Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Concerns about North Korea's nuclear capabilities

While U.S.'s bellicosity over the past few decades has often deeply troubled as well as puzzled me strategically (it seems we have gotten into the habit of instigating more chaos than we quell, resulting in too many civilians being killed, harmed, and displaced- ONE is too many, ideally), I do not believe we should stand idly by while the DPRK acquires nuclear weapons and a robust and increasingly accurate means of delivering them.

I like very much this statement by Defense Secretary (Gen) James Mattis. It is clear, concise, and reasonable. Above all, it expresses a desire for peace. Let's de-nuclearize, if I may use that clunky term, the Korean Peninsula and then start helping North Korea become a responsible state by taking care of its people.
While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth. The DPRK regime's actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates
As Secretary Tillerson noted recently and publicly, speaking to North Korean leadership, which has even taken to isolating itself from China: "We are not your enemies."

For those who want to dismiss Gen Mattis and most of the military top-brass as run-of-the-mill neo-cons, you're wrong. Neither are they part of some "deep state" conspiracy. I've heard some people suggest this about Gen Mattis with regard to Iran. It might be useful to know that GCC states identify Iran as their greatest threat and have for decades. It would not be a good thing for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons either, but that is another issue for another day.

The U.S. military is under civilian control. The JCS provides the best military advice they can to the president and the rest of the National Command Authority. However, the president is free to heed or disregard.

U.S. Secretary of Defense, (Gen.) James Mattis

Someone asked smugly, "So, is North Korea the new thing we're supposed to be scared of?" I wouldn't say scared at this point. But let's see, North Korea's development of nukes has gone on apace with significant progress over several decades. Every administration during that time has had moments of tension with North Korea and attempted to dissuade and/or deter them from so doing without success, but not despite trying and probably not without delaying them. As anyone who follows the news knows, North Korea is currently working on a nuclear-capable ICBM and making progress, as their recent robust testing regime demonstrates. This would give them the capability of "nuking" the United States, which they have (unsurprisingly) identified as a target. Please correct me if I am wrong, but didn't we freak out when Cuba requested the Soviet Union put nukes on that island in 1962? So much so we were willing to risk war? Thank God it didn't result in such a horror.

For anyone who thinks resuming the Korean War is in any way akin to Afghanistan or other recent Middle Eastern (mis-) adventures, you're badly mistaken. Simply using their existing conventional weapons capability, the North Koreans launching a first strike would decimate Seoul very quickly. What is very alarming about Kim Jong-Un is that he has isolated himself far more than his father or grandfather ever did, even from China. I am not sure the hard-press we're putting on right now is the best idea because it is escalating an always-volatile situation, but that's not my call. I would like Russia and China to chime in too, more than just voting to impose further sanctions, which they did today. While it may be a bit early to be scared, this is certainly news and something we should be interested in and concerned about.

In any case, if you believe in God, please pray for a peaceful resolution to this tense state-of-affairs, which means North Korea stopping its missile-testing and sitting down at the negotiating table, not just with the U.S., but perhaps a new round of Five Party talks (North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, U.S.). Whether you voted for, like or loathe, President Trump, pray for him on this (and other matters), as well as those who advise him, and those who carry out diplomacy. I think it is worth praying that no more countries acquire nuclear weapons and that countries that currently possess such weapons will work together to reduce them with an eye towards eliminating them altogether. At the end of the day, a peacefully realized nuclear weapon-free Korean Peninsula is a worthy goal.

Unlike at least one Christian leader, I don't believe God has given President Trump sanction to take out Kim Jong-Un, or start a war, especially one involving nuclear weapons, which would be the height of insanity. I do believe in praying for our leaders as they face the challenges of leadership, praying for a lasting peace, the end of nuclear proliferation, as well as the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

There's proper Christian apocalypticism and then there is end-time madness. Jesus's Transfiguration, rightly grasped, is the former. The difference between apocalypticism properly understood and the kind of madness that grips people regarding the end-of-the-world is the difference between hope and fear. On the one hand, in a very real sense, due to the fall, the world is always in a mess. On other hand, God is at work in the mess accomplishing his purposes not despite the mess, but through it. "Bless this mess," then, becomes a form of the cry of some of the earliest Christians: Maranatha!.

In today's Gospel reading, we heard without much adieu, "Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them" (Matt 17:1-2a). Moses and Elijah, traditionally taken to represent the Law and the prophets respectively, appeared alongside Jesus. Matthew tells us that they "conversed" with Jesus. He gives us no insight into what they might have discussed.

I don't think it's too much to say that what Peter and the sons of Zebedee beheld that day was not necessarily things as they really are as much as things as they were meant to be and ultimately will be; the world transformed into what God created it and is redeeming it to be. After all, "apocalypse" literally means "an uncovering," a revelation.

Like Peter in this pericope, we are quick to memorialize things. He wanted to make three tabernacles, three booths- one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. To memorialize something in this way usually means being in a rush to put it in the past. Perhaps we can go back and revisit the memory: "Remember that time Jesus turned bright white and we saw him talking to Moses and Elijah? I wonder what they were talking about?"

The Transfiguration, by Raphael, ca. 1520

I find it interesting that Peter makes his suggestion to erect three booths, or tabernacles, before they were overshadowed by the cloud. Upon being overshadowed, they heard the voice of the Father declaring, as he had at Jesus's baptism: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt 3:17). This is an encounter with ultimate reality! They experienced a theophany, an apocalypse. The only response to their encounter was to fall flat on their faces and be "vehemently," or "tremendously," afraid. Yes, there is an adverb in the original Greek to go with the verb indicating "they were afraid." Were that the sum total of their experience it may well have led the three disciples to adopt what is characterized as a kind of end-time madness, which deals in death and despair and turns God into an angry tyrant looking to exact revenge upon an unrepentant world with Jesus as his agent of mayhem.

What happened next was Jesus touched them- this is important. He touched them while they were still lying prostrate on the ground, afraid to look up. As he touched them he said, "Rise, and do not be afraid" (Matt 17:7b). Upon feeling his touch and hearing his words, it seems they felt it was safe to look up and stand up. When they looked, "they saw no one else but Jesus alone" (Matt 17:8b). This is the revelation, the apocalypse, the uncovering! While they did not yet possess full knowledge, they would never look at anything the same way again. Notice, there was no more discussion of erecting memorials. Why? Because Jesus walked down the mountain with them. God was with them, not left behind on the mountainside. God is with us, too.

