Friday, August 31, 2007

"I hid my face from the saints and the angels . . ."

From one of my favorite artists and one of my favotite albums. Whenever I have "proved to live a dastardly day", I reach for this CD, this digital file and Jennifer's singing never fails to put me in touch with my Lord, Jesus Christ, who provides "A little more than I can give/A little more than I deserve".

Faith seeking understanding, or turning failure into success

It was a cloudy morning here along the Wasatch Front. The week before this week it seemed that fall was lurking. There is something about the slight northward drift of the sun in late summer that causes colors to change to brighter, crisper hues, a contrast to the kind of washed up and worn out colors of July and August, and morning begins to linger a bit. Then, this week, at least until today, it seemed summer again, with temperatures rising back up to and remaining in the 90s. It is my prayer that we receive some much needed rain today and over the holiday weekend.

I love the change of seasons. My two favorite times of the year are late spring and early fall. Of these two, I like early fall best. It really does remind me that to live is to change, no matter how much I resist. Our faith certainly changes as we move through the seasons of our lives. Like all change, these changes can be for the better or for the worse. I awoke this morning thinking of and praying for people who seem to be struggling both in life and with their faith. It dawned on me that most Christians, having had the need to be perfect, or to at least the need to appear to be perfect, both to others and to ourselves, taught to us from a very young age, often push God away when we are struggling and/or hurting. We seem to think that we have to get over this before we can return to God's good graces. This is not a Christian mode of living. It is no way to live; it is no way to love, or to allow ourselves to be loved.

God, to paraphrase St. Augustine, is closer to us than we are to ourselves. God is present to us always. I freely admit that discerning the divine presence in our lives usually requires us to look for it, to probe more deeply, to learn how God works, which is usually in quiet whispers and through other people. Very often we react to what happens to us; especially we are disturbed by sudden, unexpected disappointments. After our reaction, instead of owning it, we expend a lot of effort in seeking to justify, mostly to ourselves, that our course of action is what God would have us do, or, perhaps more often, by insisting, not without some justification, that we were incapable of any other response. In extreme cases our reactions can do a lot of damage to our relationships and, hence, to our ability to relate to others.

Solitude, by Marc Chagall

We must root ourselves in God by frequent reception of the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation when needed, which, if we are honest, is probably more regularly than we now seek it. Prayer and scripture study, along with seeking counsel from wise people are also components of rooting our lives in God. Often the answers to our many queries are clear enough; it is just that we often do not like the answers. So, we go our own way, into great peril. However, even in such cases God does not abandon us. On the other hand, it is precisely because God loves us that we are not spared the pain and anguish of life.

Brain researchers have discovered that, paradoxically, or at least counter-intuitively (I have probably been trying to get too much mileage out of the word paradox lately), failure leads to success. Failure, which forces us to figure out what went wrong and to consider different courses of action, different responses, is a very good way for the brain to map new information. The ancient practice of examen, or, as I like to call it, praying backward through the day, the week, the month, the specific encounter, exists for this very reason. The sacrament of penance allows us to acknowledge our failures and shortcomings, receive forgiveness and the grace, which is our strength, to be better. After all in our Act of Contrition we say to God: "I firmly intend, with your help, to sin no more and to avoid whatever leads me to sin." Still, failure can be crushing and it is always disappointing. In God's eyes we may fail, but we are never failures. In life we never really fail until we give up, which is to lose hope, which is to fall into despair.

St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8,28). A better translation from the Greek is that all things "intermingle" for the good of those who love God. Note the qualification "for those who love God". This is not because God plays favorites in the mode of You love me. So, I will make sunshine out of rain for you. But for those who do not love me, watch out! What a petty, tin-pot, dime store God that would be!

Those who love God learn to look beyond the darkness of the present moment. Those who love God learn to find God in all people and in all events. Those who love God live in the hope, in the belief, which eventually becomes the knowledge, that God is never absent, even in the midst of great evil. Those who love God are humble enough to acknowledge their failures, to turn to God and to repent, which, in its original Greek is μετανοῖα (metanoia). Metanoia literally means a change of mind, or, even more precisely, a change of perception. It is useful to explore the Greek a bit more, with acknowledgement up-front that I am no scholar of koine Greek. μετανοῖα is a compound word consisting of the preposition, which transliterates into meta, meaning after, beyond, with, and the verb νοέω, which means to perceive, to think, or what results from perception and observation. In the context of our Christian faith, this change of mind/change of perception results in conversion. Conversion means to change from one state to another. In the English versions of the New Testament, μετανοῖα is normally translated as repent.

A look at The Gospel According to St. Mark is instructive:

"This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."

καὶ λέγων ὅτι πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ: μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ.

(Mk. 1,15)

Seeing how all things intermingle for the good of those who love God results from two things: God's love for us ("In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins" 1 Jn 4,10) and from our love for God. This perception, which leads to a dramatic change in the way we perceive the world, our lives in this world, and other people, allows us to grow and to change. One sure way to get off on the wrong track with this insight is to merely believe that seeing the world through the eyes of faith is a mental trick, at the root of which is a refusal to grasp or deal with reality.

Let's face it, even for a Christian, life sucks at times. We are not required to give a phony smile and insist to others, to God, or to ourselves, that everything is great. Avoid this dangerous, dysfunctional trap! Our faith, this change in our perception that converts us, results in our seeing things as they really are and our grappling with reality in the confidence of knowing God loves us and that we love God. Our change in perception results from the shift in our perspective. This shift occurs when we acknowledge, not only the transitory nature of this life, but also our eternal destiny, which is the cause of our longing. Our longing, in turn, is the cause of our sense of incompleteness. It is to perceive things from this perspective that allows us to be the ones who point others toward the light of the world, Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be an apostolic Church. Nonetheless, this is no guarantee that we will not make a mess of things, or act in ways that are sinful, or even to fail to act at times. This brings us back to failure leads to success.

