Friday, April 19, 2019

Triduum: Good Friday

Reading: Luke 23:46

For our Good Friday traditio, I am sharing the homilette I delivered in 2007 for the seventh of Jesus's Seven Last Words. 2007 marked the first year I preached the Seven Last Words. Sadly, even at the Cathedral where I formerly served, they no longer reflect on the Lord's words from the Cross as part of Good Friday worship. Formerly, we reflected on the Seven Last Words immediately following the Good Friday service and just prior to the choir singing the Stabat Mater. In my view, when prepared for diligently, reflecting on Christ's words from the Cross as likely re-imagined and handed on by the four evangelists, are deep reflections on Christian discipleship. Anyway, for about seven years, I preached on some or all of the Lord's words from the Cross each Good Friday. Preparing my reflections comprised a health part of my Lenten spiritual practice.


"Commendation" is what we do at the graveside when we commend our sister or brother, not to the earth, but to God. Just as “Do this in memory of me” means ever so much more than a remembering- it is a calling-to-mind in order to make present- to commend means more than to merely hand-over, or leave. In baptism, we commended ourselves to God by dying and rising in Christ to new life.

"Commendation" means to present or mention as worthy of confidence, notice, or kindness. Further, it means to entrust, to deliver with confidence, to give charge to the one who is worthy of confidence and trust. So, when our Lord commends his spirit over to the Father, he gives himself over to the One who is trustworthy, the One in whom he can place his trust and his entire being.

The life of the disciple of Christ, who is not greater than the Master, is not merely a Via Delarosa, it is a death, even a crucifixion, a kenotic emptying-out of oneself for others. When will we learn that happiness and fulfillment does not come from pursuing one’s own agenda, but seeking the good of the other? Who is this mysterious other? The other is certainly the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick, the imprisoned, the addicted, and certainly those who have died. Further, the other is the sinner, the ignorant, the doubtful, the sorrowful, the injured, the unjustly accused and condemned. The other is also one’s spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends, and fellow parishioners. The Christian term for this other is neighbor. It is by redefining who our neighbor is that reveals the revolutionary nature of our Lord’s teachings as given in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Crucifixion, by Graham Sutherland, 1946

Writing about the Song of Songs, that great allegory of God’s love for his People, Pope Benedict wrote:
In this context it is highly instructive to note that in the course of the book two different Hebrew words are used to indicate ‘love’. First there is the word dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching. This comes to be replaced by the word ahabà, which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar-sounding agape, which, as we have seen, becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love. By contrast with an indeterminate, ‘searching’ love, this word expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice (Deus Caritas Est, sec. 6)
God’s love is brilliantly revealed in Christ hanging on the cross. This love, this caritas, is a perfect unity of eros and agape. Rather than a divine discourse transmitted through a human messenger and written down, God gives us his Christ- his Son hanging alone on a cross. Furthermore, Jesus calls us to imitate him by taking up our cross and dying with him. But we do so in the confidence that as we die, like our Lord, we commend ourselves, again, as we did at our baptism, to the Father with trust and confidence that, in and through Christ, new life will come from our dying, a life without end.


This Good Friday, I am particularly struck by the thought that a Christianity that is historically and philosophically unassailable is no Christianity at all.

Our traditio is Dan Schutte's lovely hymn "Behold the Wood of the Cross" in a very simple arrangement:

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Triduum: Holy Thursday

Readings: Ex 12:1-8.11-14; Ps 116:12.13.15-16c.17-18; 1 Cor 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

Very often the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which marks the beginning of our Christian high holy days, is reduced to the institution of the ministerial priesthood. But linked as this evening’s celebration is with Baptism, we celebrate Christ’s institution of the priesthood of all the baptized and of the Eucharist. On this holy night, Jesus once again calls you to be his disciple. Being a disciple of Jesus means not only doing the things he tells you to do, but doing what he does.

Being Jesus’s disciple means not only doing the things he commands, but doing what he does. This is exactly what Jesus instructs those whose feet he washes to do: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,” the Lord tells them, “you ought to wash one another's feet.”1 “I have given you a model to follow,” he says, “so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”2

In St. John’s Gospel there are no apostles. The fourth Gospel features only disciples. Recognizing him as Lord, Peter at first steadfastly refuses to let Jesus wash his feet. After the Lord tells him that if he does not permit him to wash his feet, he does belong to him, Lord, Peter, in a clear reference to Baptism, demands that Jesus wash “not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”3

In Baptism, the Lord not only washed you, but immersed you into the very life of God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus washing the feet of his closest followers is St. John’s version of Jesus’s institution of the Eucharist. In the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke) we find accounts of the Last Supper in which Jesus blessed the bread, broke it, and gave to his disciples, saying “this is my body.” And then blessed the wine and gave it to them to drink , saying “this is my blood.” Rather than that, John’s Gospel gives us the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

In his book The Kingdom, French writer Emmanuel Carrère writes about a retreat he went on at a L’Arch community in France. What he describes is a foot-washing ritual. For the ritual, retreatants broke up into small groups. After a short Liturgy of the Word, featuring the same reading as our Gospel for tonight and a short reflection, the groups of retreatants began washing each other’s feet. Thinking about this ritual, Carrère notes: “things could have happened differently: that the central sacrament of Christianity could be foot washing and not Communion.”4 Continuing his musing, he points out that ritual foot-washing “could be what Christians do every day at Mass, and it wouldn’t be any more absurd – less, so in fact.”5

What Carrère and many others seem to miss about John’s institution narrative is that it highlights the relationship between Baptism and Eucharist. As Catholics we affirm that there are seven sacraments. But the sacramental life of grace arises from Baptism and finds its full realization in the Eucharist.

Our second reading, taken from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, clearly shows that celebrating the Eucharist constitutes the Church’s most fundamental tradition. It is by receiving communion that you proclaim the Lord’s salvific death until he returns.6 In his Letter to the Romans, in a passage that is part of the epistle reading for the upcoming Easter Vigil, St. Paul asks the Christians in ancient Rome if they are “unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”7

As our first reading from the Book of Exodus indicates, the Eucharist is our Passover. Since the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, he is our Passover. Just as the angel of death passed over the houses of the Israelites who had marked their doorposts with the blood of the Lamb, we who have been washed by the blood of the Lamb of God pass over from death to life. If the Passover meal is a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, then passing through the sea on dry ground is an image of Baptism. Christ rescues us from sin and death through Baptism and the Eucharist.

As Catholics we affirm that you are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This confession brings up two important questions. What is faith? How do we receive God’s grace?

Answering the first question, the fruit of faith is loving your neighbor. Loving your neighbor is not primarily how you feel about him or her. You love someone by concrete acts of care and concern. Faith without works is dead.8 “Above all,” the Scriptures teach, “let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.”9

We receive the grace that saves us, the grace that impels us to acts of charity, in the sacraments. The sacraments are the means by which God communicates grace, which is the divine life of the Blessed Trinity, to our souls. In communion we receive Christ. Receiving Christ together is what makes us Christ’s body. The Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist. The Eucharist and nothing else makes St. Olaf Parish.

At the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, as we process with the Blessed Sacrament to the chapel of repose, we sing the exquisitely beautiful hymn Ubi Caritas. The first verse of this hymn sums up very well what this evening’s Mass is all about:
Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ's love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart

1 John 13:14.
2 John 13:15.
3 John 13:9.
4 Emmanuel Carrère, The Kingdon, 381.
5 Ibid.
6 1 Corinthians 11:26..
7 Romans 6:3..
8 James 2:17..
9 1 Peter 4:8..

