Saturday, June 15, 2019

Year C Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Readings: Prov 8:22-31; Ps 8:4-9; Rom 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

Before there was anything there was only God. One insight we can glean from this statement is that God, qua God, is not a “thing” or “object” somewhere in the universe. God, therefore, is no-thing. As such God is the reason there is anything and everything. This is the point of our first reading from the Book of Proverbs as well as our responsorial Psalm. I grasp that this can be more than a little confusing, especially if you believe that faith should never require you to think.

In reality, nothing should cause you to think more deeply or critically than faith. St. Anselm of Canterbury was quite right to conceive of theology as faith seeking understanding. Faith that does not seek understanding is not faith because it will either disappear or not grow, thus not realizing its full purpose, which is to love perfectly after the manner of Christ. Perfect love consists of knowing as you are known by God, who called you by name.1

Faith matures into knowledge by means of hope. This knowledge is learned through experience, especially through relationships. The kind of experience through which we come to know as we are known is gained by our relationship with God through Christ which is both made possible and fully realized by the power of their Holy Spirit. A few questions provide examples. How do you know your parents love you? How do you know your spouse loves you? How do they know you love them? Not a bad question to ask on Father’s Day. To a large extent, your happiness depends on whether you know you are loved and how well you know it.

The Church teaches us that truth is hierarchical. This simply means that some truths are more important than others. The most important truths we call dogmas of the faith. Atop the hierarchy of truth, we find dogmas concerning the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Most Holy Trinity. Of course, it is Jesus who explicitly revealed the Trinity, which is only implied in the Old Testament. We call these truths “mysteries.”

In theological terms, a mystery does not refer either to an unsolvable puzzle or an intellectual conundrum that is difficult to figure out. Theological mysteries refer to something known only because God has revealed it. Some truths of revelation complement what we know by means of human reason. These are not mysteries, strictly speaking. For example, the Church “holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.”2 What cannot be discerned apart from revelation is that God is a “trinity” of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The most succinct way to describe the Most Holy Trinity is one God in three divine persons. What is potentially confusing about this is that in the same sentence we use “one” and “three” in reference to God. As a result, many Christians mistakenly believe that the “mystery” of the Trinity consists of somehow wrapping your mind around the idea that 3=1. We know that 3≠1. Three and one differ by two every time. You’ll be relieved to know that at the heart of our faith is not a gross arithmetical error.

Central Panel from the High Altar of the Trinity Church, Mosóc, ca. 1400-1500, artist unknown

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is perhaps best expounded in a phrase used twice in the course of eight verses in the fourth chapter of St. John’s First Letter: “God is love.”3 At a minimum, love that is truly love and not narcissism requires a lover and a beloved. Because love is profuse, because love is abundant to the point of overflowing, love gives life. What is the Holy Spirit if not the love between the Father and the Son personified?

Accepting Jesus’s invitation to pick-up the cross and follow him, the way God makes his love manifest, according to St. Paul in our second reading from his Letter to the Romans, is not by preserving us from affliction but precisely through our passing through various afflictions. It is very important to point out that God is not the immediate or even the remote cause of our suffering. But perhaps more than anything else, God uses our suffering to draw us to himself. This is why the apostle writes that “we even boast of our afflictions.”4

Christians are people who understand that hope lies beyond optimism. Optimism would have the Father spare his Son the cross. Hope is what led Jesus to the cross. This hope is borne out in the Jesus’s resurrection; Christus resurrexit quia Deus caritas est (i.e., Christ is resurrected because God is love)! It is this same self-emptying, sacrificial, other-centered love that Paul says is poured into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.5 This is the “grace in which we stand” and on the basis of which “we boast in hope of the glory of God.”6

Realizing that hope lies beyond optimism is nothing other than our recognition “that eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”7 What God has in store for us is much greater than anything we can imagine because presently “we see indistinctly, as in a mirror.”8 St. Paul tells us love “bears all things” and “endures all things.”9

Jesus ascended to be closer to us, not to disappear. He is more present by his seeming absence than he would be otherwise. Earlier in the same chapter from which our Gospel reading for today is taken, Jesus tells his disciples “if I do not go, the [Holy Spirit] will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”10 That the Holy Spirit is the way the risen Christ remains present among us, in us, and through us is witnessed by what the Lord tells his disciples in today’s Gospel. He tells them his Spirit will guide them into all truth. Jesus says the Spirit will not speak of himself but will take from what Jesus teaches “and declare it to you.”11

In a way analogous to the Son revealing the Father, the Holy Spirit reveals the Son. The difference is that the Spirit does not merely reveal the Son to us. The Spirit reveals the Son in us and through us. Grace is nothing other than God sharing divine life with us. Because the Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life,” he is the way God shares life with us.12 Because the essence of divine life is self-emptying love, in turn, we are to share what receive, which why at the end of Mass each of us are sent forth to “announce the Gospel of the Lord,” to glorify “the Lord by your life.”13 God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit, sharing divine life with us cannot mean anything apart from God giving himself to us entirely.

It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that our humble gifts of bread of wine are transformed into Christ’s body and blood. In Eucharistic Prayer III, the celebrant implores the Father: “grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son, and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”14 This is the way you experience the love of God, to know as are known, to love as you are loved. Loving God by loving your neighbor as you love yourself is how faith leads you to perfect knowledge through hope, which has little to do with optimism. This, my dear friends, is how you grasp the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

1 1 Corinthians 13:12.
2 Vatican Council I, Dei Filius, sec. 2.
3 1 John 4:8.16
4 Romans 5:3.
5 Romans 5:5.
6 Romans 5:2.
7 1 Corinthians 2:9.
8 1 Corinthians 13:12.
9 1 Corinthians 13:7.
10 John 16:7.
11 John 16:15.
12 1 Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 18.
13 Ibid., sec. 144.
14 Ibid., sec. 113.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Who do you serve? You gotta serve somebody

It's funny, I don't think I appreciate R & B or Gospel very much. In reality, I like both more than I can say. While I pondered what I might put up as our traditio this afternoon I listened to Marc Maron's WTF podcast. In the episode I heard he interviewed Mavis Staples. Mavis started singing Gospel with her family, the famous Staples Family, when she was very young, like 11 or 12.

Mavis met Bob Dylan when they were both very young. Mavis & Bob were an item in the mid-60s for a while. He is two years younger than her. They've remained close ever since. Man, I love Mavis's voice and I love her cover of this classic from Dylan's Gospel era.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple by Rembrandt

If you ever want to listen to some amazing Gospel, you can do no better than the Staples Family. If you don't believe me listen to them sing "Uncloudy Day." Mavis is still going strong at 80. God bless her.

Our tradito for this first First Friday in Ordinary Time is Mavis Staples singing a Dylan song written during Bobby Z.'s Gospel period: "Gotta Serve Somebody." This is probably his most well-known song from that time of his long career. I love that Dylan always insists that he is "a song and dance man." I don't think he ever wanted to be anything else.

One of the beautiful things about Gospel music is that at its best it beautifully distills the good news. Since we entered Ordinary Time on Monday, I went back to my normal order of praying the Mystery of the Blessed Virgin's Rosary. This means that on Monday I contemplated the Joyful Mysteries. I was struck as I meditated on the third Joyful Mystery, which is Mary and Joseph presenting baby Jesus in Temple (see Luke 2:22-28). While in the Temple the couple encounter Anna and Simeon. Both of these elderly Israelites recognized in this child their hope, the hope of Israel, and the hope of the whole world. In doing so, they gain insight into how painful the realization of their hope was going to be. In short, they grasped that hope lies beyond optimism.