St. Paul draws these strands together beautifully a bit further on in his letter to the Christian community of Rome:

"Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. For by the grace given to me I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than one ought to think, but to think soberly, each according to the measure of faith that God has apportioned. For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another" (Rom. 12,2-5)- emboldening and underlining mine

On this Friday, a day of abstinence and penance, our little Good Friday, which is followed by our little Easter, Sunday, let us each take some time and reflect on our lives before God and seek God especially in those parts of our lives and in those relationships from which He seems most absent. Then, let us reflect on how we might make God more present to these people and situations. Let us also ask ourselves two questions:

Is there someone I need to forgive?
Is there someone from whom I need to humbly seek forgiveness?
In light of those people for whom I awoke praying this morning, I urge married couples to ask these questions to themselves with their spouse in mind.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Trusting in God's infinite love for us

Writing about Psalm 91, which the devil quotes in a distorted manner to Jesus in tempting him to hurl himself off the parapet of the Temple, His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth, observes: "If you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One who loves you."

He also reminds us that putting our trust in God "is something quite different from the reckless defiance of God that would make God our servant" (pg. 38). So, we must surrender our will to God's will, not as an act of self-abasement or resignation to fatalism, but out of genuine trust, born of love, like the trust we put in our parents as young children. We do so in the knowledge that God loves us and will never abandon us, no matter what. It is not too pie-eyed or superficial to trust, as Julian of Norwich trusted: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Neither should we seek, like pagans, to propitiate God in a cheap attempt to gain His favor so that nothing bad will ever happen to us. We do not need to do this because we live in the confidence of knowing that God already loves us, is always already on our side. While we do not need to propitiate God, we do recognize that, just as parents long to be loved by their children, to receive physical affection, such as hugs, and verbal affirmations of love, from them, "God thirsts to be thirsted after."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Memorial of the Marytrdom of St. John the Baptist

Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio, 1608

"Herod was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. John had said to Herod, 'It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.' Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so. Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen -to him" (Mk. 6,17-20). Note Herod's strange fascination with this holy man. We also seem to have a strange fascination with holy people, like Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, Abbé Pierre, et. al.

Perhaps, we have convinced ourselves, that we can never be like them. The good news is, we are not called be exactly like them, we are called to be ourselves, called by our baptism to holiness. So, while we may glean some good things from such people, the form of holiness we are called to pursue is unique. If there is one thing the lives of the saints show us is unity in diversity. This itself is an icon of the Blessed Trinity. The call to holiness is the call to love perfectly. We do this by striving to become who we already are, by the grace of God. To become our true selves, so to speak. Of course, one revered sign of Christian holiness is matryrdom, willingly laying down one's life for God and others as a witness to faith in Christ Jesus. On the liturgial calendar, we mark the memorial of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist.

Today also marks the second annivesary of Hurricane Katrina's striking of the Gulf coast and the devastation of the city of New Orleans, which showed us the huge and ever widening gap between rich and poor in this country. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while visting New Orleans, Franciscan Fr. Raniero Cantalmessa, preacher of the papal household, speaking to victims of this devastating storm, said: "A disaster like this is not a punishment but a warning for everybody that we should be vigilant and should not put all our trust in what can be taken away in one day, if not by the flood of water, then by the flood of time. Time passes and will take everything." These words link today's memorial with our lives in a sobering, yet joyful manner.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Eucharist and prayer on the Memorial of St. Augustine

"I thought I heard your voice from on high," writes St. Augustine, the great doctor of the Church, whose memorial is today, in his Confessions. What did Augustine hear this voice say? He thought he heard the words: "I am the food of grown men; grow then, and you will feed on me. Nor will you change me into yourself like bodily food, but you will be changed into me." Indeed, being changed into Christ, becoming alter Christus, other Christs, and together constituting the totus Christus, the total, or complete Christ, with Jesus as our head, animated by the Holy Spirit, is what God calls us to. When pouring the water into the wine during Mass the priest or deacon says, sotto voce: "By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share our humanity." Augustine understood and articulated all of this beautifully, logically, and clearly.

Prayer and Eucharist are indispensable to this becoming to which God calls us through the waters of Baptism. To pray, we must open a space for God in our lives. This is nothing more than setting aside a regular time and a place to be with God. For God, Richard Foster assures us, "rushes at us at the first hint of openness. He places within us such an insatiable God hunger that absolutely nothing satisfies us except the genuine whole-wheat Bread of Life" (Foster Prayer 70). In this he seems to be paraphrasing Augustine's great words, which get a bit overused at times: "You inspire us, O Lord, to delight in praising you, because you made us for yourself; our hearts are restless until they rest in you." One of my favorite contemporary Christian groups, Jars of Clay, also express this in their song Sing: "I walk through flame, I touch the fire you know that I still burn for you/flood water rain crash down soak the ground still I thirst for you."

Once we have determined how we can fit regular times of prayer into our lives, into our busy schedules, "we must firmly discipline ourselves to a regular pattern of prayer" (Foster 4). The sad truth of the matter is that time for prayer will not magically turn up - "we must make time". (Foster 74). In order to do this we must "be ruthless with our rationalizations" (Foster 74). One pseudo pious trap we can all too easily fall into is the "always living prayerfully" trap. This rationalization simply seeks to convince us that our whole life is a prayer. Such an approach creates many complications, like how muttering obscenties under our breath, or, worse yet, shouting them out loud, as we are driving can possibly count as prayer! We may well, by the grace of God, reach the point at which we always live prayerfully, but we cannot use it as an excuse not to pray now. On this score Foster quotes John Dalrymple: "The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere" (Foster 74). To use an analogy, we can insist that every word we speak or write is poetry, even though we have never studied poetry, or sought to master its various forms. The truth of the matter is that we are not reciting poetry, we are just talking, or just writing. In order to write free verse well, one has to have mastered the forms. I think this is what Dalrymple is seeking to communicate.

St. Augustine writes prayerful poetry with these words: "I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace."