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Hope in desolation: the burning of Notre Dame

Yesterday's belated Palm/Passion Sunday post felt right. Sometimes I get carried away with words. Once in awhile, I think, I manage to say something worth reading or listening to. In his song about the Incarnation, Michael Card sings: "You and me we use so many clumsy words/the point of what we often say is not worth being heard." This rings very true with me, especially in this age of instantaneous electronic communication that tempts me to weigh in an anything and everything.

The first casualty of my wordiness is silence. Observing Holy Week, especially these few days between Palm Sunday and the beginning of the Triduum, requires a heavy dose of silence.

I don't know about you, but watching in horror yesterday as Notre Dame de Paris burned summoned forth no words, just a gasp and feeling of great sorrow and loss, the beginnings of grief. Like virtually everyone else, I was forced to helplessly watch the fire at a distance as the fire brigades of Paris did desperate battle with the flames. What could I say except perhaps a Hail Mary or a Memorare, invoking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin as a beautiful cathedral dedicated to her was besieged by fire?

Photograph taken in the nave of Notre Dame after yesterday's fire

It seems to me that in the wake of such a loss, I need to remind myself that the Church is made of living stones. Yes, the burning of Notre Dame cathedral is a painful way to be reminded of this! Another reality, one of which I was reminded on Ash Wednesday, is that, sooner or later, everything will be reduced to dust, including myself. I suppose my consolation is my belief that I will not remain dust.

Like the woman taken in adultery, I hope that Christ Jesus will lift me from the dust, making me a new creation. The audaciousness of this hope is often lost on me. I am not sure how such a belief ever becomes routinized. Yet, somehow I succeed in doing just that. Witnessing the burning of Notre Dame is but one more proof not only that hope lies beyond optimism but that desolation is the soil from which of hope arises.

Salvation history shows us time and again that the opus Dei is bringing hope from desolation by bringing life from death. This is what Holy Week invites us to experience, whether we observe it in a magnificent cathedral or in the crudest of chapels.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Palm Sunday: Holy Week begins

Prepare ye the way for the Lord; prepare ye the way for his Kingdom

Blessed is the king who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven
and glory in the highest
(Luke 19:38)

Better late than never

Friday, April 12, 2019

Good Friday, Black holes, fascination w/ nothingness

It's the final Friday of Lent. Next Friday is Good Friday. Last night my diocese celebrated our annual Chrism Mass. We celebrate our Chrism Mass the week before Holy Week because our diocese consists of the entire state of Utah, some 85,000 square miles. Therefore, it would be impossible to celebrate it during the day on Holy Thursday and for everyone to be back in time to celebrate the Mass of the Lord's Supper. It is always moving for me to participate in the Chrism Mass. I look forward to Holy Thursday because at the Mass of the Lord's Supper when my parish will receive the oils consecrated by our bishop into our parish for use during the ensuing year.

Even though is is 12 April, here along the Wasatch Front of Northern Utah we received several inches of snow overnight. Yes, snow. When I arrived home from the Chrism Mass last night about 9:45 PM, I went for a walk. It was lovely, a bit warm. As I was finishing my walk, it began to rain a bit. Then, about 3:30 AM this morning, my wife, who had gotten up to get a drink of water, told me it was snowing. Yes, the snowplows are out this morning.

Anyway, this week we all saw the first picture of a black hole. This was made possible by the diligent work of a brilliant young woman named Katie Bouman. Our Friday traditio, then is the late Chris Cornell with his early grunge group, Soundgarden, singing "Black Hole Sun." I was told by a friend, after posting this video on FB, that NPR used this as the lead-in and fade to their story on the picture of a black hole.

When you think of it, picturing Jesus on the cross, which is the image of Good Friday, we see something like the black, existential hole that life sometimes seems to be. For some, it often or always seems this way. What Don Giussani asserted is true: "[Jesus] mounted the Cross to free us from the fascination with nothingness, to free us from the fascination with appearances, with the ephemeral." In light of all this, I would invite you to look back at my post "Dreams have never made my bed".

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Confusion and division must not continue: Benedict's letter

I suppose at least some of my readers know about the ill-advised letter composed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (see "Full text of Benedict XVI essay: 'The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse'") that became public over the past few days. Writing the letter was ill-advised. Making the letter public comes close to a catastrophe. I have no desire to denigrate a very old man who, as the letter indicates, is clearly not at the top of his powers. I cannot imagine that those close to the former pope did not dissuade him from writing about this. Failing that, how did it leave his dwelling?

I don't mind stating up-front that I hold Pope Benedict XVI in the highest regard. Over the decades I have been Catholic I have benefited enormously by reading the theology of Joseph Ratzinger. When it comes to the issue of the sexual abuse of children and young people in the Catholic Church, Josef Ratzinger did a lot. First and foremost, he recognized it as a problem that needed to be dealt with. To the extent that priestly sexual abuse was acknowledged and dealt with at all during the papacy of John Paul II it was largely due to the efforts of then-Cardinal Ratzinger. When he became pope, the matter began to receive the attention that it deserved. He sustained this throughout his papacy. As we all know, it took Pope Francis some time to come to grips with this issue himself, despite the efforts of his predecessor.

Back to the letter- I am amazed at its anecdotal and rather shallow contents. At least to me, it reads like a tightly-written apologetic tract, the kind that makes a very tight but not very cogent argument, one that ignores many relevant facts and issues. If one were to take the letter at face value, it would seem that there was no pedophilia or ephebophilia in the church until the mid-to-late-1960s. But my own diocese's disclosure is enough to disprove this. One can read the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. Even with its flaws, you can see that the analysis applied in this letter fails to account for a healthy number of cases that happened before the much-vilified sexual revolution. For these instances, Benedict's letter has no explanation whatsoever.

The so-called sexual revolution certainly had many downsides and created a lot of causalities. However, there were some good things that emerged from this societal movement. Some of the good things found their way into Humanae Vitae. For instance, in teaching that sexual intercourse has a "unitive" dimension, Pope Paul VI was quite revolutionary. Progress that is true progress usually requires some short, tentative, incremental steps before gaining momentum.

If you don't believe there wasn't sexual weirdness among ecclesiastics before the 1960s, I urge you to pick up a copy of Hubert Wolf's The Nuns of Sant' Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal. It is an engrossing book. Wolf tells the tale of a rather lengthy and strange series of events that happened in Rome on the eve of the First Vatican Council. In this book, Wolf also provides deep insight into how inhumane church teaching had become with regard to sexuality. For example, confessors manuals and moral theology works held that French-kissing between spouses was a mortal sin (see "Humanae Vitae at 50").

Even if one takes the sexual revolution as the starting point, the sexual abuse of children and young people, male and female, was at least as prevalent among traditionally-inclined priests as it was among so-called progressives, if not more so. I will just note in passing that Benedict's characterization of what is called "revisionist" moral theology amounts to a gross caricature. Often revisionist moral theologians, like Bernard Häring, were more aware of the complex and ambiguous nature of human sexuality and understood that one could apply an atemporal set of norms to govern this unruly aspect of humanity. I write this as someone who, along with my wife, has sought to adhere to church teaching on marital sexuality throughout our marriage. We still do. So, I am not dismissive of the church's teaching in least.

One could drive a truck through the gap between Benedict's admission that it is impossible to build a systematic sexual ethic on the basis of Scripture alone. In his letter, Benedict points to the efforts of one moral theologian to do just that. His summarily dismissive attitude toward contemporary moral theology as it seeks to address human sexuality in light of the paucity provided by the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, as well as accounting for the deeper understanding we have the human person overall and human sexuality in particular.

As an amusing side note, I was unaware of something Benedict asserts in his letter, namely there was a time when one could watch "sex movies" on commercial airliners. And that this was a bad idea because violence would break out. Yeah, anyway...

