Monday, May 29, 2017

A few barely coherent notes on a thing called "spirituality"

The Lord does not lead me to himself merely for my own sake, but for his sake and the sake of others.

The above thought came to me as I was silently preparing to serve at Mass this morning. I was tempted to write that it came to me unbidden, but I always bid the Lord to speak to me in some way. It is by no means the case that he always does so.

This May has not been the most prolific month in the not-so-illustrious history of Καθολικός διάκονος. In fact, I had the feeling throughout most of the month of being a faltering blogger. Blogging wasn't the only thing I felt faltering. I don't mind sharing that from about midway through Lent until early last week, my spiritual life was faltering. The reason for this is simple: my spiritual practice, or my practice of the spiritual disciplines, waned almost to the point of disappearing. This happened because I allowed myself to become way too busy (again) and, as a result, overly anxious. Over the past week or so, by the grace of God, I have begun again. To paraphrase Pater Tom (Merton), when it comes to the spiritual life, we are all always only beginners.

The spiritual task I think the Lord has given me for now is to be at peace with myself in his presence. This requires stillness and silence, two things I cherish, but that I have gotten away from practicing. Once lost, it requires effort to regain the ability to enter into silence through physical and mental stillness.

At least for me, the great battle of middle age stems from the realization that at 51, in all probability, more of my life lies behind me than before me. If not, then I will live to be at least 103. Closely related to this realization is coming to grips with my limitations, which is not to say I am incapable of learning new things or any self-improvement, but that there are certain things that are no longer possibilities for me. Apart from sometimes thinking that I've wasted most of life so far, this is liberating. Without a doubt, the biggest battle of all remains overcoming myself.

I am currently reading Thomas Nevin's The Last Years of Saint Thérèse: Doubt and Darkness, 1895-1897. It is a remarkable book. One that I would say is indispensable for any devoteé of the Little Flower. This book is indispensable because Thérèse Martin is often the victim of the silliest of sentimental reductions. I learned of Nevin's book by reading another book, one that I also highly recommend: Fr. Tomáš Halík's Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us.

Let's face it, there is nothing more disheartening than self-serving and sentimental reductions of the Little Way of the Little Flower. Such reductions abound, written by well-meaning Christians who really have no grasp of the charism given to Thérèse Martin. Our Holy Mother, the Church, grasps the depth of the witness of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Making the Little Flower a Doctor of the Church is proof of this. Thérèse is a saint for the twenty-first century, someone who was very far ahead of her time. "Bearing the Cross of Community" is the title of the third chapter of Nevin's book. In this chapter, Nevin gives the reader a glimpse of what Thérèse's "Little Way" looked like in practice. To the final section of the third chapter Nevin gave the title "Seeking Escape from Self."



While, as Christians, we do not believe or anticipate the annihilation of the self, but live in the hope of living forever as self-conscious resurrected beings with physical bodies, we do seek liberation from the self- not the body, which is the instrument we're given with which to love. Love of self is exhausting, consuming as it does one's spiritual, mental, and physical resources. Whether we know it or not, we long to be people for others; people whose entire being is consumed with love of God and neighbor; people who think of ourselves last, if at all. Forget the run-away bestseller from several years ago, The Secret, which sought to forward something called "the law of attraction," by means of which we draw to ourselves everything we want, meaning money, success, hot women and the like, the secret to happiness is grasping your need to be a person for others.

There are a few things from this short section of Nevin's sub-chapter that, I think, bear noting. In Nevin's own words, Thérèse told her sister Céline: "The more helpless one is... the more loving is God" (117). In her own words, Thérèse wrote: "He prefers to see you stumble in the night upon the stones of the way than to walk in the full light of day on an enameled path of flowers which might slow you down" (117). Writing again to Céline, Thérèse insisted: "Yes, it's one's sheer nothingness enough to humble oneself and sustain one's imperfections gently. There's the real sainthood!" (121) Writing to Pauline, who, like Céline, was Thérèse's natural sister and a Carmelite sister in the same cloistered community, who served for many years as Prioress of their convent, Sister Marie de la Trinité, just a few months before Thérèse's canonization, observed, referring to the Little Flower, whom she knew well: "What canonized saint has ever spoken like this: 'We others,' [Thérèse] told me, 'we're not saints who weep for their sins, we rejoice in them as they serve to glorify the Good Lord's compassion" (121). This passage from Marie de la Trinité's letter to Pauline prompted Nevin to observe:
If Thérèse did not reach the bathyspheric [there's your word to look up today] perceptions of sin that Dante records in his Commedia, she was well informed, by herself and by her sisters, both natural and spiritual, that a futile self-oriented longing, and ever turning of self into Self, moves diametrically against the truth that must always be directed to God. Self also moves against charity, which can only be directed to others (121-122)
Obsessing over one's faults and failings is self-love, a way of rejecting God's love, which is at work pulling us beyond ourselves.

Thérèse's "Little Way" is not only reduced, but is obliterated when it is made into a Pelagian path of perfection that presumes human perfectibility without the need of God. Very often, Nevin points out, Thérèse's "'way' has been construed as little daily acts by which one can work toward a cryptic sainthood" (120). "What has not been given sufficient emphasis," he continues, "is Thérèse's own model of a studied imperfection, an attention to daily inadequacies and failings" (120). "Her way of imperfection"- this is important - "marked the path of trustfulness she wished to give God. Without continuous imperfection and a continuous sense of it, trust could fall into presumption of one's sufficiency. Thérèse is not explicit but she hints at a creeping Arianism [not a transposing error on my part; Nevin uses "Arianism," but I am quite sure he means Pelagianism], the heresy of self-advancement, wherever a steady conviction of one's inadequacy and weakness may falter" (120).

In what Nevin describes as "the liveliest of her plays," Le Triomphe de l'Humilité, Thérèse puts the following words on the lips of Lucifer, words with which he seeks to instruct demons on how best to invade the convent: "suggest to them above all to be self-centered, for self-love is the weakness of every human being, it's even found in the cloistered communities, and I assure you, my friends, it's my most reliable weapon for slowing down he love of God in the hearts of all his nuns..." Given that she identifies self-love as "the weakness of every human being" it seems reasonable to extrapolate the last phrase to include all God's people.

