Tag Archives: Pastoral Care

To an Immeasurable Extent

 Anyone who is a slave to sin should prepare himself for true regeneration by means of faith.  He must shake the yoke of sin off his back and enter the joyful service of the Lord.  He will be thought worthy to inherit the kingdom.
Don’t hesitate to declare yourself sinners.  Thereby you will be put off your old humanity that was corrupt because it followed the bait of error.  And you will put on the new humanity, the humanity newly clad in intimacy with the creator.

The regeneration of which I am speaking is not the rebirth of the body, but the second birth of the soul.  Bodies are procreated by the father and mother, but souls are recreated by means of faith, since the Spirit blows where it will. [John 3:8]
God is kind and he is kind to an immeasurable extent.
Don’t say: “I have been dishonest, an adulterer, I have committed grave offenses innumerable time.  Will he forgive them? Will he deign to forget them? Listen rather to the Psalmist: “How great is your love, O Lord.” [cf. Ps. 31:19]
Your sins piled up one above the other do not overtop the greatness of God’s love.  Your wounds are not too great for the skill of the Doctor.
There is only one course of treatment for you to follow: rely on him in faith. Explain frankly what is wrong to the Doctor and say with the Psalmist: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.” [Ps. 32:5] Then you will be able to go on with the Psalmist to say: “Then did you forgive the guilt of my sin.”

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis (from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain).

We think St. Cyril of Jerusalem lived between 313 and 386 A.D. He has been venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. At a time of great strife and discord within the early Church, he worked for peace and reconciliation. He became the bishop of Jerusalem, and was loved there for his works of charity (which included feeding the poor at the expense of selling the church treasury).

I love this little piece of his, in part because it echoes one of the major themes of this blog: our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s deep and abiding love. The Cross teaches us how much God cares for us. We will never be able to reason, or to behave, our way into God’s love, which He pours out like a steady rain onto all of us.  I hope we can all hear God’s voice calling to us, affirming us as His beloved.

We can never go so far down the road to ruin that we cannot turn back, and our Father who sees us from a long ways off, will come running to meet us. As Cyril said, our wounds are not too deep for the Doctor to heal.  Never.  Never ever.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

P.S.

I’m going to be taking a break from writing for  a while.  You will remain in my prayers, and in my heart.

“Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.”

A Simple Prayer

“O Holy Christ,
bless me with Your presence
when my days are weary
and my friends few.”

From Celtic Daily Prayer.

I have been traveling, and so this will be a brief post.  It’s my hope to offer this prayer for  the intentions of “the sick, the friendless, and the needy.”

Evidence of Our Inhumanity

It is folly, it is madness, to fill our wardrobes full of clothes and to regard the indifference a human being, a being made in the image and likeness of God, who is naked, trembling with cold and almost unable to stand.
You say, “But that fellow there is pretending to tremble and not to have any strength.” So what?  If that poor fellow is putting it on, he is doing it because he is trapped between his own wretchedness and your cruelty.  Yes, you are cruel and guilty of inhumanity.  You would not have opened your heart to his destitution without his play-acting.
If it were not for necessity compelling him, why should be behave in such a humiliating way just to get a bit of bread?
The made-up take of a beggar is evidence of your inhumanity.  His prayers, his begging, his complaints, his tears, his wandering all day long round the city did not secure for him the smallest amount to live on.
That perhaps is the reason why he thought of acting a part. But the shame and the blame for his made-up tale falls less on him than on you.
He has in fact a right to be pitied, finding himself in such an abyss of destitution.  You, on the other hand, deserve a thousand punishments for having brought him to such humiliation.
John Chrysostom, On the First Letter to the Corinthians, 21, 5.

I found this passage in today’s reading from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: a Patristic Breviary.  The passage is taken from St. John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople who lived from around 347 through 407 A.D. He was a marvelous preacher and public speaker, who was given the nickname chrysostomos, meaning “golden mouthed.” He regularly spoke out against the abuse of authority by both political and church leaders. Because of this, he was arrested, exiled and banished several times.

