Saturday, February 13, 2016

Jesus rejected worldly power

Readings: Deut 26:4-10; Ps 91:1-2.10-15; Rom 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Forty days of Lent, 40 years in the wilderness, 40 days in the desert. Add to these the wanderings of father Abraham, to which Moses refers in our reading from Deuteronomy. In all these we can see how integrated is the holy season of Lent into salvation history.

It always bears noting when considering Jesus' three temptations that he truly had free will. If he did not, then his whole life was nothing more than a divine puppet show. Not believing he had free will easily leads to a form of docetism. Docetism, from the Greek verb meaning "to seem," is a heresy that understands Jesus as only seeming to be fully human. While there is much more that can and probably should be stated theologically concerning this, noting that he had free will in this context simply allows us to grasp that the three temptations were really tempting to him.

The second temptation Jesus rejected during his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness was the temptation to worldly power. I am in no position to say which, if any, of the three temptations was the most difficult for our Lord to resist. But I do know the temptation to worldly power is one the Church has a had a hard time resisting throughout her history. This temptation seems especially strong today given the waning influence the Church exercises in temporal affairs in Western countries, including the United States.

Whether on an international, national, local, or personal level it often seems easier to seek to impose the Gospel rather than live it fully and joyfully. This temptation, which is easy to see here in the United States during this presidential election year, makes Christians vulnerable to the siren songs of those who promise to restore "Christian values" to a nation they insist is badly in need of such a restoration. While it's not only possible, but necessary, to legislate morality, at least to some extent (are you going to foster a society that rejects the injunction not to murder, steal, lie and cheat?), what the Church can and ought to seek is the freedom to live our faith fully, which certainly includes the freedom to speak freely and prophetically on matters pertaining to our freedom as well as to the common good. But if our speaking is to be even credible, let alone prophetic, we must be faithful to the truth. If nothing else, this is exactly why the unjust HHS mandate has been an occasion for the Church to repent.

In my view, one of the best arguments against "religion" is that it is simply a means of social control. Such a view, one that arises from reality, in light of the reign of God as taught by Jesus, simply must be rejected. Why? Because the reign of God that Jesus came to usher in is not radical insofar as it does not return us to the roots of any known system of human governance, let alone put itself at the disposal of worldly rulers in order to consolidate power. In many very important ways, the reign of God subverts all known forms of human governance! Hence, Christians, to some degree, are failing if we're not seen as a danger to the state, or at least as a threat to the status quo. There's a reason "no prophet is accepted in his own native place" (Luke 4:24).

Bl. Oscar Romero, in a homily delivered in 1977, preached about the revolutionary nature of Christianity:
The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work
Another name for the "violence of love" is non-violence. As the witness of Archbishop Romero and many others demonstrates, non-violence is not passive. A person practicing non-violence confronts and resists evil courageously and with love. In light of the persistent temptation to worldly power, it seems impossible to emphasize too much that Jesus, throughout his life and ministry, eschewed worldly power. The basis for this comes right at the beginning of his ministry with his rejection of it in the desert.

Like the Israelites of old, who, when presenting their gift to the priest, in light of Jesus' time in he desert and his subsequent itinerant earthly ministry, which ended when the powers, recognizing the threat God's reign posed to them, crucified him, Christians, too, proclaim "My father was a wandering Aramean" (Deut 26:5). As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote to those Jewish Christians of old who were struggling because the opprobrium in which they were held because of their faith in Christ: "Therefore, Jesus also suffered outside the gate, to consecrate the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the reproach that he bore. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come" (Heb 13:12-14). Far from making what happens in the here and now irrelevant, understanding reality according to everything that constitutes it makes it matter all the more.

In his Letter to the Colossians, St. Paul insisted that by his Cross, Christ despoiled "the principalities and the powers," making "a public spectacle of them" and "leading them away in triumph by it" (Col 2:15). This is the vindication Christians seek, which, as Paul elsewhere observed, "is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18). In our second reading for this First Sunday of Lent, we hear what St. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome, a Church that if it had not already experienced fierce persecution, would experience it soon enough: "For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. For the Scripture says, No one who believes in him will be put to shame" (Rom 10:9-10).