Monday, August 27, 2007

Year C, Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa. 66,18-21; Ps 117,1-2; Heb. 12,5-7.11-13; Lk 13,22-30

Contextually, the subject of all three of today’s readings is the nation of Israel. In our first reading Isaiah prophesies of the time when the LORD will "come to gather nations of every language" (Isa. 66, 18). From among these nations the LORD will take some "as priests and Levites" (Isa. 66,20). Isaiah is seeking to communicate that it is through Israel that God enters into covenant with people of all races, languages, and nationalities. Put simply, the covenant is not given to Israel for its own sake, but for the sake of all humanity. It is to Jewish Christians that the entire letter to the Hebrews is addressed. Finally, in today’s Gospel when Jesus speaks of the first being last and the last being first, he is speaking of Israel and "the nations."

In our Gospel readings over these past several weeks, taken from St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has had some pretty uncomfortable words for us, just as Isaiah had for ancient Israel. In Luke’s narrative these passages are linked as part of Jesus’ only journey to Jerusalem, which ends with his passion and death. In these passages, as he begins the final days of his earthly ministry, our Lord speaks very directly. He is concerned that his message not be missed. His message is best summed up as "the reign of God is at hand" (Mk. 1,15). Jesus’ ushering in of God’s reign is the beginning of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

There is always a lot of speculation about who will be saved and who will not. Such speculation is usually pointless, unless it is self-directed. When asked the question, "Lord, will only a few people be saved," Jesus responds with the answer, "Strive to enter through the narrow gate" (Lk 13,23-24). This answer remains the answer to any inquiry about salvation. Of course, it prompts the question, how do we enter the narrow gate? The direct answer to this question is quite straightforward. We enter the narrow gate by loving God and loving our neighbor. In these two commandments, Jesus tells us, are contained the whole Law and all the prophets. However, it does not take much experience on our part to learn that, like many actions, loving perfectly is easier said than done.

In our second reading today, taken from the letter to the Hebrews, we read about enduring trials as discipline from the Lord. Whoever God loves, the author tells us, "he disciplines; he scourges every [child] he acknowledges" (Heb. 12,6). This is true of Israel, it is true for the Church, and it is true for each disciple. In recent days we have read much about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s sense of being cut-off from God for many years of her life. So acute was her sense of abandonment that at one point she wrote to her spiritual director: "Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear" (Time magazine Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith, by David Van Biema).

Nonetheless, while she was denied the comfort and consolation she so desired from the One to whom she had pledged herself with such great fidelity, she still found him in a thousand places, or, rather, in a thousand faces. For this great missionary of God’s love, as for any true disciple of Christ, it was impossible to say, "I love God, but I do not love my neighbor." According to Mother Teresa, it was in his dying on the Cross that God made "himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one." Jesus' hunger, she continues, is what "you and I must find" and alleviate. Jesus, her beloved, was not completely absent from her, a prayer she wrote proves this: "Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive" Time magazine Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith,, by David Van Biema). My dear friends, Teresa recognized that Christ almost always comes to us as a fellow human being in a distressing disguise. "Our poor people," she said, "do not need sympathy; they do not need pity from us, they really need love and compassion" (Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center ). Today is the ninety-seventh anniversary of Mother Teresa’s birth. Through her life she showed us that Jesus not only invites us to lay down our lives, but to them lay them down for him. Christian songwriter Michael Card sings about this beautifully:

“Every time a faithful servant serves a [another] that's in need/
What happens at that moment is a miracle indeed/As they look to
one another in an instant it is clear/Only Jesus is visible for they've
both disappeared” (Distressing Disguise).

In the novel Absolute Truths, by Susan Howatch, Martin Darrow, who has recently gone through a self-induced personal catastrophe, tells Bishop Charles Ashworth, who is himself in the midst of a personal crisis after his wife’s death, how good it is, when going through a difficult time, to have a frank conversation with "someone who's gone through hell lately." This leads Martin to comment: "It makes all the difference to know there's someone else screaming alongside you - and that's the point of the Incarnation, I can see that so clearly now. God came into the world and screamed alongside us."

Indeed, God did come into the world to scream alongside us. In his agony on the cross Jesus shouted these words from the twenty-second Psalm: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15,34). It is from this agony that we gain hope. Our hope resides in this God who brings life from death, but the journey from death to life is not painless.

So, how will Christ recognize us at our Judgment? One way will be by how we responded to the challenges we faced in this life. Another, perhaps more important criterion of recognition, will be the way we treated and cared for others, even in the midst of our own pain. Let us not forget what we read at the end of the same chapter of Hebrews from which today’s second reading is taken: "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb, 12,29). May we also keep in mind that God’s reign was not put on hold at Christ’s Ascension. Rather, ushering in the reign of God, preparing the wedding feast of the Lamb, of which this Eucharist is but a foretaste, has been entrusted to us until that day, when the last having been made first and the first last, we "recline at table in the kingdom of God" (Lk 13,29).

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Abandonment, surrender, letting be

Recent revelations that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta endured a long period, lasting most of her life after her summons to serve the poor, of seeming divine abandonment that caused her to doubt at times, are nothing new. This became public knowledge shortly after her death. Besides, anybody who has read St. Thérèse of Lisieux's autobiography, The Story of a Soul, will have at least a general understanding, a framework within which to make some sense of what Blessed Teresa experienced and endured. Nonetheless, the media and various commentators are having a heyday with these revelations now that they have been published in a forthcoming book: Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.

It is not my purpose here to address or even comment on the deepest, most intimate recesses of the soul of this incredibly holy woman, except to write that knowing this makes her all the more holy in my eyes because it allows me to identify to some very small degree with this very Christ-like person. For Blessed Teresa it was never about her, but always about the other, especially the most neglected and despised. She poured our her entire life, her very self, for those who the world literally kicked to the curb like so much trash. Being like Christ means just this: dying to one's self and living for God by living for others. To think otherwise is fall prey to a horrible and spirtually debilitating deception.