In today’s reading, St. Chrysostom criticizes our lack of charity, our lack of concern and love for the poor among us.  He characterizes this as “madness.” He teaches that our treatment of the poor, our indifference toward them, reflects an indifference toward God. While our wardrobes are full, we ignore these images of God who are naked and shivering in the cold.

Regarding the suggestion that the poor might be exaggerating their plight, Chrysostom turns that argument back on us.  He suggests that the poor would not do so but for our cold-heartedness.  (We still hear a related version of this suggestion today: that the poor do not merit our help because they are lazy or comfortable and have chosen their life.) St. Chrysostom responds that it’s unlikely that people voluntarily chose to surrender their dignity.  More likely, he says, any exaggeration is simply meant to overcome our natural indifference.

On occasion, I’m at the my church kind of late.  Now and then, someone will come in asking for money.  I have to admit that I sometimes confront a voice in my head that says, “You’re being played for a sucker here.”  But I think St. Chrysostom would remind me that even if that’s true, that’s none of my affair.  That’s between them and God.  The choice before me, rather, is whether I want to overcome that skepticism with charity.  I hope I’m willing to run the risk that, when I die, someone might write in my obituary that I sometimes loved foolishly. I hope you are willing to take that risk too.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Be Opened

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” Mark 7:24-37.

In today’s lectionary readings from Mark’s Gospel, we find a number of challenges.  In the first passage, on our initial reading, Jesus seems a bit stingy, argumentative, and a little off His game. A few years ago, reading this passage, I was struck by the idea that it seemed like Jesus had to be coaxed into being charitable. At first, we may wonder if this is the same Jesus we know. I want to suggest that this passage presents exactly the Jesus we know.

We should begin with the observation that this first passage contains a number of unusual characteristics.  First, it’s located in Tyre, which is not an ordinary place for Jesus to be roaming around. That’s Gentile country, and no place for a good Jewish boy to be.  Secondly, he’s approached by a Syrophoenecian woman.  At that time, it would be unusual for any woman to approach a Jewish rabbi, let alone a Gentile woman. (Further, the identification  of this woman as “pheonician” implies an association with the Canaanites. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel describes this woman as a Canaanite.)  Unlike many of the Gospel stories, in this story Jesus’ disciples (his regular companions) are absent. Finally, her daughter has a demon, and so we know we’re encountering a spiritual battle here.

I think part of the answer lies in the original Greek text.  When the woman comes and asks Jesus to cast the demon from her “little daughter” (thygatrion in Greek), He replies that the children should be fed first before the “little dogs” (kynariois). In one sense, I think we can read this story, picturing Jesus with a twinkle in his eye as He draws from this woman an affirmation of the faith which He knew was present in her. In another sense, I think St. Mark uses this story to contrast Jesus with the Jewish authorities of the day, who would certainly have rejected this woman and her concerns.

Mark uses this as a narrative device.  It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t tell the woman “no”; rather, he says, “not yet.”  I don’t think Mark uses this story to portray Jesus as ambivalent or wishy-washy on the subject of ministering to the Gentiles. Rather, I think he’s telling this story to portray the difference between Jesus and the religious authorities of His day.

Jesus expels the demon from this woman’s child “because of this reasoning” (dia touton ton logon). We therefore ask, what was it that she said?  She told Jesus that even the crumbs He had to offer would suffice to heal her daughter. We hear an echo of this in the old 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and I’m not so sure we shouldn’t still be praying this: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table.” From this Gentile woman we hear a remarkable affirmation of trust, of need, and of faith.

Mark’s second story similarly challenges the traditional notion of holiness of that time.  Jesus travels toward the region of the ten cities (the Decapolis).  Again, He remains deep in the territory of the Gentiles. The crowd brings a deaf man with a speech impediment to Jesus.  Jesus’ offers a deeply intimate act of healing this man.  He thrusts his hands into the man’s ears, spits and then touches the man’s  tongue. These things would have clearly violated the purity codes of that time, which viewed saliva as unclean.