Friday, February 12, 2016

"When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse . . ."

Here along the Wasatch Front it is cold, gray and a bit foggy. It's one of those days that it seems like it's 7:30 AM all day. It's weather that befits a Friday after Ash Wednesday. I'll be honest, it's a day that's a bit difficult for me to take, but I accept it with gratitude. If nothing else, it's a day that helps me be honest. It's only in being honest that I experience hope. My Lenten theme, shamelessly lifted from the title of Terry Eagleton's latest book, is "Hope without Optimism." It sounds much drearier than it actually is.

In my experience, not just my abstract view, hope lies beyond optimism. That sounds like a simple realization, but, at least for me, it is not. Just the other night, as I continued to read a book that in many ways resonates deeply, John Waters' Lapsed Agnostic, I was reminded of the need I have to surrender myself to reality, to the every day realities of my own life and not live so much as a prisoner in my own skull. This means letting go of my preconceptions, my fears, my insecurities, etc. I'll be honest, it's hard work. It's the acesis Don Giussani insists we must undertake.

While I am pretty sure I've featured it before, today's Friday traditio is David Gilmour and David Bowie singing Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." Indeed, when I was child of nine I stared at myself in the mirror for probably what only amounted to perhaps a minute - I did this after thinking a lot about death due to the news coverage of Jack Benny's passing (26 December 1974) - I caught a fleeting glimpse. It was when I realized - though I didn't have words to express it - that I am a relationship with the Mystery. This experience has very much shaped my life ever since. It was also between Christmas Day and New Year's Day that year that I arrived at the knowledge that death is not the end. And so, I believe it was on winter day during Christmas in 1974 that I had what Giussani might call an "elementary experience."

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Once a month or so I have the privilege of assisting my pastor at the weekly Mass for our parish school. On those occasions, Fr. René extends me the privilege of preaching to our wonderful St. Olaf's school community and our assembled parishioners. And so, on this Friday after Ash Wednesday, I preached. Below is my homily. As with all things I post here, it is offered with a prayer that, through the intercession of the patron of Καθολικός διάκονος, St. Stephen, it will be of some spiritual benefit to someone.

Readings: Isa 58:1-9a; Ps 51:3-6a; Matt 9:14-15

Throughout the history of the Church Friday has been observed as a day of penance. Just as every Sunday is a “little” Easter, so every Friday is a “little” Good Friday. Traditionally, the way Roman Catholics observe Friday as a day of penance is by not eating so-called “flesh-meat,” that is, the meat of warm-blooded animals. While not eating flesh-meat is a recommended way of observing all Fridays as days of penance, during the holy season of Lent not eating flesh-meat is obligatory, meaning it’s something our Mother, the Church, tells us we must do. It is certainly important to know and endeavor to live by the discipline of the Church, but not eating meat once a week will do little if anything in and of itself to conform you more to the image of Christ, to make you holy.

Isaiah took at least the elites of ancient Israel to task for observing days of fasting, but making their servants and employees labor hard on those days. In our first reading, the prophet addressed those who thought their fasting alone gained them favor with God. Isaiah even taunted them a bit by imagining those he addressed complaining to God, as saying, “Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” (Isa 58:3)

Too often we make Lent about doing external things, like giving up chocolate, or soda pop, or ice cream. Giving up these things is fine, if done in the proper spirit. But what is the proper spirit? Our responsorial Psalm, taken from Psalm 51, known as the Miserere, which is Latin for “mercy,” and is the first Psalm for Morning Prayer in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours every Friday, tells us what is the proper spirit: “For you are not pleased with sacrifices; should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” (Ps 51:18-19).

In our Gospel today the disciples of John the Baptist complain to Jesus that, unlike them and the Pharisees, his disciples do not fast. Our Lord explained that there was no need for his disciples to fast as long as he, the Bridegroom, was with them. But, after the Bridegroom was taken away his disciples would fast. So it is fitting, not just during Lent, but at other times, to both fast and abstain. Our fasting and abstinence, however, should be accompanied by increased prayer and selfless service to others. If it is not, then our fasting and abstaining is really just a weird form of spiritual dieting.