You were transfigured in baptism. In the waters of baptism who you really are, who God created and redeemed you to be, was made known, was uncovered, revealed. What up until that moment was implicit became explicit. We also encounter Jesus each time we come to Mass. In the Eucharist the eschaton, the apocalypse, the final revelation of God is made immanent, just as it was for Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor. In the Eucharist, Jesus does not merely draw near to you, or make an appearance in our midst. He comes to be in you in order to transfigure you, to complete the good work he began in you with your baptism.

When you are dismissed from Mass, you are sent forth in the knowledge that Jesus is not only with you, but in you. As someone touched, encouraged, and empowered by Christ, you are to make him present wherever you go. How the world is transformed until Christ returns is by your proclaiming, "Lord, bless this glorious mess!" You make the mess glorious by engaging in it for Christ's sake, which primarily means helping those in need, working to see those who are without have what they need. In biblical language, this means taking care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger you encounter.

My friends, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, surely God is with us.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Liturgy and the totus Christus

Showing a picture he took of a Lutheran chapel in Denmark, where he was participating in a conference of the European Hymn Society, Benedictine priest, musician and liturgical scholar, Fr Anthony Ruff (who I had the pleasure of meeting more than 20 years ago), where he celebrated Mass, noted that while "the Lutherans still use the medieval high altar of the former Cistercian monastery," he, a Catholic monk, "set up an altar/table facing the people."

In a further comment he noted something that strikes me as tremendously important:
If ad or[i]entem reinforces a sense of community - we're all facing the same direction and the priest is one of us - it's a good thing. If, however, it reinforces that the priest is doing Mass FOR the people or ON BEHALF OF the people - which can easily be the impression, then we have a major theological problem. Not denying at all the indispensible [sic] and irreplacea[b]le role of the ordained priest in the (communal) offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass, it is a distortion to think that the ordained priest is the mediator. He ain't. Christ is. It's also a distortion to think that only he shares in Christ's priesthood - which is a very widespread misconception. This is totally false - just look at the rite of baptism - all share in the priesthood through baptism
All I can say is, I agree. This is an important point to be discussed among those of us who care deeply about the sacred liturgy.

In my experience in pastoral ministry and on-line, the "major theological problem" Fr Ruff identifies is usually the crux of the matter. This ties very much into the reception, or non-reception, of the Second Vatican Council. It has to do with something far more fundamental than the liturgical reforms that followed the Council. It goes to those things on which the reform is based: a renewed and restored ecclesiology and theology of the Council as expressed in the Dogmatic Constitutions and the Pastoral Constitution. As it pertains to the liturgy, this results in the importance for all to fully, actively, and consciously participate.

Lutheran Church in Logumkloster, Denmark, by Fr Anthony Ruff, OSB

I have heard/read a number of people lately speak/write about wanting to worship in the Extraordinary Form precisely so as not to participate. I read one piece in the Catholic Herald yesterday, by a U.S. blogger, (not sure how they settled on him, retrograde and crosswise would be kind ways of describing his stance) who was lamenting things like formation for marriage and having children baptized. The whole concept of and our need for Christian koinonia, which is rooted in our participation in the Eucharist, seems lost on many people.

Do we need silence, space and quiet time for recollection and contemplation? Yes! I am an advocate for more silence than we often have at Mass: a pause before the Confiteor or penitential litany at least long enough to silently recite an Act of Contrition, some silence after the first reading, Psalm, and second reading, a few moments of reflection after the homily, a pause between the end of the Communion Rite and the Prayer After Communion. But we should have a prayer life outside of Mass, too, one that brings us to the Eucharist and enhances our participation in the Mass.

A dilemma someone posed to me about whether the liturgy is the work of God or work of the people strikes me as utterly misguided. It seems to me a classic false dilemma. If one chooses to impale him/herself on either horn of this dilemma I can't help but see that s/he runs the risk of rendering the liturgy practically meaningless- it would result in a fatal disconnection or dysfunction in one's conception of what is happening, which impacts how one engages at Mass. Therefore, it seems to me the only Christian approach is to grasp that the liturgy is at one and the same time the work of God and the work of God's people, the Church, who together constitute the totus Christus- the total or complete Christ. Stated simply, Baptism and Confirmation matter for Eucharist.

Friday, August 4, 2017

"A broken soul stares from a pair of watering eyes"

I had an idea this evening - just for fun and old times sake, why not put up a Friday traditio on Friday?! Why not, indeed. So, to kick-off August, which finds me still trying to regain my blogging chops, I offer THE THE with their classic song, "Uncertain Smile." Why? Because I heard it today on the radio driving home from confessing to my Spiritual Director. Hearing it, I was struck all over by what a great song it is. This makes it worth handing on, makes it a traditio.

Upon coming out of a fairly serious bout of depression I find it is good to give my sinful responses to being in that condition to the Lord through the Sacrament of Penance. I don't mind telling you, dear reader, July 2017 was about as rough a month as I can remember having experienced. God is good, very good.

On the first day of last month, the day after I arrived back home from my three-week residency at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, I had lunch with a friend who is a priest. We are the same age. He's a member of religious order that used to serve in my diocese. We met when he served here years ago as a fairly young priest. Prior to him being assigned back East, even when he served in Houston and Albuquerque after being in Utah, he was my Spiritual Director. He said something during lunch to which I found myself giving full assent. It was something along the lines that he always thought when he hit 50 or so many of life's struggles would become easier. Instead of becoming easier, he said he is finding many of these things more difficult. He provided a litany of things with which many of us struggle. I know that's vague. I may often write in a confessional manner, but I have no desire to go to confession on the internet or divulge the contents of a private conversation with a friend publicly. Especially you're a middle-aged man, apply your experience.

Without further delay, here's our traditio. It may be late, but it's on Friday.

A howling wind that blows the litter as the rain flows
As street lamps pour orange colored shapes, through your windows
A broken soul stares from a pair of watering eyes
Uncertain emotions force an uncertain smile

The jam at the end of this song is delightful.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Year A Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kgs 3:5.7-12; Ps 119:57.72.76-77.127-130; Rom 8:28-30; Matt 13:44-46

We just heard, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). We might well ask ourselves, do I know this, either from my own life or from looking at the world? As is often the case, our world is enmeshed in violence, poverty, and strife of all kinds. A little closer to home, life is often hectic, stressed, and seemingly devoid of any meaning beyond the next thing we have to do. We might well ask, is God making these things work for my good? Such knowledge, however at odds with the facts as it may seem, constitutes wisdom because it informs me how I am to live my circumstances. Our question, then, might be: “How do I use my circumstances?”