It bears mentioning that sometimes abandonment to Divine Providence means, well, (at least seeming) abandonment by God. With due acknowledgement to Joseph A. Komonchak, who posted this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins over on dotCommonweal, here is a poem on the matter. Hopkins, writes Komonchak, "suffered from dark nights, too, and wrote at least four poems while he was in the midst of them; they’re often called 'the Terrible Sonnets.' This is one of them, written, it seems, he was starting to come out of the dark":

My own heart let me more have pity on; let

Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,

Charitable; not live this tormented mind

With this tormenting mind tormenting yet.

I cast for comfort I can no more get

By groping around my comfortless, than blind

Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find

Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise

You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile

Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size

At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile

‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather–as skies

Betweenpie mountains–lights a lovely mile.

Friday, August 24, 2007

"Well, you build it up, you wreck it down. . ."

I enjoy Tom Waits more than I can say. His album Mule Variations is stunning, at least for a post-punk, non-disco, non-rock n'roller, non-hippie person such as me. This song gives an indication of the depth of Waits. Waits has made three previous appearances on this blog: with Bono reciting Bukowski; Well it's got to be a Choc-O-late Mary post; and in the very deep (sounding) post entitled Theological/Philosophical Soundings.

So, this constitutes the Friday, Καθολικός διάκονος, traditio.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"For as you judge, so will you be judged"

You have heard it said we are not the best judges of ourselves. So, from the only Sci-Fi television series I have ever liked and watched with regularity, Red Dwarf, here is Rimmer seeking to justify his existence to . . . himself. LANGUAGE WARNING PG-13 at least! Keep in mind that the cat is not a human being, but an evolved form of feline.

In a humorous manner we see why Jesus tells us to "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." (Matt.7,1-5).

Let us be glad that God puts mercy above being fair. The last thing we want is to get what we deserve. Why should we want it otherwise for other people?

Monday, August 20, 2007

A bit more on prayer

"It occurred to me as I gave her hands a quick clasp that hell was not, as Sartre had proclaimed, other people. Hell was being obliged to pretend to be someone quite other than one's true self"- Susan Howatch Absolute Truths, Part IV, chapter 21.

Today let us pray to want what we need. It is by doing this that we attain a proper balance and are able to be truly grateful. This does not work the other way around. In other words, let us not pray to need what we want for fear that we just might get that for which we ask! Let us pray simply and sincerely from our lives, not from some detached, imaginary pseudo-spiritual realm.

Also, let us not forget the many needs in the world: earthquake in Peru, lost miners in Utah, flooding in the upper mid-west (i.e., eastern Minnesota, western Wisconsin) and Southeast Asia, hurricanes in the Caribbean moving toward the Gulf of Mexico, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. Of course, we must always pray for the needs of those closest to us.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Rimini update

The Celini are gathered. Pray for them. Alex has a great update on the Rimini goings on. Keep us in your prayers cari fratelli e sorelle.

Some practical notes on prayer

Prayer, Richard Foster teaches, consists of three movements. These movements correspond to the three persons of the Trinity. The first movement is inward. This movement "is prayer to God the Son, Jesus Christ, which corresponds to his role as Savior and Teacher among us." The next movement is upward, or "prayer to God the Father, which corresponds to his role as sovereign King and eternal Lover among us." Finally, we move outward, which "is prayer to God the Holy Spirit, which corresponds to his role as Empowerer and Evangelist among us." We must move inward first, according to Foster, "simply because God has revealed himself to us most fully and clearly in Jesus Christ" (Prayer, pg XII). So, we start from what we know. That is why reading the Gospels is so very vital to Christian spirituality.

It is always necessary to clarify our language about God. If prayer is a relationship we must seek to know and know about the One with whom we seek to communicate. This brings up the delicate matter of using masculine personal pronouns to refer to God qua God (i.e., God the Father and God the Holy Spirit). This is standard usage and also reflects Jesus' Abba relation with God, a relationship which, through Christ, we are also invited to enter into. Nonetheless, this reveals a limitation of our language. We must keep in mind that "God incorporates and transcends our categories of [gender]- that is, God is not a male deity as opposed to a female deity" (pg. XI). For Catholics this is nothing surprising or shocking (Foster is a Quaker). It is orthodox because it is scriptural. In the first chapter of Genesis, verse twenty-six, we read: "So God created humankind [Hebrew adam] in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (NRSV). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that "In no way is God in man's image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective 'perfections' of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband" (par. 370).

"The movement inward comes first because without interior transformation the movement up into God's glory would overwhelm us and the movement out into ministry would destroy us" (Prayer, pg. 6).

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Love, Faith and Life: On the Cross Road

What is faith? A question that quickly turns into flogging a dead horse. "To hear with my heart/To see with my soul/To be guided by a hand I cannot hold/To trust in a way that I cannot see/That's what faith must be". So sings Michael Card, who also sings:

"Could it be You make Your presence known
So often by Your absence?
Could it be that questions tell us more
Than answers ever do?
Could it be that You would really rather die
Than live without us?
Could it be the only answer that means anything Is You?"

Why do we seek God? How do we seek God? Where is God? Behind that tree, over the next hill, around that corner? Too often, as one my favorite novelists, Milan Kundera, wrote powerfully about, Life is Elsewhere. This dislocation of life to some place else is but a manifestation of our search for transcendence, for meaning. Christians, Buddhists, and existentialists agree that life is always already here, now.

To a large degree the expectations with which we begin- the fact that we begin with expectations as to how God will be encountered is unavoidable- largely determine whether we are apt to say we have encountered God. The bigger question for those who are seeking God- a nebulous phrase if ever there was one- is what happens when God doesn't let you dictate the terms of the encounter? When your expectations aren't met, do you give up?