As Jesus looks to heaven, he groans.  (Groans offers a far better translation of the Greek word estenaxen than “sighs.”)  In other words, this healing involves Jesus’ identification with the suffering and distress of this man.  Mark tells the story of an earthy (incarnational) healing, rather than a purely metaphysical event.  Mark reports Jesus speaking in the Aramaic language:  Ephphatha (which means “be opened.”)

The passage rings with the echo of Isaiah’s promise:  “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped….” Isaiah 35:5-6. In one sense, it’s the deaf man’s ears that are opened.  In other sense, it’s the Gentile woman who is opened to the ministry of Jesus.  Viewed in another light, it’s about Jesus being open to the pain of the world. In yet another sense, it’s the entire world (and not just the people of Israel) to whom Jesus opens a new way of holiness.  I pray that we will be open to his healing ministry as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Interpreting the Law

How must we interpret this law of God?  How, if not by love? The love that stamps the precepts of right-living on the mind and bids us put them into practice. Listen to Truth speaking of this law: “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”  Listen to Paul:  “The whole law,” he declares, “is summed up in love”; and again: “Help one another in your troubles, and you will fulfill the law of Christ.” the law of Christ–does anything other than love more fittingly describe it?  Truly we are keeping this law when, out of love, we go to the help of a brother or sister in trouble.

But we are told that this law is manifold.  Why?  Because love’s lively concern for others is reflected in all the virtues.  It begins with two commands, but soon embraces many more.  Paul gives a good summary of its various aspects.  “Love is patient,” he says, “and kind; it is never jealous or conceited; its conduct is blameless; it is not ambitious, not selfish, not quick to take offense; it harbors no evil thoughts, does not gloat over other people’s sins, but is gladdened by an upright life.” Moral Reflections on Job by Gregory the Great.

I ran across this passage earlier this week in the Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church. St. Gregory makes a number of powerful observations that help us understand Holy Scripture.  Principally, he enjoins us to read the Torah (the Law) through the lens of love.  Jesus taught that all of the law and all of the prophets hung on the commandments to love God and love our neighbors. Matt. 22:40.

In Jesus’ day (just as in ours), some argued that the scriptures should be read as an exclusionary document.  Thus, many (lepers, those with physical infirmities, women, and outsiders) were excluded from the Temple.  Jesus asked the Pharisees, “What have you done to help them inside?” Through acts of love and mercy, Jesus brought many back within the circle of faith.  The Pharisees used the scriptures as a club to beat people away from the gates of the church.  Jesus, interpreting the scriptures through the template of love, showed us how to welcome God’s children back home.

We see this same tension played out in the book of Job.  Job endures calamity upon catastrophe without blaming God for what’s happened to him.  His three “friends” (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) arrive to convince him that God always punishes evil and rewards good, so somehow, Job must’ve sinned. Job’s friends do have a superficial understanding of the scriptures; they just don’t understand much about love, or God for that matter.  (A very good friend of mine observes that Job’s friends did everything right: until they open their mouths.)

Those who follow Christ know that all scripture, the Old Testament and the New, must be read with eyes of love. If we love God and His children, we cannot leave those in need behind.  And once we recognize that love provides the Rosetta Stone by which we interpret all the teachings of Scripture, we find ourselves compelled to love more broadly and more deeply.  We find ourselves breathing in a climate of grace, and we begin to  learn the language of blessing.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

While I’m Away

My dear friends,

I will be away for a while meeting with my brothers and sisters in the Dominican Order.  While I’m away, through God’s grace, I will hopefully take my life vows within the Order.  At that point, theoretically, I won’t be a Novice anymore, although I suspect I’ll always be a bit of a novice.

While I’m away, I’d ask that you keep me in your prayers.  You will certainly be in mine.  May the Lord bless you and keep you, and make His face to shine upon you, and keep you strong in the knowledge of His love.