The message of Dylan's song could not be clearer or truer: you inevitably wind up serving somebody. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

You serve the Lord by serving your neighbor. You serve the devil by putting yourself first. It's almost always easier to serve yourself, even when you consider that you don't know what you want most of the time. In short, serving yourself is convenient; you're always right there. Putting yourself first gives rise to optimism. The optimism to which it gives rise is the optimism that finds its roots in believing that happiness is earned and you can achieve it. By contrast, serving others is almost always inconvenient. Very often, one's service to others doesn't seem to accomplish much of anything. If nothing else, it relieves of yourself for a little while. Therein lies hope.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Bridge building spans the chasm

I understand the alarm many people feel in hearing/reading about a recent document from the Congregation for Catholic Education. The document, entitled Male and Female He created them: Towards a path of dialogue on the question of gender theory in education, was sent to the president's of all national bishops' coneferences (see "Vatican issues new document criticizing 'gender theory'"). But if we want to build bridges and not expand chasms. it is important for people with differing viewpoints to speak and/or write from knowledge, not ignorance. Sadly, when it comes to informing us about this document, neither the secular nor the Catholic media have done us any favors.

In the context of various documents produced by various Congregations, Councils, and Commissions, "Vatican" is an ambiguous word. It usually refers to the church's magisterium. Magisterium, in turn, refers to official and authoritative church teaching. It is important to note that not every document that comes from the Vatican is magisterial. Beyond that it is important to point out that even every magisterial teaching is not of the same weight or importance. The document that created such a buzz today, which calls into question some aspects of "gender theory" (another ambiguous term), specifically questioning transgenderism, is one that is not magisterial.

My claim that Male and Female He created them is not magisterial is buttressed by no less than Dr. Richard Galliardetz, professor of theology at Boston College. I have benefited enormously from Dr. Galliardetz's work throughout my graduate theological education. I relied on his work quite heavily in a particular chapter of my recently completed dissertation. On Facebook thread today, in his calm, measured, and generous way, he responded to a post that seemed to exaggerate the importance of this document:
it might be worth noting that this particular document was issued “in forma commune” and not “in forma specifica.” In the latter instance, the curial document must be received as authoritative papal teaching. In the former instance, which applies to this document, it does not carry papal authority and therefore is not to be considered magisterial teaching

Does this insight remove all suspicion? I seriously doubt it. But I think it provides some much-needed perspective for people on both sides- those who will say, "See! The Magisterium rejects transgenderism!" as well as those who see an article and say, "There they go again!" Precisely, Because it is not magisterial, nobody need feel compelled to agree with it.

In terms of church teaching, the issue of transgenderism is not completely closed. I think it bears noting that in recent years there has been no little tension between various lesbian and gay groups and individuals, as well as certain feminists, and transgender people and those who advocates. It's a complex , multi-faceted issue. Because it involves people, we need to lead care and concern for people who, through medical science, have transitioned. Loving and caring for people comes first always. I'd venture to say that few things are more complex than human sexuality. Let's take up the challenge issued by the document's subtitle and walk a path of dialogue.

Along with Francis A, Sullivan, S.J.'s Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, Galliardetz's By What Authority?: Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful is indispensable for anyone who cares to know how church teaching works, its various levels, the authority any given document, teaching, or assertion carries, etc. If you care enough to know, it's that not that difficult to find it.

In other direction, I found "The Church & Transgender Identity Some Cautions, Some Possibilities," by Luke Timothy Johnson and David Cloutier quite informative. I know I need to learn more.

In short, what the document expresses is nothing new. It sets forth a long-held view rooted in a theological anthropology derived from a certain fairly narrow conception of natural law. From a philosophical perspective, I find this view to be based on an outdated metaphysics of substance rooted in a certain articulation of Aristotle. Jumping from philosophy to theology, it has been pretty rare for the Church to apply kingdom ethics to sexual morality. It is his doing just this that makes Robert Song's little book A Covenant Calling (mentioned and linked to a previous post) such valuable reading.

Sunday, June 9, 2019


And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim
(Acts 2:1-4)

Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the Church.

I wanted to keep it simple today. After Easter, Pentecost is the most important day on the liturgical calendar. The Holy Spirit is the mode of Christ's resurrected presence among us, in us, and through us.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Becoming affirming: mileposts along the way

My earliest memory of seeing homosexuals dates to the early 1970s. We were driving from our home in Utah to San Francisco. We stopped and spent the night in Reno, Nevada. The next morning we ate breakfast at an International House of Pancakes. As we sat in our both, two men came in holding hands and sat in the both next to the one in which my family sat. One of the men carried a purse. The man with the purse had longer hair than his companion and was dressed more neatly. I could not have been older than 6 or 7.

Without the least bit of guile and certainly not in a mocking way, I said out loud, "Look, Dad, that man has a purse." I don't mind admitting that it seemed to strange to me, not wrong necessarily, just something that was clearly outside the very narrow range of my young (in)experience. Of course, my parents both shushed me while they apologetically glanced at the same-sex couple. Typical of that time, my parents were simply intent on me shutting up to avoid embarrassment. But nobody explained anything to me. As a result, an important teaching moment was missed. Some things were just not discussed. Of course, this story was shared numerous times over the years for comic effect.

My next direct experience with someone was who was homosexual did not occur until my junior year of high school. My best friend and I walked in to a guys' restroom on campus, When we entered we encountered two guys hassling a third guy. They were taunting and threatening him. My friend and I intervened, chasing the two would-be badasses away. Predictably, the guy they bullied was gay. That day began my friendship with David. He and I became good friends after that. He was always very straightforward about being gay. Prior that episode in the restroom, David and I were in drama together, performing in plays, taking classes, etc. While friendly, we were not friends prior to that day's incident.

When I was in the Marines, David wrote me letters. He wrote things on the outside of the envelope that he knew would cause me to be razzed or even mildly punished. These were mostly song lyrics. I remember on one he used these lyrics from Culture Club song: "War is stupid and people are stupid." He also used Springsteen's "War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing." I didn't mind. I was happy to have a friend who actually took the time to write to me. The ridicule and mild punishments were no big deal. For the most part, I endured them while smiling.

Eventually, David and I went our own ways. But crossed paths again when we were in college at the University of Utah. He worked at the Kinko's Copies nearest to campus while taking classes. In those days- late 80s/early 90s- Kinko's was a busy place near any college campus. By that time, I was married and had a child. But I would stop in to see him a lot because Kinko's was located on the same corner as my bus stop and across the street from the Newman Center, where I went to church. I stopped in to pray for a few minutes several times a week or attend mid-day Mass. We went for coffee once or twice. It was always nice to see him. Several years ago, we reconnected on Facebook. He was living in San Francisco with his partner. He left social media because he found it infuriating.

Since my friendship with David, I have made friends with gay men and women. Recently, one of those friends married the love of his life. There is a lot to his story but it is his story, not mine. Yesterday, this friend, who is Christian and Roman Catholic, shared a blog post by Sarah Bessey: "Penny in the Air: My Story of Becoming Affirming." Reading this made me think about my own turn on this issue, a turn that it took me a decade or more to make.