I think that finding God- just as nebulous a phrase as seeking God- is, paradoxically (what else?), both easier and more difficult than we often think. It is easier because God is always already here, now. It is more difficult because God is not standing in the parking lot pointing at the empty spot when I'm late. To wit, we often have a lot of childish expectations as to what God should be doing, or how God should be encountered. As mentioned in my previous post, we have to overcome a lot of self-deception and self-centeredness, not to mention the insidious lie that God doesn't love us always. Perhaps our suspicion that we made up the story that God loves us stems for our insecurity which, in turn, is derived from our human relationships in which we are both givers and receivers of self-gratifying, conditional, and utilitarian "love". Put simply when we match up the fact that life is always already here and that God is always already present to us in these lives of ours, we can see that it is necessary to get real in order to get God- both in the sense of receiving God and in the sense of understanding God.

The intellect is a way of apprehending God that cannot be easily be dismissed as not faith. Even taking that into account, faith falls short of certainty and is not immune to doubt. When asked recently whether it is possible to "reason" one's self into faith, Norbertine Father Sebastian Walshe, a devoted student of the Angelic Doctor, replied:

"No, I don't think that's true. But you can dispose yourself to be open to religious truths, and you can remove impediments to the Faith. Grace builds on nature; if your mind is well-ordered at the natural level, you can be more receptive to grace."

Sound too theological for you? Sound kind of demanding? In my best jack-ass of a guru mode: It both is and it isn't. In the end, I think it has to do with the whole approach of "What's in it for me?" If we believe that it is in giving that we receive, in dying we live, then what I get out of it hardly factors in. On the other hand, that doesn't mean I don't matter, it means that I trust God because I love God and believe that, unlike every other person in my life and unlike me in the lives of other people, God will not let me down either now or in the end. God may not meet my present expectations, but my expectations are less than perfect and certainly not divine. In the end, God will exceed all my wildest expectations, at least that is my hope, which is distinct from faith. But, between now and the end I am committed to working toward the end for which everything exists, the Kingdom of God. Even in straight-up existential terms, forgetting about pie-in-the-sky, working for a kinder, more loving, more just world is worth my very best efforts, worth my whole life. What if this working to usher in the kingdom about which Jesus so powerfully taught amounts to nothing more than, to borrow from Camus, my metaphyiscal rebellion against the void? Of course, I do not believe for one moment that is the case, but if it were, so what? I'd still do it.

This brings us to the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. Do this in any and all situtations. We have such a tendency to try to talk others out of what they are experiencing in order to tell them what they should be experiencing instead. What we are called to is compassion, to suffer with others, to walk with them through the dark valleys and to rejoice with them on the breath-taking heights, not to deprive them of their humanity, their personhood by depriving them of the legitimacy of what they are experiencing, or how they feel.

Over to you Jude! Again, listen to her with a sense of irony.

Absolute Truths

I am currently reading Susan Howatch's novel Absolute Truths. It is the final book in her Church of England series of novels. I am saving Mystical Paths, the series' penultimate book, for last. It would probably be a gross exaggeration to write that anybody interested in Christian spiritual life has to read these books, but they should. I would add to these Howatch's novel The High Flyer. It was perhaps by reading her that I discovered, or became, something of a Catholic with Anglican leanings. Lest anyone worry, that is far different from being an Anglo-Catholic.

Along with Howatch's writing, in which she seeks to put theory into practice through story-telling- realistic story-telling- the spiritual/psychological writings of Benedictine theologian Sebastian Moore, and the writings and witness of Msgr. Luigi Giussani, along with those of Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar and Quaker Richard Foster, form the basis of the model of the psyche with which I work and, hence, heavily influence my particular living of the spiritual life. Her Church of England books use an author or one particular book to frame the story. These books form a valuable bibliography on spiritual theology.

"In all religiousness", writes Moore, "there lurks the suspicion that we invented the story that God loves us." It is this suspicion that gets us into the most trouble. It is troublesome because we put all kinds of conditions on God's love. To think that God only loves me when I am "being good" is the most insidious lie ever. Such a manner of thinking comes straight from the pit of hell. Ask any parent if s/he loves their wayward son or daughter and the answer, at least in most cases, is an emphatic, Yes!. So, if we "who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to [our] children, how much more will [our] heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?" (Matt 7,9)

Sounds simple; God gives us good things and the living is easy, right? Well, No, actually. Our experience tells us otherwise because our experience consists of long periods in which we refuse to believe that God loves us unconditionally. Our experience consists of cycles of sin, guilt, shame, repentance, trying to be perfect, which is far different than trying to love unconditionally. To be honest, this cycle is unavoidable to some degree, but unhealthy nonetheless. Loving unconditionally is not the path to holiness, it is holiness! Trying to adhere to absolute truths, to keep the rules, to present a lovely façade of virtue, is what far too many of us waste far too much time on in the mistaken belief that we are in pursuit of holiness. Get a grip! Read St. Matthew's Gospel chapters five through seven. These chapters consist of a teaching called the Sermon on the Mount. While we are exhorted by Jesus in the forty-eighth verse of the fifth chapter to "be perfect just as [our] heavenly Father is perfect," this too often gets interpreted as "keep all the rules" and all will be well. One result of neurotic rule-keeping is that when someone needs us we are reduced to empty, pious platitudes. Another is that when we pray we have nothing to say, not that all prayer consists of confession of sin, but prayer must always come from the deep acknowledgement that we depend on God, we need God, that without God we can do nothing (Jn 15,5).

Loving is risk-taking, not a recipe for peace. I do not have to be perfect to love, or to be loved. I make a big mistake whenever I think and act like I must be perfect to be loved. After all, do I only love people when they do what I want them to do? When they meet my expectations? If I am being honest, sometimes (too often) I have to answer yes. I withhold my love because I do not know how to love as I ought. The good news is that God is not so facile. God is holiness, God is righteousness. This may be the only absolute truth: "God is love" (1 Jn 4,8.16). It is certainly the only one that matters at the end of the day. To love is to deliberately make myself vulnerable and to have others make themselves vulnerable to me. This is a tremendous responsibility that requires a huge, even super-human, commitment. That is why marriage and holy orders, both of which are at the service of communion, are sacraments.