Memorial Day- Peace in Jesus

Readings: Acts 19:1-8; Ps. 68:2-7; John 16:29-33

I am very glad that I went to Mass first thing this Memorial Day. Beginning today by serving at the Lord's altar was the best beginning I could imagine. By participating in Mass we remember - call-to-mind-in-order-to-make-present - what is most important: the Father bringing about the reconciliation of the world through his Son, by the power of their Holy Spirit. In and through the Mass, God seeks to bring about peace, the communion, that he meant his good creation to be. It is only this reconciliation, which is God's work, that will bring about true and lasting peace. As our opening hymn, we sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth," composed by Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller in 1955. The song begins:
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me;
Let there be peace on earth,
The peace that was meant to be
Using the readings of the day, we celebrated the Mass for the Preservation of Peace and Justice. While it would be a pitiable nation that did not remember those who died in its service, we must remain cognizant of the horribly destructive nature of war, not only on combatants, but on civilian populations and on the environment. Being not only Christians, but human beings with at least an ounce of humanity, we must consider the human, civilizational, and environmental devastation that warfare leaves in its wake. Lest we romanticize and sentimentalize warfare, which tempts us to view it as something of a positive good, it seems fitting to me that on Memorial Day we also remember before God all those innocent children, women, and men who have been killed, raped, maimed, and psychologically afflicted by the waging of war. In our current milieu, we also need to think about those who are forced to leave their homes, their cities, their countries, and their regions because of fighting. We have a word for these dispossessed and displaced people: refugees.

As you can see, for me, Memorial Day is a solemn day. I make no apologies for this.



Today's first reading from Acts is yet another vignette about baptism in the Holy Spirit, one that points us, again, to the necessity of the Sacrament of Confirmation. This is not wholly a digression from the main theme of peace. After all, one of the Twelve Fruits of the Spirit is Peace. Peace is not passive. It is not just the absence of conflict. Being a peacemaker, which is one of the Beatitudes, is an active endeavor, one that is to be practiced in the midst of conflict. There may be nothing in this world that requires more fortitude (i.e., courage), which is one of the Seven Gifts of the Spirit, than being a peacemaker.

In today's Gospel, the disciples tell Jesus, after hearing what he tells them in the preceding four verses, which culminates in these words: "I came from the Father and have come into the world. Now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father" (John 16:28), that now they "get it," the light has come on. They tell Jesus that now they understand clearly who he is, why he came, and where he is going. Their answer seems to carry with it the implication that, as a result of their "getting it," they will act accordingly. With his initial response - "Do you believe now?" - Jesus clearly chides them before letting them know that do not, in fact, "get it." The good news is their "getting it" is not what matters most.

When push-comes-to-shove, Jesus tells his newly confident followers, they will run away and abandon him. Despite their abandonment, he will not be left alone. He is never alone because the Father is with him always. The Lord goes on to say that he will not be left alone as a result of their running away from him and because of this they "might have peace in me" (John 16:32). In other words, their catastrophic failure to stand with Jesus will not rob them of peace. Jesus gives them peace by giving them himself, by their being "in" him, or, conversely, he being "in" them. The courage to which Jesus summons them is not courage in themselves, or courage that results from their own noble intentions and resulting brave actions, but the courage that comes from knowing Jesus has conquered the world, including their self-deception, duplicity, and myopia-induced cowardice.

Just as the Father is always with and "in" his only begotten Son, Jesus, the Son, desires to always be with his disciples that we might remain "in" him. He remains not just with us, but in us, by means of his Holy Spirit, who empowers us not only to do what Jesus did, but to enable us to do even greater things (John 14:2). The courage to be peacemakers in the midst of a world that is characterized by conflict, a world in which we will have trouble, a lot of which comes our way precisely for trying make peace, is not the least of these greater things.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Seeking to make some sense of the Lord's Ascension

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3.6-9; Eph 1:17-23; Matt 28:16-20

I have to admit that it bothers me a little that in the part of the United States in which I live the observance of the Lord's Ascension has been transferred from Thursday in sixth week of Easter to what would normally be the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Part of what bothers me is that this transfer throws off what might be called our "liturgical arithmetic." According to Acts 1:3 - Jesus "presented himself alive to [the apostles] by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God." As the beginning of the footnote to this verse in the New American Bible puts it: "Appearing to them during forty days: Luke considered especially sacred the interval in which the appearances and instructions of the risen Jesus occurred and expressed it therefore in terms of the sacred number forty (Dt 8:2)." The so-called "Gospel of the 40 Days," during which Jesus imparted to his apostles much more about the kingdom of God is very important to Christian tradition. Be that as it may, the Ascension of the Lord is an important observance. As my pastor pointed out last evening at the Vigil Mass, perhaps the transfer allows more Christians to participate in this important liturgical celebration.

I am always fascinated by Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension with which he begins the second volume of his two-volume work. Volume two is called "The Acts of the Apostles," or "Acts" for short. Acts is sometimes referred to as "the Gospel of the Holy Spirit." There are three aspects of the Lord's Ascension according to Luke that each year give me much to ponder. The first is that despite now being witnesses to Jesus' resurrection and receiving instruction from the risen Lord over the course of forty days, his disciples still ask Jesus, just prior to his Ascension, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" Old ideas, our human preconceptions, die hard. It is clear that Jesus' disciples, despite all they've been through, are still looking for this-worldly deliverance. What they are hoping for is a king, like David, to unite Israel, overthrow their Roman oppressors by force, and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel as a major player in the ancient Levant. Given that this weekend is Memorial Day weekend, we can see this same kind of religious nationalism prevailing in the minds of too many Christians in these United States. Don't get me wrong, it is right and good that we honor those who died serving our country. As we do so, we should also ruminate on the ruinous nature of war, which rumination should cause to consider whether chest-thumping bellicosity befits a country that often trumpets itself as a Christian nation, or at least a nation that is largely made of citizens who profess Christianity. But our country is not the kingdom of God on earth. What we might ask about the apostles, we should ask of ourselves, "When will we ever learn?"

The second aspect of Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension that strikes me is related to the first. This aspect is what the two men in white garments, who are not up in the air with Jesus, but who, according to Luke, "stood beside" the awe-stricken disciples (Acts 1:10). Those who witnessed Jesus' Ascension did what you and I would do- stood there looking at the Lord ascending in slack-jawed wonder. As they stand there looking up in awe, these two men in white garments, standing beside them, say, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven" (Acts 1:11). I have taken to describing this as "leveling their gaze." You see, as disciples of Jesus, our job is not to inhabit another world, but to fully engage this one. Jesus will come back and bring heaven to earth. In the end, we will not go to live in the sky. Christian doctrine holds that the earth will be renewed and restored; it will be fashioned into an eternal paradise.

