Friday, July 3, 2015

Got a thorn in your flesh? Bet you'd like God to remove it... here's why He doesn't

“The Thorn in the Flesh” - What the Mystics Teach Us

After St. Paul not only had an amazing conversion where he literally went from killing Christians to becoming one himself, We read that he was also taken to the summit of the mystical life of prayer where he was caught up to paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter.” But even after all this he reveals that a thorn in my flesh was given to me.”

For over two-thousand years scholars have all asked the question: what was the thorn?  Was it physical, was it spiritual, or was it moral?  We are in fact left no description… and in the end it probably doesn’t matter WHAT the thorn was, but WHY he was given the thorn.

Every one of us has a “thorn in our side”.  It is probably different for each of you and chances are we would all would probably prefer it be something, somewhere, or someone else, but we all have a thorn.  We, just like Paul, have probably asked and begged God over and over to get rid of it, take it out of us, make it better.  You probably have a “thorn” too,  right?

Well the real importance is not really what the thorn is, but why has He allowed it to remain?  Why doesn’t God just remove this “thorn from our side?”

God gives Paul the answer!  And He gives us the answer too…

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” This is a very clear and simple answer.  Yet it is probably one that we don’t want to hear.  Paul for some reason is brought to great peace when he hears this response from God.  Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

What allowed for Paul to be so content with all of these difficulties? The thorn… and trusting that God’s power was working through it.

Think for a moment about the “thorn in your side.”  What is your thorn?  What is that struggle that you haven’t been able to get rid of?  Maybe it’s physical.  I think of people that have struggled from

birth with a disability.  Maybe it’s emotional.  I was just talking to someone who said that they have never struggled with anxiety their whole life and now are struggling with it… she said “if nothing else, it’s helped me to be more compassionate and loving to others who do.” Maybe it’s depression, bi-polar, or some other psychosis.  It could be an addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or a sexual addiction.  It may be a part of your personality that is difficult for you or others to deal with.  It could be someone in your life… it might even be your spouse or one of your children.  Maybe it’s even a moral failing… a sin that you have tried so hard to eradicate from your life… some struggle their entire lives into their 90s with the same sins they struggled with in puberty.  It could be a chronic condition or pain.

The point is we all have our thorn.  Now, why hasn’t God removed it?  It’s important to remember that Paul was given this clarity after having a deep mystical experience of God.  He was brought to peace with this thorn through this encounter with God speaking to him in the depths of prayer.

Over these two-thousand years of Church tradition we have had many Saints who have had this similar experience.  We can look to the Christian Mystics to give us guidance on this whole dilemma of the “thorn in the flesh.”  Maybe, we too can gain some peace, acceptance, and even become content with our weakness.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux helps us to see that “Even if we should not prove successful, at least we can grow in gentleness and humility as we bear the burden of such a continuing struggle.” (Fulfillment of All Desire, Ralph Martin, p. 110)

Frances de Sales makes clear that the process of purification will continue throughout our life, and so “we must not be disturbed at our imperfections, since our perfection consists in fighting against them.”  (Introduction to the Devout Life, pt. I, ch 5, p. 48)

St. Therese of Lisieux speaks of a “joyful resignation” to the lifetime of struggle with faults. “I learned very quickly [from the age of 13] that the more one advances, the more on sees the goal is still far off.  And now I am simply resigned to see myself always imperfect and in this I find my joy.”  (Story of a Soul, Ch. 7, p. 158)

Francis de Sales passionately cries out “in this war we are always victorious provided that we are willing to fight.”  (Introduction to the Devout Life, pt. I, chap. 5, p. 49)

Bernard in his commentary of the Song of Songs beautifully describes how a thorn can help us by causing us to lean on God.  “Who is this coming up from the wilderness, rich in grace and beauty, leaning upon her beloved?”  (Song 8:5).  Otherwise unless it leans on him, its struggle is in vain.  But it will gain force by struggling with itself and, becoming stronger, will impel all things towards reason… “surely all things are possible to someone who leans upon him who can do all things?”  (Sermon 85.5)  The good news is, the Beloved loves to be leaned on.