Like many Christians, while I harbored no personal animus toward gay people and went out of my way to say that, I continued to adhere to what is taken to be traditional Christian doctrine on this matter, seeing genital expressions of gay love as sinful without exception, forbidden by God and expressed in revelation. Both of these assertions, I now know, are highly questionable (as an example see "Adriano Oliva's Amours: L'Église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels — On the Pastoral Implications of Aquinas' Recognition That Homosexuality Is Natural"). Like many Catholics, I bought into the incoherent and unsustainable stance of separating person from act. Unlike many Catholics, I worked very hard for quite a few years to maintain this point-of-view because, as a "faithful" Catholic, later as a cleric, a deacon, someone who teaches and preaches, I wanted to be in perfect harmony with Church teaching. This desire remained even after I became pretty affirming in my pastoral practice.

I readily admit to publicly expressing my disappointment of and disagreement with the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which was handed down four years ago this month. I have to say, the reality of that decision resulted in a regression for me, a turning back. In retrospect I can see that I was fearful about the alleged chaos that would result from gay people marrying. After a year or so, noticing the world had not ended and that civiilzation had not collapsed as the result of Obergefell, as many predicted it would, my regression ended.

Looking back, I sometimes enjoyed playing the smart-ass by pointing out that technically-speaking "homophobia" means something like "fear of the same." I was just in denial about being homophobic, if only mildly by comparison. Homophobia is not a mental disease, as I used to assert those who employed the term implied. Like all phobias, however, homophobia is an irrational fear. Homophobia is an irrational fear of both homosexuality and homosexual people. This meant that up to this point I had learned nothing from my experience. I had utterly failed to pay attention to my own life, preferring instead a disembodied and atemporal approach to reality, a ready-made metaphysics I could impose on people, which cut against my otherwise fairly existentialist philosophy of life.

Separating person from act with regard to homosexual people means affirming that while their homosexuality in and of itself is not sinful, engaging in homosexual acts is. This cognitively dissonant view leads to many insulting (i.e., homophobic) comparisons, like being homosexual is akin to being predisposed to alcoholism. Just as the person pre-disposed to alcoholism should avoid imbibing alcohol, a person pre-disposed to homosexual behavior should refrain from gay sex. The flaw in this logic is readily apparent: human sexuality is not a disease. At least from a Christian perspective, sexuality is a gift. Even according to Humanae Vitae, the gift of sexuality isn't only given to us to procreate but for enjoyment (sec. 12). Following this line of thought, because one's sexual desire is predominantly or even exclusively for members of his/her own gender, that person is condemned to a life of celibacy and sexual continence. On the view I formerly held, this is the cross they must bear. It is not uncommon to encounter the argument that, according to this stance, homosexual people are in the same boat as single heterosexual Christians, who are also morally forbidden sexual relations. The problem with this, of course, is that, at least theoretically, a single Christian can meet and marry someone. A homosexual person cannot, according to this view. I have come to see that forbidding someone to be who s/he is is, in a word, cruel.

Extending my metaphor, which starts with making a turn that leads to setting off in a new direction (metanoia), I do not intend to provide a detail of every step of my journey. So, as I have done thus far, I will simply write about a few milestones. The first major milestone was reading Rowan Williams's now quite old lecture, "The Body's Grace." Williams began this lecture by looking at homosexuality from the broader perspective of human sexuality. What Williams showed me initially was that no Catholic who has been appointed to preach and/or teach has any business railing against gay people from the ambo (i.e., pulpit) unless he is willing to be equally hard, or perhaps even harder, on everyone whose sexual lives do not conform to Church teaching, not only including but especially married couples who use contraception. Given that this is going to constitute, in any given parish, close to 100% of married people in the parish, it's not a very effective pastoral strategy. In fact, it is a self-defeating one. Why would it be more effective for other groups of people, gay or straight? They can ignore you just as well, perhaps even better.

I make the above observation as a father of 6 who endeavors, along with my beautiful wife, of course, to live according to the Church's teachings on sexuality. Personally, I wouldn't do it any differently, even though I know how damn difficult and vexing it can be. As Simcha Fisher noted a few years back, far from solving marital problems, starting to practice NFP will bring the issues you have into stark relief. For my wife and I, there was no start except our wedding day. I am a big believer in witness, honest witness, which means not blowing smoke up the proverbial orifice by overselling its benefits to the detriment of its difficulties. To jump ahead quite a ways, along with Sarah Bessey, I "hold to a deeply Christian sexual ethic, an understanding of fidelity, faithfulness, purity, constancy, love, honour, concern, etc. far beyond mere consent. In my understanding and experience, it’s a path of flourishing. It’s just that I believe we’re all welcome to that ethic, it’s not just straight folks like myself."

Another milestone was reading Fr. Timothy Radcliffe's still excellent book What Is the Point of Being a Christian?. While this does not deal specifically with homosexuality, Radcliffe insists
The Church has nothing to say about morality until our listeners have glimpsed God’s delight in their existence. People often come to us carrying heavy burdens, with lives not in accord with the Church’s teaching, the fruit of complex histories. We have nothing to say at all until people know that God rejoices in their very existence, which is why they exist at all
Far too many homosexual people have grown-up Christian and never experienced what Radcliffe describes. What they have experienced is quite the opposite, in the name of Jesus and for the sake of their soul, no less.

When we reduce the Gospel to sexual ethics and to morality in general we can be sure we've lost the thread. This is not to say morality or sexual morality don't matter. They do. But morality, including sexual morality, are not first order theological or pastoral concerns. If you're still jonesing for a morality fix, here's one courtesy of Bessey:
So remember to sit down at the feet of those who have suffered, those for whom this isn’t theory or theology, those for whom this isn’t an exercise in thought or opinion but their real lived life, the ones who, as Broderick Greer says, "engage in theology as a matter of survival" and I say, "I’m here to learn from you. Lead me. I will listen to you. I will respect your story. I will submit myself to the margins
Continuing to mine this moral vein I return to "The Body's Grace," in which Williams, in the second paragraph, points out what any discussion of sexuality needs to begin with:
Most people know that sexual intimacy is in some ways frightening for them; most know that it is quite simply the place where they begin to be taught whatever maturity they have. Most of us know that the whole business is irredeemably comic, surrounded by so many odd chances and so many opportunities for making a fool of yourself; plenty know that it is the place where they are liable to be most profoundly damaged or helpless. Culture in general and religion in particular have devoted enormous energy to the doomed task of getting it right
What we should see in this citation is the phrase "doomed task of getting it right." I take this to mean that you should only speak about sexuality with great humility, fully aware of your own fears, frailty, insecurities, and failings in this aspect of your own life. In speaking about sexuality you need to be careful not to project your experience onto others, especially in the service of some disembodied and atemporal "truth" of which you are not yourself completely sure. How can be you be sure if it's not part of your experience?

Another milestone on my path, one I first passed quite a few years ago, is the work of James Alison. Because I am conscious of the lengthiness of this post, I cannot do Alison's work any justice. It will have to suffice for me to point you to his book Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, along with Rowan Williams's review of this book (see here). I would also encourage you check our Fr. Alison's website: James Alison. Theology. Alison possesses the best insight on the internal dynamics of the Church's seemingly endless sexual abuse crisis. Alison's work also demonstrates how third order concerns about sexuality have displaced first order things in a manner similar to the way credal formulae displaced the reign of God, the latter constituting nothing less than the center of Jesus's teaching.

I passed another milestone on my journey to affirmation when I read a short book by theologian Robert Song: A Covenant Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-sex Relationships. Particularly, I think Song's exposition of New Testament sexual ethics is a great antidote to the heavily-laden sexuality derived from natural law, which, like so much theology post-Nicea, seems to ignore the radicality of Kingdom-based ethics as they apply to sex. What Alison and Song did for me was enable me to situate homosexuality into a Catholic theological context. This means that I no longer felt I was dissenting but delving ever deeper. The importance of this for me cannot be underestimated.