Jesus is resurrected, which means he has a physical body. Like Jesus, we, too, will be resurrected and have physical bodies. Physical bodies inhabit space and so require a place to be. The place God has made for us is this earth. Just as Luke tells us, via the two men dressed in white standing beside those whose gaze is fixed on the sky, that "This Jesus...will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven," the inspired author of Revelation conveys
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Rev 21:1-2)
The third aspect of Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension that I find myself pondering each year is when the Lord himself tells his followers, "But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). He even tells them that, in addition to being baptized with water, in the manner of the baptism Jesus himself received at the hands of John the Baptist, "in a few days you will be baptized with the holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5). Bearing witness to what they have experienced first-hand, being what Pope Francis has called "missionary disciples," is what they are to be engaged doing, not staring up at the sky. The Holy Spirit is given them to empower them to be witnesses to what they have seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled. The Greek word translated as "witnesses" in this passage is martyrs. Jesus' promise to baptize them with the Spirit, of course, points toward the first Christian Pentecost that occurs in the next chapter of Luke's work. It was at the first Christian Pentecost that Jesus' promise to send the Holy Spirit as his post-resurrection presence in them, among them, and through them is fulfilled. Just as the Lord's Ascension occurred forty days after his resurrection, Pentecost is fifty days afterwards.

The Ascension of Christ, by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, ca. 1745-1750


We hear Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension in our first reading from Acts, in today's Gospel we hear Matthew's account of the same event. There is an unsurprising consonance between these two accounts. Matthew, too, points to mission and hands on what we call "the Great Commission." The Great Commission consists of going forth to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20a). They are sent to do this with the Lord's assurance that he is with them "always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20b). Again, how he remains with them is by means of the Holy Spirit, who is the mode of Jesus' presence until he returns.

All of this sounds very glorious, extremely enticing. I think often the enticing part stems from something similar to what the apostles expressed when, even after forty days of post-resurrection instruction, they asked Jesus when he was going to fulfill their preconception, which was a misconception, of what he, to their minds, as the Messiah, should fulfill. To put it succinctly, the glory of the Lord is something very different from the glory of this world. This is something Jesus shows us in the Incarnation from start to finish. He was conceived by a girl who was a nobody, living in a remote village in Roman-occupied Israel. In Jesus' day, the Jews were a marginal people. Whatever historical glory Israel had ever achieved was centuries in the past, a time to which Jews of Jesus' day, as his disciples question just prior to his Ascension demonstrates, looked back upon longingly. We might characterize this with a slogan, "Make Israel Great Again!" Jesus was a marginal person among a marginal people. No doubt, Jesus' was a disappointment to many as Messiah. His claim to messiahship, especially given what he said being Messiah consisted of, was likely ridiculous to many others from the get-go. In addition to all that, as the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews points out (see Hebrews 7:12-16 ff) and then seeks to explain, Jesus was not even a member of the priestly tribe of Levi, but was of the non-priestly tribe of Judah. While it may not seem an obvious conclusion, what all this points us toward is- being a disciple of Jesus first leads you to the Cross before leading you beyond it.

In order to make Christian disciples, you must first be one. In this regard, actions speak louder than words. How you are doing loving your neighbor, assisting the poor and needy, the widow, the orphan, the mentally ill, the seemingly hopelessly addicted, in working to make that upside-down reality Jesus taught as the reign of God a reality, despite the worldly chances for success? Being a Christian is not adherence to a set of clearly defined propositions, let alone a list of rules, like the 613 mitzvot, a list of prescriptions (dos) and proscriptions (donts), strict adherence to which makes one holy, as the Pharisees, like Paul before his conversion, believed. Being a Christian means living according to the Spirit. What is the life of a Spirit-filled person characterized by? Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, awe in the presence of the Lord (which does not consist, according to Luke, in standing there staring at the sky), Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Generosity, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Modesty, Self-control, Chastity.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A few thoughts on the Sacrament of Confirmation

Because I have been preparing 7 adults from my parish to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation next Saturday at The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, which will be administered by the Most Reverend Oscar Solis, bishop of Salt Lake City, and because Bishop Solis is coming to my parish, St. Olaf in Bountiful, Utah, the following Saturday to administer Confirmation to 20+ teenagers, and because I am giving the retreat for these young women and men the day prior to their Confirmation, I have been reading and studying The Order of Confirmation, the English translation approved by the Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, His Eminence Robert Cardinal Sarah, with the go-ahead from Pope Francis, on 25 March 2015, and published in 2016. In my opinion, all members of the clergy and catechists engaged in sacramental preparation should spend significant time studying the Church's sacramental rites and ritual books. Among the many important reasons for studying the ritual books is that we should use the rites themselves to catechize and evangelize both ourselves and those we serve. Studying the ritual books and all that pertain them should also assist the clergy in our preaching.

Because in most dioceses of the United States, including my own with the exception of our Cathedral parish, the Sacrament of Confirmation has been displaced from its rightful order (i.e., between Baptism and First Holy Communion) there are a lot very defective ideas promulgated concerning the Sacrament of Confirmation. Perhaps the most pernicious of these is the idea that a teenager "chooses" to follow Christ for himself/herself, as opposed to when Baptism was "foisted" on her/him by their well-meaning, but perhaps misguided, parents when s/he was a mere baby. What is missing from such a defective account of Confirmation is that first and foremost the sacraments are about what God the Father is doing through Christ by the power of their Holy Spirit and not what we are doing, apart from being open to receiving what God freely gives us, which is nothing other than God's very self.  It would be futile to argue that Catholic parents don't choose to have their infant children baptized. Clearly they do and, for the most part, with a few exceptions, we need to see the factors, no matter how mundane, that cause parents to have their children baptized as the working of the Holy Spirit. My fundamental point is simple: in Baptism Christ chose you. In Baptism Jesus called you by name and, by the Holy Spirit, gave you new birth as a child of the Father. Of course, you are created and redeemed to be a child of God. As a result, we can say that Baptism makes what is implicit in each and every person, who is created in the imago Dei, explicit. Just as Jesus' identity was "confirmed" as he emerged from the waters of the river Jordan by the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father declaring him to be his "beloved" Son with whom he is well-pleased, in Confirmation our baptismal identity is likewise "confirmed."

Because it is so closely linked with Baptism, Confirmation, too, requires faith, no matter how small. While the subject of the actus fidei is inexhaustible, it is safe to say that in its most basic articulation, faith is our response to God's initiative towards us. Typically, we call God's initiative towards us "grace." Hence, even as Catholics, we can say without hesitation, "We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ." But see faith as our response to God's initiative towards us is different than insisting that faith is simply a voluntary choice on our part. In a very real sense, by means of grace, God both pulls and pushes us towards him.

Stated simply, in an important way, Confirmation "completes" Baptism. When preparing parents for the Baptism of their infant children I note that the way the Rite of Baptism for Children ends tends to feel a bit incomplete. The rite ends with the celebrant blessing the mother, the father, and then all the baptized gathered for the celebration, and then blessing everyone in the name of triune God. But there is no dismissal and the rite does not call for either a processional or a recessional out of the church. I am convinced it is supposed to have the effect of something beautifully begun but not yet finished. I encourage people to spend time mingling, in a reverent manner, in the church after the celebration of a Baptism. Of course, Baptism is made what we might call more sacramentally complete by Confirmation, which is what the anointing with sacred Chrism after Baptism points to, and sacramentally completed by reception of Holy Communion.



In his Apostolic Constitution on the Sacrament of Confirmation, Divinae Consortium Naturae (i.e., "Sharing in the Divine Nature") promulgated on 15 August 1971, Bl. Pope Paul VI noted
In Baptism, the newly baptized receive forgiveness of sins, adoption as children of God, and the character of Christ, by which they are made members of the Church and for the first time become sharers in the priesthood of their Savior (1 Pt 2:5,9). Through the Sacrament of Confirmation those who have been born anew in Baptism receive the ineffable Gift, the Holy Spirit himself, by whom "they are endowed... with special strength" (Lumen Gentium par. 36) Moreover, having been signed with the character of this Sacrament, they are "more perfectly bound to the Church" (Lumen Gentium par. 11) and "they are more strictly obligated to spread and defend the faith, both by word and deed, as true witnesses of Christ" (Ad Gentes par. 11). Finally, Confirmation is so closely linked with the Holy Eucharist that the faithful, after being signed by the Holy Baptism and Confirmation, are incorporated fully into the Body of Christ through participation in the Eucharist (Presyterorum Ordinis par. 5- I added the emboldening and italicized emphasis)
In my pastoral experience, we are usually far too dismissive of the Sacrament of Confirmation. Like all of the sacraments that together constitute the divine economy of grace, there is nothing dispensable about Confirmation. While we must never doubt the outpouring of Divine life that occurs whenever and wherever Confirmation is validly administered, we need to make every effort to assist those who are preparing to be confirmed, helping to ensure that they are properly disposed outwardly and inwardly. What God gives in and through the sacraments we call grace. Grace is nothing other than God sharing divine life with us, that is, the very life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which is characterized by love, called agapé in our uniquely Christian Scriptures, which together we refer to as the New Testament. This is precisely what the opening words of Bl. Pope Paul's Apostolic Constitution on the Sacrament of Confirmation indicate: Divinae consortium naturae..., which, translates as, "The sharing in the divine nature..."

I am aware that, when juxtaposed with yesterday's post, today's post might indicate something like cognitive dissonance. I would dispute any charge of cognitive dissonance, however, but certainly admit to a dialectical tension. At least for me, hope lies well beyond optimism. Participating in, administering, and assisting in the administration of the Church's sacraments reinforces this perception even as such participation provides a point of connection. My participation in and assisting with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, administering the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony, making use of Penance, assisting in the administration of the Confirmation and sometimes with Anointing of the Sick and in the conferral of Orders, give me a glimpse over the horizon, as it were, providing me a fuller perspective, one that allows me to engage reality according to all the factors that constitute it and not just those that weigh it down but those that liberate and correspond to my deepest longings, if not yet completely fulfilling them.

Friday, May 26, 2017

"Dreams have never made my bed"

Back to blogging! I've missed posting with regularity. Suffice it to say, 2017 has proven to be a very busy and somewhat difficult year so far. By stating that I don't mean to concede the rest of 2017 to dustbin, writing it off as an irredeemably shitty year. I am always a bit amused by the fact that we find the following bit of wisdom in the Book of Lamentations
The LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning— great is your faithfulness! (3:22-23)
Given the milieu from which this bit of wisdom arose, we should not dismiss it as airy optimism, or even optimism at all. Optimism is always in danger of being blown away by the slightest breeze of reality. This passage conveys hope. What you have when optimism evaporates is either hope or despair. Like all wisdom, grasping this can only be done through experience. If bits of what pass for wisdom cannot be verified in reality, through your own experience, then, to paraphrase Morrissey, it says nothing to you about your life and is, therefore, useless.

I deliberately avoided posting a traditio last Friday because of the suicide of Chris Cornell. I featured Chris' in studio acoustic and beautifully orchestrated version of Prince's song "Nothing Compares 2 U" as our traditio at the end of April (see "Like a bird without a song"). Cornell, fronting his original band, Soundgarden, was a leading figure in the so-called "Grunge" scene that emanated from Seattle, his hometown, across the country. There were many great bands and a lot of amazing music put out by other Seattle bands, like Niravana and Pearl Jam, to name just two of most popular. After Soundgarden, Cornell founded the band Audioslave, which was also the source of some notable music.

Chris Cornell last year


Cornell also achieved a bit of notoriety when he converted to Christian Orthodoxy. From outward appearances, this seems to have been the result of his marriage to Vicky Karayiannis. There are some rather easy to access pictures of him having one his children baptized floating around the internet. It seems that Cornell was raised Catholic, but, like a lot of young Catholics, he was put off by his exposure to what amounts to very superficial, rule-based, form of Catholicism - the kind Pope Francis is seeking to help the Church overcome. Who knows how sincere his becoming Orthodox was? Who knows if he was really converted beyond switching up his religious mode a bit? Who knows what his religious praxis included? I make no claims to such knowledge. As one of my Christian friends, who also happens to be Orthodox, put it- although a bit more crudely, which befitted the conversation (I am not criticizing the way he expressed himself): A guy will do a lot to get laid. After his bad experience at Catholic school (his mother was Jewish, his Dad a Catholic), Cornell, even after his conversion to Orthodoxy, always expressed a great deal of uncertainty when it came to the big questions in general and about specific religious approaches to them. I think many Christians should be more honest and express less certainty, eschewing or at least treading lightly when it comes to matters that fall outside our experience.

Rather than continue typing away like monkey in the futile hope of stumbling onto something meaningful to say, I point you to a post by writer Rich Larson entitled "It's not what you think." Unlike Larson, I was a fan of Soundgarden and certainly enjoyed Cornell's solo work immensely. He was a talented, soulful artist who put his whole self into everything he did; talk about the passion.

I think Larson does a good job by describing Grunge thus:
Grunge is the gift that Generation X gave to the world of music. We took all that slacker cynicism, mixed it up with our older siblings’ sneering punk attitude, Zeppelin’s low end and, if we’re being honest, a little heroin. The result was the musical version of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It was gorgeous art that was absolutely sure that nothing really matters, making it feel immediate and important. It was the sound of a generation telling everybody, including ourselves, to fuck off
As Larson goes on to note, this kind of overt nihilism, something I tend towards in my darker moments, leaves a high body count.