Without a doubt, here in the United States, we live in a wasteful culture of excess. The amount of food we waste, when so many go hungry, should cause us all to repent. As a result of living in a culture of excess, fasting or abstaining often seem to us like major sacrifices. In reality, how difficult is it really not to meat one day a week, or get by on one or two meals a day for a month-and-a-half, or to not eat at all two days a year? As Pope Francis often reminds us, there are many people in the world who are grateful to eat in one or two days what we consume in one meal. As Christians, this should concern us. And so one way of faithfully observing Lent is to eat one helping of what is served, eat it all, and then be done. Then serve your family by helping clean the kitchen after your meal.

God tells Isaiah the acceptable way to fast is basically to practice the Corporal Works of Mercy. What are the Corporal Works of Mercy? Feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; giving shelter to the homeless; visiting the sick, and visiting those in prison. All of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are depicted on the north wall of our Church. Doing one, some, or all of these things at some sacrifice to yourself will make your Lenten observance fruitful. It will cause God to take notice and bless your efforts by blessing those you serve. You see, Lent is not about you. Lent is about disciples of Jesus serving those in need for his sake and for the sake of God’s kingdom.

So, if you have not already, take home a Rice Bowl, which you can find at the back of the Church. Make it your goal over Lent to eat less and fill the Rice Bowl to overflowing with what you save from eating less. Also, pray more. Pray the Rosary, or at least one decade of the Rosary, every day. Don’t pray the Rosary for yourself, pray it for others. By doing these things Jesus will draw you closer to his Sacred Heart.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday: Lent begins

Lent begins today. It's the time to remember not so much our faithlessness, as to be reminded of God's faithfulness. We don't enter into Lent as though Christ never existed. We enter into Lent fully aware that the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, was born of the Virgin Mary, lived, loved, taught, suffered and died, was buried, rose again, ascended, and sent his Spirit to be the mode of his presence in and among us until he returns in glory. In other words, Lent, even Ash Wednesday, isn't the time to reflect on our unlovableness, on our infidelity, but on God's love and mercy. God is merciful because God is love.

I appreciated very much Pope Francis' short message for Lent, which I am sure was released awhile back, but I waited until today to read it. As one might expect, given the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the Holy Father's message is about experiencing God's mercy and then, being filled with mercy, acting mercifully towards others: "God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn."

In this year's Lenten message, Pope Francis emphasized inner conversion by means of practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I was struck by the Pontiff's insistence that "The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated."

We all need both divine and human mercy. As followers of Jesus, who is Divine Mercy incarnate, we are to be agents of mercy. In his message, the Pontiff highlights the fact that the story of salvation is a love story. He even notes that it will culminate in the wedding of Christ, the Bridegroom, and his Bride, the Church. He points out, "This love story culminates in the incarnation of God’s Son. In Christ, the Father pours forth his boundless mercy even to making him 'mercy incarnate'" (Misericordiae Vultus, 8).

I am very ambivalent about Ash Wednesday. I like vexing people, just a bit, by pointing out that it is not even a holy day of obligation. Does that mean I think you shouldn't go to Mass that you shouldn't receive ashes? Heavens no! Go. Receive. Nonetheless, without being too extreme, one must admit that there is a disjunction, perhaps what we might call a dialectical tension, between the very visible smearing of a bold black ashen cross on one's forehead and what Jesus warns his disciples about in our Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matt 6:1-6.16-18). If nothing else, I hope recognizing this tension gives you something to ponder.

I readily admit that I don't like walking around all day with ashes on my forehead. Since, as a deacon, I have day job, I serve at evening liturgies on Ash Wednesday. My own preferences and oddities aside, I urge you to keep in mind that just as the empirical evidence that Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharistic species is meant to be the lives of those of us who partake, people will not know that we are Christians by the ashes we receive once year and then proudly display - especially when we might use it as an occasion to scoff at the stupidity of those who don't know what it is- but by our love. Without love there is no mercy and without mercy there is no love.

Monday, February 8, 2016

I am not giving up alcohol for Lent

At least for me, the most obnoxious question as Lent approaches is, "What are you giving up for Lent?" Even for Roman Catholics who care about and seek to adhere to the discipline of the Church it is not necessary forego anything at all for the whole of Lent. In fact, maybe what someone might need is to take something up, rather than give something up. According to the discipline of the Church, what is required for the observance of Lent is to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from so-called "flesh meat" (i.e., eating the meat of warm-blooded animals) on Fridays in Lent. It is customary to give up something you enjoy, not because it is bad necessarily, as an act of penance. Predictably, in the late modern, or post-modern, U.S. Lent has become a form of therapy or yet another opportunity to live your best life now. As a result, people seek to lose weight, get in shape, quit smoking, quit drinking, etc., during this holy season. But doing those things is not really the point of Lent.

For a number years, last year included, I gave up alcohol for Lent. I am not giving up drinking this year. The reason for this is because last July I gave up drinking alcohol, apart from wine at Communion, completely and for good. In truth, I discerned way back in 2000 that I should quit drinking. Nonetheless, I persisted for 15 more years with some fairly successful, even quite extended, periods of abstinence. Last year I also seriously curtailed drinking coffee, giving it up completely for five months and only re-introducing it around Christmas time. These days, I don't drink coffee first thing in the morning, or even everyday. On most days when I drink coffee, I have a cup of de-caf. Maybe once or twice a week, usually in the afternoon, I enjoy a single cup of coffee. At this point, even enjoying a second cup would be no big deal. Both choices, prayerfully-discerned, have been for the best.

My relationship to coffee and caffeine, however, is very different from my relationship to alcohol. It's difficult for me to describe my relationship with drink, which is why I was so struck by John Waters' description of his own experience with drinking and then quitting drinking. In his book Lapsed Agnostic, in a chapter entitled "The Unquenchable Thirst," Waters wrote, "Just as the world of Harry Potter breaks down into wizards and Muggles, so it seems to me that the real world breaks down into those who by consent describe themselves as 'alcoholics' and people who can take a couple of drinks and leave it." Waters goes on to point out that the term "alcoholic" is misunderstood by most people most of the time. So misunderstood, in fact, that Waters, like myself, "would never publicly use the word to describe myself." Why? Because to most people, "an alcoholic is someone lying in the gutter clutching a bottle of wine wrapped in a newspaper." The adjective "alcoholic," Waters continues, in the minds of most people, equates to someone who has "thrown away everything he ever had because of his craving for this liquid poison." Here's where his writing began to hit home with me - "It was never like that for me." Indeed, it was never like that for me either.

I did not really make a bold announcement that I stopped drinking, at least not before now. As circumstances have given me occasion, I've let people with whom I socialize know. It's amazing how much adult socializing revolves around drinking. Most people are surprised that I've quit because they never perceived I had a problem because I never even came close to fitting the description of an alcoholic given above. While my reasons for drinking and occasions on which I would drink differ from his, like Waters,
My problem with alcohol related to the extent I was incapable of functioning without it. How much or how often I drank didn't matter. In fact, I could give up drink for weeks, or even months on end, but it took me many years to perceive these breaks, far from signalling an absence of dependency, were themselves entirely focused on the occasion of the next drink, projected weeks or months into the future - my birthday, St. Patrick's Day, the beginning of summer
It's a weird psychology that comes into play, but one with which I am all too familiar. I can remember years when all through Lent a big part of my focus was drinking the bottle of Beaujolais I usually had with my Easter lamb and my return to imbibing. So, I won't be giving up alcohol this Lent, or any Lent hereafter. And that is a good thing. As to the rest, what I am doing or not doing for Lent is between myself the Lord.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chosen, called, and sent

Readings: Isa 6:1-2a.3-8; Ps 138:1-5.7-8; 1 Cor 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

This week, the final Sunday before Lent begins, each of our three readings tells us about a calling issued and accepted. As Catholics we tend to use the word "vocation" instead of calling, but these words are synonymous, that is, they effectively mean the same thing. To my mind, one of the most important messages conveyed to us through hearing about the divine callings of Isaiah, Paul, and Peter is that our calling is in no way tied to our worthiness. The Lord will make a way for you to fulfill what he calls you to do if you have the courage to accept his call.