Along the way, I undertook no little Bible study via commentaries and books. One book that touches on what the Bible, particularly the New Testament, has to say about homosexuality stands out. Sara Ruden's Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. In summary fashion, Paul didn't address mutually loving, reciprocal, or even consensual homosexual relationships. There are other books, but keep in mind I am only marking mileposts, not chronicling my journey in detail. There is an indispensable interior aspect to this journey about which I am utterly incapable of writing about presently.

In addition to rejecting the untenable separation between person and act, my conscience bids me to no longer say one thing publicly while thinking something different. This is now unacceptably hypocritical to me. I am no longer willing to live with that level of cognitive dissonance. I grieve those times I pastorally tried to impose a preconception on someone else, failing to listen to them or to accept them. In addition to a couple of homilies and some blog posts from years gone by, which are still available, I can think of two particular people who were affected (afflicted?) by my pastoral ineptitude. Maybe by God's grace I will some day be able to ask their forgiveness in person.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I do not want to even be tangentially responsible for or remotely complicit in violence against gay people. Such violence is still far more prevalent that most of us would care to admit. A terrible incident that occurred in London this past week made international news (see "Lesbian couple beaten on London bus after refusing to kiss for men"). In our current social and political climate, I think we can expect more of this kind of violence. It was strange how compelled I felt to write this today. I can honestly say that I needed to compose this. It is Pentecost and Pride month after all. Maybe I just needed a catharsis. God knows.

I passed the milestone that marked the end of my journey to being affirming when a few years ago my oldest daughter came out as gay. While I was a little surprised I was neither shocked nor disappointed. She had a steady girlfriend for awhile. It was this relationship that occasioned her disclosure. We made it a point to welcome them, to include them, to love them. When they split up last summer, my wife and I helped her through her first broken heart. She's doing fine now, moving forward in her driven way. She's a wonderful person. I am very proud of her. What matters is to be honest and to live with integrity knowing not only that you are loved but that you are free to love.

Even though the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that sexuality "affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul" (sec. 2332), it is important to not reduce anyone, including yourself, to her/his sexuality. "Chastity," the Catechism goes on to teach, "means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being" (sec. 2337). Now, both sections of the Catechism I have cited go on to say other things having to do with gender complementarity and procreation. I find it interesting that when not "clarified" these pronouncements are more descriptive of reality and quite wholistic.

Where does that leave me? Well, in the same place I've been for several years now. I have just gone public with it. I am not an activist by nature. I do, however, have a low tolerance for what I perceive as being unjust. I am not going to start being defiant in homilies. I will continue to be non-condemnatory and try to focus on the essence of the Gospel, things having to do with loving my neighbor as I love myself and giving my life in service to others.

Something else I have utterly changed my mind about the past several years: women deacons. Don't worry. I don't feel compelled to compose an apologia for that, at least not yet. This post is long enough to make up for no traditio yesterday.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Jesus ascended in order to draw closer, not to disappear

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3.6-9; Heb 9:24-28.10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53

It constantly amazes me how individualistic many Catholics, including clergy, maybe especially clergy, have become. The Ascension is a perfect example of this. What do I mean? I mean that, like tent revivalists, Catholic preachers sometimes get hung up on "going to heaven." They insist heaven is up there somewhere in the sky. Hence, reaching heaven becomes a matter of personal effort, which mostly consists of rejecting "the world" and living what I can only describe as a kind of spiritualized life.

By "the world" they mean something different than what is meant when that term is employed in the New Testament, especially in the Johannine corpus. Instead, they mean everything on earth, they mean life and what is required to live it, everything pertaining to God's good creation, which tells of God's work through Christ by the power of their Spirit bringing to its beautiful completion, a work in which God, in his goodness and through grace, invites us to participate.

In one of his early works, The Wound of Knowledge, Rowan Williams explored the bizarre dichotomy some Christians make between what he terms "compromising activities" and "pure realities." Such people insist that engaging in every day activities, rather than being the very stuff of salvation, compromises us somehow before God. In reality, it is the other way around; focusing on "heaven" disconnects us from the world and those things through which our salvation is brought about. All one needs to do to see that this is antithetical to Christianity properly understood and lived is to read one of the four Gospels. It is in the Gospels that we read about Jesus engaging fully in the everyday life of the world.

Because the Incarnation of the Son of God is its point of origin, Christianity in its essence is incarnational, something that happens not only in the world but through the world, in space and time. This is what distinguishes Christianity from Gnosticism and the Eastern religions. Our salvation is worked out precisely in and through our day-to-day activities, not somehow over and above them.

Each year on Ascension I am struck by what one of the men dressed in white says to the astonished apostles as they stand there looking up at Jesus as he disappears into the cloud: "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven" (Acts 1:11). Notice the word "men." It is a translation of the Greek word Ἄνδρες, which transliterates as andres. Andres is plural for people of the male gender. My point? The women who followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, who did not abandon him during his passion and death, and who were the first ones to experience his resurrection, were probably already getting on with Christ's mission.

In Luke's account of this as written in the Acts of the Apostles two key things happen prior to Jesus's Ascension: he promises to send the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5) and the apostles inquire about the final establishment of God's kingdom (Acts 1:6-9). As to the latter, Jesus tells them God's reign will be fully established at some indeterminate point in the future. He doesn't bother correcting their mistaken notion about what the establishment of God's kingdom will consist of. It is something they will come realize over time as they carry out the mission entrusted to them. As to the first, it is the Holy Spirit who will empower them to bear witness to Jesus and begin making God's kingdom present throughout the world. It is by means of the Holy Spirit that Jesus remains present in us, among us, and through us until he returns. The Holy Spirit is nothing other than Jesus's resurrected presence.

The Ascension, by Hans von Kulmbach, ca. 1508

Jesus sends the Holy Spirit so that those who are called and sent (an apostle is one who is sent) can carry out the mission of establishing God's reign in advance of his return, when God's kingdom will be fully established on the earth, not in some inchoate heaven somewhere up in the sky. Here's the crux of this: the heaven-centered life is easily disconnected from real life, it is "spiritual" in that weirdly persistent Gnostic sense to which human beings are so prone. Gnosticism is a spiritual virus. Gnosticism, which preceded Christianity by centuries, is a religious parasite. It is Gnosticism that causes people to divorce nature from grace, spirit from body, heaven from earth. Holiness is wholistic, not dualistic. In terms of Jesus's Ascension, he ascended in order to be more present to us by means of the Holy Spirit, not absent or somehow less present.

If you were to encounter Jesus in person, as did many people during his mortal life, it would be no different than encountering any other person. Most people who encountered Jesus were not immediately, or even eventually, convinced he was the Son of God in the flesh, the Savior of the world. In such person-to-person encounters we remain "outside" each other. What makes sexual intercourse so sacred is that by engaging in it two people enter each other. We sometimes call this "knowing" in the "Biblical sense."

At end of his amazingly beautiful reflection on the love members of Christ's body are to have for one another, St. Paul states what it is each of us most desires: to know "as I am fully known" (1 Cor 13:12). The relationship the risen Lord desires to have with each of us and all us together in order to make us his body, the kingdom of God already present in the world, is even deeper and more intimate than that of a lover. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.

How the Holy Spirit comes to be in us most powerfully, most efficaciously, is through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, the sacrament of sacraments, the sacramentum caritatis (i.e., the sacrament of love). It is by sharing Christ's body and blood together that we become Christ's body. The effect this is to have is to link us together in a profound way, in the way of divine love. It is the relationship the Spirit establishes between us and among us, a love that is so effusive it spills into the world beyond our parish, or eucharistic community, that constitutes our witness to the world. "This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).