Cornell's suicide at age 52, Larson notes, is both different and not-so-different from those who died young. Setting dark romance and macabre nostalgia aside, Larson faces reality
But now he’s gone, and goddammit, his is the death that bothers me the most. As I’ve been thinking about this, I’m realizing that it’s both a personal and a generational thing. Cornell had a long struggle with depression. As have I. As have many of you
Cornell struggled with various addictions: opioids, including heroine, and alcohol. Having gone through rehab in 2002, Cornell apparently managed to live pretty clean for a long time. I've read credible news reports that indicate fresh needle marks were found on Cornell's arms post-mortem. I don't convey this to be gossipy and certainly not to be judgmental, or to state I know it's true. Above all, I don't want to offer the neat little moral lesson on which my generation was raised- Just Say No to Drugs. As an antidote, I offer this phrase, which was popular among my contemporaries in the "Just Say No" era: Reality is for people who can't handle drugs. Is this an endorsement of drug use? No! It is an endorsement of reality. I mention Cornell's possible relapse (i.e., the respectable name for it) in order to challenge the facile notion that drug use was the cause of his death. I am interested, first personally and then pastorally, in what was the cause of his drug use. It is his response to this question that I find the greatest insight in what Larson wrote:
You might think grunge is about anger, but that’s not completely true. Yes, it can sound that way, but it’s really about depression and cynicism. Those two go hand-in-hand, along with their nasty little sister, anxiety. When the three of them get going, they just eat hope as quickly as it can be summoned. That leaves despair and despair is exhausting, not just for those who experience it, but for the people around it as well. So we keep it to ourselves because we don’t want to be a burden. And then it gets to be too much. Doesn’t matter if you’re a student, a mom, an accountant or a rock star. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written about it your entire life as a means of keeping it at bay. It doesn’t matter if the music you made about it brought in fame, respect and millions of dollars. It doesn’t matter if your entire generation has suffered from it. Depression makes you feel totally alone. You hit the breaking point, and then, like Chris Cornell, you die alone in the bathroom
In a fit of darkness a few years, I told someone close to me that when I die I want to be cremated, have no funeral, and have my cremated remains flushed down the toilet. I wasn't joking nor being overly dramatic at the time. I was saying what I felt and thought. I guess I am supposed to reassure you, dear reader, that I am feeling much better now. In fact, at least today, I am feeling somewhat better.

One television show I love, despite there not being that many episodes (18 in all, which I re-watch quite frequently) is "Black Books." The lead character is Bernard Ludwig Black, played by Dylan Moran, who, along with Graham Linehan, created the show. Along with Manny, Bernard runs a decrepit bookshop in London. I will spare you more details. If you're reading this you can easily "Google" it. One of Bernard's most memorable lines, at least for me, is: "Don't make me sick into my own scorn." Here's a relevant scene that cuts straight, no chaser:



The sad reality is that for those of us who live in the "advanced" West inhabit and largely perpetuate a society and culture that does nothing but try to eat us alive everyday and make ever more individuals and consumers. This is compounded by so many people who, no doubt in an effort to just cope by seeking to make the best of a bad situation, mistake optimism for hope. There is one thing of which I need to remind myself everyday, often many times throughout the day: Hope lies beyond optimism, well beyond it. This is verified by the fact that I never feel emptier than when I "achieve" something. This is faith, not nihilism. To me, optimism is nihilism because it amounts to putting your hope in what is ephemeral, here one moment and gone the next. It's perhaps a bit like playing a brilliant, kick-ass, concert and then dealing with the darkness of your hotel room, closer to my experience, giving a presentation to a very interested and engaged group, presenting something I've worked on for weeks if not months and then going to lunch, or stopping off for a coffee all by myself. Let's face it, life is disappointing. The world kicks your ass. Nihilism is not overcome by the frivolous, if well-intentioned, invention of meaning, striving to give some sort of value to that which has little or no value.

I also have to take time everyday to just be myself in God's presence. To sit and say or do nothing at all. I need at least 10 minutes a day, sometimes more than one 10 minute period to just be. So much of what I worry about what I think about, what I feel I must do, doesn't matter in the least. What matters is contemplating what I won't do. Consciously acknowledging the meaninglessness of most of what passes for life in the late-capitialist, so-called post-modern, West is important to my own spirituality. As one of my spiritual mentors used to tell me: "It isn't mostly wheat fields and waterfalls." To deny this would be to deny myself and my own perception of reality, to live falsely and unauthentically, to live without faith, believe or not.

Well, I've more than made up for not posting anything last Friday. It was a deliberate decision. So, rather than belabor not making a point, our Friday traditio is Cornell's song "Seasons," which was written for Cameron's Crowe's movie Singles, which I saw when it came out and, frankly, apart from the music, didn't like at all.



And I'm lost, behind
The words I'll never find
And I'm left behind
As seasons roll on by


I would also point you to the Soundgarden song "Fell on Black Days": "I'm only faking when I get it right/When I get it right."

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Year A Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8:5-8.14-17-33; Ps 66:1-7.16.20; 1 Pet 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

At the beginning of our second reading, taken from 1 Peter, the author exhorts those he addresses to “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” (1 Pet 3:15). Our entire epistle reading is taken from a section of 1 Peter dedicated to the role of suffering in the lives of Christians. While this is a hard saying, it is often through our sufferings that we proclaim Christ. According to theologian Douglas Harink, “In an often hostile world, within often unjust and oppressive political and social systems, the messianic people proclaim the gospel by taking up the cruciform way of the Messiah.” As a result, Christian proclamation of Christ “often takes the form of suffering" (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 & 2 Peter 93).

Suffering is the context for the injunction in a verse we hear quite often, but usually use slightly out-of-context:
Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame (1 Peter 3:15b-16)
Even when suffering, a Christian (i.e., one who has sanctified Christ as Lord in her heart) remains a person of hope who is willing and able to explain the reason for her hope: Jesus Christ. Considering Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5:10), a Christian might say that it is blessed to suffer for doing good. In the end, even if it only amounts to suffering wrongs patiently, which is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, is perhaps the most telling sign that someone has sanctified Christ as Lord in her heart. According to St. Paul, patience and kindness are fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).

It is the Holy Spirit that Jesus promises to his disciples in today’s Gospel, which is taken from Jesus’ Last Supper Discourse in St. John’s Gospel. Before telling them about the Spirit, whom he dubs a paraclete, or Advocate, he tells them that loving him means keeping his commandments (John 14:15). What does keeping his commandments entail? We find the answer to this question in the previous chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which also forms part of the Last Supper Discourse:
I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35)
Love, too, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22).

For a Christian, everything is predicated on love, which is the reason anything exists at all. In the New Testament, there are three Greek words for love. The most prominent of these, the one that was appropriated by the inspired authors who composed the works that together comprise the New Testament, is agapé. It is the appropriate form of that word that St. Paul used when he wrote that love is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is also the word used by the author of John’s Gospel when he writes of Jesus giving his disciples “a new commandment” (John 13:34-35), as well as the word used at the beginning of our Gospel reading today (John 14:15). Agapé is also used four more times at the end of today’s Gospel reading, which returns to the beginning:
Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him (John 14:21)
Jesus tells his disciples he will ask the Father to send “another Advocate” (John 14:16) The first Advocate, of course, is Jesus himself. The Greek word for “Advocate” in this verse is Parakletos. A Parakletos is someone who stands beside you to help you, to plead your cause as an intercessor. The Parakletos Jesus promises the Father will send, will be with them always (John 14:16), unlike Jesus himself, who will die, rise, and ascend to Father before returning in glory. Jesus sends the Spirit in order not to abandon his disciples. The Lord does not make us children of the Father only to render us orphans.