Answers to such a wide-ranging and complex questions as these can only be tentative and provisional. Suffice it to say, even the wisest and most learned among us labor under the limitation of being human; try as we might, we cannot see the whole picture. Solomon recognized this limitation and sought a transcendent source of wisdom.

When told by God in a dream, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you,” Solomon asked for “an understanding heart,” for wisdom (1 Kgs 3:5.9). His humble request pleased God so much it was granted. So, the young king received from God “a heart so wise and understanding” that the inspired author proclaimed, with a bit of hyperbole, no doubt, there had been no one like him up until then and that nobody who would come after him would be equal to him (1 Kgs 3:12). Indeed, even today we revere King Solomon for his wisdom.

In the Jewish Scriptures wisdom is typically concerned with everyday life, not esoteric knowledge about otherworldly mysteries. Hence, wisdom concerns practical matters and guides people in living godly lives. Throughout the various books of the Old Testament wise people are not always the most intellectually gifted. Generally, when a person is depicted as wise, s/he is presented as in tune with God. The wise person and God have a strong, intimate relationship that translates into the wise person being very practical and possessed of what usually turns out to be quite simple, but by no means always well-received, knowledge.

The divine gift of wisdom, which the Church teaches is one of the seven gifts of the Spirit, is important for each of us in living out our Christian vocation, especially in the many ambiguous situations we in which we find ourselves. Presumably, each of us wants to live a good life, a life in tune with the divine life we received in baptism. To that end, we repent of those things that were unwise that pull us away from God, damage our relationships with others, and create disharmony in the eucharistic fellowship we share.

"The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field..." (Matt 13:44)

All of the parables in today’s Gospel begin with the words, “The kingdom of God is like . . .” (Matt 13:44-45.47.52). These analogies are in keeping with Jesus’ basic message that in him God’s kingdom has come near. As one of the great Church Fathers, Origen, stated it, Jesus is autobasileia, that is, God’s kingdom in person. God’s kingdom is present wherever and whenever God’s will is done. That seems simple enough, but we live in a technological age that demands exactness and precision. We are uneasy with paradox and ambiguity. If only Jesus had satisfied our need for exactness and given a precise definition of what the kingdom is and exactly where and when it occurs. I guess that's why we have systematic theologians.

Take today’s first parable as an example of the Lord’s indirectness. One might well respond to this story moralistically and say that the person who found the treasure in the field, reburied it and bought the field acted dishonestly. The treasure should have been reported to the owner of the field, not concealed until after the finder of the treasure could purchase the land, thus securing the treasure for himself. However, Jesus is not teaching here about honesty. It is not uncommon for his parables to feature characters who act in what we might see as slightly shady ways. Jesus sometimes used worldly stories to further open the eyes of those who could see, revealing to them the often-surprising ways God works in the world. Hence, the focus of this parable is on the realization of the value of the treasure - it is worth everything the finder owns and even more! The transaction in the second parable is more straightforward, but the point is much the same.

Two weeks ago, the discourse we are still reading (the third of 5 discourses in Matthew) began with Jesus sitting in a boat and teaching the crowds. In this discourse Jesus is presented not only as a wisdom teacher, but also as wisdom made flesh- divine, transcendent Wisdom engaging human limitation. The actions and words of Jesus are our practical, if often paradoxical, guidance for everyday life. Reading scripture daily, especially from the Gospels, is an indispensable way that we sit and learn at the feet of our Lord. Like the knowledge written about by St Paul in our reading from Romans, only those with ears to hear and eyes to see benefit from divine Wisdom. In other words, only those who are open to letting themselves be challenged and changed can see and hear. This excludes those who read and listen only to confirm what they think they already know- who hear only what they want to hear and only see what they want to see.

Linking wisdom to the knowledge “that all things work for good for those who love God,” it is safe to say of the lives of the saints and of our own lives that God is not so concerned about what happens to us as he is with how we respond. Indeed, do we have the wisdom to affirm with St Paul, who, later in this same chapter of Romans, wrote: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered?’” “No!” Paul emphatically continues, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:35-37). Such is the value of knowing Jesus Christ that knowing him is worth all we have in order to become all God created, redeemed us, and is now sanctifying us to be; without Christ, all we have amounts to nothing. As the title of popular Christian book written a few years ago by a now disgraced Evangelical pastor put it: Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The war I must wage: destroying a piece of my own heart

The way I live, think, and write it would be a fool's errand for me to try to keep up with with all the political ups and downs of our present moment. Over time, I hope I am becoming less political. This is not a way of obliquely insisting that politics don't matter, they do, but not as much as I formerly thought. Because politics are provisional, seeking to be less political is my attempt at keeping politics in perspective. I am not a Republican, neither am I a Democrat. Given how these are understood in the United States, I can say that I am neither a liberal nor a conservative because, depending on the matter at hand, I am both a liberal and a conservative. Above all, I resist being in the thrall of any ideology.

I readily admit to finding the White House events from the Friday before last through yesterday to be both amusing and alarming. Maybe my interest is simply morbid curiosity, or is perhaps attributal to the ever-present sights and sounds of infotainment. In times like these there are a few working journalists whose writing helps me keep these provisional, even ephemeral, things in perspective. One such journalist is Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi. His article "The Anthony Scaramucci Era Will Be Freakish, Embarrassing and All Too Short" did not let me down in this regard. While it should go without saying (in the age of internet basic logic seems to fly out the window and some people insist on making invalid inferences, the popular name for which is jumping to conclusions), I have some pretty fundamental disagreements with Taibbi even as I find much of his work on what ails our republic politically and economically very insightful. In other words, as with many writers, philosophers, theologians, and economists, I find his diagnosis largely accurate, but part ways with him when it comes to many, by no means all, prescriptions.

It is way too easy to just provide a list of things that are wrong and walk away in disgust. It seems to me that this is just what many Christians content themselves with doing. It isn't much more difficult to follow one's list of ills with a plea to turn back the clock, which amounts to trying to reverse the world like Superman. The idea is to somehow restore what is deemed as a better time in the Church and in the world. Neither does the answer lie in Christians abandoning the world. A priest named Jonathan Morris summed this up nicely on Facebook recently: "Engaging the world, in all its messiness, has always been the Gospel way. Isolating ourselves in a cocoon of likemindedness is the easy way out."

