Saturday, September 30, 2017

St. Thérèse on love and unbelief

Tomorrow is the liturgical memorial of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Since tomorrow is a Sunday, her feast day will not be formally observed. This is just fine. Our weekly celebration of the Lord's resurrection ought to take precedence over saints' feasts. After all, were it not for Christ's resurrection, there would be no saints. By honoring the Little Flower today, I do not want to short-change St. Jerome, whose liturgical memorial is today.

Jerome is perhaps best known for translating the books that together constitute what we now call the Bible from their original languages into Latin. While certainly given to ascesis and the pursuit of holiness, Jerome was also known for his temper and irascibility. Perhaps anticipating the future world of social media, he once averred: "It is idle to play the lyre for an ass."

We don't use this term much anymore, but historically saints have a cultus, a cult. In this context, "cult" refers to a substantial group of people who venerate a person they consider to be holy. Other than being a martyr, how someone traditionally became a saint was by being venerated by people from their local church after their death. These days, at least in the Catholic Church, sainthood is pursued via a bureaucratic and juridical process that smacks of what the German sociologist Max Weber called "the routinization of charisma." A great example is Oscar Romero, who has only achieved the canonical status of "blessed," the step just before being raised to the altar as a saint. Despite this, there is no doubt in the minds of millions of Salvadorans and other people worldwide, myself included, that he is a saint. Another example of this is Venerable Matt Talbot, who has worked many miracles of recovery among people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction. Along with Romero and Matt Talbot, there are other saints of (relatively) modern vintage who can rightly be said to have cults. St. Thérèse is certainly one of them. Another modern saint with a cult is Padre Pio, St. Pio of Pietrelcina. Of course, Mother Teresa, St. Teresa Kolkata, also has a cult.

To give you some idea of the widespread devotion to the Little Flower and that her intercession works in just the way she hoped it would at the time of her passing, I will be self-referential enough to point you an article I wrote seven years ago for the English language version of Il Sussidiario: "St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Little Flower and Édith Piaf, Little Sparrow." In his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton described his encounter with the little one from Lisieux (in for a penny, in for a pound- my initial contribution on the collaborative blog The Boy Monk this week was "Thomas Merton and Me").



Drawing heavily on Thomas Nevin's book The Last Years of Saint Thérèse: Doubt and Darkness, 1895-1897, which is a must-read for anyone devoted to the Little Flower, Tomáš Halík, in his own book, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us, noted that Mother Agnes (Thérèse's sister, Pauline), who held the final conversations with Thérèse just before her death and who edited (really censored) the Little Flower's works and words, (mis)construed Thérèse's mental state (in much the same way St Teresa of Kolkata's was misdiagnosed by one of her spiritual directors). The misconstrual was the result of trying to stuff her saintly sister's experience into the pre-existing categories of Carmelite spirituality. We may owe a debt of gratitude to Mother Agnes. Without her censorship of her sister's spoken words and editing of some of what she wrote, there's a fairly good chance Thérèse would not have canonized, at least when she was. As a result of her efforts, Halík contends, Pauline Martin "failed to grasp what was truly original, new, and unique about Thérèse of Lisieux. something that, understandably, is absent in the case of both the 'great Theresa' of Avila and John of the Cross" (28). Pointing to Thérèse's principle: "to accept even the strangest thoughts" for the love of God.

For Thérèse, the strangest of these thoughts was that there were not only atheists but conscientious ones. Previously she considered atheists to be thinking, speaking, and acting in bad faith, people who "contradicted their own convictions." This should sound familiar because it is the starting point of many Christians today, especially those who fancy themselves as something called an "apologist." Jesus himself revealed to her that there really were people who lived conscientiously without faith. He showed her atheism was not just an illusion, or, worse yet, always a "sinful self-delusion," which then caused the "atheist" to deceive others. What confirmed this for her was her own experience of unbelief, of atheism, as she lay dying. As a result of this, she came to see "unbelievers as her brothers," as her companions, that is, those with whom she "sits at the same table and eats the same bread" (29). It is here where Halík is worth quoting at length:
Unlike them, she is aware of the bitterness of this bread, because, unlike them, she has known the joy of God's closeness (even though the memory of it now only deepens her pain), whereas people indifferent to God are generally quite unaware of the burden and tragedy of their situation. In fact, it is only thanks to her previous experience of faith that she is able to experience in depth the real drama of abandonment by God, as well as discover and experience the hidden face of atheism, which many accept with such casual matter-of-factness (29)
St. Thérèse, pray for us in our unbelief- that we may break bread with you and so many unexpected others at the table of the kingdom.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Playboy, Morrissey, and the Archangels