This is a bit like rafting down a river in a canoe and hearing the sound of the falls grow louder and louder.  A dear friend told me yesterday to put away the paddles and just enjoy the ride.  I think I’ll do just that.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

No Hands But Ours

“God aids the valiant…both to you and to me He will give the help needed.”

–St. Teresa of Avila

Not all that long ago, I went through a very dispiriting week.  Three of my friends had been struggling with cancer.  The husband of my oldest friend in the world was being treated for bladder cancer at M.D. Anderson.  Another very close friend had just been diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer.  That same week, my cousin was treated for the fourth reoccurrence of thyroid cancer.

Each of them had endured that ghastly, medieval horror we so unhelpfully call a “treatment”: chemotherapy.  Two had adopted children and taken them into their homes.  One of them is a single parent.  One of them had no insurance, so I had a little skin in the health care debate and I was terrified about what this might mean for my friend and the family.

I’m not sure why, but way too often the people I love and terminal illness have intersected.  All of that provides the backdrop for the week I was telling you about.  That Thursday morning I got a call that a friend of mine, a law school classmate with whom I played lots of golf and lots of 42 (a poor man’s bridge played with dominos), had been killed while riding his bicycle with his 17-year-old son.  The son had gotten winded and stopped to rest, while Larry rode ahead.  A few moments later, his son rode up on the scene of the accident where his father lay dying.  My friend Larry was struck by a car driven by a 22-year-old girl, and we’re not sure why she veered out of her lane of traffic.  Then on that Friday morning, I got another early morning phone call.  Another law school classmate of mine lost his 27-year-old son in a bizarre accident.

I reached a couple of thoughts about the gut wrenching kaleidoscope of these events.  The first of these is that I may be a bit of a Jonah, and would understand perfectly if folks were to scootch away or avert their eyes when they see me walking toward them.  Second, I think being a friend, being a Christian, is a contact sport.

As Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.”  Nothing in this world is harder, or more essential to the Christian life, than being present while someone you love suffers and bearing witness to their pain with them.  I think that’s part of the power of the image of Mary at the Cross, watching and aching as her son gave up his life.  Seeing these events unfold around me, I’m reminded of something the Tin Man said in the Wizard of Oz: “Now I know I have a heart, because it’s breaking.”

Third, when I heard about my friend Larry’s accident, I actually found the strength, through God’s grace alone and no achievement of mine, to immediately say a prayer for the young woman who had struck him.  I have no idea how this accident will change her life or the life of her family, but I know she needs God’s presence through this.  And somehow, I felt better myself after praying for her.

A couple of years ago, I was asked if I was involved in pastoral care at the church, and I answered that no, I was not.  While my answer was honest, I’m not sure that it was accurate.  I think all of us are called upon, regardless of what we consider to be our ministry, to be the hands and face of Christ from time to time.  Maybe these events were just some sort of coincidence.  Or maybe, as Einstein once said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

I think that what might pass in the secular world for caring and compassion is, for us Christians, a statement of our faith.  It is our way of cursing the darkness with which this world confronts us, and speaking to the love of Christ and the promise of Easter.  As the chaplain of Austin College recently observed, “Easter is not about denial, it’s about defiance.” Our caring for one another speaks to the power of love to overshadow pain.

Depending on the circumstance, as I have confronted these events, I may not have even mentioned Jesus or faith or prayer.  I tend to follow St. Francis’ advice in these circumstances, that we should preach the gospel in all times and in all places, but only use the words when necessary.  I hope that I won’t hear Jesus telling me someday that I did it wrong, that he won’t recognize me because I didn’t recognize him in this context.  I know that it is only through my faith that I can stand to watch people I love suffer, and that I can go on living without making sense of these events.  I’ve begun to believe that, for those of us who follow Jesus, the work of bearing witness to the love of God through moments of pain may be the real cost of taking up the cross.

God’s great peace on you and your house,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis