Friday, August 23, 2019

The delusion of being powerful

Ministering to the sick is important on many levels. Most importantly, it is about the sick person knowing s/he is loved and not forgotten or discarded. But as the late Cardinal Carlo Martini wrote:

Sickness is part of life, not like growth or gratification, but more like an interruption, a suspension, a burden, a nuisance even. Far from being an accident, it reveals to us the normal, limited condition of all human satisfaction. Sickness defines me as a fragile, weak, uncertain, and needy being.

Sickness clearly reveals what is hidden in me even when I am healthy, and I fear it because I am loath to see my limitations and my weak points revealed (On the Body: A Contemporary Theology of the Human Person, 20-21)
It was St. Paul who insightfully observed: "Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10). This is one of those statements we can either reduce or simply pass over. In the passage leading up to this statement Paul recounts his woes. In other words, understanding what he means can only be learned through experience.

As the late and still badly missed Rich Mullins sang: "We are not as strong as we think we are." You guessed it, that is our Friday traditio:

"To stand there it takes some grace, 'cuz we are not as strong as we think we are."

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Jesus and the fire of God's love

Readings: Jer 38:4-6.8-10; Ps 40:2-4.18; Heb 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53

What is Jesus on about in today's Gospel? These are the kinds of passages that prove scary to people, especially when they are treated in a vacuum rather than in context. As it pertains to Gospel readings from the Lectionary, context means both situating the passage in the biblical book and section of that book in which it is found, as well with the other readings from the Lectionary for that day, with which it is harmonized.

Our reading from the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) for this Sunday is taken from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. It is a difficult reading because Jeremiah, in being true to his prophetic calling, which consisted of calling the kingdom of Judah back to fidelity with its covenant with God, experiences the wrath of the king. The reason the king's advisors call for Jeremiah's death is because by speaking prophetically he is demoralizing people and, in their view, not interested the nation's welfare. The implication is that he is seeking to bring about Judah's demise. In short, Jeremiah is deemed an enemy of the state. In reality, the welfare of the people and of the nation are foremost on Jeremiah's mind as well as first in his heart.

Nonetheless, Jeremiah is seized and cast into a cistern in which there was "only muck." Seemingly in despair for being punished simply for being faithful to his divine calling, the prophet "sank into the muck." I use "muck" instead of "mud" as the result of making reference to Robert Alter's translation of the Hebrew Bible. His insistence on using "muck" arises from his observation that a cistern, which is a pit for collecting rainwater, in midsummer, which is when this episode takes place, would contain "only a residue of muck" (The Hebrew Bible: A Translation- Prophets, 986). Living in the desert, Alter's explanation makes me think of gnats, flies, and wasps, which hover over such muck in the heat of a summer's day.

It bears noting that it was a Cushite, not an Judahite (i.e., a Jew), who implored the king to let him save Jeremiah from starvation. So, Jeremiah's life was spared by the good graces of a benevolent foreigner. As Alter observes, the Cushite, Ebed-Melech, was very likely a black African. He further notes the irony that it should be a foreigner who takes "the initiative to save the prophet" (The Hebrew Bible, 986).

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews shows that the connection between Jeremiah and Jesus could not stronger. "For the sake of the joy that lay before him," the inspired author writes, Jesus "endured the cross" (Heb 12:2). Jesus did not merely endure the cross, by despising the shame this hideous form of death was intended to impose who were so executed, Jesus he defied death. Just as Christ endured "opposition from sinners," we, too, should remain steadfast and "not... lose heart" when our love not only when our love is not returned but when we are rejected and despised for it (Heb 12:3). In fact, our steadfastness should be such that we struggle against sin, our own sin, "to the point of shedding blood" (Heb 12:4).

This past week, the Church observed the Memorial of St. Maximilan Kolbe, who, like Jeremiah, died of imposed starvation. Fr. Kolbe voluntarily the place of a Jewish man in German concentration camp. Praying Morning Prayer that day I was struck by one of Intercessions, taken from the Common of One Martyr:
Your martyrs followed in your footsteps by carrying the cross,
   -help us to endure courageously the misfortunes of life
It may seem that, unlike Jeremiah, Maximilan Kolbe was not rescued by a foreigner. In a reversal, this righteous Gentile was rescued by the resurrection of the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.