In his speech to open the Second Vatican Council, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia ("Mother Church Rejoices"), the eminent historian, Angelo Roncalli, more popularly known as Pope St John XXIII, directly addressed those who see nothing but evil and who prefer trying to live in the past:
In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.

In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God's superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church
A Christian is not one who stands looking wistfully behind the plow, but is someone who not only looks ahead to the full realization of God's glory, which is yet to be fully revealed, and who actively seeks to usher in God's reign by living it as a present reality. A Christian, to paraphrase the liturgy, is one who waits in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. I think the two words in that statement that require emphasis are "joyful" and "waits" in that order. Either Jesus is Lord of the present moment (i.e., he is Lord right here and right now), or he is not Lord at all.

This brings me to the point I want to make. Being a Christian is not to participate in some fantasy role-playing game, killing time 'til the parousia. Being a Christian is to be one who engages reality as it is and not as s/he might want it to be and to do so according to all the factors that together make reality what it is and not something else.

When it comes to those so-called "hot-button" social issues that challenge our humanity on a fundamental level, about which many Christians in the U.S. are rightly concerned, issues such as sexuality, marriage, parenting, life and death, we need to grasp the reality so we can engage as salt and light. Let me take two issues: marriage and abortion. In the United States these matters are now constitutional matters. In other words, they cannot be changed by the collective acts of Congress and the president, let alone by state legislatures and governors. The longer the decisions that made them constitutional issues endure, the more they become settled law and the less likely it is the Supreme Court will overrule them no matter who is appointed to the court. Like it or not, this is the reality we must face full on. Is it possible to amend our constitution? Sure. It's fine to advocate for such amendments. However, there is nowhere near the consensus to make such changes to our fundamental law. In fact, when it comes to consensus-building, the momentum currently goes against such efforts. This, too, is part of the reality we must engage.

Politics cannot save us, but I am convinced politics can damn us. For Christians how we engage our society and culture matter as much, if not more, than those matters that prompt us to engage. It seems to me that when we quote Jesus from Matthew's Gospel (10:16) to the effect that, as sheep sent among wolves, we are to be "shrewd as serpents and simple as doves," we usually, if implicitly, elevate shrewdness over simplicity, or gentleness. The effect of acting according to this implicit understanding is that it usually leads to something like becoming wolves in sheep's clothing: saying all the right "Christian" things while acting contrary to the Gospel.

"God Carrying Us," by Soichi Watanabe, based on Isaiah 46:4

I am tempted to pose the question here, "Given our acknowledgement of reality, do we surrender?" The problem I have with posing that question is it assumes that the Church's and, hence, the individual Christian's, relationship to the world and to other people is one of incessant combat. In other words, it assumes life is a war and the Church is an army. If we take that stance, we are forced to decide if someone is an ally or an enemy. If an enemy, then someone not only to be resisted, but to be vanquished, routed, beaten. In my view, this is no way to follow Christ. I say that being well-aware that martial imagery for the Church is not foreign to the Christian tradition. It is foreign, it seems to me, to the New Testament. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, gave us to two complementary images for the Church on earth, which, during the Counter-Reformation era, an era ended by the Second Vatican Council, was called the Church Militant: "the People of God" and "the pilgrim Church."

As a Christian the only battle I really need to fight is the one within myself. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed in his book The Gulag Archipelago:
the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
In what is still the road map for evangelization in the modern world, Evangelii Nuntiandi, promulgated by Bl Pope Paul VI more than 40 years ago, he observed:
for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one's neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses." St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word.[1 Pet 3:1] It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus- the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity (par 41)
I think anything less what Pope Paul called for will prove futile. Besides, isn't it so much easier to reduce faith by conforming it to a secular political ideology and then engaging in political activism than to give humble, joyful witness to goodness, truth, and beauty for love of God and neighbor, by how I live day-to-day?

Practicing the fundamental spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, the latter of which primarily consists of selfless service to others, along with our participation in the sacramental life of the Church, are the means God gives us both to fight our interior battle and to engage the world in love as it is and not as we wish it was.
For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith (1 John 5:3-4)
Again, I had the best of intentions with regard to posting a traditio yesterday, but I did not do so. This only serves to prove, as I so often do, that intentions in and of themselves get you nowhere. So, our late traditio for this week is two Camaldolese monks who belong to the Hermitage of the Immaculate Heart in Big Sur, California- Fr. Cyprian and Brother James- with a simple and lovely rendition of one of my favorite hymns, Tantum Ergo:

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Wheat, tares, yeast and the greatness of God

Readings: Wis 12:13.16-19; Ps 86:5-6.9-10.15-16; Rom 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-43

In going over the readings for this Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, I was immediately struck by the first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom. Why? Because while the sacred author acknowledges God's greatness and might, he sees it revealed in God's leniency, clemency, and, yes, kindness. God is great because God is merciful, or, taking a cue from the title of Pope Francis' book, God is mercy. God is what God does. With God there can be no separation between act and being. In human, if perhaps Heideggerian, terms we call there being no separation or contradiction between act and being authenticity.

To be sure, God judges justly. Whenever God condemns he does so justly. But God's greatness, it seems to me, lies in his reluctance and even refusal to condemn. God's mercy, his kindness, is expected of God's people, those who believe in God, revere God, and seek to follow his Son: "And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just [i.e., righteous] must be kind" (Wis 12:19). Being truly just, or righteous, requires a person to be kind. Not long ago I read that Jesus was only ever harsh with those who were harsh with others. While I have not undertaken a quantitative analysis of the Lord's interactions as set forth in the canonical Gospels, but this strikes me as true. It seems to be in accord with what Jesus taught as conveyed in St Matthew's Gospel:
Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? (Matt 7:1-3)
If Christ, who has no motes or beams, is clement and lenient and if Christ is himself the kindness and mercy of God, then how much more should we who have motes and beams be clement and lenient, kind and forgiving?

I was also struck by the sacred author of Wisdom's insistence that God shows his "might when the perfection of [his] power is disbelieved" (Wis 12:17). Jesus crucified is the ultimate showing of God's might and Christ's resurrection is the perfection of divine power because these are the means by which God exercises clemency and leniency, kindness and forgiveness. These can be summed up in one word: glory. As the apostle wrote to the Church in ancient Corinth:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:22-25)
I think this why, as St Paul wrote in our second reading, "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26). We do not know how to pray as we ought because too often we do not pray to God, but to our own reduction, to who we think and would like God to be. Blessed be God for coming to our aid and interceding for us with "inexpressible groanings," which, I think, represent true prayer. Note that the apostles says of the one "who searches hearts"- he "knows what is the intention of the Spirit" in order to intercede for us in accord with God's will, not our own. This is the path to authenticity, to wholeness, to holiness.