St. Luke proclaims: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  Acts 14:22

Teresa of Avila had to struggle to understand how it was possible that God could actually be working in her life while she at the same time still had obvious weakness and imperfections.  (Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of All Desire, p. 144)  “His Majesty knows well how to wait many days and years, especially when he sees perseverance and good desires.”  (The Interior Castle, sect. II, chap. 1, no. 2, p. 298)

John of the Cross explains that an impatient anger toward ourselves is also an imperfection that the Lord desires to deal with by leading us to greater meekness. “Others in becoming aware of their own imperfections grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience… they want to become saints in a day… [They] make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need, when he so desires.”  (John of the Cross, The Dark Night, bk. I, Chapter 5, no. 3, pp. 370-371)

Catherine of Sienna simply asks God,  Why?  And like St. Paul receives an answer from God in her prayer. 

Could I and can I not make it otherwise for Paul and the others in whom I leave this or that sort of pricking?  Yes.  Then why does my providence do this?  To give them opportunity for merit, to keep them in the self-knowledge whence they draw true humility, to make them compassionate instead of cruel toward their neighbors so that they will sympathize with them in their labors.  For those who suffer themselves are far more compassionate to the suffering than are those who have not suffered.  They grow to greater love and run to me all anointed with humility and ablaze in the furnace of my charity (Catherine of Sienna, the Dialogue, chap. 89, p. 166)

Later God reveals to her how He is in face liberating her through theses struggles. 

“And why do I keep this soul, surrounded by so many enemies, in such pain and distress?  Not for her to be captured and lose the wealth of grace, but to show her my providence, so that she will trust not in herself but in me...  her concern will make her run for protection to me her defender, her kind Father, the provider of her salvation…. I want her to be humble… and to recognize that her existence and every gift beyond that comes from me, that I am her life.  She will recognize life and my providence when she is liberated through these struggles (Notice not from these struggles, but through these struggles,) for I do not let these things last forever.  They will come and go as I see necessary for her… it was not her own effort but my immeasurable charity, which wanted to provide for her in time of need when she could scarcely take it anymore.” (Catherine of Sienna, The Dialogue, chapter 144, p. 301)
So why does God not take our thorns away?  As God revealed to St. Paul and the Christian Mystics, and continues to reveal to us… “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

May you find, as St. Paul, the Mystics, and many others have… great peace and contentment as you struggle and persevere with that sacred “Thorn” in your life.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Farewell Father Martello


For my homily this week, I'd like to post an excerpt from Father Martello's Farewell Mass held at St. Joseph Parish in Amherst this past Sunday, June 28th.

Well, it is with great joy that we are here and we have Father Martello here with us to celebrate his retirement mass for all of his years of service. For Father Martello's last mass here, please turn your cell phones off and ringers off at this time. We are so glad and delighted to celebrate this. We have Father Weber here with us, and our Deacon as well, Deacon Dan. So as we begin to celebrate this celebration, we take a moment and call to mind our sins, and we ask the Lord to grant us his pardon and peace.... 

Well, buddy, it's here. Who would have thought; who would have thought that I would get to be here for this, and who would have thought you would be retiring? A lot can change in six months' time. 

Farewell to Father Martello
My first memory of Father Martello, while I would like to say it was in my home parish as he was at Holy Family in Parma, but he left in '77, and I was born in '79 -so I actually don't remember him from my home parish. However, over the years he would come back and I would get to experience him and know him -but I really didn't know him well; I knew of him and I knew of his legend. I didn't really know him until I actually came here to St. Joseph. 

The first time we really began to know each other was about a week before I started my assignment -you come and you meet the parish and you meet the pastor and the staff. When I walked into the office the first thing I saw was Father Martello's picture, his portrait, on the office wall. As I walked in, the door opened and Father Martello came and he gave me a big bear hug and I knew I was home. I felt like, from that first moment of meeting him, that I was going to be truly welcome here and at home here. You have made this really a home for me, Father Martello. So I thank you for that! As parishioners, I know that he's done that for many of you too. He has made this a home for all of you for the last 26 years. 

I think about that need that we all have to be touched, the need that we all have to feel love. In the Gospel, we hear two experiences of this. One is a woman who touches Jesus and another is one who Jesus touches. 

The woman who touches Jesus is just yearning, she reaches out for Him and she gets this notion that if I could just touch the cloak or His tassel, I could be healed. So amidst of this whole crowd swarming around Jesus and pressing upon Him, somehow or another she manages to get through and touch Him. At that moment she's healed, and the power drains out of Jesus. He feels the power come out of Him through touch. 