The words addressed to the apostles by the man dressed in white had the effect of leveling their gaze. It is not the essence of Christianity to stand around looking up at the sky. Culturally we're exposed to a lot of well-meaning things that constitute an anti-Gospel. In this regard, the words of a song, an evengelical hymn, come to mind: "This world is not my home/I'm just-a' passin' through/My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue..." This is Gnosticism, not Christianity. For Christians, the kingdom of God is not a dream deferred but a present reality, one we are called to witness to as we await the joyful hope and the coming of Savior, Jesus Christ. Meanwhile we fulfill the mission Christ gave to his Church, which is to be co-workers in bringing about the completion of God's good creation.

The alternative prayer (i.e., Collect) for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord in the Liturgy of the Hours begins: "Father in heaven, our minds were prepared for the coming of your kingdom when you took Christ beyond our sight..." With prepared minds and a leveled gaze, let's set about our mission of ushering in God's kingdom in anticipation of Christ's return.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Quiet revolutions bring lasting change

I have been reading a brilliant book this past week: Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. Like many people, I had previously only known about Lax via the writings of Thomas Merton. Lax was probably Merton's best friend from their days together at Columbia University until Merton entered Gethsemani. They corresponded regularly until Pater Tom's untimely death, the fiftieth anniversary of which was last December (a mea culpa for not writing about it then). Lax, who was Jewish, became Catholic a few years after Merton.

Bob Lax

Throughout the last two chapters I read, the figure of the eighteenth century saint Joseph Benedict Labre looms large. What I really admire about Robert Lax is the beautiful simplicity with which he lived his the latter portion of his life. He struggled for a long time to discern and then live out his vocation. Ironic as it may sound, in many ways his life was more monastic than was Pater Tom's. Ultimately, Lax very intentionally dedicated himself to peace and love, that is, to following Christ. He did so quietly and without a lot of "Look at me" piety that is so prevalent in this day of monetized faith.

I know, I know, how tiring to write he dedicated himself to peace and love. What a dismissive way to write about someone I am claiming to admire! But he really did this. Predictably, the results of his peaceful, loving life were not widespread. He certainly influenced those in his orbit in a powerful, yet quiet way. He lived for many years on the isle of Patmos in a small fishing village.

Since I've already used the phrase "peace and love," I might as well go the distance and say that Bob Lax was a prophet. By prophet I do not mean someone who was able to predict the future. At least in Biblical terms, this was never the role of the prophet. The role of the prophet is to call us back to fidelity to the God who is love, whose hesed (i.e., lovingkindness) is never-ending. The collected correspondence between Lax and Merton was given the title When Prophecy Still Had a Voice.

Rather than issue lofty proclamations and predictions of doom, to be a prophet in this age means to live prophetically. Living prophetically means to live like the reign of God is even now fully established, which means taking the actual, as opposed to the imagined and unjustly imputed, teaching of Jesus seriously, just as Lax did. To paraphrase Pope Paul VI as he expressed himself in the final major document promulgated during his pontificate, Evanglii Nuntiandi, his Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, of which Pope Francis's Evangelii Gaudium serves as something of an update, to be a prophet today is to be a witness. Both Joseph Benedict Labre, whose prophetic calling strikes me as very post-modern, and Robert Lax are witnesses.

Quiet revolutions are usually the ones that have a lasting and positive effect. When I think about positive changes in my own life, the ones that have lasted are the ones I have made in the quietness of contemplation and just set about making without really broadcasting them. The ones I proclaim and vocally insist on seem to be the ones that fall by the wayside sooner rather than later.

I am not going to include any long extract from Pure Act. But I encourage you to check out this link.

So maybe there's a change you've been thinking about making. Perhaps you've been wondering how to go about making that change. I would encourage you, after properly discerning the need to make the change, to make a quiet resolution, something between you and God, and then begin making the change, resisting the temptation to tell everyone or maybe even to tell anyone about it. At the end of each day, as part of your daily Examen, reflect on how it went. Be gentle with yourself, especially if living the change didn't go well on a particular day. Ask for the grace to do better on the morrow and then resolve to do better. You can't make a meaningful change effortlessly, despite what hucksters tell you.

Instead of a song for this Sixth Friday of Easter, the day after Ascension Day in most parts of the world (throughout most of the Western U.S., where I live, we observe Ascension this Sunday), our traditio is one of Lax's poems: A Problem in Design. I think what this poem sets forth is nothing less than the esthetic of Lax's poetry. If Lax was a prophet, his oracles are his poems. He wrote in vertical style, which used a lot of space.

what if
you like
to draw
big flowers,

but what
if some
sage has
told you
there is


than a

what should
you draw:
big flowers?
straight lines?

i think you should draw

big flowers
big flowers

big flowers
big flowers

big flowers
big flowers

big flowers
big flowers

they become
a straight

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Building the city of God

Readings: Acts 15:1-2.22-29; Ps. 67:2-3.5-6.8; Rev 21:10-14.22-23; John 14:23-19

Our second reading this week is again taken from the twenty-first chapter of Revelation. Once again, Revelation informs us in dramatic but certain terms that heaven will be on earth. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. In fact, how we live our lives and how we proclaim the Gospel hinge on understanding this very fundamental aspect of Christian faith. If we conceive of "heaven" as up in the sky then chances we think of ourselves living eternally as disembodied spirits. Too many Christians think of their beloved dead as angels. Human beings do not become angels because to become an angel would mean taking a step backward, not forward. Because Jesus was resurrected, we will be resurrected. As a result, we are destined to live forever embodied, which is not only how God made us but why God became human. "What is man that you are mindful of him," the psalmist asks God.1 "Yet you have made him little less than a god," the psalmist continues, "crowned him with glory and honor."2

Thinking of heaven as "up there" somewhere and conceiving of yourself as a spirit trapped in a body is Gnostic, not Christian. It's difficult to think of an outlook more alien to authentic Christianity than Gnosticism. Christianity, which takes the Incarnation of God's only begotten Son as its starting point, has contended with Gnosticism, which is something of a spiritual parasite, from the start.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis noted the danger of this Gnostic tendency. "Thanks be to God," the Holy Father writes, that throughout her history, the Church "has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity."3 Those who tend toward Gnosticism "do not understand this," he continues, "because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines."4 In separating the intellect from the body, these Gnostics render themselves "incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopaedia of abstractions."5

It bears noting a second time in as many weeks that such a Gnostic view disconnects those who hold it from reality, causing them to constantly look beyond, distracting them from their own lives and the lives of others, especially those in need. It leads to an attitude captured well in the Letter of James. When confronted with someone who is clothed in rags and/or hungry, a person with this disconnected view responds by saying, in effect: "'Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,' but [does] not give them the necessities of the body..."6

Rather than a garden, heaven-on-earth is a city. The city of God marks the completion of God's creation. It is only then that God will rest as will those who enter into the sabbath rest by inhabiting the city of God.7

Heavenly Jerusalem

Everyone is invited to live in the city of God. This is made clear by our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. This reading tells about the somewhat anachronistically named "Council of Jerusalem." This council was convened to ascertain the status of Gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) converts to Christianity. Without a doubt, even prior to Paul's missionary activity among the Gentiles there were Gentile Christians. It's a pretty safe bet that this early on these Gentiles became Christian via Judaism. At this point, there was no hard-and-fast split between the church and the synagogue. This early on, Christians probably gathered in their own synagogues.