I could go on, but I will limit myself to 3 further observations:

1- Benedict's "history" is narrow, incomplete and overly simplistic to the point of not only being misleading, but laughable

2- Isn't it interesting that nowhere is clericalism (a term that I grasp is rapidly being overused and misused) part of his diagnosis? This stands in stark contrast to Pope Francis's Letter to the People of God, written last August from last summer. In that letter Francis grasp the really troublesome dynamic in play, which he identifies as "clericalism." Rather than being the source of the problem, for Francis the communion ecclesiology of Vatican II, characterized by the phrase given us by the Council, "hierarchical communion" (communion modifies and flattens hierarchy), is the solution, not the problem

3- Back to the issue of Christian sexual ethics, natural law and Stoicism are poor substitutes for the Gospel. Perhaps some things do not lend themselves to the kind detailed systematic approach the church has sought to impose on human sexuality

If popes resigning becomes a common feature of church life, then we require clearer guidelines about the comportment and engagement of former popes. Taking my cue from many people who are more knowledgeable about these things than I am, I think there should be no such title as "Pope Emeritus." There can only be one pope at a time, lest there be confusion. One of the major reasons for the existence of the papal office is to guarantee authoritative teaching.

Therefore, should a pope resign, he should be designated as "Bishop of Rome Emeritus." He should be forbidden the use of any and all papal insignia, including wearing white. Rather than being known by his papal name, he ought to revert to using his given name.

While it may be lost on Benedict/Ratzinger, it is not on those close to him that his unfortunate letter plays into the hands of those who seek undermine Francis and the important work of reform he is undertaking. As a result, it compounds division in the church. To say I am deeply disappointed in this development is to state my feelings in a muted manner.



This morning, I ran across Austin Inverleigh's piece on Pope Emeritus Benedict's letter- "Pope Benedict's letter on sex abuse is not an attack on Francis (or Vatican II)". It is a good piece but ultimately unconvincing article. I don't see the intent of Ratzinger's letter as an attack on anyone or on the Council. However, I think the letter plays into the hands of Francis's enemies. They will weaponize it. I do not back down on my view that the letter is embarrassingly shallow. Again, I wish Benedict and the church had been better served by those around him.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Year C Fifith Sunday of Lent

Readings: Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126:1-6; Phil 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

Our first reading from Isaiah bids us not to dwell on things that are past, to obsess over what happened long ago. Rather, we are encouraged to look and see that God is at work “doing something new!”1 It’s easy on a Spring morning to believe that God is at work as we hear birds singing, see and smell the trees and flowers coming back to life, and see the grass becoming green.

More than half-way through Lent, it is important to be reminded that “Lent” is an old English word that means “springtime.” During Lent, the church invites us to open ourselves in an intentional way to the new thing God is doing in each of our lives and in our life together.

God’s work is bringing joy from sorrow and wholeness from brokenness. Above all, God brings life from death. A few weeks ago, our Gospel reading from Luke was about Jesus’s Transfiguration. This preview of the resurrection was witnessed by Peter, James, and John. On Luke’s telling, it is clear that these disciples were confused by what they saw and heard. What they heard was Jesus discussing with Moses and Elijah the “exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”2 The text makes clear that Peter’s suggestion of building three tents was the result of not knowing what else to say.3

Making sense of a mystery is difficult. If the Lord’s Transfiguration is a mystery, then how much more mysterious is his resurrection? It’s easy to say that Jesus died and three days later he rose from the dead. In fact, believing this is the most fundamental profession Christians make. While it’s important to believe that because of Jesus’s resurrection we, too, will rise from the dead, what does Christ’s resurrection mean in the here and now? How do we experience this new thing God is doing?

A number of years ago, a friend of mine, who is not Catholic, was going through a divorce. In the midst of this, her soon-to-be ex-husband took his own life. Understandably, this was devastating for her. Knowing my beliefs, she asked if I really believe in life after death and in the resurrection and, if I did, how I could be sure? In other words, she wanted to know if my belief in the resurrection is wishful thinking or if it is rooted in something more solid. I responded by telling her I in believe the resurrection of the dead because it is something I have experienced for myself.

How does one experience resurrection? First, in baptism you died, were buried, and rose with Christ to new life.4 What baptism demonstrates is that eternal life starts the moment you are reborn of water and spirit. I was baptized as a young adult and so I remember my baptism. It remains one of the two or three profound moments of my life. But whether you remember your baptism or not, if you were baptized, you were reborn to eternal life. How else is resurrection experienced? This is where our Gospel reading today comes to our assistance.

Like the story of the Prodigal Son, which we heard last week, the story of the woman taken in adultery is a Bible story that, even now, almost everyone knows. It shows us, as did the Parable of the Prodigal Son, that God deals with sin and evil by extending mercy and not by punishing. So, like last week’s Gospel, this week’s contains a revelation about the nature of God.

While the story of the woman caught in adultery raises some questions, like where is her partner in crime, the fact remains that she was caught doing something for which the Law of Moses required her to be stoned to death. It is essential to the story to recognize that she is guilty. After no doubt being publicly shamed and humiliated, she is brought to Jesus. The leaders of the mob remind him what the Mosaic law demanded- that she be put to death for her sin. Testing him they ask Jesus, “So what do you say?”5

Recognizing that the mob was trying to trap him so they could bring a charge against him, he did not answer their question immediately. Rather, he bent down and wrote in the dust with his finger. As he wrote, the mob continued pestering him for an answer.

Finally, Jesus stood up and said the words that most people still know by heart: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”6 After saying these words, the Lord bent back down and resumed writing in the dust. As he did so, one by one the mob dropped their stones and walked away.

The point of the story is clear: Jesus’s intervention brought this woman back to life from certain death. After saving her, the Lord invited her to live a new life, one no longer tainted by sin, shame, and guilt; a life not lived in the valley of the shadow of death. By refusing to condemn her, Jesus did a new thing for her, a surprising thing. Speculating, perhaps what Jesus wrote in the dust was “Choose life.”

On Ash Wednesday you were urged to remember that you are dust to dust you will return. Like the woman caught in the act of adultery, Jesus seeks to raise you from the dust to life eternal.

Getting back to how you experience Christ’s resurrection in the here and now beyond your baptism, you have this experience each time you receive God’s forgiveness. Being an extension of the sacrament of baptism, upon making a good confession and completing your penance, it is through the sacrament of penance that God, in his mercy, restores you to the state of grace. Making your Act of Contrition, you promise to go your way and sin no more. In other words, you say “Yes!” to Christ’s invitation to eternal life.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus provides us with a concrete example of what St. Paul writes about in our second reading: not having any righteousness of your own based on the law. It was precisely on this point that Jesus challenged the would-be stone-throwers, all of whom apparently realized that they, too, were guilty of serious transgressions against God’s law.

In Hebrew, “Satan” means “accuser” or “adversary.” Scripture tells us that the devil accuses us “before our God day and night.”7 What the devil accuses you of before God are not false charges. He accuses you of your sins, imploring God to give you your just desserts. Your righteousness, as Paul points out, comes “through faith in Christ,” who is himself the righteousness of God and the mercy of God.8 And so, even as Catholics, we can say that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

The sacraments are the primary and surest means for receiving the grace that saves you. It is faith that causes you to hunger and thirst for God's grace. Faith prompts you to get up and come to Mass on Sunday morning. Faith prompts you to go confession. It is faith, which is a gift of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, that urges you to say, “Jesus, I trust in You.”

