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Fr John’s Reflection 24th Sunday of the Year

24th Sunday of Ordinary Time – 15th September

To whom do I confess my sins?

There has been much debate over recent months since the Royal Commission on the sacrament of confession and about the seal of confession. Many jurisdictions have enacted laws or are proposing laws to mandate what is heard in this sacramental setting as reportable if a person confesses to having abused a child to the priest. The question has largely focussed on what is being confessed and who it is being confessed to. In the civil understanding, the knowledge is revealed to another human being whereas in the sacramental understanding the priest acts in the name of Christ and so that the person is bearing their soul to God. I think what lies at the heart of the issue is whether a person is truly penitent and therefore able to take responsibility for their actions before God and before the Christian community. A person should never approach confession solely for their own good but out of genuine desire to reform their lives and to be open to being transformed by God. The sacrament should never be seen as cheap grace or a get out of jail free card! The fruits of a good confession should prompt a person to care for others and not just for themselves. It is never just about the healing of the individual but the healing of the whole community.

So how do we assist a person to make the first steps towards a good confession and a penitential life? I think that we should not see a good confession just as a private act which a person undertakes solely for their own redemption. This is not just about having a private conversation with God but a place where we consider how our actions have both seen and unseen consequences on those around us. These can either cause harm or benefit the life of another. This is where we need to reflect the orientation of our life and the direction in which we are heading. When we look at the younger son we see a person who wants to have all the benefits of the Good News on his terms rather than with the closeness of a loving relationship with God.  In a similar way, the older son sees himself as slaving for the Father but lacks the insight of what this relationship means. He lives in the same house but also the closeness of that loving relationship alludes him. The difference is that the Father looks out for both of them and takes the initiative. He provides the grace necessary for us to take the initiative to reach out to those who may seem lost or even to ourselves, when the focus is on an open squandering of the gifts or the critical judgment of others. God enables us to be attentive to that need for mercy, healing and forgiveness.

I feel that the deeper question that our community faces is how do we see reconciliation as a communal activity rather than just a private matter. At the heart of this activity is the seeking of the will of God which brings healing to our communities. This is more than just an attitudinal shift which seeks the restoration of what has been lost but rather the development of a reconciled heart. Much has been done to ensure that our communities become places where children can grow to maturity in safety but there is a deeper call to encounter a God who transforms our lives to heal and be healed from the harm that lies in the human heart. This is never about just pious intentions but a genuine desire to allow God’s grace to be discovered and lived. Without it, we will live in quiet desperation looking for a person who can rescue us for ourselves rather than reaching out for the person who can restore us into full communion. It will rely more on our efforts rather than God’s promptings to be reconciled and reconcilers.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 23rd Sunday of the Year

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – 8th September

Building on good foundations

Planning is an essential part of life. It calls us to seek out a vision which inspires us into action and also to review the place from which we begin the journey. Nobody starts life from ground zero even when we have the desire to make all things new. We are formed not only by our own development but also by the history and the community in which we live. Our relationships are created by recognising that we are living stones, not dead weight which is the burden of our circumstances. We start to recognise that what we build on is not just an infrastructure created by an institution but a living hope to encounter what we most value in our community.

Yet as Christians we are more than bricks and mortar. We are called to recognise that we are flesh and blood. This is essential if we are to live the Christian life. It is always too easy to focus on the material and tangible outcomes rather than on who we seek to become as disciples. We notice this even in our Churches and related institutions where the first order of business is given to finances, policies and procedures. These are all necessary but they should flow from whom we seek to become rather than consuming the majority of our energy. They should seek to be tools not masters of our destiny. The first order of business which Jesus addresses to his disciples and then Paul addresses to Philemon is the desire to surrender all to Christ. This is the sense of being available and directed by the spirit of God in all things.

Yet, in seeking to discern where we are led, we grapple with the reality of our own humanity. We seek a pearl of practical wisdom which sees dimly the glory of God in our daily lives. God works with us not against us in making the first step from what we know about ourselves and what we know about others. It is this relational aspect which helps us to see our life as a gift which is to be lived for God and for others. Our lives are not formed solely by our own works but rather by how those works reveal the fundamental life-giving relationship which is their source. People are formed by this relationship rather than carefully prepared programs or projects which we can initiate out of our own desires. God calls us to seek together that which leads to peace in our own hearts and the hearts of our community. What God seeks is for us to surrender our whole selves in the service of the Kingdom. This should be the foundation on which we build which is the living heartbeat of God and the way our lives echo that rhythm in our own lives.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 22nd Sunday of the Year

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time – 1st September

What’s in it for me?