The difference between Gentiles who became Christians via Judaism and those who converted in response to Paul's evangelization efforts was that Paul forbade the latter from becoming Jews prior to becoming Christians. For example, Gentile men who converted were not circumcised. Paul emphatically insisted that a one becomes a Christian through baptism. Both men and women are baptized. In his Letter to the Galatians, which is Paul's strongest extant repudiation of the idea that Gentiles needed to become Jews into order to be Christians, wrote: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."8

Understandably, Paul's radical activity quickly became a matter of concern due to the fact that it caused many great scandal. As a result, Paul was called to Jerusalem to answer for himself. It seems that Paul acquitted himself well, at least well enough for the council to reach an accommodation for the Gentiles. This accommodation permitted the continuation evangelization throughout the world to everyone, irrespective of race or gender. This is how the citizenry of the city of God is gathered, shaped, and formed.

Our Gospel for this Sixth Sunday of Easter- the Sunday just before our celebration of Jesus's Ascension- breaks into three separate but related parts. Jesus tells those close to him that they are his disciples only if they keep his word. What is his word? It is the new commandment he gave them in last week's Gospel reading: love another as he (Jesus) has loved them.9 Second, Jesus promises them that even though he is leaving he will not abandon them. He promises to send the Spirit. The Spirit will remind them of everything Jesus taught them. Peace is what the Spirit brings in every situation, no matter how perilous. The Holy Spirit is the way Jesus remains present in, among, and through his disciples until he returns. Third, Jesus assures his troubled disciples that he will return. As his disciples, striving to love each other the way Jesus loves us is how we "await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ."10

"I'm hopeful," the late poet Robert Lax, a close friend of Thomas Merton's, told a young Mike McGrgeor in the mid-1980s, "that the world's societies are caught up in an evolutionary moment, one that will bring us into the ideal city, where music will play and all will move to it. If you decide to put on all blue clothes and do cartwheels across the square, that will be fine and in time with the music."11 When McGregor, noticing no such movement afoot in the world, asked Lax how this might be realized, the poet admitted he didn't know. Lax, who was Jewish and who, like Merton, became Catholic as a young adult, said, "the first step was to be positive and hopeful."12 He was convinced that we each need to do our part, not only as Christians but as human beings, by living our belief "that violence shouldn't be part of life."13 We do this by seeking to eliminate violence from our own lives. "In every moment," Lax observed, "we make decisions, both large and small. True life comes in understanding that these decisions are of ultimate importance."14

This brings us back to the beginning, to Jerusalem, the holy city coming down from heaven. The holy city will have no temple. God himself and the Lamb, Jesus Christ, will be the temple. Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, will be the lamp that gives light to the city. Jesus Christ, we are told at the very beginning of John's Gospel, is the "true light, which enlightens everyone."15

How fitting, then, is our Psalm response today- "God, let all the nations praise you"? This is just another way of saying the alternative Psalm response, which can be used every Sunday during Easter: "Alleluia!"

1 Psalm 8:5..
2 Psalm 8:6..
3 Pope Francis, Gaudete et exsultate [[On the Call to Holiness in Today's World], sec. 37.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid/.
6 James 2:15-16.
7 See Hebrews 4:8-13.
8 Galatians 3:28.
9 John 13:34-35.
10 The Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 125.
11 Michal N. McGregor, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, 23.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid., 24.
15 John 1:9.

Friday, May 24, 2019


The weather here along the Wasatch Front is rainy and cold. It's still snowing in the mountains. As more or less a lifelong resident of this place, I have to say that I have never experienced anything like this here. I remember one time it snowed in June. Once in awhile we have a summer during which the temperature does not rise to normal levels. The Spring and Summer of 2010 come to mind as fairly cold and somewhat rainy. Prior to that I'd have to go all the way back to 1995. I only mention this at length because it's so unusual. I have to say, I like the weather. I enjoy the rain and coolness.

Weber River

July and August are my least favorite months of the year here. On an unrelated note, I have once again been thinking about contentment and satisfaction. At least for me, this means thinking about how elusive satisfaction is. How often do you feel satisfied? How long does that feeling of satisfaction last? When you are tempted to feel satisfied, or actually feel satisfied, do you catch yourself thinking something like "This will be over in a few hours?" Living in the moment is not as easy as it sounds.

I suppose our longing for satisfaction is what makes us posit something a heaven, a nirvana, or other afterlife. In heaven all our longings are fulfilled, we are satisfied. Nirvana, which consists of the annihilation of one's self, one's self-consciousness, all desire is overcome. This is one of the main reasons I could never be a Buddhist. I happen to think my longing, my desire is what makes me.

I am pretty sure that learning to live in the moment is training for what lies beyond. It makes no sense for the two to be disconnected. One of the reasons I am not an optimist is because I experience moments of satisfaction so rarely. Another reason is that moments of satisfaction usually happen spontaneously. It seems that whenever I have high expectations about some event, the event does not rise to my expectations. I have to say, these days my expectations are usually pretty low. Having low (i.e., realistic) expectations is a key to living in a balanced way.

After that what other choice do I have but to post "Satisfaction" as our Friday traditio. Instead of the Stones, a group I like just fine, I am going with my favorite version of this classic rock song. My favorite version is Devo's.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Year C Fifth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 14:21-27; Ps 145:8-13; Rev 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a.34-35

In our second reading, taken from Revelation, we heard these words: “I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”1 Then we heard these words: “Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God.”2 These words convey a very important message. The message these words convey is so important that not to receive it is to compromise the mission of the Church, which, as our reading from Revelation also tells us, is the bride of Christ.

What is the message? The message is that heaven is not up in the sky. To conceive of it as such is to let your faith disconnect you from reality. Christ calls us to engage reality according to all the factors that constitute it. That heaven will be on earth is clearly attested to by Scripture and the Church fathers.

Just as our bodies will be resurrected, the earth will be renewed with eternal glory. Because we exist forever as embodied beings, we need a place to inhabit. Rather than a garden paradise, the kingdom of God is a city, a new Jerusalem, a holy city inhabited only by saints. As Christians, we revere Jesus as Emmanuel, or “God-with-us.” It has been pointed out that the “Event of God becoming human is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma” on the cosmos.3

Since our observances of the Ascension and Pentecost are rapidly approaching, it is important to note that Jesus did not abandon his disciples when he ascended. Rather, he sent his Holy Spirit, who is also the Spirit of the Father. It is by means of the Holy Spirit that the risen Lord remains present in us, among us, and through us. It is by the power of the Spirit that Christ is really present to us in this Eucharist in four distinct but inextricably related ways: in the gathering of the baptized, in the person of the priest, in the proclamation of Scripture, and in the consecrated bread and wine, our partaking of which makes together the body of Christ.4

None of these four ways in which Jesus is really present stands alone. On their own, each of these ways makes no sense whatsoever. Even so, as one of the men in white told the astonished apostles at Christ’s Ascension: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you… will return in the same way as you have seen him going [up].”5 This proclamation is preceded by the question, “why are you standing there looking at the sky?”6 And so, “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”7

This prompts the question, what shall we do in the meantime, in the time between the Lord’s Ascension and his glorious return, which will precede the arrival of the city of God? It’s quite simple: we are to usher in the reign of God, making the kingdom present in the form of a mustard seed until it is fully established.