1 Isaiah 43:19.
2 Luke 9:31.
3 Luke 9:33.
4 Romans 6:4-5.
5 John 8:5.
6 John 8:7.
7 Revelation 12:10.
8 Philippians 3:9.

Friday, April 5, 2019

It's impression that remains

While it is uncharacteristic of me lately, I am in a decent mood today. Why? A number of reasons:

First, I have an amazing wife who I love very much. For reasons I can never quite fathom, she loves me
Second, I have six wonderful children, all of whom I love very much
Third, I went to confession today with my usual confessor
Fourth, looking at the apricot trees in blossom on my morning walk, it's clear that here along the Wasatch Front Spring has sprung Finally, yesterday I presented the findings of my Doctor of Ministry dissertation to my committee and completed my comprehensive oral examination

I will participate in next month's Mount Angel Seminary commencement as a graduating member of the seminary's first Doctor of Ministry class. Oh yeah, I had nachos for lunch!

Not bad for a Lenten Friday. I know that going four months between confessions is too long.

I took the entire week off prepare for yesterday's presentation and exam. While I have not gotten everything done that I hoped, I did finish what I needed to finish. There is always more ahead, like preparing to preach at a parish I am visiting this weekend. Of course, in addition to school, I had a number of other things to do. Some of these were planned and others kind of popped up.

For today's traditio I am reaching back about twenty-five years. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones song "The Impression that I Get" is our Friday traditio. Why? For whatever reason, today I remembered that that my oldest son and I, when he was toddler, would put this song on the stereo and sing and dance to it. Since he was born 11 months after my wife and I married, the venue for this activity was the living room of our first apartment. Calling this to mind today made it seem like it wasn't that long ago. Where does the time go? For some reason, the passing of time has been on my mind a lot during this Lenten season. I do think that in our fast-paced and relentless world that values memory less and less, it is important to remember that memories matter.

Let's not forget that traditio refers to what is handed on. Tradere, a verb, is the act of handing on. So, the Friday traditio is always tinged with memory.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Gentleness heals your fractured self

Begging pardon up-front for what will certainly be a rambling blog post, I begin by noting that what I love about A.M. Allchin, Rowan Williams, and John O'Donohue and their retrieval of Celtic spirituality is their rejection of Stoicism, or at least the substitution of a peculiar form of Stoicism for Christian as well as other spiritualities. For whatever reason, Stoicism is deeply rooted in the Western psyche. Hence, Westerners, particularly Americans, have a pronounced tendency to turn everything into a Stoic-inspired moralism.

Because it is Lent, I will resist the temptation to digress backward starting with Jansenism, moving to Calvinism, then to Scholasticism, before arriving at Stoicism.

As Marx demonstrates, this Stoic-inspired mindset, which he correctly characterizes as bourgeois, has deep social roots. The trunk and barren branches that sprout from these roots are the economic and political implications revealed by Marxian analysis. This only serves to show us our need to do what Bob Marley urged us to do: free our minds. Jesus came to enable us to do just that! As an aside, I don't mind admitting that I find Alasdair MacIntyre's leap from Christianity and Marxism to After Virtue quite incomprehensible.

As proponents of Stoicism would no doubt insist, what I have described is not only a reduction of Christianity, Buddhism, et al., but of Stoicism as well. Even so, I cannot personally square Stoicism with Christianity. My experience of it amounts to what I can only describe as spiritual constipation. What a lot of people still don't recognize is that many forms of Christianity are really just forms of warmed-over Stoicism.

If we take "faith" to mean what the late Anglican systematic theologian John Macquarrie insisted it means- a mode of being- then its concrete aspect is a way of life, which, in turn, gives birth to particular lifestyles. Taking "way of life" to refer to Christian praxis, which comes in threes: faith, hope, and love; leitourgia, martyria, diakonia; prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, there should be as many Christian lifestyles as there are Christians. Christianity is a mode of being not merely in but for the world.

Like a lot of people, I experienced a very moralistic religious upbringing. It was an upbringing that traded in guilt and shame. Being made to feel guilt and shame for being human malformed how I perceive myself. Without going into detail, one example of this is that for decades after becoming sexually aware, I lived with a very fractured sexuality. This fracture was the result believing, deep down, that sex is inherently dirty and having sexual desires is depraved. This meant I saw myself as a depraved person for having sexual desires and urges. My experience has taught me that denying every pleasurable impulse is at least as destructive as giving into every pleasurable impulse, if not more so.

This was all brought to mind this morning by reading a section of John O'Donohue's Anam Cara. In this section, as he does throughout the book, he writes of the importance of being gentle with yourself, the importance not only of being a friend to yourself but, in this instance, of being a kind parent to your own waywardness:
In a sense, you are called to be a loving parent to your delinquent qualities. Your kindness will slowly poultice their negativity, alleviate their fear, and help them to see that your soul is a home where there is no judgment or febrile hunger fir a fixed and limited identity. The negative threatens us so powerfully precisely because it is an invitation to a art of compassion and self-enlargement that our small thinking utterly resists
As any reader of my blog can quickly learn, I am not opposed to practicing disciplines, be they spiritual, physical, or intellectual. I just don't want to judge myself, let alone others, on that basis. After all, disciplines are but means to ends. Too often we mistake them as ends in themselves. Mistaking disciplines as ends instead of means is one example of our tendency to think small.

Several years ago, a beautiful friend of mine, Casey, suddenly took his own life. He was a popular, kind, and successful person. I met Casey in one of my annual confirmation prep classes for adults. We remained friends until his untimely death at his own hand. At the banquet celebrating his life, every place-setting featured a note printed on card-stock:

O'Donohue, a native of Western Ireland, uses the image of a hearth with a fire in it as the image of one's soul. I like this because it is consistent with the ancient Christian "divine spark" anthropology. We encounter the divine within in the most immediate way we are capable of encountering it. In O'Donohue's thought, the Celtic equivalent for a burning bush becomes burning dried peat in the fireplace. This is very earthy. Earthiness is important because earth is the "stuff" of which we are wonderfully made. Besides, as the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews avers: "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29).

For those like me, who are wondering "febrile," "poultice"? In this context, "febrile" means "having or showing a great deal of nervous excitement or energy." "Poultice" refers to "a soft, moist mass of material, typically of plant material or flour, applied to the body to relieve soreness and inflammation and kept in place with a cloth."

Hey, it's April! One quarter of 2019 has come and gone. As the Smothers' Brothers sang years ago: Whatever happened to time?/It doesn't come around anymore/The last time I saw time/It was walking out the door. Play a friendly trick on a few people today.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Year C Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: Josh 5:9a.10-12; Ps 34:1-7; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3.11-32

Our first reading, taken from the Book of Joshua, has heavy Eucharistic overtones. Reading it I was put in mind of the prayer the priest says, usually silently, but sometimes audibly, when he first takes our offering of bread and lifts it up to God:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
for through your goodness we have received
the bread we offer you:
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
it will become for us the bread of life (The Roman Missal, "The Order of Mass," sec. 23)
The response to this prayer is: “Blessed be God for ever” (Ibid).

When Jesus was on earth, both during the Last Supper and for forty days after his resurrection, the Eucharist was a strange duality- the one who becomes present in and through the Eucharist is already actually present. Nowhere is this duality better explained than in Luke’s narrative telling of the disciples who encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13-35). Walking the seven miles home from Jerusalem to Emmaus (seven being the biblical number of completion), they did not recognize the stranger who joined them along the way. Arriving home at dusk, they invited the stranger to dine with them. It was not until the stranger blessed, broke, and gave them bread that they recognized Jesus, at which point he vanished.

After Jesus’s ascension and since the descent of Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the primary way Christ remains present among us, in us, and through us until he returns is by means of the Eucharist. Something very similar is in play in our first reading.

Once the Israelites enter the land of Canaan, within which is contained the land God promised to Abraham and his descendants, God stopped providing them with manna from heaven. They were now to begin settling and cultivating the land. From this point on, this is how they would taste and see God’s goodness, not in the miracle of fresh manna every morning.