As New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson asserted, “The Holy Spirit is the mode of Jesus’ resurrection presence to the world” (Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel 15). Jesus tells his disciples that not only will the Parakletos the Father sends remain with them, but he will be “in” them. Ultimately, they will realize that Jesus is in his Father and that they are in Jesus and he is in them (John 14:20). The way Jesus is “in” us is by the power of the Holy Spirit. We call the ways Jesus comes to be in us by the power of the Spirit sacraments, that is, sacred mysteries.



There is one sacrament that is corresponds to the Spirit in perhaps the most explicit way: Confirmation. We see that Confirmation completes Baptism in our first reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, when Philip, one of the seven we heard about last week, who were set apart by the Apostles in Jerusalem, proclaimed the Gospel and baptized those who came to faith in Christ. Since her earliest centuries, the Church has understood the setting apart of the seven as the apostolic foundation of the diaconate (Acts 6:3). Stephen and Philip, who are mentioned as the first two of the seven, are heard more from in Acts (Acts 6:5). Stephen was the Church’s first martyr- stoned to death for preaching the Gospel (Acts 7:54-60). Philip, meanwhile, headed north to the region and city of Samaria. There, like Stephen, he preached the Gospel. But Philip also healed the sick and cast out evil spirits in Jesus’ name. He also baptized those who, through his preaching, put their faith in Christ (Acts 8:5-7). After hearing that people came to faith and were baptized in Samaria, the Apostles sent Peter and John to confer upon them the gift of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands (Acts 8:17). Just as we can see the setting apart of the seven men as the apostolic basis of deacons, we understand this as a key biblical witness for the Sacrament of Confirmation, including the bishop being the ordinary minister of this sacrament.

There are those among us who are preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. Our young men and women will be confirmed here at St. Olaf in a few weeks. Seven of our adult brothers and sisters will be confirmed at the Cathedral the week prior. Just as the Apostles laid hands on those baptized by Philip in ancient Samaria to impart to them the Holy Spirit they had received on the first Christian Pentecost, Bishop Oscar, who, as a bishop, is a Successor of the Apostles, will lay hands on our sisters and brothers, thus completing their Baptism, confirming their baptismal identity as daughters and sons of the Father, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Returning to role of suffering for the Christian life, it is important to note that at the beginning of Acts chapter eight, the chapter from which our first reading is taken, we hear about the persecution the Church was undergoing. Referring to the day Stephen was stoned to death by a mob incited by one Saul of Tarsus (who became St. Paul), the author of Acts wrote:
On that day, there broke out a severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles (Acts 8:1)
It may well be the case that Philip fled the persecution by going to Samaria. If so, suffering and persecution did not keep Philip from doing what all Christians are called to do: bear witness to Christ in word and deed. We bear witness not just in the midst of suffering, but often by it and through it.

Like the other six set with whom he was chosen by the Jerusalem community, Philip was not filled with the Holy Spirit by being set apart by the Apostles. He was set apart, the Scripture informs us, because, like his six brothers, he was “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). Far from any kind of imagined “graduation,” the Sacrament of Confirmation is empowerment for mission. So, we might consider it a commencement, but only if we’re clear that “commencement” means beginning, not end.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Sunday to consider deacons

In our first reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, taken from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 6:1-7), we hear about something that, at least since St. Ireneaus of Lyons wrote his work Against the Heresies (3.12.10) in the late second century (ca.175-185), is taken as something like the biblical institution of the diaconate. However, a close reading of the biblical text, even in English, demonstrates what Owen Cummings in his still excellent short book Deacons and the Church noted: that it must be "readily conceded that the seven reputable men of Acts 6 were not historically and formally deacons" (34). In an essay cited by Cummings, Lawrence Hennessey, S.T. pointed out:
Luke's readers may well have seen (even if anachronistically) the Seven as diakonoi, deacons in the later sense of 'holders of the office of deacon.' They may well represent the incipient stages of the latter office of diakonos
Hence, Cummings' conclusion: "The seven men of good standing of Acts take on a foundational diaconal role, even though they were not deacons" (34).

Properly interpreting and and applying biblical passages in light of, in concert with, and sometimes critical of, how they have been interpreted and theologically applied is important. For example, one cannot credibly use Acts 6:1-6 as an argument to exclude women from being deacons in the same manner that Jesus choosing only men to be his Apostles is often employed to argue against women as priests. This is true no matter what you might think about this argument against women priests. When you read Acts 6:1-6 closely, one of the strangest things about this passage is that the only people referred to as engaging in diakonia are the Apostles themselves. In the NAB translation (NABRE has the same translation of the New Testament as does the NAB- the revised translation had only to do with the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament) verse 4 of Acts 6, the word "ministry" in "ministry of the word" is a translation of the Greek word diakonia. It refers to preaching and proclaiming the kerygma, the message of salvation in and through the resurrected and glorified Christ.

What is clear from this passage is that the seven men were "filled with the Spirit and wisdom" (Acts 6:3). As a result of this event taking on a foundational role in the Church with regard to deacons and the diaconate, the ordination prayer for deacons is very much about those ordained receiving a fresh and powerful outpouring of the Spirit. At times I have thought it's a bit like a second Confirmation. One idea that might bear some development is this: if all Christians participate in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, might we say that they also participate in the diakonia of Christ by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation?



According to an Apostolic Letter promulgated by Bl. Pope Paul VI on 18 June 1968, the form of the sacrament of diaconal ordination are these lines from the Prayer of Ordination for Deacons
Lord,
send forth upon him the Holy Spirit,
that he may be strengthened
by the gift of your sevenfold grace
to carry out faithfully the work of the ministry
In the editio typica (i.e., typical edition):
Emitte in eos Domine,
quaesumus, Spiriturn Sanctum,
quo in opus ministerii fideliter exsequendi munere
septiformis tuae gratiae roborentur
Of course, "your sevenfold grace" (septiformis tuae gratiae) refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear- better translated "wonder or "awe"- of the Lord.