The other moment is when Jairus asks Jesus to come visit his daughter. He says to Jesus, "If you could just touch my daughter, she would be healed."  And Jesus responds, "Do not be afraid. Just have faith." As a father, Jairus had this longing to have Jesus touch his daughter, to lay His hands on her so that she may be healed. We all have this sense of the power of touch and the healing that it could do. 

I've seen this especially in the last six months. As Father Martello has been in and out of the hospital and rehab, he's been so good to me and allowing me to care for him. At one point he said, "I'm so sorry you have to do this." And I said then, and I say now, what a privilege. What a privilege it is to be able to care for a brother priest. In some small way, I've been able to care for him. Of course there are others helping much more than I, but what a privilege it is to be able to care someone you love. 

DSC_0078.JPGI think about your hands, Father Martello, and all the Sacraments that you performed over the years. Just think for a moment about the countless children that he has baptized; the countless times that he's laid hands on someone for confession; the countless times he's anointed. There were times in the last six months that I've anointed him, that I've laid hands on him and blessed him. And there's even times I've asked him to anoint me and to pray with and over me, to calm my anxieties. He's been such a wonderful pastor to me and a wonderful pastor to all of us. 

I think about this touch. God gave us the Sacraments, ultimately, so he could touch us. God wants us to know what His touch feels like. At some point throughout our lives, I think we all encounter a moment where we wish we could be physically touched by God; we wish we could be held by God; we wish God would sometimes come and give us a hug when we are going through a rough time; we wish God had skin so that He could actually touch us. 

We find that in the Sacraments we do, each and every Sacrament involves touch. Think about a baptism. The priest actually takes the child into his hands and pours the water over the infant. "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit."  Some of you as adults got to experience that with Father Martello through the wonderful work that he did with RCIA. At the end of every confession, the priests lays hands on the penitents and says, "I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."  I think about the power of touch. At that moment, I know Father Martello would see, just as me, a person's body relax and release as the Holy Spirit comes over them. In the Sacrament of the Eucharist, our source and summit, the priest's hands pick up the bread and wine, and in those very hands they transform into the body and blood of Christ. The married couples that he has blessed over the years. The priest's hands are extended over them in blessing. And then I think about the final burial- the hands are there to touch the casket, and to comfort the family members. 

Over the years, 25 of them here at St. Joe's, Father Martello has baptized 945 people; he sat in the confessional for over 945 hours; he has given children 2,196 First Communions; he's seen over 1,354 Confirmed; and he has married 270 couples -all just here at St. Joseph. He has even had a newly ordained priest with Father Joe Warner and laid hands over priests. Father Martello has celebrated over 9,126 masses here at St. Joe's, and he's probably buried many of your loved ones. Over all of these times, I think about God's touch, God's beautiful touch through Father Martello's hands -which is why, I want to end with a poem called "The Beautiful Hands of the Priest." 

The Beautiful Hands of a Priest
We need them in life's early morning,
We need them again at its close;
We feel their warm clasp of true friendship,
We seek it while tasting life's woes. 
When we come to this world we are sinful,
The greatest as well as the least.
And the hands that make us pure as angels
Are the beautiful hands of a priest. 
At the altar each day we behold them,
And the hands of a king on his throne
Are not equal to them in their greatness
Their dignity stands alone. 
For there in the stillness of morning
Ere the sun has emerged from the east,
There God rests between the pure fingers
Of the beautiful hands of a priest. 
When we are tempted and wander
To pathways of shame and sin
'Tis the hand of a priest that absolve us.
Not once but again and again. 
And when we are taking life's partner
Other hands may prepare us a feast
But the hands that will bless and unite us,
Are the beautiful hands of a priest. 
God bless them and keep them all holy,
For the Host which their fingers caress,
What can a poor sinner do better
Than to ask Him who chose them to bless 
When the death dews on our lids are falling,
May our courage and strength be increased
By seeing raised o'er us in blessing
The beautiful hands of a priest.

Father Martello, we thank you for all the times that you have touched us and blessed us, and we thank you for the many times that your hands have been the ones that have brought the body of Christ into this world. Through your hands, we have experienced the Sacraments. We thank you very much for your years of service, not only here at St. Joe's, but throughout the Diocese of Cleveland.

Friday, June 26, 2015

“Quiet! Be still!”

“Quiet! Be still!”Watching my nieces and the rule was "only one of you can cry"  and they listened!