Like the ancient Israelites, who, as a result of our rebirth through baptism, are our ancestors in faith, we are to be cultivated so we can bear fruit like the land of Canaan and the fig tree in last Sunday’s Gospel. If the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are our spiritual fertilizer, so to speak, then practicing the three fundamental disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving is how we are cultivated to bear fruit for God’s kingdom These spiritual disciplines are means to the end of loving God with your entire being and loving your neighbor as you love yourself.

Today’s Gospel is one of most well-known Bible stories. I think we are often too quick, however, to identify with the prodigal. To some extent, we certainly can. But, as church-goers, as faithful members of Christ’s church, who take our obligations seriously, I think it’s good for us to take a moment to consider the older brother in the parable.

Up front, it is important to point out that in no way is the older brother portrayed as evil or bad. On the contrary, the inspired author of Luke never lets his reader lose sight of the fact that the older brother remained faithful and steadfast in his filial duties while his younger brother, having taken his inheritance early, was off living it up. If you don’t find the older brother’s reaction to his father throwing his n’er do well brother a great big party, then you’re not hearing the story in a human way. You just might perhaps be giving yourself a little too much credit.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt, 1663-1669

How wonderful, we sometimes think, that God forgives my sins! Yet, upon hearing news of some horrible thing one person did to another, or one group of people did to another group of people, we are often quick to condemn, not just the terrible act, but the person who committed it. We call for the perpetrator(s) to be retributively punished to the fullest extent. By doing this we betray our faith. One significant proof of this is that, at least in the United States, nearly two-thirds of people still support the death penalty.

The Catechism notes that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 2267- online version not updated to reflect the change made by Pope Francis last summer- see "State your peace tonight"). In fact, the church teaches that punishment for crimes serves three purposes: the preservation and protection of the common good of society, the restoration of public order, and the restoration or conversion of the offender (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 2266).

Encountering evil provokes us by giving us the opportunity to overcome our tendency to render shallow the unfathomably deep love of God given us in Christ. Passiontide, which refers to the last two weeks of Lent, is the time each year when should see God's love in the sacrificial suffering and emptying out of his Son for our sakes and for the sake of the whole world.

Like the older brother’s reaction to the party, we are often quick to condemn and slow to forgive. This tendency is natural enough. But we are given the Holy Spirit so that we can respond in a supernatural way. This what Paul means when he writes about our being entrusted by Christ with the ministry of reconciliation. God’s response to evil in the world is not punishment. Like the father in the parable, God’s response to sin is mercy.

In the Prayer for the Eleventh Station of the Cross, written for the Stations he commissioned for the 1993 renovation of The Cathedral of the Madeleine, Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, wrote:
Lord Jesus Christ, forgiving the repentant thief, look with love on every man and woman who is despised, rejected and counted as unworthy in human
eyes. Forgive the sins of the world and the weaknesses of Adam’s children.
Bring to life everlasting all who have made the world a place of
misery. Let the power of your love be stronger than human failure and let
no one be without redemption
(emboldening and italicized emphasis mine)
In order to relax and enjoy the party celebrating his brother’s return, the older son needed to become aware of his natural reaction and then push back against it, if not for the sake of his brother, then for the sake of his kind and merciful father. After hearing his oldest son’s complaint, the father told him: “everything I have is yours.” I like to imagine that after being reassured by his father, the older brother stopped brooding and joined the feast. Likewise, our loving God, whom we can call “our Father” only because of Jesus Christ, reassures us and beckons us to join the feast.

Friday, March 29, 2019

"You made me forget myself"

In his Confessions, St. Augustine grasped the inescapability of time in a very advanced way. Commenting recently on Augustine's take on time in the Confessions, Rowan Williams observed: "'The problem isn’t that God’s not here. The problem is that I’m not here.' I’m everywhere but here in this moment, in this particular prosaic, ordinary, physical environment." After posting this observation on another social media platform, a well-read friend noted: "the key insight of Augustine on time is that the present is so fleeting as to never really be. It is always not yet or already past, with the instant always fleeting." I don't see any particular difficulties in reconciling these two statements.

The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali, 1931

At least on my reading, in his Confessions Augustine deals with the fleetingness of the present moment in terms of the nagging thought that persists throughout a time of contentment; the realization that this contentment won't last because time shoves me inexorably forward. From a Christian perspective, time presents a bit of a difficulty, one that is usually dealt with by making an appeal to God's eternity, which is often described as an "eternal now," a never-passing present. It seems to me that for Williams God's presence is what makes it possible for me to be present in the present. My presence is the gift of attention, which requires me to make the effort not to be distracted by the fleetingness of the present moment. The problem is, the more of an effort I make, the more I fail.

It is interesting to examine what is meant by "Being present to/in the present moment." In short, for people who are existentially aware of their finitude being present in the present is much harder than it sounds. It's not necessarily the case that no sooner do I become present than the moment slips away. Rather, as I become conscious of my contentment, I realize it won't last forever. Or, to deal with the relativity of time, a few seconds or minutes of discontentment seem to last forever. No sooner do I think to myself "this is wonderful," than my next thought is, "this will end soon." This is the genesis of saying something like, "I wish this moment could last forever." Frankly, it's a little like facing death.

Our traditio for this Third Friday of Lent is Lou Reed's "Perfect Day." Initially, I was going to post the scene from the movie Trainspotting that features this song. Punks used to wear jackets with many buttons stuck on them. One button I remember featured the words- "Reality is for people who can't handle drugs." When I think I about time in an existential, as opposed to an abstract, vein, I think that mildly humorous observation might contain more truth than I care to admit.

Rather than the scene from Trainspotting, I decided to post Reed singing "Perfect Day" with Luciano Pavarotti.

The fourth verse of "Perfect Day" contains a clue for resolving the dissonance wrought by becoming present to the present moment. Describing why the day in the song was perfect: "You made me forget myself." Like Pater Tom taught his Trappist novices about contemplation, the key is not to become aware that your are contemplating, meaning it is important not to "step outside" yourself and "look" at yourself in the act of contemplation. In Anam Cara, John O'Donohue addresses this well: "If you are outside yourself, always reaching beyond yourself, you avoid the call of your own mystery" (pg 101).

Monday, March 25, 2019

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

Today the church celebrates the second solemnity that usually falls during Lent: the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. The first solemnity, of course, is that of St. Joseph, which we observed last Tuesday. Given the confusion that sometimes surrounds the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, it is important to point out that 25 March falls exactly nine months before 25 December. In like manner, the Nativity of the Virgin Mary is observed on 8 September, exactly nine months after the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, which we observe on 8 December.

The scriptural reading for Morning Prayer today is taken from the second chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. It comes from the portion of that chapter known as the Kenotic Hymn. In fact, today’s Morning Prayer reading is made-up of the two verses that constitute the heart of this hymn. These verses note that Jesus, "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance" (Phil 2:6-7).

Annunciation, by Jerry Coulter

This passage is called the Kenotic Hymn because of the use of the word kenosis. Kenosis is the Greek word meaning to empty one's self. It refers to Jesus’s letting go of what we, as human beings, see as divinity. What the incarnation shows us is that it is the very nature of God to be self-emptying, not some kind of master manipulator or cosmic tyrant.

With her fiat Mary emptied herself of self in order to be filled with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, while today is a solemnity, meaning it is a day, like a Sunday, when you can relax your Lenten discipline should you chose, I can’t think of a better description of what Lent is supposed to be about.