It's Friday, the last one this September. As is the world's wont, the beat goes on. In other words, the world keeps spinning on its axis and events continue to unfold. It would be too easy to take the death of Hugh Hefner as my starting point for this post, especially given that President Trump appeared on the cover of Playboy's March 1990 issue. It was no youthful gaffe. He was 43 at the time and has expressed pride in being chosen to be on the cover. For some, I guess character counts until it doesn't.

Me? I think Hefner was an exploiter of women and someone whose contribution to society was largely negative. In all honesty, I think he was pretty creepy. In writing this I am not judging him in the manner that, as a Christian, I am forbidden from judging anyone. I hope God has mercy on him. Well, so much for not taking "Hef's" death as my starting point. I am not much of a prude, as readers of this blog can tell you. Depending how in-depth an analysis you are looking for, mileage may vary, as Damon Linker's article demonstrates.



Since it's been awhile, I found it difficult to decide what song I should feature as our Friday traditio. The J. Geils Band's "Angel is a Centerfold" is way too predictable. Morrissey's "The Last of the Famous International Playboys" was also a possibility and kind of in the ballpark theme-wise. Trouble is, the traditio is not thematic in that way. I posted Morrissey's song on Facebook. An important aside: I am going to see to Morrissey a week after my birthday: 18 November.

Today is the Feast of the Archangels: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. The Holy Father delivered a beautiful homily for today's feast. In his homily, he urged us to pray to the archangels. To Michael who helps us in the battles of the war we all must wage . To Gabriel (who is our youngest son's baptismal patron) so that we never forget the Gospel, of whom he was the herald when he announced to the Blessed Virgin that she was going to bear God's Son. To Raphael, who, Pope Francis said, "walks with us" to protect us from "the seduction of taking the wrong step."

Therefore, our traditio for this wonderful feast is by Ralph Vaughn Williams, a text set to a very familiar tune. It was sung as part of the sacred liturgy at St Michael Church in Stillwater, Minnesota several years ago.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Updates, thoughts, things, and trajectory

When maintaining a blog you never lack for material. Events of the past two weeks have been mind-boggling. It would be utterly impossible to keep up with hurricanes, earthquakes, threats of war, a badly divided country that seems to grow more fractious each day with no healing in sight. Rather than blog, I've been posting longer than usual status updates on Facebook. In truth, I'd rather blog. Why? Because I can thoughtfully write out what I have to say and put it out there, so to speak. People can take it for what it it's worth. I can consider thoughtful responses rather than reactionary diatribes.

As I attempt to wade back into posting regularly here, it's important to mention that I am involved in another on-line endeavor. It is a collaborative blog initiated by Mike O'Brien, who is an attorney in Salt Lake City. It is called The Boy Monk, which is a reference to Mike's upbringing. In addition to Mike and I, the other regular contributors are Ms. Jean Welch Hill, also an attorney, who serves the Diocese of Salt Lake City (my local church) as Government Liaison and Director of the Diocesan Peace and Justice Commission, Dr. Gary Topping, a great historian and long-time friend and dedicated reader of this blog for pretty much its entire existence, Jim Larson, a scientist and science teacher, and Nick Blaylock, a dancer, artist and teacher. All of us are here in Utah, which is one of the things I think makes this effort quite special, if I may use a word that is typically employed ironically or sarcastically.

Mike launched the blog on the second anniversary of Pope Francis's speech to a Joint Session of the United States Congress, an historical first. In his kick-off post, "The Pope’s 2015 Speech to Congress: Essential Aspects of American Catholicism," Mike gave some background and insight as to why this speech is, or should be, of significance to Catholics in the United States.

Pope Francis addressing a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress, 25 September 2015

In his speech to Congress, the Holy Father highlighted four citizens of the U.S. who helped shape the "fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people." People who, to cite the Pontiff again, "offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality" and whose memories we should honor in order to be inspired, especially in the midst of conflicts like the ones we are currently experiencing. Of the four people Francis spoke about two were Catholics. Interestingly, both Catholics converted as young adults: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. The other two, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were Protestants.

Dr. Topping's post today is on Abraham Lincoln's stance on slavery vis-à-vis the U.S. Civil War: "A Catholic Looks at Abraham Lincoln." It is a provocative piece. My initial contribution will be on Thomas Merton, whose life and writings have been very formative for me and many other Catholics in the United States and beyond. It will be interesting to read the other contributions.

Thinking about Dr. King and the civil rights movement, it bears noting that yesterday, in addition to being the second anniversary of Pope Francis's speech to Congress, it was the sixtieth anniversary of the day Little Rock Central High School was racially integrated. On that day federal troops from the 101st Airborne Division escorted 9 black teenagers to school. Those nine teens are known to history as "the Little Rock 9." Yesterday was also my oldest daughter's twenty-first birthday.

Well, I think that does it for now, except to call attention to this article on Ammon Hennacy that appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune on 23 September: "Fifty years ago, a Catholic anarchist tried to help solve homelessness in Salt Lake City. Here’s what happened." Let's just say it's another article in which the Catholic Church, my local church, does not come out too well, something on which the author does not dwell. To complement Harmon's piece I also offer Dorothy Day's 1970 column in The Catholic Worker in remembrance of Hennacy, written a month or so after his death: "Ammon Hennacy: ‘Non-Church’ Christian."

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Year A Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 27:30-28:7; Ps 103:1-4.9-12; Rom 14:7-9; Matt 18:21-35

Our readings for this Sunday have a single theme: forgiveness. The takeaway from these readings can be accurately summarized in the following manner: we need to be forgiven, we need to forgive, and being forgiven depends on forgiving. Of course, we are reminded of this every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Our first reading from the Book of Sirach makes it clear: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven” (Sir 28:2). You show your gratitude for God’s forgiveness by forgiving others. It is by forgiving others that you participate in Christ’s mission of setting the world to rights. One of the most powerful ways we can transform the world is by forgiving, being peacemakers instead of vengeance seekers. Forgiveness, which is an act of love for both God and neighbor, is what breaks the cycle of sin and violence. Forgiveness is the antidote to the poison of the lex talonis, which bids us seek an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.

In preaching on Christ’s commandment to forgive, I am aware that perhaps there is someone listening who has suffered egregiously at the hands of someone else. For people who have suffered horrific wrongs at the hands of others, forgiving is not only a challenge but a huge provocation. Forgiving someone who has gravely harmed and/or deeply wounded you can seem like betraying yourself. When this is the case, forgiveness often becomes both a choice and a process. It becomes a process because it is a choice that you have make over and over until, by the grace of God, you can forgive the one at whose hands you have suffered.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian, who, along with her father and sister, was arrested by the Nazis in Holland for rescuing Dutch Jews during the Nazi occupation of her country. Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Like so many people, Betsie died a horrible death in the camp. Corrie witnessed the slow, painful death of her sister. After the war, Corrie set up rehabilitation centers in Holland for those returning from the camps. She also traveled around Europe sharing her experiences and speaking about the boundlessness of God’s forgiveness.

One night, after a presentation she gave in Munich in 1947, just a few years after the war, she noticed a man making his way through the crowd towards her. It took her only a few seconds to recognize him as one of the SS guards from Ravensbrück. Upon recognizing him, she had a flashback to the horrors she and Betsie had experienced in the camp. Upon reaching her, the man extended his hand and said: “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea.” She realized that he did not recognize her. He went on to note that she mentioned Ravensbrück in her talk and admitted to being a guard there. He then added, “But since that time…I have become a Christian. I know God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips too.” He extended his hand again and asked, “will you forgive me?”

Corrie Ten Boom

Corrie paused, wrestling with what she described as “the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.” In that suspended moment, she realized she had to forgive this man. Why? “The message that God forgives,” she noted when sharing this encounter sometime later, “has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us” (Zahnd, UNconditional 31-34). She then cited the words of Jesus from the sixth chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, which comes immediately after the Lord’s Prayer: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Matt 6:14-15). Without a doubt, there is nothing our Lord asks of us that is more difficult than to forgive those who wrong us. But if we can't find healing in forgiving those who have injured us, as the Lord plainly teaches, the Gospel just might be a fraud.

What about justice? As St Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans: “’Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head’” (Rom 12:19-20). In his encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI insisted that God’s mercy “does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value” (par 44). My friends, Christ will see to justice because Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead.