Quite a few years ago I was babysitting my three nieces.  They were all under the age of ten and it was the first time I watched them alone.

It was all great fun at first.  We spent some time playing in the front yard kicking a soccer ball around.  One of the girls got very upset and was feeling left out.  She started to cry so I took her in and held her trying to calm her and assure her I loved her and we all loved her.  She was just sobbing in my arms.

Moments later another one must have gotten hurt because she came in screaming and crying as she walked through the garage door.  I didn't know what to do at that point and didn't know how to handle two crying kids.  So in order to have some order (and without much thought), I firmly stated with surprising confidence and serenity: "Uncle Mike has a new rule.  Only one of you can cry at a time!"  To my absolute amazement they BOTH stopped crying.  I think they were both shocked to have such a strange rule!  I was surprised because I felt little control but all of a sudden they listened to me!

It is still a story we tell from time to time and laugh about what an absurd rule that was but said with authority, it worked!

In Mark's Gospel we witness the authority and power of Jesus' voice.

As the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat with Jesus, a "violent squall came" so great that "waves were breaking over the boat" and it began filling up with water.  This was a serious storm and the disciples were understandably panicked.  For some reason Jesus was asleep in the stern on a cushion.  He must have been exhausted and sleeping very comfortably and soundly!

I imagine the disciples all screaming in panic trying to wake him up: "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"

Something very interesting happens here.  Jesus wakes up and said to the sea, "Quiet, Be still!"  And would you believe it?  The sea listened.  He must have spoke so strongly and with such great authority that the storm stopped, the wind ceased, and there was great calm!

Imagine the power and authority of his words.

Now think about it, if just Jesus' speaking can rebuke the wind, calm the storm, and even more so calm his disciples -can't he do the same for us?

Jesus has power over all of creation - including you!   He can calm you!  

Just as my nieces stopped crying at my command how much more powerful is Jesus' command?

I think of this especially when we are going through difficult times, when we are anxious and affraid.  Turn to him and say "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing!"  Because sometimes it doesn't seem like God does care, sometimes it doesn't seem like he is even there.  But He is.... and He waits... for us to wake Him up and ask Him for help. 

I think it's often like this in our own prayer lives as well.  I think there are many times when we sit down to pray and find our minds so distracted, our thoughts racing, our emotions raging, and our temptation is to try and calm the storm ourselves.  We try to calm our minds, or our thoughts, or not think about the things that anger or frustrate us... but how well does that work?

The reality is that only Jesus has the authority to calm the storms in us.  And again if he could calm the raging storm on the Sea of Galilee I think he can handle you and me.  

So the next time you find yourself in a storm either in your life or relationships, or simply in prayer, WAKE HIM UP!   Tell him you are perishing.  Tell Jesus you are struggling and you can't handle it and you need his help. 

You will find that even more than my voice had with my nieces, His authority will bring peace.  

Let Him command all the voices and emotions and feelings as He strongly, courageously, and with authority proclaims: "Quiet, Be Still!"  

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Reflection for Father's Day

A Reflection for Father's Day
When I was at St. Barnabas we had a parishioner,  by the name of Joe Russo who was a fourth degree Knight of Columbus and was very well known throughout the Diocese. He was a very active member of the parish, a loving husband, a father, grandfather, and he greatly loved and supported his priests. He was super Italian… he treated everyone like family. It was often said that he had a million friends. He had that quality of making everyone that walked into his life feel special. I was one of them.

Joe was one of the biggest affirmers of my priesthood. He was always affirming me, encouraging me, telling me how proud he was of me. And at one point he said to me… Father, I love you like you are a son to me, if you ever need anything, I won’t say no. And he meant it. Time and time again, anything I asked him for he either did himself or rallied and excited people to get involved in. At one point he gave me a new name… Joe has three sons: Rocco, Dino, and Gino and his grandsons name is Mossimo… so he gave me the name Miko. His family now calls me their brother Miko.

If you’ve ever had someone like this in your life that loved you like a father, took you into his family, gave you a new name, affirmed you, delighted in you… than you have a glimpse of what God desires to do for you. 2nd Samuel portrays this so wonderfully: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.” God looks at us like this… he wants to bring us into his family, give us a new name in confirmation, love us like we are his own and delight in everything we do. You do have a father like this in God, you are a son to him, you are a daughter to him… he is your father. Delight in knowing that you are the child of our Father in Heaven!