Rather than trying to impose ourselves on God through prayer, we need allow ourselves to be formed by the Spirit through prayer. Stated more simply, we must learn to pray as we ought because doing so is crucial to living this way. What way? In the manner of Christian disciples, those odd people who live as if God's reign were already completely established, doing things like forgiving, loving, serving, and praying for our enemies, returning good for evil, caring for the widow, the orphan, the abandoned elderly person, the addict, etc. All those things that are easy to say but hard to bring ourselves to do. In other words, we are to be just and kind, like God. This is how we reflect the glory of God, how we demonstrate that the Church has, indeed, been infused with and continues to be animated by the Spirit of the Father and the Son.

Our Gospel reading today is a nice corollary to the pericope I shared about not judging others harshly so as to condemn them. Jesus' Parable of the Wheat and the Tares bids us not to worry about who is "really" a Christian and who might not be. This judgment is reserved to God alone. In the meantime, we act in good faith towards others trusting in their good faith. This may sound trite, but I daily see, especially on social media, Christians questioning the faith of other Christians as if faith could be reduced to a well-studied orthodoxy, or even worse, perfect praxis that is properly called moralism, which brings us back to the motes and beams issue.

Instead of wasting time pronouncing divine judgment on others, we are to be the good kind of yeast, as opposed to the yeast/leaven of the Pharisees (see Matt 16:5-12). Jesus' likening of the kingdom of heaven to the effect a very small amount of yeast has within a comparatively large batch of dough serves as something like the antidote to our all-too-human tendency to attempt to sort the wheat from the tares (I am always to be found among the wheat, of course). There is an obvious parallel here with how we go about evangelization, catechesis, and living out Christian koinonia in our late modern milieu. Jesus uses the mustard seed, too, to demonstrate that God's kingdom begins very small and then grows by the faith of those who make the word incarnate in their lives.

Together wheat and yeast make bread. In light of the recent instruction from the Holy See's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which reaffirmed what constitutes proper matter for the confection of the Eucharist in the Roman Rite (i.e., bread that is "unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition made of only wheat and water" and wine that "must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances" par 3a and 3b), it does not strike me as too audacious, or very original, to point out that we are to be the yeast in just the sense Jesus tells us we are to be in today's Gospel.

Homosexuality, Church teaching, and the pastoral conundrum

There are a number of recent books about the Catholic Church and homosexuality, bi-sexuality, and transgenderism, what is frequently denoted as LBGT. I think it is a mistake to lump trangenderism in with homosexuality. Earlier this year Commonweal magazine featured an insightful piece: "The Church & Transgender Identity Some Cautions, Some Possibilities," which is well worth the time of anyone who is interested in this complex issue.

Yesterday, in the Catholic Herald, I read a review of two recent books on homosexuality, Fr. James Martin's Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity and Daniel C. Mattson's Why I Don't Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexuality. These were reviewed together by Msgr Keith Barltrop in a piece entitled "These two books on gay Catholics are a missed opportunity." It is good that he paired these books because each presents a very different Catholic view on homosexuality that highlight well the tensions in the Church right now. As the late liturgical scholar Mark Searle noted, "Tension creates energy."

Image from Catholic Herald article

Msgr Barltrop's review is very thoughtful. His qualification to write on these matters is his years spent ministering in London to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender Catholics. As someone who has been privileged to serve some of my LGB sisters and brothers, street cred matters. Coming at the issue exclusively by way of various media "takes" is worse than useless. Ideology has no place in pastoral ministry.

One insight I found very useful in Barltrop's reviews arises from the very objective teaching of the Church on the matter of homosexuality, something Fr Martin quite glaringly omits from his book:
if we believe there is truth in the Church's teaching, however imperfectly it may be currently expressed, then surely one way forward is to offer LGBT people, if they will not accept this teaching on its own authority, some tools to make an authentic discernment of their personal experiences of sex and erotic attraction Among such tools a sound moral theology and a spiritual discipline are paramount
Msgr Barltrop goes on to point out that Catholic pastoral ministers have great resources at our disposal: the work of St Igantius of Loyola on spiritual discernment, MacIntyre-inspired virtue ethics, as well as the work of Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, perhaps most accessible to pastoral ministers in his book Morality: The Catholic View. In his work, Fr Pinckaers focuses on what it means to seek true happiness. But these only work, Msgr Barltrop notes, "if a person puts a developing relationship with Jesus at the very center of his or her life and judges every moral decision by the way it deepens or threatens that relationship."

One of the things that verifies this approach is that it is not exclusive to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians. It is simply sound pastoral practice.

"Back on the Chaingang"- being dogged in the dog daze

I had every intention of posting a Friday traditio yesterday. I guess this will have to count as a belated one. As I stated the matter on Facebook earlier this week: "Currently being dogged by the black dog in the dog daze, prayers appreciated." I don't mind saying that late summer and late winter are the two worst times of year for me in this regard.

One afternoon while driving home from work I heard The Pretenders's song "Back on the Chain Gang" on the radio. It resonated a bit. As a result, it is our traditio this week. I like this live version featuring the steel geetar:

A circumstance beyond our control, oh oh oh oh
The phone, the TV and the news of the world
Got in the house like a pigeon from hell, oh oh oh oh
Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies
Put us back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Year A Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 55:10-11; Ps 65:10-14; Rom 8:18-23; Matt 13:1-23

In theological terms, a mystery is not something unknown and about which we can know little or nothing. Rather, in the realm of faith, a mystery is something we know because God has revealed it. This is important because of the question Jesus was asked by his disciples after telling the “large crowds” the Parable of the Sower: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” The Lord did not reply by saying, “I teach them in parables in order that they will better understand my message.” No! He says the opposite. He teaches them in parables so that his meaning is harder to for them to grasp.

Despite our understandable tendency to oversimplify Jesus’ parables, it would be foolish to assert his parables always served to make his teaching less clear. In context, the Parable of the Sower in Matthew’s Gospel has to do with Jesus distancing himself more and more from those Jews who refused to see that he is the one who fulfills the purpose for which they were chosen. It is safe to assume that the author of Matthew conceived of the large crowds as exclusively Jewish. In other words, these are the people who should’ve looked and seen; who should have heard and understood, but they did not. Only the small band of disciples, who were themselves Jews (Matthew is a Jewish Gospel written for a mostly Jewish Christian community), heard and understood, looked and saw. Contrary to the paintings we often see, which depict Jesus with a golden halo or surrounded by an aura of light, it was not intuitively obvious to the casual observer during his public ministry that he was the Son of God in the flesh.

