lives of prayer within our structures. Some of the conscious seekers may be more sincere than some of us.

And we need to be welcoming, when the seekers perhaps approach our church door, that he or she will find the spiritual hospitality they need. There are many paths, many journeys into the truth and light of God.

Brothers and Sisters

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

The main content or theme of Pope Francis’ new encyclical seems to be a reminder of ideas straight out of the Gospels and the spirit of Franciscan thought: we are all brothers and sisters, children of God, and the implications of that reality. We have heard these things before.

But the Holy Father wants to reinforce these basic beliefs as we emerge from the pandemic, whenever that will be! He wants us to learn from our experience in this time of sickness and suffering. How well have we cared for each other, all around the world? How have we not cared for each other and what might be improved to change that?

Among other things, he calls for improvement in health care systems, and to examine why, in some places, so many died and were not given needed care. Part of this always depends on material resources. The poorer people are, the less health care is available to them.

So the Holy Father challenges us in our view of economic forces, and challenges our ways of capitalism and materialism. How do we indeed share the goods of the earth with all our brothers and sisters? Along with this, he also speaks about our care for the earth itself, which recalls his other encyclical, Laudato Sí.

Some of his words may disturb dyed-in-the-wool capitalists, materialists, and so called “free market” business types. Francis echoes the challenges of Popes before him, some of whom we now call “saints.” The Gospels and the Franciscan spirit ask us to re-think our capitalist, materialist, rugged individualist priorities. We are brothers and sisters to each other and to all creation.

Social Distancing

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

The term, “social distancing,” has become part of our language. These days we keep our distance. In church we sit spaced apart from others. In stores and offices we see markers on the floor, indicating where to stand. There are limits to numbers at gatherings.

We avoid familiar human touching. Hand shakes are rare. Hugging happens less. The hand on the shoulder is avoided. Not all the time, but in general we are conscious of life in the pandemic age. At least we do some “elbow bumping” with good humor.

I wonder what this is doing to us. Someday studies will be made of “social customs during the time of pandemic.” Our more severe distancing has taken a toll on families who cannot visit relatives in hospitals and nursing homes. There are many deaths with no family present. Healthy family members choose not to visit each other, just to be safe. Surely this has to affect our mental and emotional life.

I also wonder, then, if all this can be teaching and reinforcing something in us: how much we need human contact and how we need each other. Maybe all this can increase our appreciation of the important people in our lives. For the time being, there can be the effort to reach out with our electronic communications and the written word. Yes, cards and letters!

And when it becomes more possible, we may appreciate even more the handshake and the warm embrace, and to stand right next to the stranger in church.

Signs and Wonders

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

During the past week the Franciscan Calendar offered two feast days which featured unusual phenomena, “signs and wonders.” On September 17th we celebrated the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi, which honors his receiving the wounds of Christ in his hands, feet, and side. The next day was the feast of St. Joseph of Cupertino, who was known to “levitate” while praying. That is, during prayer, he would begin to rise off the floor.

Catholic tradition has always had room for miracles and other unusual happenings, seen as reminders of the presence and reality of God. We still make use of miracles in the process of canonizing saints. People await the report of an approved miracle that will allow Blessed Solanus Casey to be declared a saint.

It is normal for ordinary humans to take note of these things and be amazed. But there is a danger of putting too much emphasis on these “signs and wonders” and think that’s what real holiness is all about. We always need to be called back to basic virtue, and to listen to St. Paul telling us that we can do all sorts of “religious” things, but if we do these without love, they don’t amount to much.

Amazing signs connected with saints can be seen as a kind of “seal of approval” for a life well lived in prayer and charity and compassion. And that is always the lesson for ourselves. We are not to seek amazing signs and wonders, but are to do the little things of our lives with love. Anything extra over and above that is God’s business. And we can always pay attention to the ordinary miracles around us: hummingbirds, new babies, the kindness of friends.

The Wooden Beam

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

In the Gospel for Friday of the 23rd Week, we have the famous image of the beam in one’s eye. Jesus gives us a teaching about self knowledge. We are not to criticize or pick at other people’s faults when we are not willing to acknowledge our own failings (Luke 6:39-42).

Down through the ages, teachers of prayer have stressed the need for self knowledge as part of a mature spirituality: from Catherine of Siena, to John of the Cross, to Teresa of Avila, to Ignatius of Loyola, down to Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr in our day.

Those who practice the 12 Steps recognize the need for self knowledge and sincerity as they take their “fearless moral inventory” and then tell their story to a willing listener (Steps Four and Five). They are willing to remove the beam of their own blindness and admit their truth.

The beam of blindness is at the center of all racism and bigotry and the large ego of people who will not admit their own shortcomings. It can be a big problem in marriage and other relationships. The beam of blindness causes people to always blame others for their problems.

So this image remains central to an honest and sincere attempt to lead a Christian life, which should also be a healthy psychological life.

“Remove the beam from your own eye first, and then try to help your brother or sister.”

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