Love One Another, by Ivan Guadrrama, 2018

What does living in this way look like? Our first reading from Acts gives us a clue. In the first instance, like Paul and Barnabas, we are to proclaim the good news. The good news is Jesus Christ crucified and risen. As Pope St. Paul VI noted: in our day people listen “more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if [they do] listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”8 Just as Jesus told anyone who would follow him they must be willing to take up their cross, Paul and Barnabas teach those who would be Christians, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”And so, “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”9

It is not easy being a professing Christian today. At least in the United States, this is not due to the fact that we are being persecuted. It stands to reason that as the number of professing and practicing Christians declines, the Church will continue to lose political clout, which, in light of the Gospel, is a good thing. What makes being a Catholic right now so difficult is the Church’s seeming counter-witness to the good news. To many, those of us who remain faithful members of the Church look willfully ignorant or even hypocritical. No amount of apologetics will resolve this state-of-affairs.

Rather than a bad thing, exposing sin is a step in the right direction. We need to be reminded that Christians are not hypocrites because we’re sinners, or even because, in our shame, we seek to hide our sins in the same way Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after eating from the forbidden tree.10 Such behavior is indicative of our deformed humanity. But it is never pleasant to experience the dissolution of our often carefully-crafted façade. Doing away with what The Who, in one of their hit songs, referred to as an “Eminence Front” is a good thing because the “eminence front” is always “a put-on.”

Acknowledging that behind the whitewash is a sepulcher is necessary for true repentance. I don’t know about you, but it’s because I am a sinner that I am a Christian. In Jesus, I have met someone who, through the grace of God, helps me to see that I am greater than the sum of my failures. Because of Christ, my identity is not reducible to the worst thing I have ever done, far from it! It is Jesus who takes away my guilt and shame, thus restoring me to my dignity and conforming me more while more to his image.

Because as Christians we have experienced the mercy of God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit first-hand, we must bring this good news to each other in concrete ways. Because God has forgiven us in Christ, it is imperative that we forgive one another, bear with each other in our weaknesses and through our failures. This is easy to say and hard to do. As the first Christians in Ephesus were exhorted: “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”11

This is exactly what Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel by giving his disciples (you and me) “a new commandment” – “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”12 The obverse of this is failing to love one another in a Christ-like way. If we fail to do this we are not a community of Jesus’s disciples. Taking our cue from Tertullian, one of the earliest Church fathers, when people look at St. Olaf parish their response should be “See… how they love one another.”13

This, my friends, is how we live God’s kingdom as a present reality. This is how we live and bear witness to the good news. It is by living this way that we allow Christ to make his dwelling among us, acknowledging him as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Living this way is the only convincing proof that God is with us. This is how we build the city of God, a new Jerusalem, a holy city. We cannot do this if we remain standing around looking up at the sky.

1 Revelation 21:2.
2 Revelation 21:3.
3 John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, Creston Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology, 7.
4 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium], sec. 7.
5 Acts 1:11.
6 Acts 1:11.
7 The Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 125.
8 Pope Paul VI. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, sec. 41.
9 Acts 14:22.
10 See Genesis 3:6-12.
11 Ephesians 4:32.
12 John 13:34-35.
13 Tertullian, Apology, 39.

Friday, May 17, 2019

I still don't want to be the hollow man

Here we are at the end of the Fourth Week of Easter. Before we know it we'll be observing the Ascension and then Pentecost! I have to say, the commencement exercises at Mount Angel Abbey & Seminary last weekend were wonderful. It was a privilege to participate. It seems to strange to have an earned doctoral degree. It's been a dream of mine for decades, one that I really did not think I would ever realize. At 53, all I can say is, "Better late than never."

I've been thinking a lot about the Friday traditio this week. After much thought, I decided to reuse REM's song "Hollow Man" off their penultimate album Accelerate. Accelerate is a tremendous album. I rank it right up there with my favorite REM albums: Life's Rich Pageant and Document.

I posted "Hollow Man" before as a Friday traditio back in May 2008 about a month after Acclerate was released. As I was thinking about this song, I recalled a conflict that kicked up nearly six months after I initially posted it. Back in the early years of my blog, I had a persistent antagonist. Like most internet trolls, this person posted anonymously. I am pretty confident I know who this person is. But thinking about this yesterday reminded me of how easily I can let myself be lured into idiotic online conflicts.

Over time, I grew wise to trolling tactics and stopped publishing critical comments posted anonymously. Guess what? Pretty quickly such comments stopped. I slowly learned to stop being lured by this kind of bait. I still invite my readers to hold me accountable. If I am in error, please correct me. If you disagree with me, I don't mind you commenting about what it is you disagree with me about and why you disagree. I do, however, insist that you do so in a charitable way and own your criticism by identifying yourself. These days I don't address the broad range of topics I used to mainly due to the fact that I don't post nearly as often as I did back when blogging was relatively new to me. Of course, this helps keep things calmer in this small patch of cyberspace.

As I mention from time-to-time with regard blogging for as long as I have, I do it primarily because it is a readily accessible means of growth. Hence, I don't worry too much about how many people read what I write. Over the years, the popularity of Καθολικός διάκονος has ebbed and flowed. Nonetheless, from what I can I tell, I have a solid core of readers. Blogging has helped me with my on-going human, spiritual, and pastoral formation. When I look back on my blogging career, it is easy for me to see that it took me five years to really hit anything that can be called a stride. Or, to employ a cliché about writing, it took me five years or so to "find my voice."

I don't claim to be a very good writer. I don't think I am a particularly perceptive, insightful, clever, or creative person. By working at it over time as I journey through life, I can confidently assert that I am better than I was. Maybe this is simply a movement from terrible to bad and from bad to mediocre. Despite earning a doctorate, the older I get the less I know, especially about ultimate things.

As I noted way back when, being able to deal gently with my faults, foibles, and failures is a victory hard-won. I have a penchant for being tremendously hard on myself. But as the suicide of a friend several ago taught me, it is important to be gentle with myself as well as with others. I am tempted to write that you must learn to be gentle with yourself before you can be gentle with others. My experience, however, indicates the opposite: it is by feeling and acting gently towards others than I have learned to be gentler with myself.

It was the same Nietzsche who asserted that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger who also believed thought that during life one must die many times. This implies rising from all those graves.

Oh yeah, did I mention that T.S. Eliot composed a poem entitled The Hollow Men?

Remember us - if at all - not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Te deum laudamus- Doctor of Ministry commencement

Since I am heading to Mount Angel Abbey & Seminary tomorrow to participate in commencement exercises this weekend upon completion of my Doctor of Ministry degree, I won't post a Friday traditio or a reflection on this Sunday's readings. I am, however, posting a Wednesday traditio in honor of the first Doctor of Ministry (DMin) class to ever to graduate from Mount Angel Seminary. Founded in 1889, Mount Angel is oldest seminary in the Western United States. The DMin program was established by the seminary at the request of several bishops who send seminarians there to be formed for ministry.

Abbey Church of Mount Angel Abbey, Oregon

Six of us make-up the first DMin class of Mt Angel. We started with 7 but one of our number, a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland, was named to his first pastorate prior to the beginning of second year and so needed immerse himself in his assignment. The director of Mt. Angel's DMin program is Dr. Owen Cummings, who is also a deacon of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Dr. Cummings also suffers the humiliation of serving as my dissertation director. The title of my work is Diaconal Spirituality: A Systematic Exploration.

My classmates are:

Ms Nancy Holt, Mount Angel Seminary
Deacon Scott Pearhill, Diocese of Boise
Father Thomas Koller, Order of Discalced Carmelites
Father Peter Arteaga, Missionaries of the Holy Spirit
Msgr Joseph Betschart, Archdiocese of Portland and Rector of Mount Angel Seminary
Last and most certainly least is yours truly

It's been a laborious and fast-paced three years. As a DMin program is supposed to do, it has benefited me pastorally in many practical ways. It is no small thing to undertake such an endeavor in late middle age. Frankly, I found it more refreshing than I did tiring. Nonetheless, I will not lie. It feels good to be nearly done.