In our first reading from Isaiah, taken from a section of the book designated Deutero, or Second Isaiah, written during the Babylonian exile, we heard that God’s word accomplishes what God wants to achieve by speaking it. While this may sound like a trite bit of wisdom to us, such an assertion would’ve seemed dubious to many of the Jews to whom it was originally proclaimed. Why? Because they were exiles in Babylon, displaced from the land God promised them. No doubt to many of these exiles God’s purposes seemed to be frustrated, if not thwarted, by Israel’s conquest. In addition to taking much of the population of Judah into exile, the Babylonians also destroyed the first Temple, an event from which ancient Judaism never recovered.

Of course, what God set out to accomplish is accomplished in and through the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. As with Israel’s exiles and his Son’s Incarnation, God’s purposes are accomplished in mysterious ways. By “mysterious,” I mean counter-intuitive and usually contrary to our preconceptions. God does not use the means of worldly power to accomplish his purposes. It is often the case that we hear and don’t understand, look and don’t see because we don’t hear and see what we expect or want. We are disheartened when God does not carry out our plans. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but God, as we the cliché has it, writes straight with crooked lines.

Our wanting to dictate to God both ends and means is not only true with regard to how God works in the world, but is especially true when it comes to how God works in our own lives. What today’s readings ask us to do is to examine our own hearts with respect to God’s word and ask ourselves, what kind of soil am I?

Looking at the four kinds of soil onto which the seed is sown, I want to focus on the second and third kinds because I believe these are most relevant to us. Too often we are content with an infantile faith. This is a faith that holds God is pleased with me when things in life are going my way. Conversely, this kind of immature faith also holds that when the going in life gets tough it is the result of God being displeased with me. Sooner or later someone who believes this will either mature in faith, which means realizing that God’s disposition towards her never changes, or, as is the case in the Parable of the Sower, lose faith altogether. We can be confident, to quote St Paul, “that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). How can you know you are called according to God’s purpose? This is the call you received when you were baptized. God is faithful because God is love.

We can also become too wrapped up in things that can never satisfy us, spending all of time and energy trying to get ahead, taking one more vacation, purchasing one more luxury, etc. Living like this often creates heavy burdens, like debt, fatigue, the gradual disappointment of the law of diminishing returns, which refers to the point at which the level of satisfaction you derive from something is less than the amount of money, time, and energy you invest in it. This often leads to those afflictions so common to late modern life in Western societies: stress, anxiety, depression, even existential despair, which is life-threatening. Too often we refuse the invitation Jesus issued in last week’s Gospel, to find our rest in him. As with tribulations and persecutions, being overly concerned about or wrapped up in maintaining one’s own material well-being can cause someone who has heard and responded to “the word of the kingdom’ to fall away.

What leads to strong, well-rooted, well-nourished faith, or, stated differently, happiness and fulfillment? I think our second reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans goes some distance towards answering this question. It is by experiencing life’s trials and tribulations, which the apostle likens to a woman experiencing labor pains. Experience is how we verify that what we believe is true. What Paul is pointing to in this passage is our rebirth in baptism. Baptism is our passage from the already to the not yet of God’s kingdom because it restores us to the state of original grace, which is characterized by communion. Therefore, Christians are people who strive to live the not yet of God’s reign, which will be fully established when Christ returns.

An effective way to test the soil of your soul is by meditating on the central paradox of being a Christian, of what it means to be someone who hears and understands, who looks and sees. In St Matthew’s Gospel, this is found a few chapters on from today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus tells us:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:24-26)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Making an important point in an unconvincing way

I am back after a month away from posting regularly. Sometimes it is important to let my mind lie a bit fallow. Perhaps I invest too much of myself when I post. By the end of May, while rewarding, blogging was starting to feel like hard work. Since it is something I do because I find value in doing, it is important that I enjoy it and want to do it. One thing about being an independent blogger, whenever you take an extended break you almost have to start all over in terms drawing readers. Another thing about being an independent blogger, I don't financially profit from my efforts and so building readership is not paramount. Nonetheless, I certainly hope some people find what I humbly offer worth reading.

Cutting to the chase, this week an Italian Jesuit publication, La Civiltà Cattolica, published an opinion piece that has stirred up a lot of controversy in the United States: "Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism" (at the time of this writing the magazine's website is inaccessible). La Civiltà Cattolica is unique among Catholic periodicals in that the contents of each issue are vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State. This relationship means the magazine enjoys something of a quasi-official status. This relationship is nothing new, it has been published this way for a long time. The article in question was co-authored by Fr Antonio Spadaro, S.J., who serves as editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Presbyterian minister Rev Marcelo Figueroa, an Argentinian who is editor of the Argentinian edition of the Vatican's newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

Predictably, the article has come under fire from some of those who feel they were subjects of the article's rather pointed critique. I don't want to wade too deeply into matters that are beyond my competency, but having read two critiques of the La Civiltà Cattolica piece ("On that strange, disturbing, and anti-American "Civiltà Cattolica" article" and "Antonio Spadaro has discovered a brand of Protestantism he doesn’t like", the latter of which is not adequate to the task it undertakes) along with numerous social media criticisms, I think the central thesis of Spadoro's and Figueroa's piece was lost.

Before coming to the thesis of the article, I want to explain why I think it was lost. How one arrives at a conclusion matters. The more precise the argument the more convincing the conclusion. What was offered in the article as the explanation of the brand of U.S. politics at which the authors took aim maintained a cruising altitude of 50,000'. In other words, it was too general and not nearly nuanced enough in its consideration of the relationship between Christianity and politics in the United States over roughly the last century. In my view and that of some more expert that me, Spadoro and Figueroa did not provide a credible exposition of the historical dynamics that have led to so many Catholics adopting what they see as an un-, perhaps even anti-, Catholic the political stance. Hence, their "take" is subject both to criticism and correction.