In our first reading Isaiah declared: "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isa 6:5). In our second reading, taken from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul pointed out to the Corinthian Christians - "For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (1 Cor 15:9). Finally, in our Gospel, St. Peter, the fisherman who, I think, somewhat skeptically and begrudgingly took fishing directions from a carpenter - who told him to set out in daylight and cast his nets into the water, after a night spent catching nothing (fishing was done at night)- after bringing in what sounds like an unprecedented haul, fell on his knees before Jesus and pleaded with him, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8).

To Isaiah, the man of unclean lips living amongst a people of unclean lips, God sent a seraph. A seraph is an angel who belongs to highest order of the nine-fold celestial hierarchy of angels. Seraphim, which is the plural of seraph, are associated with light, ardor, and purity. According to our reading, this seraph flew to Isaiah holding a burning ember "which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. 'See,' he said, 'now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.'" After this, Isaiah "heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?' 'Here I am,' I said; 'send me!'" (Isa 6:6-8).

Paul, after stating why he was not worthy to be an apostle, goes on to write, sounding perhaps a bit like Popeye the sailor man, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor 15:10a). What was Paul? He was an apostle, a first-hand witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, more importantly he was one who was sent to proclaim the evangel, the good news. This is why Paul wrote, "his grace to me has not been ineffective" (1 Cor 15:10a).

Our Lord's words to Peter after the fisherman's confession of unworthiness echo through the ages until the end-of-time: "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men" (Luke 5:10). With these words, Peter, too, is sent. It's important to ask what it was that Peter was not to fear. It doesn't strike me as very likely he feared fishing by the light of day, which was probably safer than fishing at night. I think what Peter was not to fear was his own unworthiness, his own limitations, his own lack of gifts and abilities, which were made all to obvious to him in light of Jesus' glory.

I remember years ago going on and on about my unworthiness to be a deacon with our then-Director of Diaconal Formation, who is a theologian and distinguished seminary professor. After listening to me for awhile, he said something like, "You're not worthy. Get over it. Nobody is." Those were helpful words, the very words I needed to hear and words I need to remind myself of from time -to-time, given my sometimes rigorist leanings.

Our readings this week reminded me of the first in-depth interview Pope Francis gave after being chosen to walk in the shoes of the Galilean fisherman. It was conducted by the Holy Father's fellow Jesuit, Fr. Anthony Spadaro and published in America magazine under the title "A Big Heart Open to God." The first question Fr. Spadaro posed to the Pontiff was, "Who is Jorgé Mario Bergoglio?" Pope Francis replied, "I do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner." I think this gives us a deep insight into why mercy is the centerpiece of Francis' papal ministry.

In baptism the Lord called you by name to serve him and sent you to usher in God's reign. Your call was confirmed in confirmation and is renewed each time you are sent forth from Mass. Lent is about preparing to celebrate the baptism of our Elect at the great Pascal Vigil and about renewing your own baptismal promises. The Sacrament of Penance is an extension of the Sacrament of Baptism. By receiving the mercy offered by the Father, through the Son, effected by the Spirit's power made available to us in this sacrament, you acknowledge your own unworthiness and place your trust in Christ, who bids you not to be afraid. Confession is where you learn firsthand that "perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18). It is also where you learn what was made known to Isaiah, Paul, and Peter, namely, "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Going to confession is an indispensable way to prepare for what happens at Easter.