Indeed, Jesus came to bring fire upon the earth. In its essence, what is this fire? Is it literal? Is God going to burn everything just as, in the flood, he drowned nearly everything? No! Jesus came to set the earth on fire with the love of God. He is God's love incarnate and resurrected. Jeremiah shows, as does Jesus, for that matter, that the love of God is frequently not well-received. It is not the one aflame with the fire of God's love who divides herself from others as the result of some imagined holy separation. Rather, it the division arises from the rejection of God's love by those on whom it is lavished. Far from embracing being cast into the cistern as a relief, Jeremiah languishes still on fire with the love of God.

Just as Jesus "endured" his passion without arguing or disputing, our passage from the Hebrew Bible conveys no words spoken by Jeremiah. The prophet certainly does not speak in his own defense. Just as Jeremiah was seen as a nemesis to his people, so Jesus was deemed to be a danger by the Sanhedrin of his own day. Let's recall these words put in the mouth of Caiaphas by the inspired author of St. John's Gospel: "it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish" (John 11:50).

As the Lord indicates in our Gospel today, love usually results in suffering. Love, of course, is not all suffering. But to love is to suffer, at least to some extent and some of the time. Jesus speaks about the "anguish" he must experience until the redemption, the reconciliation, the communion he came establish is fully realized. Walking the way of love is to intentionally embrace that path of maximum resistance. As a member of his body, the Church, it is through you that the earth is to be set afire by God's love and it is through you that Christ experiences the anguish to which he refers in our Gospel reading.

It was only a month ago that our second reading for Mass, taken from St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians, began with these words: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking* in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church" (Col 1:24). Indeed, these days faithful members of the Christ's Church suffer for the things inflicted on the young and innocent lambs who by wolves masquerading as shepherds and businessmen pretending to be bishops. To give up on the Church, however, is not only to give up on Christ, it is to give up on the love with which God seeks to set your heart aflame.

As the last verse of the twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, the chapter from which our second reading is taken, asserts: "For our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29). "Be who God meant you to be," wrote St. Catherine of Siena, "and you will set the world on fire."

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Depression and hope through faith

I don't want to go on and on about depression. One reason is that I don't want to wallow in my affliction. Another reason is I don't desire to impose my suffering others, still less to garner pity. In all honesty, it isn't really that pleasant to deal with either internally or externally. Hence, the purpose of this brief post is to share how, in my experience, God finds a way through the fog of my self-absorption. One key to this, at least for me, is to send out a beacon through the fog, so to speak.

I send out this beacon by keeping up the spiritual discipline of prayer. On a daily basis, for me, this consists of fidelity to praying Morning & Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, doing some spiritual reading in conjunction with Morning Prayer, which Monday-Wednesday consists of practicing lectio divina with the readings for the upcoming Sunday and Thursday-Sunday reading from a carefully selected book, along with reciting the Rosary during my morning walk. Something I do with less regularity than I should is practice the Examen in conjunction with Evening Prayer. In certainly helps in these circumstances that I am attentive, desperately looking for something, anything, that might be a life-saver.

For those who are unaware, just as Fridays are days of penance for Roman Catholics, Saturdays are devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. As a result, the Intercessions for Morning Prayer on Saturdays typically seek her intercession. Being the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time, we are currently praying from Week III of the four-week cycle found in the Liturgy of the Hours. This petition today struck me as my prayer:
You strengthened Mary at the foot of the cross and filled her with joy at the resurrection of your Son,
   - through her intercession relieve our distress and strengthen our hope

For spiritual reading, have recently taken up a book by the late Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini: On the Body: A Contemporary Theology of Human Person. This book is ideal for spiritual reading because, as the author says in his Preface: "I chose to write this book as a series of notes, comments, and maxims. I thought this was a more appropriate genre than a research paper or exegesis." Because he wrote this book in this way, it is well-suited for spiritual reading.

Reading only one note this morning was all I needed to be helped. The note I read is about physical illness. However, it quickly dawned on me that it is easily transferable to depression. To suitably adapt it I substituted one phrase, which will appear in brackets, for the phrase "physical pain"-
Sometimes I am seized by a fear of the future in which I see only darkness; at other times, I feel I am not receiving proper care. Loneliness, [mental anguish], irritability, disappointment, the difficulty of human interaction- I am disturbed by all this, and these predicaments reveal a part of me I did not know existed.

The positive, spontaneous flow has been blocked, and my first impulse is to distrust everyone, myself included1
One caveat: at my age, I know all too well this part of me exists. Probably time for confession: Jesus, I trust in You. 

Like Mary at the foot of the cross, always remember, hope lies beyond optimism.