Despite our Lord’s provocative teaching on the necessity of forgiving others, I often hear Christians invoke karma. Rather than forgive, we sometimes want the person who wronged us to suffer like they’ve made us suffer. But, as the inspired author of Sirach noted: “The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail” (Sir 28:1).

In today’s Gospel, the Lord ups the ante. Peter asks how many times he is to forgive someone who sins against him. He asked if forgiving someone seven times is sufficient. Jesus replied that he must forgive “seventy-seven times.” This does not mean forgiving 77 times and the 78th time you can hold a grudge and exact revenge. In addition to seven It means forgiving without limit. Why seven and seventy-seven? This hearkens back to Genesis, when Lamech, the father of Noah, boasted of killing two men. He then referred to Cain, murderer of his brother, Abel, and lamented: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:23-24). In this parable, Jesus demonstrated that God’s mercy is much greater than our sins.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant makes clear how utterly necessary it is for you to forgive others if you expect God to forgive you. Referring to the servant who was forgiven a great a debt, but who refused to forgive a small one, Jesus states he was handed “over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt,” before warning his disciples, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart” The parable is an allegory. The master is God. As sinners, we are the servant forgiven a large debt. In order to avoid becoming the servant who must repay the large debt, you must be willing to forgive others. What the Lord tells us is clear: if you would receive Divine Mercy, you must imitate it. Since there is no question about our on-going need for God’s forgiveness, the question we need to ask ourselves today is, “Who do I need to forgive?”

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Homily outtakes

When preparing to preach on a Gospel as on-point as the one for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year A, about how fundamental being willing to forgive others is to being a Christian, it is common for me to compose a longer homily than I can in good conscience deliver. This means there are leftovers, as it were. Sometimes these leftovers, or outtakes, are not worth handing on. When that is the case, I simply delete them. For whatever reason, I felt the section below was worth posting.
Karma, of course, is a word taken from Eastern religions (i.e., Hinduism and Buddhism). It refers to someone receiving what s/he deserves. I don’t know about you, but, as a Christian, by the mercy of God, I do not hope that now, or in the end, I get what I deserve. This ought to prompt me to ask myself, How can I justly want mercy for myself, a sinner, while desiring that somebody else gets what I think s/he deserves? While your karma may run over my dogma, I will take grace over karma any day, which is why it is important to make frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance and to receive the Eucharist at least every Sunday and on Holy Days, as our Mother, the Church, prescribes.

As Christians, we certainly believe sin has natural consequences. While confessing our sins, receiving absolution for them, and doing our prescribed penance remits the eternal consequence of our sins (i.e., separation from God), it does not spare us the natural consequences of our sinful actions, which contribute to fragmentation of the world and violate the Church’s communion.

You might well ask, “Is there a spiritual remedy for the natural consequences of our sins?” To answer that question simply, Yes, the remedy is indulgences. While it is an important topic for perhaps another time, it is important to point out that seeking indulgences is not some outdated practice of the Church in former times. Seeking indulgences is still an important spiritual practice, even if an often misunderstood and neglected one. To explain in an oversimplified manner, by seeking indulgences, which amount to performing certain good works, we set about counteracting the bad effects of our sins, thus cooperating with God in setting the world to rights instead of contributing to our alienation from God, each other, and nature
Here is one more:
During the long period of Ordinary Time, which extends from the Solemnity of Corpus Christi to the Sunday before the Feast of Christ of King, we read the Gospel for any given year (this year it is St Matthew’s) in a semi-continuous way. I point this out because there is a tension between this week’s Gospel about our need to forgive without pre-set limits and last week’s Gospel about fraternal correction. It becomes obvious that there is a balance to be struck. Striking such balances is what we call prudence. In both cases, however, we are to seek the good of the offender, trying to bring about her/his repentance and conversion.
Program Note No later than 1 October, I am planning to return to blogging on a regular basis. I have a few posts ready-to-go. I hope to put those up this week. Call it my eleventh year sabbatical.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Labor Day, a belated reflection

Every year I used to write up a fairly lengthy piece on Labor Day. At least in my view, Labor Day remains an an important holiday. Like all such observances these days, the significance of Labor Day grows more obscure all the time. To truly understand the importance of Labor Day one needs to grasp that there is no irony whatsoever in it being a day off for laborers.

The way I see it, this country needs a revitalized labor movement. On the whole, such a revitalization will require workers to either establish new unions or seize back control of existing ones.

