Saturday, May 23, 2009
This past Friday, we watched a documentary interview with a contemporary priest, Fr. Steven Scheier, who lived an ordinary life of a priest, until he was near death in an accident. In the interview with Mother Angelica a few years ago, Scheier recounts his extraordinary story. On October 18, 1985, he was traveling from Wichita to his parish in Kansas. According to Fr. Tommy Lane, Fr. Scheier was involved in a terrible accident: a head-on collision with a pickup truck. Fr. Scheier was thrown from his vehicle. His entire scalp was cut off on the right side. He had suffered a broken neck, and the second cervical vertebra was broken. One of his parishioners who happened to be in the hospital was told he was being given a 15% chance to live. But he recovered unexpectedly and was able to return to his parish. He was saying Mass, and started reading the Gospel of Jesus' parable of the fig tree "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, `Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, `Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'" (Luke 13: 6-9). While reading it in the Church, the page became illuminated, enlarged and came off the lectionary towards him. After Mass, Fr. Scheier remembered a conversation that had taken place shortly after the accident. In that conversation Fr Scheier found himself standing before the judgment of Christ. He says the Lord took him through his entire life, and showed him how he had failed in his priestly service. Fr Scheier said “yes” to everything Jesus said about his life. Now before Christ he was talking to Truth and when you are talking to Truth you can’t give excuses. At the end of his judgment his sentence from Jesus was hell. Fr. Scheier said “yes” as that was the only logical thing he deserved. At that moment, however, he heard a woman say, “Son, will you please spare his life and his eternal soul?” The Lord replied, “Mother, he’s been a priest for twelve years for himself and not for me, let him reap the punishment he deserves.” “But Son,” she said, “if we give him special graces and strengths then let’s see if he bears fruit; if not, your will be done.” There was very short pause, after which Jesus said, “Mother, he’s yours.” Fr. Scheier experienced Jesus’ mercy but Mary was the one who interceded for him.
That was the interview which reminded everyone of the truth of our lives. Our eternal life depends on how we live our present life in this world. Although we know that God is all-loving and merciful, it does not free us from responding to the calls of the Spirit of Jesus who knocks on our doors relentlessly. The experience of Fr. Scheier is particularly relevant to our way of modern life. Especially when the beast is here to swallow every faithful, who can guarantee his eternal life? We are all, very likely, the fig tree and Mary, our mother, continues to implore her unique son as the vinedresser did in the parable. How long will the Master be patient? Our three years are not forever. This was a priest who performed his regular duties as required, but he himself confessed in the interview that he thought with his mind only and not with his heart. It is a mystery how God uses all things, even near-death experiences, to save souls. We know for sure from recent scientific research that the subjective element in Man's experience, in this case near-death experience, cannot be discounted as mere illusions. Here is a possible miracle but the real miracle is surely the transformation of this brother who "was dead and now is alive" (Luke 15: 32). This is the work of God who saves. He is our hope.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
The title of this post is that of a great book written by C. S. Lewis whose conversion from atheism to Christianity brought many fruits in the 20th century. The book was published and translated into many languages, not the least Arabic. That is how I learned about it. I read it first in Arabic some 30 years ago when it was published in Cairo, Egypt. My lecture here is about mere Christianity, but unlike Lewis, it is only a few lines long. In the Christian faith, God not only makes history and is beyond history, but also enters into it. He becomes a creature with all its limitation, even though he remains perfectly Divine with limitless power. In his humility, He was born in a manger, raised as a son of a carpenter, died on a cross as a criminal, and rose to eternal life when everyone was asleep. If Mary Magdalene did not tell his disciples, no one would have ever known! Mary herself thought he was the gardiner. The disciples traveling to Emmaus did not recognize him. A few days after his cruel death, he was walking and talking with them. When he appeared to the 10 apostles who were hiding for fear of the Jews, they first thought they were seeing a ghost! And when Thomas joined them, he also doubted that the Master was real until he touched the Master's wounds! For fourty days he spoke with them reassuring and confirming. For fourty days he showed them himself, now in his glorified body, ate with them and, before his ascension, blessed them. What transformed these fearful disciples? What made them go in the synagogues to preach and teach? What power made Stephen the first martyr utter the words "Forgive them" when the elders of the Jews were stoning him to death? I do not think this story can be brushed off as a fiction. The "enlightened" liberal Biblical scholars of the Enlightenment down to Bultmann in the 20th century sought to "demythologize" it. But more evidence shows otherwise. No one thinker now doubts the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. By all accounts, the empty tomb and the testimony of so many people, from the apostles including Paul in his early epistles to the 500 who saw Christ at once plus the many writings of early Christians are only the beginning. St. Paul himself described it in his first letter to the Corinthians written in th early 50s " But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. Then we are also false witnesses to God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead came also through a man." (1 Cor. 15: 12-21). According to contemporary Biblical scholars the firstfruits represent the portion of the harvest offered in thanksgiving to God which implies the consecration of the entire harvest to come. Christ's resurrection is not an end in itself; its finality lies in the whole harvest, ourselves. What is the meaning of the Resurrection for us TODAY. What does Christ recall to your memory? The young adults who attended the lecture gave beautiful testimonials from their own experience. Let's just go over one. One said that when she ignored a beggar her younger sister reminded her "What would Jesus do today if he were you?" Her answer was a person who felt and experienced solidarity with the beggar. She acted on it immediately, apologized to him and gave him food. You may act differently. However following her conscience, she did act. Christ was hidden in this beggar. He was in need as surely he is in many hungry people in the world. It does not matter how many times we worship in Church or how many times we take the Eucharist as long as we fill ourselves and ignore the other. She acted - Not only prayer but also action. We do not need to be scholars to follow Christ. In the simple things we can also become saints.