As a treat for myself, I prayed the Joyful Mysteries today! The first of which is the Annunciation, of which the fruit is humility. This is expressed beautifully in the Angelus:

The angel of Lord declared unto Mary
And she conceived of the Holy Spirit
Behold the handmaid of the Lord:
Be it done unto me according to Thy word.
And the Word was made Flesh: And dwelt among us.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Lent: the divine gift of time

Readings: Ex 3:1-8a; Ps 103:1-4.6-8.11; 1 Cor 10:1-6.10-12; Luke 13:1-9

One thing we learn from our Gospel reading for this Third Sunday of Lent is bad things happen to good people. In other words, when something bad befalls someone, it is not an indication that God is punishing them. It isn't even the case that because he is upset with them, God, withdrawing divine protection, permits bad things to happen those who might have reason to believe they displeased God. Isn't it sometimes the case that we inflict God's punishments on ourselves?

Here's something that may not go down well, at least not initially: there are times when you should have a guilty conscience. In this context, it bears noting that we often link guilt with shame so as to dismiss it. Genuine guilt, however, results from the recognition I have done something wrong or perhaps failed to do something good. But guilt is good if it helps me to repent.

Jesus's message in today's Gospel is straightforward: Repent! Someday you, too, will die just like the Galileans killed by Pilate, just like those crushed by the tower. He follows questions prompted by contemporary events by telling the parable of a fruitless fig tree. The fig tree in the parable has produced no fruit for three years. Rather than cut the tree down, the gardener convinces the owner of the orchard to cultivate and fertilize it, thus giving the tree one more year to produce fruit.

In a recent Renovaré podcast, Trent Hudson discusses Lent with host Nathan Foster. Relevant to Jesus's message in our Gospel reading, Hudson calls the season of Lent a "time-gift." It seems that the additional year given to the fruitless fig tree is also a time-gift.

How are we fertilized and cultivated? I think we can consider the sacraments, especially penance and the Eucharist, as fertilizer and the fundamental spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting as the means of cultivation. Alms-giving, then, is the fruit we are to bear.

The Vinedresser and the Fig Tree, by James Tissot, c. 1895

The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love correlate nicely with the three fundamental spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Prayer aligns with faith, fasting with hope, and alms-giving with love (i.e. agape or caritas). Hope is the flower of faith and charity is its fruit.

If the sacraments of penance and Eucharist are spiritual fertilizer, then baptism, as St. Paul indicates in our reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians, is the flowing stream beside which we are planted. This stream of living water not only sustains us but, along with the nutrients, allows us to grow. You need to be continually nourished or you'll perish: "whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall."

Since this reflection on the readings is already rife with metaphor and allegory, one more won't hurt. The gardener in Jesus's parable is the Lord himself. This makes the orchard owner the Father. Each one of us, then, serve as the allegory for the fig tree. As our responsorial Psalm powerfully asserts
Merciful and gracious is the LORD,
slow to anger and abounding in kindness.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him
Rather than complacency and presumption, God's lovingkindness, his mercy, his hesed, should increase our faith by giving us hope and inspiring us to perform acts of lovingkindness, or hesed, especially for those who are in need, according to their need. Such acts are the deliciously ripe fruit the Lord expects his disciples to bear.

In her extensive commentary on the chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict concerning the reception of new members by the monastery, Esther de Waal, noting that faith is a journey that a monk paradoxically commits to undertake by remaining in one place, thus indicating that it is an interior pilgrimage, asks the question you should ask yourself this Lent: "Do I turn to Christ?" De Waal points out that when asked sincerely, this question, while straightforward, is "also quite terrifying."

Nonetheless, she continues, "Do I turn to Christ?" is "a question that I am asked at intervals throughout life." If at no other time, she observes, I am asked this question each year at the Easter Vigil when, along with my sisters and brothers, I renew the promises I made at my baptism. It is only in "the context of the paschal mystery that I can fully appreciate what is implied in my own obedience" to God.

Christ was obedient to the Father to the point of death. Jesus's passion leaves us no doubt about what Bonhoeffer called "the cost of discipleship." Lent is a time-gift the church gives us each year. This gift is given to prepare you to answer this most important question. I urge you not to squander God's gift of time. Don't fret about what is passed. If you need to, start today. If today you hear God's voice, harden not your heart (see Hebrews 3:15).

Friday, March 22, 2019

"sisters and brothers of the one clay"

At times, the late John O'Donhohue noted, "you will find sorrow moving through you." While I am writing in this sad key, I want to note that I found something Rowan Williams admitted to in an interview years ago most helpful. Williams spoke of sometimes being covered by what he called "Celtic gloom." According to O'Donohue, this sorrow moves through you "like a dark mist over a landscape." For many people, myself included, this gloom, to borrow O'Donohue's words, "is dark enough to paralyze you." Nonetheless, he insisted that it "is a mistake to interfere with this movement of feeling."

Sometimes this metaphorical "mist" comes and no sooner does it leave than, out of nowhere, it settles in again. At other times, the mist settles in the valley of my soul for an extended stay. Then I can go for awhile and not experience it all. When this happens, I start to look for it for some odd reason, not that I miss it or anything, I am just aware that, in all likelihood, it will appear again. But it always comes unexpectedly. Mine is not seasonally determined. "It is more appropriate," O'Donohue insisted, "to recognize that this emotion belongs more to clay than your mind." Therefore, it "is wise to let this weather of feeling pass; it is on its way elsewhere." O'Donohue is not here positing a mind/body dualism. To the contrary, this comes in the midst of him setting forth a wonderfully holistic anthropology, which begins with noting that we are made of the stuff of earth: clay.

Being made of earth, O'Donohue insists that your body belongs to the landscape. "We so easily forget," he wrote, "that our clay has a memory that preceded our minds, a life of its own before it took its present form." No matter how "modern" we think we are, "we still remain ancient, sisters and brothers of the one clay."

It is important to note here that I speak only of my own experience! I am not judging others. I would say that if you need help, get help and never be apologetic for seeking help. As for myself, I am grateful for wise spiritual counselors who help me do what O'Donohue here describes - not interfere with this movement, but let the mist settle, even when, especially when, it does not seem likely to me that the sun will burn it away or the wind will sweep it past. This is an act of hope on my part. It's a bit like facing the inevitability of death with the hope that death is not the end.

Saturday I listened to a song that helps me understand: "In Big Country." I find this verse particularly helpful:
So take that look out of here it doesn't fit you/
Because it's happened doesn't mean you've been discarded/
Pull up your head off the floor, come up screaming/
Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted/
I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered/
But you can't stay here with every single hope you had shattered
I find that the words, "Because it's happened doesn't mean you've been discarded," especially resonant.

I also hold in mind that Stuart Adamson, who wrote this song, no doubt in an effort to wrestle with these issues, later took his own life. May he rest in the peace he found so elusive.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Solemnity of St. Joseph

Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Hence, it’s a day in Lent, apart from Sunday, to relax and enjoy yourself. I don’t know about you, but I plan to indulge in a cannoli!

Back in 2013 the newly elected Pope Francis chose the Solemnity of St. Joseph, who is the Patron of the Church Universal, as the day he was installed as Pontifex Maximus. Heaven knows the Church needs St. Joseph’s intercession desperately during these days. We should invoke it often on behalf of the Holy Father. St. Joseph is also known as “terror of demons” and the one to whom you pray on behalf of someone who is dying.

In Scripture, Joseph is a pretty quiet figure. He disappears after the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke end. Joseph, the righteous, that is, just man is with Jesus during the quiet years. These years between Jesus’s childhood and the beginning of his public ministry constitute the bulk of the Lord’s mortal life. While I admit this is speculative, it seems safe to surmise that Joseph hugely influenced Jesus's humanity, helping to shape and form the person he became, preparing him for his ministry, which culminated with his passion, death, and resurrection.