However deficient Spadoro's and Figueroa's historical explanation might be, when it comes to describing the current state-of-affairs, specifically how many Catholics came not only to vote for but enthusiastically support Donald Trump and his political agenda, which offends against Catholic social teaching on many matters (this is the case with both major political parties in the U.S., which is why I belong to neither), I think they do so quite accurately. I don't think their oversimplified history negates their main point, which is to set forth something that is at the heart of the Franciscan papacy, which is truly post-secular:

Pope Francis, a post-secular Pontiff
The religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other. An evident aspect of Pope Francis’ geopolitics rests in not giving theological room to the power to impose oneself or to find an internal or external enemy to fight. There is a need to flee the temptation to project divinity on political power that then uses it for its own ends. Francis empties from within the narrative of sectarian millenarianism and dominionism that is preparing the apocalypse and the 'final clash.' Underlining mercy as a fundamental attribute of God expresses this radically Christian need
It seems to me that many Catholics in the U.S. today try to draw parallels between the Church's current situation and that of the Church's first 3+ centuries. For sure, there are parallels to be drawn, but the situations, on close examination, are quite different. For one thing, the early Church did not have the burden of centuries of Christendom to bear. The Christian message is often crushed by this weight.

One thing I think everyone agrees on is that Christianity no longer enjoys the cultural and political hegemony it once enjoyed in Western nations. Such influence wanes more all the time and shows no signs of waxing. Nonetheless (and this may be disappointing to some), I don't believe we're in imminent danger of full-out persecution in the West. People are simply more indifferent towards and suspicious of religion in general and Christianity in particular. If we're honest we must acknowledge that, along with the bad reasons, there are a some good ones. This indifference and suspicion will cause us some problems; it already has.

Right in tune with Pope Francis, in fact preceding him, is the work of the Czech priest, psychologist, philosopher Tomáš Halík, who insists the Church needs to go through the purification of secularization. In other words, we must grow accustomed to what Havel called the power of the powerless. In my view, for Christians today this is the power of joyful witness to God's mercy given in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Stayed tuned to Καθολικός διάκονος; tomorrow my homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Corpus Christi

I was struck at Mass today by these two stanzas of the Sequence for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi:

Hear what Holy Church maintaineth,
That the bread its substance changeth
Into flesh, the wine to Blood.
Does it pass thy comprehending?
Faith, the law of sight transcending,
Leaps to things not understood.

Here, beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things to sense forbidden;
Signs, not things, are all we see-
Flesh from bread, and blood from wine,
Yet is Christ in either sign
All entire confessed to be.

Another note from last week: Christ is the sacrament of God. The Church is the sacrament of Christ. Individually we are to be sacraments of the Church, that is, visible and tangible signs of Christ's presence in and for the world.

Expectation, desire, hope

A long note I took in class this week apropos of nothing:

I have to distinguish my desire from my expectations.
Even when realized, my expectations don't completely satisfy my desire- desire remains
Desire is that in me which corresponds to God's grace.
Desire is what responds to God's initiative towards me.
One way to understand this is to see very self as desire; a longing for fulfillment.

Quite often my expectations are not met.
This leads to disappointment, but a different kind than when my expectations are met.
Dissatisfaction and disappointment are the fertile soil in which hope can grow.
Just as death is necessary for resurrection, travail and suffering are necessary for hope.

This an update. On reflecting further on this, it occurred to me that years ago there was a song I turned to whenever I felt like this. I was glad to rediscover it today. It seems fitting at the end of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Somewhere out there waiting is a place where I'll know peace"

Thanks to the charity of friends and one stranger, enough money has been raised to inter John Ellichman and not leave his mausoleum crypt unmarked. I will conduct his committal service later this morning at Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery here in Salt Lake City. Burying the dead is an work of mercy.

Because we believe in the resurrection of the body, Christians treat the bodies of our dead with great reverence and respect. Treating the bodies of the departed, of course, is not a unique feature of Christianity. In fact, this is something we inherited from our elder brothers and sisters- the Jewish people. Respect for a person's human dignity, which includes reverencing each person's bodily integrity, does not end at death. Given the vulnerability and defenselessness of someone's dead body, we have an obligation to safeguard the body of the person who has died.

Mt Calvary Cemetery, Salt Lake City

I am feeling pretty good that I am putting up a traditio on succeeding Fridays. Our traditio this week is a song I heard for the first time last night on 103.1 The Wave's Newer New Wave program, which airs on Thursdays at 7:00 PM. Since the advent of the program several months ago, I have been busy on Thursday evenings and unable to tune in. The show features both new releases by New Wave bands who have been around since the '80s and newer bands whose sound has the New Wave warp and woof. Without further delay, our traditio is VNV Nation's "If I Was."

If I was a better man
Or a poor man or a king
Would I have the strength to start again
Walk the path that called to me
Somewhere out there waiting
Is a place where I'll know peace
Calling out and beckoning
Be I a poor man or a king

"VNV" stands for "Victory Not Vengeance." It's a nation to which I can pledge allegiance.

Even with our observance of two major solemnities the next two Sundays (Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi, respectively), we are back in Ordinary Time. So, it's time to get back to observing Fridays as days of penance in an intentional way. Momento mori - remembering death - is not morbid in the least.

Considering the brief span of one's mortal life ought to infuse one with meaning and purpose, causing us to spend time wisely. Scripture is incessant on this point. Sadly, what matters are not the things we tend to spend most of our time doing. May God have mercy on us all.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Tobit and the importance of burying the dead

Because my parish celebrated Mass in the evening instead of in the morning today, I was able to assist my pastor at the altar on this Memorial of St. Boniface, who was a fearless evangelist. Like my patron saint, Stephen, Boniface's fearless evangelizing led to his martyrdom. I did not have a chance to do more than glance at today's readings prior to Mass. When I heard it proclaimed, I was delighted by the first reading from the Book of Tobit, which is one of the deuterocanonical books, which are usually called "Apocryphal" by Protestant Christians.

Tobit is set in Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria, during the time when thousands of Israelites were exiled from Samaria to Assyria in the eighth century BC. Tobit was most likely written centuries later, in the late third or early second century BC. The Assyrian exile was the population exchange that led to the Samaritans having their unique, syncretistic from of Judaism, the center of which was Mount Gerazim, not Jerusalem.

It is from the first chapter of Tobit that we receive a lesson in the Corporal Works of Mercy
I would give my bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked. If I saw one of my people who had died and been thrown behind the wall of Nineveh, I used to bury him (Tobit 1:17)
According to the Book of Tobit, when Sennacherib succeeded his father, Shalmaneser, as king of Assyria, he took to killing Israelites. After Sennacherib killed them, Tobit would bury his fellow Israelites. Eventually, this caused Tobit to flee Nineveh for his life, leaving his wife Anna and his son Tobiah behind. After he fled into exile, all of his property was seized by the state, leaving his wife and son with nothing. Forty days after he fled, Sennacherib was assassinated. His son, Esarhaddon, succeeded him.