We go for typology in Christian theology. So, when we think about the three offices that together constitute the sacrament of Orders in light of the Triune God they are consecrated to serve, it is does not seem improbable or wholly inappropriate to say something like- Bishop corresponds to the Father, Priest to the Son, and Deacon to the Spirit. As with all things Trinitarian, we wouldn't want to put too much weight on this typology or be absolute about such a formulation. But when we think of the economy of each of the offices (i.e., what those who serve in those offices actually do in fulfillment of their office) I think this holds some water, especially when one considers that deacons are more free to serve where, when, and how the Church's ministry is required. To serve in this highly flexible manner, of course, requires discernment (i.e., the Spirit and wisdom).

Another foundational aspect the seven Spirit-filled and wise men of Acts provide is that deacons build bridges, fill gaps, or whatever similar image you may want to use. Diaconal ministry is a unifying ministry. Put in broad categories, being clerics who, by and large, live lay lives, deacons link the hierarchy to the laity and the Church to the world. We do the latter by making the Church formally present in places it might not otherwise be.

Another foundation of diaconal ministry derived from the wise, Spirit-filled men of Acts 6 is reaching out to those who are on the margins, who have been mistreated, ignored, or hurt by the Church. This comes through in that the immediate cause for their being chosen and empowered was to ensure that those who felt they were being neglected (i.e., the Greek speaking widows) were no longer neglected. In our time, many who feel and, in fact, are neglected by the Church often make no such loud complaint, they just go away and stay away. Even when they do speak up, like gay and lesbian Christians, or those who have suffered sexual abuse by those in the Church's service, or even those who have felt and often been excluded due to an "irregular" marriage situation, many in the Church are quick to shout them down and keep them out. Isn't life much easier without these troublemakers? One job of the deacon is to attend to their spiritual and, when appropriate, their material needs, to see that they are heard, included, and served.

After a week away, some thoughts on life and blogging

This past week, I took an entire week away from blogging. I didn't even post a reflection on last Sunday's readings or a Friday traditio yesterday. I remember my first few years of blogging when I posted on anything and everything. I don't look back with regret on those days. I chalk it up to learning the medium and learning how to write, some might call it "finding my voice as a writer." I dislike using phrases like that in reference to myself because I am not much of a writer, despite years of writing. Being quasi-academic, or formal, and quasi-confessional, or free form, my style is somewhat odd, perhaps a bit stilted. My awkwardness stance towards life sits better with me as I grow older. The truth is, I am not really comfortable anywhere or with anyone.

More than anything, it is sometimes difficult and other times impossible to post due to my life being so busy. I work full-time, I am married with six children, and I have a very active diaconal ministry in my parish. On top of those things, I am (foolishly) pursuing a Doctorate of Ministry (DMin) degree through Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. It is not unusual for me to be asked, "How do you do it all?" The only honest answer is, "Not very well most of the time." I am not a very a disciplined person, at least I am not as disciplined as I need to be. Like the awkwardness that partly constitutes my personality, I grow easier with my unwillingness and inability to manage my life by the microsecond. I find the whole notion of a balanced "lifestyle" utterly baffling. But I know there's a balance; I see it when I swing past.

I am glad that blogging has become for me an occasional, as opposed to a daily, endeavor. I write when I have time and when I have something to write about. Usually this results in posting something a two or three times a week. Lately I have been reading a lot on theology and human sexuality. A topic that fascinates me. My fascination with this topic will likely result pursuing an aspect of sexuality for my DMin dissertation. Initially I was going to write on the constituent elements of diaconal spirituality. To address spirituality in-depth means at least touching on the subject of sexuality.

A blurry photo of my wife and I, taken by our 11 year-old son at the Conference Center last weekend


Despite taking a week off, I am more committed to blogging than ever. A lot of scorn is heaped on the so-called "Catholic Blogosphere," which I believe only exists among those groupings of Catholic bloggers who form antagonistic or symbiotic relationships with each other. Despite a few tempting invitations to move my and blog and continue blogging in a different, commercialized, venue, I remain an independent Catholic and clerical blogger. Does that mean I consider myself better than those who I would consider as part of the "Catholic Blogosphere"? No, not necessarily. It does mean I am free to ignore each and every tempest in a tea cup that emanates from it, or, conversely, to pitch in my two pennies when I see fit.

I have also been thinking a lot lately about how tempting it is for many (I admit I used to be one such person) to conceive of Christianity as a rearguard action seeking to halt the advance of (post-)modernity and defending a political order in which Christians, or at least the Christian ethos, has the upper hand. I think Christendom, on the whole, was detrimental to Christianity.

Turning to something completely different - last Saturday evening I attended a performance of "The Lamb of God," a contemporary composition about the passion, death, and resurrection the Lord by a local composer Rob Gardner. It was performed by the Davis County Interfaith Choir, with which my wife, who serves as our parish director of music, is involved. It was held at the LDS Conference Center Theater in downtown Salt Lake City, which is a beautiful venue. It was a beautiful performance that was nearly sold out. All-in-all it was a lovely evening for myself, my wife, and two of our boys. A few weeks prior to the concert, I was invited to give the invocation. A few hours prior to the performance I composed this prayer:

Lord our God,
You are Truth and Goodness.
We thank you for gathering us together
in this season during which our celebration
of Your Son's Resurrection still resonates in our hearts.

In your mercy and by the power of Your Spirit,
draw us close to You and to each other
through the Beauty of tonight's performance.

Like you inspired the Psalmists,
bless those who will make a joyful sound to Your name.
May their music be an acceptable sacrifice of praise. Amen.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Yes, in the picture above I am wearing clericals, which deacons in my diocese are supposed to do when representing the Church in public - I verified this with our Vicar for Clergy. Even so, I don't always, or even usually, wear them even when I may do so. On this occasion it seemed appropriate in order to highlight the fact, to both Mormons and and non-Mormons, that this was an interfaith and ecumenical concert. Of course, I was introduced to the almost exclusively Davis County audience (Davis County is directly north of Salt Lake County) as "Deacon Scott Dodge from St. Olaf Parish in Bountiful."

Friday, May 5, 2017

"Seems that I was busy doing something close to nothing"

This past Tuesday, 2 May, which was my oldest child's 23rd birthday (Yikes!), Archbishop George Niederauer, who ordained me when he served as bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, passed away at age 80. He had been in declining health for much of the last year and lingering on the edge of mortality since at least Holy Week. He was a wonderful person- smart, funny, witty, deeply caring. I was privileged to know him quite well and considered him a friend. Like all of our bishops, extending back to Bishop Federal, who ordained the first permanent deacons for our diocese in 1976, George Hugh Niederauer was a big supporter of the permanent diaconate and a bishop who appreciated his own deacons and understood our vital ministry. Requiscat, George, in pace.