1 Carlo Maria Martini, On the Body: A Contemporary Theology of the Human Person, Crossroad: New York, 2001, 18

Friday, August 16, 2019

"What they want, I don't know"

In my opinion the only thing good about late Summer is the early morning when there is a hint of Fall in the air. Otherwise, you can have it. People still speak of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), which was quite the rage years ago. But as someone who works to keep the black dog at bay, I don't find wintertime the worst season of the year. For whatever reason, late summer seems to be the time I struggle most.

This particular August is proving to be very busy. Now, I admit I am mostly busy with good things, that is, doing things that I enjoy. Still, I am too busy. Add to that being an older parent of younger children and you have a recipe for dissatisfaction. Perhaps I am projecting, but dissatisfied people are rarely able to keep their dissatisfaction to themselves. To be more specific, I am unable to keep my dissatisfaction to myself. Predictably, this only makes things worse.

I am glad that Fridays for Roman Catholics have traditionally been and still are, at least for those who care to observe them as such, days of penance. Without a doubt the main way this has been expressed is by abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals. While not obligatory, except on the Fridays of Lent, abstaining from meat remains the primary way Roman Catholics in the United States observe penance on Fridays. Let's face it, it's not much of a deprivation.

Praying Morning Prayer this morning, I by these words from Psalm 51, known as the Miserere: "My sacrifice to God, a broken spirit." The implication of this for me is that when I feel broken-spirited (i.e., dispirited), I need to offer it to God. Part of what it means to offer it to the Father through Christ in the power of their Holy Spirit is, like fasting and abstaining, not drawing anyone's attention to the fact that I am doing it.

In case you're wondering, I am indeed asserting, very strongly, that there can still be meaning in the exhortation, these days mostly used in jest, to "Offer it up." By making this assertion, I am not saying this is the best thing to do in every situation. It's important to let the circumstance determine the method.

In an effort to assuage my overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction with everything and pretty much everyone, our Friday traditio is The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop."

In addition to (once again) there is nothing in the world that will yield the satisfaction for which I really long. By the grace of God, may I be able to make a more acceptable sacrifice next time around this dilapidated block.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today the Church throughout the world observes the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For Roman Catholics, today is a holy day of obligation, which means we are required to attend Mass, just as we are on Sundays, on pain of sin. That sounds pretty solemn, I know. I don't know about you, but for me, it's really the case that today I get to go to Mass. To that end, on holy days, parishes offer more Masses and celebrate them at convenient times.

Christians believe that the Blessed Virgin, either prior to dying or immediately after dying, was bodily assumed into heaven. In a week's time we celebrate the related Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church teaches that after her glorious Assumption, she was crowned Queen of Heaven. In fact, the Blessed Virgin's Assumption and her coronation as Queen of Heaven are the fourth and fifth mysteries of Glorious Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. And so, her bodily Assumption is a mystery of our redemption that we can and should ponder often. The fruit of this mystery is the grace of a happy death.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven serves a preview of what awaits those who respond to God's gracious invitation issued through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Any authentic response is both prompted by and made in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Blessed Mother is often closely aligned with the Holy Spirit. After all, she was in the midst of the nascent Church at the first Christian Pentecost, when, in accord with Jesus's promise, the Holy Spirit descended on Mary, the Twelve, and others who responded to God's call in the form of fire. Being the model Christian disciple, Mary shows us the glory that awaits the children of God.

In the one and only infallible papal proclamation since the First Vatican Council, in the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, set forth and loosely defined the dogma of papal infallibility, Pope Pius XII, in 1950, dogmatically declared the Blessed Virgin's Assumption. This was no great innovation as her Assumption, at least up until the 16th century, was held always, everywhere, and by everyone. In other words, it was held to be a dogma of the faith prior to the then-Holy Father's proclamation.

As Pius wrote in his Apostolic Constitution On the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
the august Mother of God, mysteriously united from all eternity with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination, immaculate in her conception, a virgin inviolate in her divine motherhood, the wholehearted companion of the divine Redeemer who won complete victory over sin and its consequences, gained at last the supreme crown of her privileges - to be preserved immune from the corruption of the tomb, and like her Son, when death had been conquered, to be carried up body and soul in the exalted glory of heaven, there to sit in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of ages
Today the Church throughout the world prays: Veni Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam - Come Holy Spirit, come through Mary!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Year C Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 18:6-9; Ps 33:1.12.18-22; Heb 11:1-2.8-19; Luke 12:32-48

Today Jesus teaches “where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”1 This prompts a question each one of us should ask ourselves: “Where is my heart?” The central theme of this week’s Scripture readings is faith. Like “grace,” “faith” is a word we use and hear all the time, at least in Church. As a result of its frequent use, the theological meaning of “faith,” along with its implications for our lives, can grow dim.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews provides a working definition: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”2 It is important to link faith to hope, just as it is important to link faith and hope with charity. Hope is the flower of faith and charity is their fruit.