"Temptation", writes Austen Farrer, whose various writings are quoted by Howatch as the epigraph of each chapter of Absolute Truths, "is what distracts us, beguiles us off the path. Temptation is what makes real life different from the world of our dreams. We dream of a world which is wax under the moulding of our ambitions or of our aspirations; we meet a world which faces us with trials we have not the character to surmount, and with seductions we have not the virtue to resist" (pg 323).

I like very much what the character Martin Darrow, who, like Bishop Charles Ashworth, has recently gone through a self-induced personal catastrophe, has to say. He begins by telling the bishop how good it is, when going through a difficult time, to have a frank conversation with "someone who's gone through hell lately". This leads Martin to comment on God and suffering: "It makes all the difference to know there's someone else screaming alongside you - and that's the point of the Incarnation, I can see that so clearly now. God came into the world and screamed alongside us. Interesting idea, that."

Indeed, God did come into the world to scream alongside us. In his agony on the cross he shouted words from the twenty-second Psalm: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15,34). God brings life from death quia Deus Caritas Est, but it is not painless. Were it painless, it would be meaningless. This is a great mystery, which is something that is true, but we will never reason our way to why it is true, though we see why human existence must be this way- because "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12,29).

All of this before even broaching the subject of self-deception, which Howatch treats masterfully in all her characters. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but we manage to fool ourselves almost all the time. This is not due to our cleverness, it is due to that fact that we want to be fooled. We want to be fooled because the truth is usually too much for us and requires from us precious time and effort that we would rather spend in activities that gratify our bodily appetites, our egos, or (bonus!) both.

Neither have we touched on the ego-defense force field. One pernicious thing among Christians is the tendency to use learnedness, or office (i.e., bishop, priest, deacon, sister, brother, theologian, etc.) as an ego-defense rather than as a call to move beyond ourselves. This leads to a very childish form of clericalism which, forty plus years after the Second Vatican Council, we are not only still stuck with, but which we seem to want to revert, like a two or three year old child who still wants to be a baby. This is no way to grow in "the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ" (NRSV Eph. 4,13).

Friday, August 17, 2007

Another tragedy

If one mining disaster was not enough, three miners died yesterday evening while working to rescue the six trapped miners and at least six others were injured. It seems now that both catastrophes are the result of seismic activity along the fault line. Tremors have slowed the pace of the effort considerably. It looks like the rescue effort may be suspended. Nonetheless, let us continue to pray for the trapped miners, for their families, and let us not fail to pray for those who died in a valiant effort to rescue their fellow miners. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (Jn 15,13). These are words we often use thoughtlessly and in a frivolous manner, like "thy will be done", but when truly lived the resulting reality is often painful, even lethal. Events like this drive us to our knees in humble supplication.

May we also not hesitate to invoke the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary on behalf of the dead miners, their families, the trapped miners and their long suffering families, and those injured, and in a special way for those making decisions about whether or when to resume the rescue effort there in Huntington.

Keepin' it simple for a Friday

"You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6,8).

Picture of Cloud Bay, Ontario from Clarity Daily "Starry Cloudy Night"

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Elvis Aaron Presley 1935-1977

I was in a diner with my parents eating breakfast when I learned about Elvis' death. We were supposed to go to Lagoon (an amusement park here along the Wasatch Front), but it was raining. Since my parents were high schoolers in the 50s, this cast more of a pall over an already disappointing day.

Like Johnny Cash, like all of us, Elvis was a Christian not in spite of, but because of his failings and weaknesses, which, in his case, led to his early death. But, he knew Him who is the King of Kings. May he rest in peace.

Some thoughts on the Assumption the day after

What does it all mean? We celebrate the Assumption of Mary by going to Mass mid-week, we sing lovely songs, etc. Well, as he is wont to do, our Holy Father summed up what it means very nicely at the end of his Angelus remarks yesterday when exhorted us "to give our life rather than take any, setting off on the path of love, which means losing ourselves, a path which alone can let us truly find ourselves as well as find true life." Lest we despair that such efforts do not work, the Pope urged us to “look upon Mary, the Assunta, and be encouraged in our faith and in the feast of joy: God wins. Faith, which appeared weak, is the real power of the world. Love is stronger than hatred." (emboldened emphasis mine)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

At last a holy day of obligation that we observe as a holy day of obligation! Our faith is so beautiful. It is a joy to celebrate what God has done in the world for us and for our salvation. What an incredible mystery of love that God became incarnate through a humble young woman from Nazareth. If we stop and think about these things, we begin to grasp how God works in the world. Why would God choose to become human at that time, in that place, with Miriam as his mother?

Anyway, may we today and always invoke the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her sinless beauty she never ceases interceding for us to her Son, seeking to draw us nearer to him. As we ponder the assumption as the penultimate of the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary, we are mindful that the fruit of this mystery is the joy of a happy death. Yes, dear friends, dying in the friendship of Christ is a joy indeed, as his mother shows us.

This daughter of Jerusalem is lovely and beautiful as she ascends to heaven like the rising sun at daybreak.

(Antiphon for Canticle of Zechariah Morning Prayer for The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

It also bears noting that today marks the ninety-eight anniversary of the initial dedication of The Cathedral of the Madeleine, the community I am privileged to serve.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Yet another hierarchy update

Today the Holy Father named Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston, South Carolina as bishop of the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama. This ends the longest vacancy in U.S. Catholic history (by that, of course, I mean since the Church has been well-established in this country, there have actually been longer vacancies). So, Mother Angelica and company will shortly have a new ordinary. However, while filling a vacancy it creates another one.

Now, including the Diocese of Charleston, the number of vacant dioceses remains at ten. The other diocese that are sede vacante are: Knoxville, Green Bay, the Military Archdiocese, Des Moines, IA; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; Shreveport, LA; Great Falls/Billings, MT; Little Rock, AR; New Ulm, MN. Also, the number of ordinaries serving beyond the mandatory retirement age of 75 remains at ten.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Good News

Back on the twenty-sixth of March, on our parish blog, The People of St. Mary Magdalene, we marked the fortieth anniversary of Papa Montini's landmark encyclical with a post entitled Populorum Progresso turns 40. Pope Paul VI was easily the most prophetic pope of the last century and, as is the case with prophets, he paid a dear price. His two most prophetic proclamations were Populorum Progresso and Humane Vitae.