What am I doing this for? This question can loom large in life when we seek to discover what the result may be for all our effort. We can consider whether the goal is worth devoting our energy to and whether the reward is really worth it. The emphasis is on engaging in a particular task for the hope of a promised or anticipated reward. This makes common sense, in many fields of life we are called to discover what we want to spend our life doing. Yet the problem is that once we have achieved one thing we start to feel a sense of dissatisfaction and start to look for a new endeavour. Our life can easily become a to-do list which we tick off at the end of each day.

The readings for this weekend promise a deeper reality about how we can find a place within side ourselves where we discover a God who calls us to be humble and at home. When we hear the word humility we can start to react strongly against it for fear that it will diminish our abilities or limit our choices. Yet Jesus points to a very different reality that we are not the centre of the universe and that our spiritual journey is not a pilgrimage we make on our own. He points to a connection between our prayer, our environment and our actions. This is not just about seeking the best for ourselves but seeking an outcome which is good for those who are considered to be on the margins of our society. Jesus does broaden our vision beyond narrow self-interest to a more global perspective where each person is seen as daughter and son of God. This is a vision which sees that the realm of God is proclaimed and we live in a world where our actions are directed towards living out that in vision.

What this calls us to consider each day is how we examine how God has been guiding us in each day and how ready we are to respond to those promptings. The focus then seeks to discover how we live each day in a communion of faith which embodies the Gospel. Our way of living changes to see what we are called to become. In this becoming, we start to notice the way to live and act differently. The Gospel is no longer words written in scripture but words written on our hearts and translated into action by our lives.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 21st Sunday of the Year

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time – 25th August

Where are you coming from?

Whenever we meet a new person often the first questions reflect what we consider important about life. Hence the most universal questions in the western world are what do you do and where do come from? What quickly follows are incidental questions about where do they live and more specific questions about their family, education and their interests. These all help us to gain an understanding of what forms the background of the person. Yet what they do not tell us is who they are and what they think. These more intimate questions come as we build trust with the person and cause us to engage with them in a way which is not just a collection of facts. We are called to experience who they are and what forms them to be the person they are.

In a similar way, our understanding of the person cannot just be engaged from a textbook or someone else’s reflection on their life. No matter how deep the insight, we are called to recognise that what intrigues us about the person cannot be learnt by hearsay or by second-hand reflection by another. This is especially important when we encounter the person of Jesus in prayer. He needs to meet us as a real person, we are called day by day to set aside time for us to be with him and to discover the ways in which he is present to us. This calls us to make a priority for this reflective time which we are called to consider as central to our Christian life. This is not just about finding the “right” method of prayer but rather a heart to heart meeting of what we consider central to who we are. We need to discover what satisfies and sustains us in a relationship which is pivotal to who we are called to become. By discovering this place of self-knowledge we encounter God who motivates us and sustains us. 

This is where we need to discover the language in which God most easily communicates with us. What moves us into action and helps us to understand the universal call to respond to the Good News. By pondering on how we are in daily life and reflecting on what brings us life we move closer to God’s purpose and mission. This is not just engaged with as isolated individuals but as a communion which enables us to be drawn into solidarity of faith. It builds on a tradition which is ever ancient and ever new. The life-giving spirit which in every age challenges us to be faithful to the Word that dwells within us. Each day we are called to become more the person God has loved into being by reflecting that love in our prayer, study and action. In this way, our life becomes centred on God who seeks to draw us closer. This mystery is not just a one-way street but rather a pilgrimage where we discover who we are. As we walk by the way we discover the person who walks close by our side and helps us to notice who we truly are.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 20th Sunday of the Year