Last week, while traveling, I watched Django Unchained, which, like Inglorious Bastards, is a Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy flick. I must admit that I find this genre distasteful because, far from appealing to the better angels of our human nature, it tends to summon up our demons. But, as it so happens, I found Django Unchained, like most Tarantino films, to be well-made, entertaining, and even somewhat compelling, if sickeningly violent. Jaime Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio turned in outstanding performances in the film, as did Samuel L. Jackson, but then one expects that from such a great actor. As a director, Tarantino seems to get the best out of actors.



In ruminating on Labor Day last night, I couldn't help but think of the dining room scene where the cruel slave owner, Calvin Candie, played by DiCaprio, calls Dr. Schultz's bluff to purchase Broomhilda, one of his slaves who is Django's wife. Django, who is black, is Dr Schultz's partner. As part of his dramatic power play, Candie has the skull of a deceased slave, "Old Ben," brought to him. Telling the story of Old Ben's life, Candie remarked:
I spent my whole life here right here in Candyland [the name of his plantation], surrounded by black faces. And seeing them every day, day in day out, I only had one question. Why don't they kill us? Now right out there on that porch three times a week for fifty years, old Ben here would shave my daddy with a straight razor. Now if I was old Ben, I would have cut my daddy's goddamn throat, and it wouldn't have taken me no fifty years to do it neither
Let me be clear, I DO NOT favor violent revolution and I am not advocating it. It is a very good thing that major advancements in civil rights for black citizens of the United States were brought about in a non-violent manner. While I am neither a historian nor a sociologist, far from Calvin Candie's racist assertions, based on the pseudo-science of phrenology, that black people are inherently subservient, I think a significant part of their willingness to suffer a lot over a long period of time, which they rightly viewed as analogous to the Israelites' Egyptian bondage, is attributable in no small part their being much better Christians than their self-styled and often brutal masters. I hold to my assertion even as I recognize that those who were enslaved were forcibly and involuntarily "Christianized" by slave-holders. The Lord ushers in the reign of God in the most unexpected ways, n'est ce pas? Of course, other factors came into play as well.

Even in this age of rapidly increasing automation, human labor remains vital to our economy. We are long way from that not being the case. My point? Laborers, whether white, grey, or blue collar, constitute the majority of citizens of the United States of America. Therefore, by preponderance of numbers much needed change can be effected by collectively employing legitimate and non-violent means. Let's not forget that prior to the heroic efforts of the champions of civil rights for black Americans, foremost among whom was Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, leaders of the Labor Movement in the 1920s and 1930s brought about change in a similar way, which meant suffering violence, even lethal violence, at the hands of those in the service of interests vested in what was then the status quo. What were the results? Child labor laws, 40 hour work week, weekends, paid holidays, sick leave, etc.

Friday, September 1, 2017

"Do you believe in rock n' roll?" - a uniquely American eschaton

After three very light months of blogging, I though I'd begin September with a post. Since it is Friday, it is appropriate to post a traditio. What to hand-on is always the question. Yesterday evening, on the flight home from a business trip the airline provided me with free earbuds. After reading for most of the trip, I decided to find some music in the airplane's computerized entertainment system. I have to say, it was nice to look out the window of the plane and listen to music.



Of all the songs I listened to in the hour-and-a-half I was most struck by the song that was perhaps the oldest: Don McLean's "American Pie." While the song refers specifically to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens. Of course that plane crash was symbolic.

For many years McLean resisted attempts to "explain" his song, insisting "that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence." In 2015, in the auction notes for the original manuscript of the song, McLean wrote: "Basically in American Pie things are heading in the wrong direction. ... It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don't know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense."

While decoded references, like Elvis as the king and Bob Dylan as the jester (a designation he apparently didn't like very much), the song in one sense is tied to an era, to "a generation lost in space." It is a great song, however, because it transcends the era. It is a song with a theology, one influenced by a certain strand of the death-of-God theology that became so prevalent in the late 1960s. McLean sings about faith, the silencing of Church bells, the Trinity heading for presumably the West Coast.



If the music ever really dies, we're in deep trouble. My suggestion? Find some time this weekend to sit and listen to some tunes.

"Prepare the way of Lord"

Readings: Bar 5:1-9; Ps 126:1-6; Phil 1:4-6.8-11; Luke 3:1-6 In his detailed commentary on St. Luke's Gospel, Franciscan scholar Robe...