The Greek word translated as “faith” is pistis. Pistis refers to placing your confidence, your trust, in something or someone. Especially in light of how “faith” is often used, it seems important to note that faith requires an object; you don’t have faith in faith.

At root, being a Christian means placing your trust in someone, namely Jesus Christ. This is why even Catholics can assert: we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Making this assertion it becomes all the more important to have some grasp of what faith is.

In the context of our second reading, hope refers to what you expect as a result of placing your trust in Jesus Christ. This realization spares us the nonsense of reducing faith to mere belief, to intellectual assent to a set of carefully constructed doctrinal propositions. Faith reduced in this way has no power to save. We also don’t place our faith in ourselves, at least not when it comes to what truly matters: life eternal.

Exactly what should you expect as a result of saying “Jesus, I trust in You”? Jesus himself makes clear what you must not expect: health, wealth, and a trial-free life. We must never forget that the only way to resurrection is through the cross, which is why, a few chapters earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel, the Lord tells his would-be followers:
If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it3
As the soon-to-be-canonized John Henry Cardinal Newman observed: “To be at ease is to be unsafe.”4

In our first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom, we hear about Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Leaving Egypt required the children of Israel, along with the mixed multitude who came with them, to place their trust in God’s promises as delivered through Moses, their one-time oppressor.5

Abraham's Journey From Ur to Canaan, by József Molnár, 1850

God’s oath was to bring them out of Egypt to the promised land, the very land to which God led Abraham when he called him in a similar way. Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was to go.”6 This shows us that faith is our response to God’s loving initiative towards us. When we come to faith, we begin learning what it means to trust Christ by taking baby steps.

Like the children of Israel, whom the inspired author of Wisdom refers to as “the holy children of the good,” we, too, in this very Eucharist, offer “sacrifice… putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.”7 The sacrifice we offer is nothing other than ourselves. During the Offertory of the Mass, our gifts are collected and then brought to the altar, along with the bread and wine that will become for us the body and blood of Christ. These gifts symbolize the offering of ourselves. The only convincing evidence that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ is the transformed lives of those who partake of it.

In the consecrated bread and wine, Jesus gives himself to us body, blood, soul, and divinity. All he asks in return is that we offer ourselves to the Father through him by the power of their Holy Spirit body, blood, soul, and humanity. During the intercessory part of Eucharistic Prayer III, the priest implores the Father: “May [Christ] make of us an eternal offering to you, that we may obtain an inheritance with your elect…”8 This, dear friends, is an act of faith, hope, and love, which is what makes it acceptable to God.

In our Gospel, Jesus urges his followers to sell their belongings and give alms to the poor. In a subsequent parable, he asserts that those who do so are like the Israelites of old, who, trusting only in God’s promise, were ready to depart Egypt at a moment’s notice. In the parable, those who obey Jesus are the vigilant servants who are ready for the return of their master, who can arrive at any time.

When Peter asks if these hard teachings apply to everyone or just to a select few, Jesus tells another parable, this one about a steward. A steward has charge of the household in the master's absence. He contrasts a faithful steward, who takes good care of the other servants, with one who abuses his power and status by ill-treating his fellow servants. This leads to the crux of Jesus's teaching: if, as a follower of Jesus, you have wealth and/or power, much is expected of you in terms of helping the oppressed and those in need.

Contra many self-professing Christians, rather than being a sign of God’s favor, riches often constitute the greatest obstacle to inheriting God’s kingdom. It seems obvious that one who hoards riches and uses power for his/her own sake works against the establishment of God's reign, thus becoming in their very person an obstacle to the realization of that kingdom. It bears recalling what we learned in last week’s Gospel: one who seeks security in riches dies twice.

When distilled, the point of today’s Gospel is that by handling well the wealth and power you accumulate, that is, using it for the benefit of those in need and the building up of God’s kingdom, this obstacle is lowered if not removed entirely. If you save your life by losing it for the sake of the Gospel, how much more do you become rich in what truly matters than by divesting yourself of earthly riches for the sake of God's reign? By so doing you provide evidence for things not seen, a sign of hope.