The renewal of your vows at Easter can easily become an empty gesture, an exercise in mere ritualism, if there is no conversion of heart during Lent. Simply put, the renewal of baptismal promises should be more than words you speak. It should be you fearlessly saying yes to Christ once again. Stated succinctly, by virtue of your baptism, in which you died, were buried, and rose with Christ, you are called to selflessly serve others. During his Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy let make every effort to put into practice the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. By engaging in these out of love, not fear, or an oppressive sense of obligation, you will live out our baptismal calling.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Ideology, war, weed, and rock n' roll

From 0 to 60, that's how blogging usually works for me. I was beyond disappointed this week that Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky dropped out of the presidential race. Not that I think Sen. Paul was a perfect candidate, but, in my view, he was much better than any of the other candidates running for president in either party. My ideal candidate would be a fusion of Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders. The other issue that prompted the below rant, even more than Paul's dropping out of the race, is the current move to have young women register for the military draft. In the wake of these things, I quite spontaneously composed a rant this morning, which I initially posted on Facebook, not knowing how long it would be until I finished. In any case, file this post, too, under the tab, originated by Terry Eagleton, Hope without Optimism. I apologize up-front if what follows comes across as a bit incoherent.

Thinking about the logic in play in having women register for the draft, it seems to me one of those cases, not of "equality" (equality, rightly conceived, can account for differences), where a deceptive agenda was in play - those who pushed for women to voluntarily assume direct combat jobs kept saying it would never be mandatory and people foolishly bought it. By "deceptive agenda," I mean ideology. In terms of war, we've long since waded into Orwellian territory.

There are precious few in Congress in either party who aren't chicken hawks. Hence, there is virtually nobody who will speak out against the increasing militarization of our society. I am a 24 year veteran. I am a combat veteran. So, whether you agree or disagree with me, this is one issue on which I have earned the right to weigh in. With Rand Paul out of the running, there is not one Republican candidate who isn't hell-bent on increased military actions abroad. The legacy of the last 13 years, what we have wrought in many countries, ought to give any sane person pause. But no, we destroy countries, cultures, societies and then we balk at accepting people who want to flee the hell we've created as refugees, worried about what they might do to us. How's that for moral irony? Trump is the result of this noxious state-of-affairs, his campaign and rhetoric are manifestations of the monster we've created.

Clinton is really just a Republican who is honest (now, after dissembling and being dishonest for years) about her socially liberal views. She and Dick Cheney are cut out of the same cloth. Her big selling point now is that she is a pragmatist. The last thing we need right now is another amoral pragmatist, which really means she'll do whatever she has to do, say whatever she has to say, to stay in power. Let's face it, all of the Republicans believe the same things vis-à-vis marriage, abortion, etc., or are at least "pragmatic" about them. Of course, they appeal to their "base" by pretending to oppose these things, but intend to do nothing if elected, apart from making a few intentionally ineffective gestures.

Letting women voluntarily assume direct combat roles is the same as assisted suicide resulting in euthanasia, so-called same-sex marriage resulting in polygamy, or brothers, cousins, etc. "marrying" each other, and medical marijuana resulting in legalizing pot. I live in a "conservative" state that is rapidly buying into all these lies. They're morally enlightened (i.e., amoral) pragmatists to a person. My own state rep, who is Republican, LDS, doctor, is four-square for assisted suicide. Does he know my views? You bet your ass he does. I told him I don't want doctor who wants to kill people anywhere near me.

As Jimmy Carter observed decades ago, during the time he was lamenting what he perceived as a malaise into which people in the U.S. had fallen, that we will never have any better government that we deserve. Sounds plausible, but the fundamental assumption is faulty. But let someone with the stomach for it morally parse the hellish morass of pseudo-reality that is our presidential election system and the candidates it produces.

I'll end with an anthem that I tend to listen to quite a bit during presidential election years. This version of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" reflects the reality of our aging. For those who object to such things, Pete uses some foul language in his introduction to the song. I have to say, I still miss Keith Moon, who remains one of the greatest rock n' rollers of all time. At least today, I am far more interested in great rock n' rollers than I am in who will be the next POTUS.

Cultivating wonder, being attracted to reality

It occurred to me late last evening, as I realized I was not going to post a Friday traditio on Friday, that I had yet to post anything in February. Frankly, I posted more in January than I thought I would be able to do at the beginning of the year. Perhaps February, with Lent coming so early (Ash Wednesday is this week), will be a slower month. We'll see.