Marathon not a sprint

There are many how-to books that we can buy in the bookshops or borrow from the library. They seek to give examples of how the author has adopted a certain method which they wish to apply to how we should live, how this will be successful for another. The temptation to swallow another person’s life whole is alluring especially when a person appears on talk shows and appears on radio slots which promote what they have to sell. Yet like all advice, it has to be tested in the marketplace and pondered in our prayer. While we can turn to the wisdom of others we need to see what moves us to become who we truly are. We have to discover what sets our lives on fire with faith, hope and love. This cannot just be kindled by another’s insight but only through our own willingness to engage with the relationship which will lead us closer to God and the mission entrusted to us. The goal of our life is not so much a task to be completed but a relationship which is to be sustained. It is in this relationship that we discover our own unique calling which will help others to discover who they are called to be.

In our own age, there is an increasing recognition that the call to live a life which is faithful to God and to others is becoming more complex. This is not just about living private lives which see our faith as being only about our own self-improvement. Our faith calls us to give witness that at the heart of all life God creates us for a good purpose. This is why we seek to create a culture of life which sustains people from conception to birth into eternal life. In a culture which increasingly seeks to treat human life as a commodity rather than a gift, we can lose a sense of hospitality which welcomes life. When we start to see life as disposable or consumable then our sense of values change. We measure people by their usefulness and convenience rather than by their fundamental dignity and worth. By realising that Christ calls us to an incarnate way of living we see that each person is both body and spirit. This changes how we live and what we stand for in caring for others. This is especially important when we seek to protect the lives of the most vulnerable. Our culture and our society are shaped by how we give a voice to those who have no voice of their own.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 19th Sunday of the Year

19th Sunday of Ordinary Time – 11th August

Listen! I have been reflecting over the last month on how our relationship with God is fundamental not only to our prayer but the way we live. I think some of the difficulties that we find in our prayer are that we concentrate on whether we are achieving a closeness which permeates all our interactions. There is often a trusting solely in our own efforts or in seeking a silver bullet which will make sense of who we are seeking to enter into a relationship with. Often these can have echoes of the first question asked by the disciples where they approach Jesus and ask where do you live and he says come and see. This is where our searching for God becomes an activity that we undertake amidst many other activities. We acknowledge its importance but somehow we are the person who chooses when and where we will pray and what will be at the forefront of our lives. Yet as we enter deeper into prayer we recognise interplay between what we consider important and what God considers is important. While we can be engaged in many things which help us to know about God at the heart of our prayer God wishes to know us. The gentle art of letting down our defences and taking off our masks to be truly known can cause us fear and anxiety wondering if we are truly known will we ever be the same. Yet in reaching out to us God helps us to discover it is from this place of being truly known as our true self that we can discover the call which is unique to each person. God calls us to be ourselves and in knowing ourselves we discover what it is that we can devote our lives to. Ultimately this is at the heart of the pilgrimage journey that we take. We are called to be companioned along the way where we discover the God who walks with us. Rather than searching outside ourselves for this relationship, he draws us deeper into the place that God already calls home. We are not called to be aliens in a foreign land but rather fellow travellers who accompany each other on the way. As Jesus concludes when Thomas asks him what he is called to do Jesus points to himself and says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” By searching each day for where God is always present we can see that God’s grace is not beyond our reach or outside the realm in which we live. He walks with us, talks with us and breaks bread with us. May your hearts burn within you as you listen to His voice.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 18th Sunday of the Year

How do I get to the other side

I am often reminded of the conversation between two people on opposite sides of the road. One calls out to the other, “How do I get to the other side?” The person responds, “You are on the other side!” Sometimes this can be our experience of prayer, that somehow if we cross over into a different realm we will be more present to God and God will be more present to us. Yet the truth is more dynamic when we hear Jesus say, the Kingdom of God is within you. This is the most surprising and stunning revelations that we find it hard to wrap our minds around it. We tend to have a false understanding that God is far distant from our experience much like Better Midler’s song, “From a distance, God is watching us!” Yet this is not the truth of the incarnation. God breaches the gap to draw us closer.
The pilgrimage of life, therefore, is not one of travelling from one place to another but discovering how God is present in our day to day lives. Our prayer seeks to help us rest in that place where God has always been. God seeks us out not to just know about but to be known by that life-giving Spirit which wells up inside us and calls us to be our true selves. Trust yourself to God in prayer today!