King Esarhaddon put Tobit's relative Ahiqar, "in charge of all the credit accounts of his kingdom, and he took control over the entire administration" (Tobit 1:22). Ahiqar interceded with the king on Tobit's behalf. As a result, Esarhaddon allowed Tobit to return to Nineveh. During the Festival of Weeks, called by Greek-speaking Jews "Pentecost," Tobit, being a man of mercy, told his son Tobiah to
go out and bring in whatever poor person you find among our kindred exiled here in Nineveh who may be a sincere worshiper of God to share this meal with me. Indeed, son, I shall wait for you (Tobit 2:2)
Tobit Burying the Dead

As he went to find a poor person to invite to share their feast, Tobiah came across an Israelite who had been murdered and whose body was thrown into the marketplace. On hearing this, Tobit went and retrieved the body of his fellow Israelite, brought it to his house, put the body in a room so he could bury it after sundown, when no one would see him. Tobit's neighbors were aghast, saying,
Does he have no fear? Once before he was hunted, to be executed for this sort of deed, and he ran away; yet here he is again burying the dead! (Tobit 2:8)
Burying the dead in accord with their human dignity is important. It is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy.

I was struck by this reading because last week a man I have known for the past 10 years or so, John Ellichman, passed away. Prior to his conversion, John lived a dissolute life, which had brought him a lot of pain and sorrow. As a result, he was pretty much alone in the world. He would speak to his daughter in St. Louis once in awhile, but he had never really been part of her life. For several reasons, she is not traveling to Salt Lake for his burial. After his conversion, John was as faithful as anyone I know. He loved Jesus and, more importantly, knew he was loved by Jesus. John was without doubt one of the most humble, unassuming, unimposing people I have ever known.

John was nearly indigent. He was able to maintain a small apartment. He managed to pay his utilities as well as keep himself fed and clothed. Here is an example of John's faithfulness: after it was mentioned in a homily by a former rector of The Cathedral of the Madeleine that it was expensive to bury people and that the parish had, in recent months, paid for the burial of a number of people, John paid what he could for his own funeral and burial expenses.

John had heart problems the whole time I knew him. His doctors were amazed he was still alive. They were even more amazed that John walked everywhere. In all the years I knew him, John never owned a car and he didn't take the bus or the train. He walked everywhere, including to the 11:00 AM Mass at the Cathedral every Sunday, no matter the weather. He always wore a red bandana around his neck and a brown leather vest.

The only thing that is not paid for to decently bury John is his metal memorial plaque, which will serve as his headstone. Otherwise, his grave will be unmarked. The plaque will have John's name along with the dates of birth and death. The plaque costs $425.00. To ensure John a dignified burial I have started a GoFundMe campaign to raise the money for his memorial plaque. Apart from the fee charged by GoFundMe to use their service, there is ZERO overhead. If any money is raised over and above $425.00, I will donate it all to Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Salt Lake City to use for others who, like John, need money to be decently buried.

This is an opportunity to do a Corporal Work of Mercy. No donation is too small. Twenty-five people giving $17 each would cover it. To donate click here.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

"One simple thing is all we really need"

With a few exceptions, it has been very difficult to post a Friday traditio the past several months. Yesterday it happened again that I was busy from dawn to sunset. This is okay because life trumps blogging. For some reason, like the fact that I've heard this song on the radio several times this past week, Stabilizers singing "One Simple Thing" is our late traditio for the first week of June.

I am used to time seeming to speed up as I grow older, but at the pace 2017 seems to be going, I will 80 the day-after-tomorrow. It's easy to see that Einstein was correct without doing any math.

"One Simple Thing" is one of those wonderful 80s songs the meaning of which remains slightly ambiguous. It seems to be about love between two people who want to just be together, excluding everything else, by building a wall "no one else can see." There is a lot of talk these days about "safe spaces." Desiring a "safe space," despite the harsh words of some, is a very understandable reaction to reality. In the past, we used to call this place home. But with the advent and widespread availability of the internet and various kinds of social media, I don't think home feels as safe as it once did for most people. For many, home is not a place where you can keep the world at bay.

Love both is and is not a safe space, so to speak. It is not a safe space because loving another always requires you to take a risk. But once love, if it merits the name, is experienced, it becomes something with a reliable degree of certainty, making it it highly desirable in an uncertain world.

Erecting and then living behind an invisible wall with one's beloved is, it seems to me, if in perhaps an overly philosophized way, expressive of the desire to inhabit eternity within time. Love between two finite beings can't be anything other finite, despite the longing for eternity love brings forth from within us, exposing the need that constitutes us as human beings made in the divine image. Hence, eternity often remains elusive. The passage of time, as noted above, stops for nothing and nobody. As the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." These assertions are, of course, as subsequent philosophical discourse amply demonstrates, disputable. But the intuition that only love is eternal strikes me as beautiful and, hence, true.

If the "one simple thing" is love, even if restricted to the love of two people for one another, it bears noting that few things are more complex than the love between two people. On the other hand, nothing is more simple than what God has revealed about God, namely "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16). Moreover, "In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). Being what it is (i.e., the very basis of reality), love does not build walls, or put up and maintain barriers, but removes them. The best evidence of this is creation and the Incarnation of the Son of God. Concisely, then, love is profuse, which means, according to the dictionary, "exuberantly plentiful; abundant." It is God, who is love, who enables us to inhabit eternity within time.

We would be wise to "give back all the things we had but one." In fact, in the end, that is what we'll be asked to do. Whether or not we can bring ourselves to do it will perhaps be the determining factor in how we live, or whether we, in fact, go on living. You see, to live is to love.

Sundown this evening marks the beginning of the Pentecost. After Easter, Pentecost is the most important observance of the liturgical year. Yes, it even trumps Christmas. Today I am privileged to accompany 6 adults from my parish, who I have been preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation over the past few months, to The Cathedral of Madeleine to be confirmed by our bishop, Oscar Solis. I am excited. At least as I learned them, the spiritual fruit of the Third Mystery of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary - the Descent of the Holy Spirit - is God's love for us. The Holy Spirit is Christ's resurrection presence in us, among us, and through us until he returns in glory.

One simple thing: ἀγάπη, agápē, love.

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 in 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.