This week I began reading John Waters' 2007 book, Lapsed Agnostic. It is at one and the same time a deeply personal and very broad book. Waters, who is Irish, writes in a deeply insightful way about the Emerald Isle. While some of what he writes is specific to Ireland, especially the Catholic Church's role in and relationship to Irish society, which serves as case-in-point of the how the Church should not engage the state and society - though the two current archbishops Martin (Diarmuid and Eamon) are a wonderful breath of fresh air and remarkable pastors - most of it is transferable to the cultural, social, and political situation in the United States.

John Waters

Waters, who is a well-known rock journalist, while chronologically a baby-boomer, and well-aware of that fact in both its good and bad aspects, writes like a member of my generation, known as Gen X. Rock n' roll has no better apologist than Waters. Pointing to Paul Morely's 2003 book, Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City, he notes Morely's view that "Kraftwerk were sad." Here's his citation from Morley:
Sad about some things. Sad about other things. It was the sadness of life, the sadness that life goes, in ways that are beyond reason, very much more nowhere than somewhere. It was the sadness of knowing that you must try to head somewhere knowing that in reality we are nowhere. The sadness of doing something knowing it all comes to nothing. The sadness that the excitement of experience dissolves into an eternity beyond experience
While, in my view, Morley's is a well-written insight, Waters counters beautifully:
When I heard Kraftwerk I didn't think of them as sad. But I felt sad, just as, hearing other bands, I felt different things. The grown-up world tended then, as it does now, to regard youthful obsession with music as simply an expression of some yearning for identity - a noise with which to declare oneself. It isn't that hardly at all, but mainly a search for meaning, for affirmation, comfort and self-recognition. It is an intellectual, an imaginative and spiritual search, and it is directed at pop culture because the known, conventional world fails to echo the young person's proper sense of wonder and attraction
Of course, as I age the role music plays for me changes, I would say, even at 50, there is precious little "the conventional world" echoes to my sense of wonder and attraction.

Luigi Giussani

Cultivating, maintaining, wonder and attraction in middle age is no easy thing. But it's important work. It's also a great argument for have a lot of children. This goes to what drew Waters to the writings of Msgr Luigi Giussani, a person both of my readers will recognize as someone whose work has dramatically impacted me. What struck Waters, reading Don Gius as an adult, presumably for the first time, was this from his book The Religious Sense: "Picture yourself being born, coming out of your mother's womb at the age you are now at this very moment in terms of your development and consciousness. What would be the first, absolutely your initial reaction? If I were to open my eyes for the first time in this instant, emerging from my mother's womb, I would be overpowered by the wonder and awe of things as a 'presence.'"

Our very late Friday traditio is Kraftwerk's "The Man-Machine." Recorded in 1978 for the album of the same name (I resisted the temptation to use "eponymous" again), "Man-Machine" reflects the album's overarching concept, which dealt with the "robotization" of advanced civilizations.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jesus: Love, death, and life eternal

Readings: Jer 1:4-5.17-19; Ps 71:1-6.15-17; 1 Cor 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30

In posting yesterday's traditio, almost as an afterthought, I noted, keeping in mind that it was seeing lovers kissing by the Berlin Wall that prompted David Bowie to write "Heroes" - "Love has political implications, always and everywhere, in all times and places." As I looked at the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) this morning, passing through what is perhaps St. Paul's most well-known and probably best-loved piece of writing, even if it is usually liturgically employed in a badly out-of-context manner, and arriving at the Gospel, these words sprang back into my mind.

In (literally) seeking to flesh this out a bit more, something I read recently - though published nearly 10 years ago - also came to mind. It is from Terry Eagleton's review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion that appeared in the London Review of Books (see "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching"):
The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you
I can think of no better illustration of this than Jesus' treatment at the hands of those present at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth on that Sabbath when he quite directly and unambiguously proclaimed who he is and what he came to do. It's important that we don't treat the Lord's fellow Nazarenes with too much contempt. Why? Because, more than we care to admit, if we're honest, we react to the reign of God in a similar manner.