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection The Feast of the Transfiguration

Feast of the Transfiguration – 6th August

How we listen to another indicates the way we will live our lives.

The Transfiguration puts the same words before us that we hear at the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist: “This is my beloved son, listen to him”. This is not just about hearing what he said or reading what has been written. It is allowing his life to touch our own.

We encounter Jesus by allowing his living word to engage us more deeply. To ponder how it becomes one with us and shapes how we think and act. This heartfelt response challenges us to not be afraid that God reaches out to us to enter into a living and life giving relationship.

We are called to listen to his voice in the way we live.

Fr. John Armstrong

“The intellectual quest is exquisite, like pearls and coral. But it is not the same as the spiritual quest. The spiritual quest is on another level altogether. Spiritual wine has a subtler taste. The intellect and the senses investigate cause and effect. The spiritual seeker surrenders to wonder.” (Rumi Wisdom; trans. Timothy Freke)

Fr John’s Reflection 17th Sunday of the Year

17th Sunday of the Year – 30th July

There is often a subtle distinction between choosing what is right and wrong and what is good and evil. The first deals with observable acts which can be seen to be right or wrong according to a moral code or enacted law. The second deals with the unseen motivation of the person which seeks to discover what is good or evil.

A person can do the right thing with evil intent, just as a person can do the wrong thing with good intent. This is what Solomon prays for as he seeks to take leadership of the people of Israel. It is not just about being knowledgeable but also about being wise. How do you apply the particular law for the particular purpose it was intended to govern?

There is probably a whole book that could be written and have been written about the principle of discernment. Essentially though, it is about the head and the heart acting in union for the good of the person and the good of the community. Jesus often taught this as well, it is not sufficient to know only the law but also to know the heart of the law giver.

We need to seek for that pearl of great price which draws us deeper into relationship with God and with the community we are called to be part of. This visible and invisible reality is what binds us together.

Discernment is not just about making good decisions but about making wise choices about who we will become. They bring a different quality and tenure to our lives. They help us to discover that the things we do flow out of who we seek to become and who we become shapes the things we do.

Fr. John Armstrong

“The intellectual quest is exquisite, like pearls and coral. But it is not the same as the spiritual quest. The spiritual quest is on another level altogether. Spiritual wine has a subtler taste. The intellect and the senses investigate cause and effect. The spiritual seeker surrenders to wonder.” (Rumi Wisdom; trans. Timothy Freke)

Fr John’s Reflection 16th Sunday of the Year

16th Sunday of the year – 23rd July

Brothers and sistersThe Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groaning.. And the one who searches hearts knows what the intention of the Spirit is, because he intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will”                                                                                                          Romans 8.26-27

This passage of scripture particularly struck me when I was reading through the Gospel about the darnel and the wheat. In many cases we put in a great deal of effort into making sure that we accomplish something in our spiritual life. There is a sense that we need to get it right and line up everything in a row.

In this scenario we put a lot of responsibility on ourselves and seeking God on our own terms. However, there are times when at the end of the day we struggle to make sense of what is happening in the world. Those times when we seemed to solve all the problems of the world over a cup of coffee seemed to have disappeared into the mist of the day. We look at what has happened and what is happening and we seek to make sense of it all. We want God to discover us rather than it all being about ourselves.

This is why in the examen at the end of the day we need to be present to God if only for a few moments. I would propose that it can be done quite simply by seeking to discover to what God wants us to be present:

  •  For what are we thankful?
  • Where do we discover ourselves becoming most alive?
  • What deadened us or drained us of energy?
  • What should we seek to be present to tomorrow?

This is not about labouring over the day but rather seeing what floats to the surface and of what God wishes us to be most aware.. The sense of being present to God in this way incarnates our faith not just based on our own abilities and insights but on how God is drawing us deeper into a relationship of life and love.

Fr. John Armstrong

“The intellectual quest is exquisite, like pearls and coral. But it is not the same as the spiritual quest. The spiritual quest is on another level altogether. Spiritual wine has a subtler taste. The intellect and the senses investigate cause and effect. The spiritual seeker surrenders to wonder.” (Rumi Wisdom; trans. Timothy Freke)