It was noted in the post back in March that Pope Benedict XVI made mention of Populorum Progresso in his homily for the Feast of Epiphany, acknowledging its upcoming anniversary. I learned this afternoon from my dear friend Rocco over at Whispers, via the (London) Times online, that the Holy Father's next encyclical, which he worked on during his vacation in in Northern Italy in July, "will be a modern reflection on one of Papa Montini's landmark texts: his 1967 treatise on 'the development of peoples' Populorum Progressio."

While I am overjoyed that globalizing capitalism will be morally scrutinized in light of the Gospel, Populorum Progressio remains a very "modern" document in its own right, that is why we can revere it as prophetic. Today as much as ever "The hungry nations of the world cry out to the peoples blessed with abundance. And the Church, cut to the quick by this cry, asks each and every man to hear his brother's plea and answer it lovingly" (PP par. 3). According to the Times' Richard Owen, the Holy Father's second encyclical "will focus on humanity’s social and economic problems in an era of globalisation. Pope Benedict intends to argue for a world trade and economic system 'regulated in such a way as to avoid further injustice and discrimination', Ignazio Ingrao, a Vatican watcher, said yesterday." This just a week after the twenty-eighth anniversary of Pope Paul VI's death!

Anamnesis: Merton on Proust

Thomas Merton wrote in 1939, prior to his entering Gethsemani, about Marcel Proust in his journal.

"Marcel Proust and memory: to Proust experience seems to be valuable only after it has been transformed by memory . . . What kept attracting him was the 'present time of things past'" (The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, pg.7).

Especially in light of God's eternity, time is such an interesting reality. God is outside of time because time is a function of change. God is the same today, yesterday, tomorrow, and forever. In a word, God is atemporal. As regards this, it seems physics is finally catching up to theology. Therefore, all time (i.e., past, present, future) is before God simultaneously. I think what Merton writes here about Proust is true of any thoughtful or spiritual person; namely that experience becomes (more?) valuable after it has been transformed by memory. This is one of those relatively simple, but incredibly dense ideas to ponder. Using idea here brings me back, as one who studied Philosophy, to εἶδος, or, transliterated, eidos, which, like memory, means so much more than what we tend to mean by idea, especially after Plato.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Of faith, pragmatism, and the unfolding of the event

Living as if God exists and having faith, which is an event born of an encounter, are different. It is the difference between faith and pragmatism. I would certainly agree that it is better to live as if God exists than to live as if God does not exist. However, living as if God exists is certainly a case of starting from propositions (i.e., you choose to accept the proposition God exists), whereas faith is of an entirely different order. Pope Benedict addressed this very issue in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. This love letter is not only sent to Christians, but also, as Sandro Magister observed, "to those far from the faith, to the 'secularists,' to those without faith". To these people, Magister continues, "Benedict XVI says: This is the true heart of the Christian faith. Understand this. With a God such as this, you may have the strength to live 'as if God exists,' even if you do not have the strength to believe" (A Clear and Coherent Direction in the Beginning of Pope Benedict’s Pontificate, says Vatican Expert). Certainly accepting this proposition can be the beginning of faith, but it is not yet faith, it is pragmatism. It is often a response to Dostoevsky's observation that if God does not exist everything is permissible.

The relationship of propositions to faith, to truth, is always interesting to explore because it goes to cognition and language. However, given the philosophical difficulty of that interrelation, it is best to just write that we never begin from nowhere or from nothing. The encounter always occurs where we're at and if where we're at is pragmatism, having accepted or assumed God's existence for whatever reason(s), this is the starting point. So, perhaps I was too dismissive in my previous post about starting with propositions.

As I also mentioned in yesterday's post, we automatically, if not immediately, seek make sense of our encounter, to deepen it, to appropriate it. Pope Benedict gives a beautiful description of such an encounter and the event, which is on-going, to which it gives birth: "We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (DCE par. 1). Another danger not mentioned previously is that, too often, people just want to endlessly repeat their initial encounter instead of growing, instead of allowing the event to unfold, to be revealed in them and through them, because growth is unavoidably fraught with paradox and tension. It is difficult and requires persistence, or a persistent abiding. Again, as mentioned, in seeking to make sense of our encounter we soon discover others who have had like encounters. Just like snowflakes, these encounters may bear a remarkable degree of resemblance, but no two are the same. This seeking, which leads to community, constitutes the unfolding of the event to which our encounter gives birth. Hence, this event, while deeply personal and unique, leads us out of ourselves. Put simply, it draws us into relation and not just with God, but with others, too.

In a post over on Whispers entitled The Great "Et Et, my friend Rocco has posted a lovely exchange between the Holy Father and a young priest during Benedict's meeting with priests in Cadore during his vacation last month. In his response to the very insightful question posed by the priest, the Pontiff (which means bridge-builder) addresses some of these concerns when he said: "Catholicism, somewhat simplistically, has always been considered the religion of the great 'et et' ['both-and']: not of great forms of exclusivism but of synthesis. The exact meaning of 'Catholic' is 'synthesis'. I would therefore be against having to choose between either playing football or studying Sacred Scripture or Canon Law. Let us do both these things. It is great to do sports. I am not a great sportsman, yet I used to like going to the mountains when I was younger; now I only go on some very easy excursions, but I always find it very beautiful to walk here in this wonderful earth that the Lord has given to us. Therefore, we cannot always live in exalted meditation; perhaps a Saint on the last step of his earthly pilgrimage could reach this point, but we normally live with our feet on the ground and our eyes turned to Heaven."