In terms of mercy, which is the essence of the God who is love, Joseph’s determination to put his betrothed, the young woman Mary, away quietly rather than expose her to the risk of being stoned to death when she turned pregnant unexpectedly, shows us his justness and righteousness. The Hebrew word that is used most often for God’s mercy is hesed. Hesed is perhaps best translated as “lovingkindnness.” Joseph seems to be suffused with hesed

Without a doubt, Jesus’s quiet years were defined by the warp and woof of everyday life. This morning I read the fifty-eighth chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict. This chapter is about the admission of new members into the monastery community. According to Benedict, during their novitiate, aspiring monks are to be exposed to every aspect of monastic life, even those parts that might seem unattractive. This is important in order for novices to root their discernment in reality. This can only be done through experience.

St Joseph and Christ child, by El Greco

Commenting on this chapter, Esther de Waal notes Benedict’s use of the word opprobia. She points out that this word is usually translated as “humiliations.” But in the context of this chapter of the Rule, she insists opprobia refers to those circumstances of daily life that are “negative, dreary, unattractive, or inglorious.” Throughout the Rule, Benedict is concerned that everything, even the most menial and repetitive tasks, be done with intention and the appropriate level of intensity.

Life in the monastery and, by extension, at home or work is not to be dreary and lifeless. Here is where de Waal’s commentary on this chapter really shines:
But [Benedict], as well as I do, [knows] that life is inevitably, for much of the time, far from ideal and that we have to live with that reality: a less than wonderful marriage, a house that is far from spacious and beautiful, a job that is not really rewarding or fulfilling
How does one deal with these realities?

The drudgery of the daily grind, de Waal asserts, “can be the most deadening of experiences.” This can easily lead “to resentment and bitterness.” It is the “ability to maintain patience and contentment under this sort of deadening pressure” that is the essence of living a life that is truly life.

In pairing de Waal’s commentary with today’s solemnity, I was powerfully struck by how much it applies to both the what and the how of what Joseph likely imparted to Jesus during those quiet years in Nazareth. For example, in thinking about marriage, as a Roman Catholic, I affirm that Joseph and Mary had a sexless marriage. I use “sexless” in a descriptively objective sense, as opposed to a pejorative sense. In other words, I am convinced that their relationship did not lack intimacy. As a Catholic, I also affirm that Mary was immaculately conceived. I believe that the Blessed Virgin is the only human being conceived in the natural way who was not tainted by original sin. Of course, this means Joseph enjoyed no such special grace.

So, while the sexlessness of their marriage may not have presented any difficulties for the Blessed Virgin, I can easily imagine that Joseph may have found this difficult and maybe even discouraging at times. I am not suggesting that sex in marriage is sinful. Quite to the contrary! I am merely suggesting that Mary was able to embrace her wholly unique vocation in an unwavering manner, whereas perhaps Joseph experienced some difficulties. One could just as easily point to Joseph's work as a tekton, which probably forced him to take work in other places, thus taking him away from home for periods of time.

St. Joseph, along with all the saints, shows us how holiness is made from the raw material of daily life. So, even from the perspective faith, when life serves you lemons, by the grace of God, you can make lemonade. St. Joseph, pray for us.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Year C Second Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen 15:5-12.17-18; Ps 271.7-9.13-14; Phil 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28b-36

Hearing Luke’s account of Jesus’s transfiguration on this Second Sunday of Lent gives us a preview of Christ’s resurrection, provides us with a taste of Easter. According to St Luke, after seeing Jesus “transfigured” before their very eyes, his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John see and hear him conversing with Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the prophets. This demonstrates that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets.

Luke even provides us with a hint about what the transfigured Jesus discussed with Moses and Elijah: the “exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”1 Just as the Israelites left Egypt and crossed the desert to the promised land – the land God promises to Abram, whom God would later rename Abraham, in our first reading – Jesus crossed over from death to life. This makes Jesus our Passover. Hence, he is the one in whom we place our trust. The word for putting one’s trust in Jesus is “hope.”

Lent is your invitation to make your own exodus from death to life. Lent is the time to cease conducting yourself as what St Paul, in our second reading, dramatically calls an enemy of the cross Christ. The apostle writes about those whom, “with tears,” he calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” that their stomachs are their God.”2 By stating it in this emphatic manner, the apostle is highlights the importance of the spiritual discipline of fasting.

He also says that those who make themselves enemies of the cross of Christ occupy “their minds with earthly things.”3 Here the apostle points to the importance of practicing the spiritual discipline of prayer, which includes silence and solitude.

By writing that the enemies of Christ’s cross glory in their shame, that is, in their wrong-doing and selfishness, Paul is pointing to the necessity of alms-giving. Alms-giving does not merely refer to donating money – though it does include generous financial giving – it also refers to serving those in need. Serving others in various ways, according to their needs, constitutes those works referred to in the Letter of James that are necessary for salvation.4 After all, God did not reveal the promise to him until Abram sacrificed.

Practicing the three spiritual disciplines taught to us by Jesus himself (i.e., prayer, fasting, and alms-giving) is called “asceticism.” Practicing the three spiritual disciplines taught to us by Jesus himself (i.e., prayer, fasting and alms-giving) is called “asceticism.” Asceticism refers to those exercises, the practice of which, train you for something worth attaining.5 In the passage from the third chapter of his Letter to the Galatians that immediately precedes today’s second reading, St Paul not only writes about what he hopes to attain, he alludes to how it is attained: “to know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”6

The Transfiguration, by Gerard David, 1520

Endeavoring to practice the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, even if it sometimes consists of your poor attempts, is what makes you a disciple of Christ. Paul is convinced that living ascetically is how you cooperate with God’s grace in bringing about your own transfiguration. The apostle describes this transfiguration as Christ changing your “lowly body to conform with his glorified body.”7 The transfiguration to which Paul points is not only for yourself, it is for the transfiguration of the world. It is wrought by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, the power that enables the Lord “to bring all things into subjection to himself.”8 This is nothing other than the power of love. Lent is not merely, or even mainly, about what you give up. It primarily about what you take up.

In the first instance, asceticism is not about self-denial. Like all spiritual disciplines, denying yourself is but a means to the end of loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbor as you love yourself. You deny yourself in order to free-up more time, resources, and energy with which to serve others the name of Christ and on behalf of his church. Growth in love of God and neighbor is not only the point and purpose of Lent, for Christians, it is the goal of life!

What asceticism requires me to do is to take “responsibility for those aspects of my life that are unbalanced.” Those aspects of my life that remain unbalanced are those parts I have not yet submitted to Jesus’s Lordship. Let’s face it, we are often creatures of excess who are primarily focused on ourselves. We revere Lent as a holy season because through it the church bids us to lovingly confront ourselves. We call this self-confrontation “penance.” Deriving as it does from the word “repentance,” penance amounts to having a change of heart and mind that leads you to live more intentionally as a Christian.

Repentance does not mean being harsh with yourself. It certainly doesn’t mean being harsh with others. To the contrary, God is merciful. So, your repentance cannot be complete until you experience God’s mercy for yourself. It is in and through the sacrament of penance that you experience God’s mercy given us in Christ first-hand. This is why confession is made more available during Lent.

Confession is not where you go to admit defeat. It is where you go to claim the victory over sin and death that Christ won for you. He desperately wants you to experience his victory for yourself and then to share your experience with others. What is evangelization if not telling others what Jesus has done for you, letting them know the difference knowing Jesus makes in your life?

It is only by experiencing God’s mercy that you can extend it to others. The works in which you, as someone gifted by God with faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, are to engage are nicely schematized by the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which are depicted in the stained-glass windows on the north side of our church.