In light of this festive occasion, our traditio for this Third Week of Easter is Franz Joseph Haydn's Te Deum n. 2 in C.

I give thanks, too, that my little cyber effort - Καθολικός διάκονος - survived throughout this time. It very nearly did not. Also, I didn't bore you senseless by posting large extracts of my academic writing as a substitute for blogging.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Friendship with Jesus

Readings: Acts 5:27-32.40b-41; Ps 30:2.4-.11-13; Rev 5:11-14; John 21:1-9

Our readings for this Third Sunday of Easter are very rich. Among a number of other things, our Gospel features Jesus effectively forgiving Peter for the three times Peter betrayed him at the start of his Passion. Our reading from Revelation tells about the triumph of those who, by following Jesus, won by losing. Our first reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, ends with the apostles praising God, not for getting off lightly, which they did, but for the privilege of experiencing some indignity for Jesus's sake.

All of that sounds glorious or at least not too demanding. It is precisely because it sounds so non-threatening that I am hesitant to link it the church bombings that rocked Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. Why? Because that is gruesome and horrific, not to mention very difficult. My sisters and brothers who arose to celebrate Christ's resurrection that morning had no idea that they would be killed and injured while doing so precisely for doing so. Where was God? Well, the body of God's only begotten Son was the target of the bombs. Therefore, I have to say that he was in the bloody middle of the blasts.

The whole idea of adding by subtraction and winning by losing is not attractive when you stop to consider what this really means. Rhetorically, it can be dressed up and used to indoctrinate people. Either way, the paradoxical nature of following Jesus, which requires you to make God's reign present wherever you are, thus making the kingdom present in a mustard seed-like manner, is a dangerous idea. When not dangerous, endeavoring to live the Gospel is often inconvenient. In short, being Jesus's disciple is not as glamorous as it sometimes sounds. For most of us, it consists of what the recently departed Eugene Peterson called "long obedience in the same direction."

As Jesus's disciple, you don't do good in order to feel good. You live life as if God's reign is already established. By doing this, you quickly come to the realization of how far away God's kingdom is, especially these days. The more good you do, the more you realize the overwhelming scope of what needs to be done and how little impact, in the aggregate, your own paltry efforts make. Nonetheless, your efforts make a world of difference to those who need your help.

Far from being cathartic, I imagine how painful it must've been for Peter each time the resurrected Jesus asked him "Do you love me?" It is easy to sense Peter's frustration when answering the question for the third time, he replied: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." I can almost hear him mutter, "Geez, knock it off. Leave me be."

In querying Simon Peter for the third time, Jesus used a different word than he did the first two times. The first and second time Jesus asked Peter he used the word: agapas. Querying him for the third time, the risen Lord used the word phileis. What is odd about this is that phileis is a weaker word than agapas. Phileis means something like being fond of, or liking. Being derived from agapé, agapas means something like loving another in a self-sacrificing way.

In this exchange, Peter never says he loves Jesus using agapé. Each time he responds, Peter uses philos. This can mean a lot of things. Perhaps it means that you never love Jesus as much he loves you. Proof of this is that, like Peter, you can callously deny Jesus and he still loves you in an utterly selfless way. Maybe Peter grasped his own limitation and, being chastened by his lying about whether he knew Jesus, now feels compelled to be completely honest. Hence, he cannot bring himself in good conscience to say what he knows to be untrue. In response, Jesus meets him where he's at.

Isn't that the gist of it? It is never a question of whether or not Jesus loves you. It always a question of whether you love him and how much. You love Jesus by loving others as you love yourself, especially those who are on the margins.

Statue of Jesus flecked with blood in the church of St. Sebastian, Negombo, Sri Lanka- St. Sebastian, the patron of this church was himself a martyr

Today, I don't feel like I can tie this up into a neat little package. But then our tendency to tie scriptural readings up into neat little packages constitutes a good part of what ails us. I do know that in St. John's Last Supper discourse Jesus calls his disciples, not servants, but friends. The Greek word for "friends" in John 15:15 is philous. So, it seems that Jesus seeks to re-establish his friendship with Peter, a friendship Peter no doubt felt broken by his betrayals. In John's Gospel, the section that follows Jesus inviting his disciples to be his friends, the Lord tells them what this friendship might cost them (see John 15:18-27).

But you don't need to leap all the back to the Last Supper. All you need to do is keep reading to see what lay in store for Peter. In essence, Jesus bids Peter to follow him to the cross. Tradition tells us Peter did just that.

What would you not do for a true friend? What would a true friend not for you? Novelist E.M. Forster once quipped- "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

Jesus doesn't just want you to be his disciple, which is something of a formal relationship, one of a master to an apprentice. He wants to be your friend. In turn, he wants you to be his friend. Then you, like the apostles after they were drug before the Sanhedrin, can rejoice when you suffer a little indignity for his name.

One of the hallmarks of those friends of Jesus who wind up enduring more than a little indignity, who suffer imprisonment, torture, and sometimes even death, is to forgive and ask God to forgive those who inflict these things on them. They do this because Jesus forgives them and restores them as his friends whenever they betrayed him by ignoring or denigrating the downtrodden, failing to stand up for someone who is being run-down, refusing or neglecting to assist someone in need, wittingly participating in the exploitation of others, etc. It's true, we usually sin more by omission than commission. This realization is what prompted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was indisputably a friend of Jesus, to observe: "It is not the sins of weakness, but the sins of strength that matter."

There is a story attributed to St. Teresa of Ávila that expresse well what I am trying articulate. Someone who investigated the authenticity of this story, which is sometimes held to be apocryphal, found that it appeared in a 1912 English translation of a book entitled The Life of St. Teresa. The original seems to have been written in French by a Carmelite nun (see "St. Teresa of Ávila: 'If this is how You treat your friends…'").
Teresa describes the journey thus: “We had to run many dangers. At no part of the road were the risks greater than within a few leagues of Burgos, at a place called Los Pontes. The rivers were so high that the water in places covered everything, neither road nor the smallest footpath could be seen, only water everywhere, and two abysses on each side. It seemed foolhardiness to advance, especially in a carriage, for if one strayed ever so little off the road (then invisible), one must have perished.” The saint is silent on her share of the adventure, but her companions relate that, seeing their alarm, she turned to them and encouraged them, saying that “as they were engaged in doing God’s work, how could they die in a better cause?” She then led the way on foot. The current was so strong that she lost her footing, and was on the point of being carried away when our Lord sustained her. “Oh, my Lord!” she exclaimed, with her usual loving familiarity, “when wilt Thou cease from scattering obstacles in our path?” “Do not complain, daughter,” the Divine Master answered, “for it is ever thus that I treat My friends.” “Ah, Lord, it is also on that account that Thou hast so few!” was her reply
What a friend we have in Jesus! I don't mean that (too) sarcastically. Being Jesus's friend means trusting him completely, no matter what circumstances you face. Jesus trusted the Father in this exact way when he surrendered himself to his Passion and he when commended his spirit to the Father as he expired on the cross (see Luke 23:46). Failing to do this renders "Jesus, I trust in You," which resounded so loudly last week, just another empty slogan.

Year C Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Readings: Prov 8:22-31; Ps 8:4-9; Rom 5:1-5; John 16:12-15 Before there was anything there was only God. One insight we can glean from th...