Just yesterday a friend, colleague, and sister in Christ Karen Lee passed over today. She passed into God's loving arms on a beautiful Easter Thursday. It was cancer that killed her. Two weeks ago Wednesday, after she decided to forego any more chemo treatments, thus acknowledging after a heroic year-long battle that her condition was terminal, she hosted a party. It was hard to say "Farewell." Of course, her condition was only terminal with regard to mortality. Having prepared herself well, Karen was ready to meet the Lord. But it's difficult to commend someone to God. Maybe it's shows a lack of trust, a lack of faith, on my part. I guess that's what Christian funerals are for. She fought her good fight with grace and a smile.

Our statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in our front garden


As St Paul wrote in what was very likely the first of his New Testament letters-
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep (1 Thess 4:13-14)


May, of course, is the month of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It seems fitting to invoke her intercession: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

I am having a good day today despite myself, which is the only way I have good days. I am glad this is my first post for the month of May. I was privileged to assist my bishop, Oscar Solis, at our St Olaf School Mass this morning. Today marked the second time I have served alongside him. I look forward to doing so again when he comes to St Olaf to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation next month. Tomorrow is another of my sons' First Holy Communion.

Prior to Mass, I spent the early part of this beautiful Spring day with my lovely wife. Our time together made feel great, like a young man in Spring back when, on a day like this, anything seemed possible. And so, apropos of nothing, our Friday traditio is the The Hindu Love Gods, which is basically REM sans Michael Stipe, with guest Warren Zevon singing Prince's "Rapsberry Beret." I was singing this song to my love this morning. She was a good sport and humored me

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Year A Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 2:14.22-33; Ps 16:1-2.5.7-11; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of St Luke’s telling of what happened on the road to and after the arrival of Jesus, Cleopas, and the unnamed disciple in Emmaus. As with the risen Lord’s repeated appearances to the disciples while they were hiding in the aftermath of his death, what St Luke wrote down and handed on is about how Jesus continues to accompany us on the way. You see my friends, Christ’s resurrection from the dead is not merely a past event, something that happened a long time ago in a land far away. Even if we believe Jesus rose from the dead as a matter of fact, reducing his resurrection merely to an historical event is to render it meaningless and perhaps ineffective in our lives. Christ’s resurrection is an on-going reality. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to have some experience of this reality.

How do we experience the on-going reality of Christ’s resurrection? The theological answer is, “By the power of the Holy Spirit.” This answer can be disheartening because too often we imagine that the Holy Spirit only works on a highly individual basis and only in fantastic, spectacular ways. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Holy Spirit is the mode of Christ’s resurrection presence in us and among us. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the way the risen Lord remains present to us between his Ascension and his return in glory.

This is where our experience and that of the disciples in Emmaus converge: Jesus is made known to us in the breaking of bread. Our knowing him under the guise of bread and wine is, indeed, the work of the Holy Spirit. Each Eucharistic prayer includes what is called an epiclesis. Epiclesis is a Greek verb meaning “to call down.” In addition to making the appropriate physical gestures, during the epiclesis, the priest says something like: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is by receiving our Lord in the form of bread and wine that he accompanies us along the road of life, he is with us on the way. It is our sharing of the bread that makes us companions. The origin of our word “companion” comes from Latin: cum = “with” and pané = “bread.” Together cum + pané = “companion.” Thus, your companions are the ones whom you share bread. We call the ability to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine faith. Being a gift from God, faith is also brought about by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our frequent, full, active, and conscious participation in the Eucharist is what it means concretely, existentially, to experience Christ’s resurrection.

In Baptism we died, were buried and rose with Christ. In Confirmation, we were sealed with the Holy Spirit to bear witness to our new life Christ, empowered to give witness by the gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe of the Lord- not speaking in tongues, being slain in the Spirit, nor wearing a sandwich board that reads “Repent! The end is near” while standing on a street corner.

Der Gang nach Emmaus (The Way to Emmaus), by Robert Zünd, 1877


In this regard, it is good to point out that the Sacrament of Penance, which was the first gift given by the risen Christ to his Church, as we heard in last week’s Gospel on Divine Mercy Sunday, is an extension of Baptism that recognizes our post-baptismal tendency to sin. Going to confession, where we also have a direct, personal encounter with Christ in the person of the priest, is also a dramatic way of experiencing the on-going event of Christ’s resurrection in a manner that is not just similar to, but identical to, the way Cleopas and his companion encountered Jesus risen from the dead, which is to say, sacramentally. As the disciples’ experience shows us, to encounter Jesus this way is not somehow less real, but what we might call really real.

Right now, as we celebrate this Mass, we are participating in what is intended to be for us a direct and life-changing encounter with our Risen Lord. In each Eucharistic celebration, Christ is really present in the gathering of the baptized, in the person of the priest, in the proclamation of the Scriptures (perhaps even in the homily), and in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine.

Like Cleopas and his companion, discouragement is not necessarily a barrier to encountering Christ. Life can be and sometimes is disappointing, even for Christ’s disciples. It is pretty clear that the two disciples were expressing their disappointment about had happened to each other as they walked the dusty road to Emmaus. They had cast their lot with Jesus only to see their expectations dashed with his arrest, trials, torture, death, and burial. Their hopes were nailed to the cross, where they seem to have died. Oh sure, they had heard about the empty tomb and a had listened to a few women, whose testimony was not to be trusted, say they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, but as far as they were concerned the gig was up.

Life is disappointing because we all have expectations. Our expectations are nothing except our hopes and wishes concerning when and how we want our desires to be realized. Desire is what makes us human. As the great Dominican saint, St Catherine of Sienna, whose liturgical memorial we observed yesterday, wrote in one of her letters: “There is nothing we can desire or want that we do not find in God.” A corollary to this is G.K. Chesterton’s observation that every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is seeking God. What can prevent us from having an encounter with the risen and living Lord is our lack of desire to see him. We may not desire to encounter him because we prefer our own desires, not realizing or believing what the old hymn tells us: Jesus is the joy of all our desiring, the fulfillment of our deepest longings.

We sometimes lack desire because we are content with our lives, happy with how things are, or least not terribly unhappy. We suspect, perhaps even fear, that encountering the risen Lord will shake things up, like it no doubt did for his first post-resurrection disciples. Think about it- after recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread, Cleopas and his companion, seemingly without hesitation or bothering to get a good night’s sleep, traveled the seven miles back to Jerusalem to bear witness that Christ is risen.

It was the change wrought by their encounter with the risen Christ that empowered the first Christians, a non-descript and quite unlikely bunch, to change the world. Being changed is just another way to say “converted.” If we are to be agents of change, protagonists, witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, we must first be changed. May this Eucharist, then, be for us a life-changing encounter with Christ risen and alive, may he come to dwell in us by the power of his Holy Spirit so that, when we are sent forth at the end of Mass, like Cleopas and his companion, we might be eager to bear witness, declaring - Christ is risen. Alleluia!