Lent prepares you for the celebration of Christ’s passing from death to life at Easter. In baptism you died, were buried, and rose with Christ to new life. Lent is the time to prepare to renew your baptismal promises at the great Easter Vigil, the most important liturgy of the entire year. May this Lent accomplish your exodus, your passage from death to life in Christ our Passover!

1 Luke 9:31.
2 Philippians 3:18-19.
3 Philippians 3:19.
4 James 2:14- The last sentence of this verse poses a rhetorical question: Can faith without works save a believer?
5 R. Arbesman. “Asceticism,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, 772.
6 Philippians 3:10-11.
7 Philippians 3:21.
8 Philippians 3:21.
9 Owen F. Cummings, Lecture on the Rule of St. Benedict, date unknown..

Friday, March 15, 2019

Inclining the ear of my heart

Without much thought and really no deliberation, the importance of the three fundamental spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving have really re-asserted themselves to me during this Lent. Up to this point, I have written a lot about the discipline of fasting. Central to my view of fasting is that it is properly practiced by eating and drinking less, or even not all for a specified period of time, but only if one is able to do so without harming one's health. Don't worry! This is not another post about fasting.

On this First Friday of Lent, I want to briefly address the spiritual discipline of prayer. Specifically, the need for silence when praying. Silence is often the fruit of prayer, how one brings a period dedicated to prayer to an end. Silence is also important when you are in the thick of prayer. It is often observed that God's first language in silence. If we take this observation with the seriousness it deserves, then prayer becomes the venue and the method for learning the divine language. You need to be quiet so you can hear. You need to hear in order to listen.

The Rule of St. Benedict famously begins with these words: Obsculta, o fili, praecepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui, et admonitionem pii patris libenter excipe et efficaciter comple... The late Boniface Verheyen translates this: "Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father..." A good rule for prayer is that you should spend at least as much time in silence as you do speaking, even you're not speaking out loud. Stated another way, as in any balanced conversation, you should listen at least as much as you speak, if not more.

In his book Anam Cara, the late John O'Donohue insightfully notes: "True listening brings us in touch even with that which is unsaid and unsayable." Indeed, silence is often more eloquent than any words could ever be. "Sometimes," O'Donohue continues, "the most important threshold of mystery are places of silence." More to the point I am trying to make, this priest/poet/mystic insists that if you want to "be genuinely spiritual" you must have "great respect for the possibilities and presence of silence." Just as compassion for others flows from listening to God, fasting helps in developing this respect.

In our day, silence is very difficult. We live in a noisy world, one that is full of distractions. Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are the keys to a holy and fruitful Lent. Silence is an essential ingredient.

Since St Patrick's Day falls on a Sunday this year, it takes a backseat. This is more than alright. Without the resurrection of Christ, which we celebrate every Sunday, even during Lent, which is why Sundays do not count against the forty days of this penitential season, there would be no St Patrick and so no feast day for this Pan-Celtic saint. Flogging Molly singing "A Prayer for Me in Silence is our Friday traditio:

"Beware the Ides of March!"

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Freedom is following Christ

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

Our first reading for this First Sunday of Lent, taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, is about liberation, or true freedom. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, one of the great Christian spiritual masters of the twentieth century, observed that "neither rebellion nor flight makes us free, because freedom is first of all an inner situation with regard to God, to self and to the surrounding world."

Our Gospel reading is Luke's account of Jesus's forty days and nights in the desert. While in the desert, the Lord fasted, prayed and was tempted by the devil. It bears noting the obvious, which is that Jesus's forty days in the desert marked his recapitulation of Israel's forty year desert sojourn, which ended when they crossed the river Jordan. Their crossing of the Jordan was for the ancient Israelites a sort of baptism. It is also worth pointing out that Jesus underwent baptism in the waters of the Jordan prior to his retreat into the desert, thus reversing an important aspect of Israel's journey to the Promised Land. This is significant. Among the things his leaving the Promised Land through the Jordan might indicate is expansion of the Promised Land to include the whole world.

Jesus's time in the desert serves to illustrate Bloom's assertion that freedom is "an inner situation with regard to God, self and to the surrounding world." The Lord's desert retreat is also instructive as to how freedom is realized. One's inner situation changes, is converted, by sincerely practicing spiritual disciplines. The disciplines that change us are those taught by the Lord himself: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving.

I don't think it's stretching things too much to say that the three temptations to which Jesus was subjected correlate to these disciplines. The first temptation to which Jesus was subjected corresponds to the discipline of fasting. The devil urged the Lord to turn stones into bread in order to prove that he is the Son of God. Refusing, the Lord replies: "It is written, One does not live on bread alone." Where is that written? In the same book from which our first reading today is taken, specifically Deuteronomy 8:3.

Prayer is the discipline to which the next temptation corresponds. Showing Jesus all the world's kingdoms, the devil tells him he will make him ruler over them all if Jesus would but bow down and worship him. Noting that it is also written that one should worship only God and God alone, the Lord resists this temptation. In this case, too, Jesus quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:13).

Get Behind Me, Satan!, by Ilya Respin, 1895

Finally, the devil takes Jesus up to the parapet of the temple and once again encourages him to prove something by throwing himself off it so that angels will intercept his fall, thus sparing him death and proving his identity by an exercise of extraordinary power. With this temptation, the devil himself cites Scripture. Quoting the Psalm that serves as today's Responsorial- Psalm 91:11-12, the devil says: "for it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you' and: ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'" Turning once again to Deuteronomy, which is the last book of Torah, Jesus resists by telling the devil, "It also says, 'You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test'" (Deut 6:16).

This temptation corresponds to the spiritual discipline of alms-giving. How? Well, rather than being all about himself, feeling the need to demonstrate his power, Jesus steadfastly remains a person for others. If he is not a person for others, we cannotnrightly call Jesus "Savior." Ultimately, Jesus did submit himself to death and, in so doing, commended himself to the Father. The Father did not rescue Jesus from the cross in some dramatic fashion. In his account of Jesus's crucifixion, Luke gives an echo of this temptation. The inspired author places the temptation in the mouths of unnamed "rulers," who say, as Christ is dying on the cross: "He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God" (Luke 23:35). But Jesus really died. His resurrection assures us that power is made perfect through weakness, not self-assertion.

Why is it so difficult for so many Christians to believe that sincere practice of the spiritual disciplines is what leads us to freedom? This is a verifiable claim. You can test it. For the best results, you should do this with the benefit of a teacher.

The refusal to believe that practicing the spiritual disciplines is what leads to freedom, which amounts to a lack of faith, is the Achilles heel of much of what passes for contemporary Christian "spirituality." This "spirituality" amounts to self-directed self-improvement. Hence, it all about will-power and achieving one's own goals. In the long term, this usually leads to disappointment and disillusionment.

In his book Monastic Practices, Fr Charles Cummings, OSCO, makes the point I am trying to make very well:
The more I try to make Christ the center of my life and thoughts and actions, the more I feel every pull and tug that draws me back from the radical, loving surrender of myself. I am not totally free to run toward the one I love. Instead, I feel enchained, entangled by a thousand little threads that together form a strong rope binding me to myself. Detaching myself from these bonds is largely a matter of self-discipline and asceticism. Paradoxically, self-discipline sets me free for God. Self-discipline is a training in freedom. I am free to take something comfortable and pleasurable, or to eat and drink more, or to sleep longer, but I am also free to refrain from these things and not let myself be held bound by them
The time from Ash Wednesday through the Saturday that follows serves as something of a warm-up for Lent. So, this season of sanctification begins in earnest today. And so, today the Lord calls you to begin living in the glorious freedom of the children of God.

Triduum: Good Friday

Reading: Luke 23:46 For our Good Friday traditio, I am sharing the homilette I delivered in 2007 for the seventh of Jesus's Seven La...