Our Gospel for today marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry according to St. Luke. As we know, his ministry culminated in his passion, death, and resurrection. Especially with Lent rapidly approaching, it's vital that in our rush to resurrection we don't skip his passion and death. Because of our baptism, our lives as Christians should follow this same, cruciform, pattern. To love in the manner described by Paul, in both its positive and negative aspects, is the most subversive and revolutionary way to live. We know what happens to subversives and revolutionaries. But living this way is what truly makes a Christian a Christian and is what makes being a Christian so difficult that it kills you.

Something else that struck me reading this Gospel was Jesus' escape, not that he escaped the furious mob against improbable odds, though he apparently did, but that, as Luke records, "Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away" (Luke 4:30- emboldening and italicizing mine). What I was struck by, holding in mind the rest of Luke's Gospel, is that Jesus seems to never have returned to Nazareth. In other words, he "went away" and stayed away. I think we run this risk whenever we refuse to let the Gospel challenge us, preferring instead to engage faith only according to our preconceptions, that is, without conversion. It is precisely allowing ourselves - at least those of us who live comfortable lives in stable, secure, and prosperous societies - to be confronted by the radical message of the Gospel that Pope Francis' entire papal ministry is geared towards. This simply must happen if we are not to be like the Nazarenes, people who thought they knew Jesus all too well and so dismissed him far too blithely.

This week one of the great, albeit lesser known, French New Wave directors, Jacques Rivette, passed away. In the wake of his passing I read a lovely and relatively short article about his oeuvre. The piece, "Jacques Rivette: Slave to Beauty," written by David Thompson in The Guardian, like Eagelton's piece, was published nearly a decade ago. Writing about how Rivette, despite making visually magnificent movies - in keeping with the art form of cinema - never let the visual take over entirely, Thompson observed that in Rivette's films, "The visual is a given; it is the norm; it is the world, or its engine - and Rivette, without reservation, loves that world even when it frightens him. I doubt he has ever composed a shot without seeking both grace and an austere absence of all those signs that say: 'Here is grace'" (emboldening and italicizing emphasis mine).

Ah, to love the world without reservation, even when it frightens me! Isn't this the provocation of Jesus? If so, therein lies the goal of my life! While I don't want to delve into this now, such a mission is in no way at odds with contemptus mundi. In fact, the two are perfectly harmonious and not merely in some nebulous "dialectical" manner.

It seems to me that an essential feature of the experience of grace is that it lacks neon signs that say: "Here is grace." I believe those present in the Nazareth synagogue that Sabbath long ago also lacked such signs. If the earthly ministry of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, shows us anything it is that it was not intuitively obvious to the casual observer that he is Lord and Messiah, the very Son of God, the Savior of the world. This is why spiritual praxis, especially the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, taught us by Christ himself, are so important. Practicing these is important so the "visual" acuity of our hearts improves. Only in this way can we "see" grace.

What Rivette's films and so many other works of art, as well as nature, show us is that, without a doubt, beauty is the most perceptible sign of grace. While beauty, unlike love, may not kill, she certainly wounds and leaves a scar.

As Karl Rahner, that most cerebral of theologians, forthrightly observed: "In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all." Or, as Don Giussani put it, we're "either protagonists or nobodies."

Friday, January 29, 2016

"And the shame, was on the other side"

It seems I'm not quite done with David Bowie yet. As a result, our Friday traditio for the last Friday in January is Blondie covering Bowies "Heroes" live in London way back in 1980. "Heroes" is the title track off the eponymous album, which is the second of Bowie's Berlin's Trilogy, sandwiched between Low and Lodgers.

Debbie Harry & David Bowie

The song "Heroes" was inspired by Bowie seeing his producer, Tony Visconti, kissing his girlfriend in front of the Berlin Wal, near the recording studio they were using and nearby where they lived in West Berlin.

I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

Love has political implications, always and everywhere, in all times and places. Plus, it's easy to forget that Blondie, apart from having the stunning Debbie Harry fronting, was a very good band.