1 Luke 12:34.
2 Heberws 11:1.
3 Luke 9:23-24.
4 Henri Bremond, The Mystery of Newman, trans. H.C. Corrance, 203.
5 Exodus 12:38; Wisdom 18:6.
6 Hebrews 11:8.
7 Wisdom 18:9.
8 The Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” Eucharistic Prayer III, sec. 113.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Saint Lawrence, deacon and martyr

I suppose with a blog named Καθολικός διάκονος, I would be remiss not commemorate today's Feast of Saint Lawrence. Rather than doing so out of a sense of obligation, however, I am eager to post something about one of the greatest deacons of Christ's Church on his feast day. More than 1,700 years after his martyrdom, the deacon Lorenzo stands as an exemplar of diakonia. Deacons today should look to Lawrence as they allow Christ to shape and form them, by the power of the Holy Spirit given through the grace with we are infused by virtue of our ordination as servants, into his likeness, the likeness of a servant.

Part of what it means for deacons to look to Lawrence is to ask for his intercession, especially in matters pertaining to our diaconal service. Diakonia is either a self-sacrificing undertaking or it is nothing. While it is necessary for deacons to manage our commitments to marriage, family, and employment vis-à-vis our ministry, keeping in mind that we are always and everywhere deacons who are called upon to act in persona Christi servi- our ministry extends well beyond the Church door- it is important that a deacon does not merely serve at his convenience.

Lawrence originally hailed from Spain. He lived his entire life in the third century: AD 225-258. It was in Spain that he met and struck up a friendship with the future Pope Sixtus II, who was Greek. Upon becoming pope in AD 257, Sixtus ordained Lawrence, who was quite young (20 or 21), a deacon. Moreover, Pope Sixtus appointed Lawrence as the archdeacon of Rome, placing him in a preeminent role over the other six deacons of that city. I don't have any problem surmising that it is likely Lawrence was engaged in diakonia prior to being ordained a deacon. In terms of the renewed and restored order of deacons in the Latin Church, this is key: diakonia is the not result of ordination. Rather, a candidate for the diaconate is someone who is already engaged in diakonia. It is also easy to see that Lawrence was martyred not long after ordination.

It's interesting that today Christians lament martyrdom as a tragedy. In the ancient Church, martyrdom was viewed as a crowning achievement. In his sermon for the Feast of Saint Lawrence, Saint Augustine said this about him: In Rome "he ministered the sacred blood of Christ; there for the sake of Christ's name he poured out his own blood." This strikes me as a very good and succinct description of diakonia, boiling it down to its essence.

Saint Lawrence, icon by Theophilia

As the archdeacon of Rome, Lawrence was entrusted with responsibility for the Church's material goods. This meant that he also had charge of distribution of alms to the poor. There are many legends handed down about this sainted deacon. Saint Ambrose of Milan related that when the prefect of Rome demanded Lawrence hand over the Church's treasures, he brought the poor before the prefect with the words: "Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church's crown." This occurred during the reign of the Roman emperor Valerian, who undertook a persecution of the Church in Rome.

Lawrence and Pope Sixtus were was arrested in the same imperial round-up in the Eternal City. Sixtus was arrested while celebrating Mass in the catacombs of Saint Callistus, along with four deacons who were serving alongside their bishop. Like Lawrence, Sixtus, along with his four deacons, were executed by imperial decree. Pope Saint Sixtus II was buried in the same cemetery in which he was arrested. The Church observes the memorial of Saint Sixtus II, pope and Companions on 7 August.

One can imagine the resilience this persecution summoned forth from the Roman Church, which lost its bishop and five of its seven deacons. It fell to Sixtus II's successor, Pope Dionysius, to reorganize the Church in Rome. He was aided in this when Emperor Gallienus, Valerian's successor, issued an Edict of Toleration, which brought that persecution of the Roman Church to and end.

It is said that during the days he spent in prison awaiting his execution, Lawrence preached the Gospel and baptized fellow prisoners. Another traditional legend has it that Lawrence died by being roasted on a hot gridiron. He is alleged to have said as he roasted, "I'm well-done on this side. Turn me over." While the credence of both his manner of death and his uttering these words are doubtful, the deacon Lawrence is patron saint of comedians, as well as of cooks and chefs.


Father, you called Saint Lawrence to serve you by love
and crowned his life with glorious martyrdom.
Help us to be like him in loving you and doing your work.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

If I were to provide a traditio for the Feast of the deacon Lorenzo, it would surely be Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" (see "Who do you serve? You gotta serve somebody").

The delusion of being powerful

Ministering to the sick is important on many levels. Most importantly, it is about the sick person knowing s/he is loved and not forgotten o...