Therefore, if you find yourself stuck in propositions, you might consider taking a walk in the mountains, or playing soccer with friends, instead of reading books, articles, and blog posts full of propositions, or instead of writing them! After all where did Elijah find God? So my friends, have a blessed Sunday! I intend to.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Faith+Reason+Humility=Wisdom, or, "fides quaerens intellectum"

"Faith," we read in The Letter to the Hebrews, "is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen" (Heb, 11,1). Humility is a virtue that is very misunderstood. Therefore, it is misapplied. Christian faith requires humility both because, as disciples, we seek to imitate our Master and because faith falls far from certainty. Put more coherently and to paraphrase myself from a response to a discussion on another blog, anybody who begins with propositions and not faith is off on the wrong foot and headed down the wrong path. No doubt some Christians approach the faith this way for many and varied reasons.

Faith is an encounter. The best definition of theology remains St. Anselm of Canterbury's "faith seeking understanding". Faith, by its very nature, is a bit slippery, which makes it difficult to get a firm grasp on. It is slippery because it is a deeply personal "event born of an encounter". Nonetheless, it remains the correct starting point. Every effort we make to better understand our faith must remain true to our encounter with God, who "transcends all creatures" (CCC 42). Hence, we acknowledge that we have to "continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, imagebound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God --'the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable' [Anaphora of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom]-- with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God" (CCC 42).

In seeking to make sense of our encounter, to deepen the experience, to enter into relationship, we run the risk of trying to frame our experience exclusively in terms of pre-existing explanations that may not be true to our encounter. To actually quote from what I previously wrote in another venue: "Sooner or later this false faith will collapse. While devastating, such a collapse is the best thing that can happen. In fact, as people of faith, we all need a shift from time-to-time, a correction. This comes through examination and ultimately out of love and desire for what is true, [for] what is really real.

"Faith seeking understanding makes
[us] humble due to [lingering] uncertainty and incompleteness. The very last thing that faith is is smug certainty; true faith takes account of human limitation, frailty, proneness to pretense, etc."

The definition of theology as "faith seeking understanding", which is the most widely accepted definition of theology, is but a way of saying faith and reason must work together as we seek that which is ultimate. Upon having an encounter we automatically seek to make sense of it, to verify it in some way. In doing so we soon discover that other people have had like encounters. This is the beginning of community, the beginning of our pilgrim journey together. It was Chesterton who wrote that tradition is democracy across time.

As a Catholic with a very robust ecclesiology, I am well aware that we're often too willing to let the event born of our encounter be mediated through others, through priests, deacons, religious, etc. To allow this is to attenuate the encounter and threaten to terminate the unfolding event to which it gave birth. This is one of those tensions about which I am beginning to sound like a broken record. On the one hand, God wants an immediate, personal relationship with us and, at the same time, we must acknowledge the necessarily communal nature of faith, or the fact that the unfolding event is precisely relationships with others.

As Christians we believe there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all", but there are different theologies, different ways of explaining and understanding this one faith, many of which are complementary, not contradictory, though there are many of those, too (Eph. 4,5-6).

Dom Helder Camera

In all this it is important to note that anybody who studies the history of dogma and the development of doctrine will see objectively that it is the story of faith seeking understanding, not one of obscene power grabs and imperial or ecclesial machinations, that it is a history of the unfolding event of God's encounter with humanity in Jesus Christ, or of applying reason to faith because faith has to make sense in order to be meaningful.

Writing about faith as an event born of an encounter, I just found a beautiful ending to this most recent in a long line of ponderous posts. It is the Prayer of Dom Helder Camara posted by Sr. Edith over on Monastic Musings, which I linked to from Deep Furrows. Dom Helder Camara is the late archbishop of Recife, Brazil, who died in 1999 at the age of 90.

"Come Lord!
Do not smile and say
you are already with us.

Millions do not know you
and to us who do,
what is the difference?
What is the point of your presence
if our lives do not alter?

Change our lives, shatter
our complacency.
Make your word
flesh of our flesh,
blood of our blood
and our life's purpose.

Take away the quietness
of a clear conscience.
Press us uncomfortably.
For only thus
that other peace is made,
your peace."

If all this is still too abstract, check out Scott Simon's Kaddish for a Cardinal on today's Weekend Edition about "the inconceivable expressed, the impossible existent," (Aaron) Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, the Jewish Cardinal who once said, echoing the Jewish Apostle, (Saul) Paul of Tarsus (Rom. 12,21): “The strength of evil can only be answered with an even greater strength of love.”

Friday, August 10, 2007

"How can you say, 'follow me' when I don’t even know where you are?"

Jude Simpson is simply great and her video recitation of her poem Not cut out for religion is our Καθολικός διάκονος Friday treat! Please note the ironic tone of this lovely poem. You can find the text of the poem on the rejesus website. Several people, who are apparently Christians, judging from their comments on YouTube, missed her point entirely. This is a nice follow-up to my nebulous God post.

A nebulous God post

Last night I taught the second of three RCIA Inquiry classes. These are classes I teach over the summer for those folks who express an interest in beginning formation to become Catholic in September. After discussing the Triune nature of God in our first session, we discussed revelation last night. We began with what is fundamental. Knowing about Msgr. Luigi Giussani makes this task easier. So, we discussed those ways God seeks to be known by us that are prior to Scripture, or anything else. We dealt with three: the universal desire for transcendence, creation, and the human person. Of course, these three link together and overlap. One way in which they do so is via faith and reason.

Then, we moved to God's particular revelation in history beginning with Abraham and Sarah and the nation of Israel and culminating in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, through whom this covenant, which takes the form "I will be your God and you will be my people," is extended to the whole human race. It bears noting in this context the necessity of Judaism for Christianity. In order to understand, to interpret we have to have a context. Jesus Christ's context is Israel. This brings me to a post by Rocco over at Whispers that is resounding throughout the Catholic neighborhood of the blogosphere that I tend to inhabit. It is about the funeral for Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger and is entitled Kaddish for the Cardinal. Because Cardinal Lustiger saw his conversion to Christianity as the fulfillment of the covenant he entered at birth as a Jew, he never forsook being Jewish. It was his dying wish that Jewish relatives recite Kaddish on his behalf prior to his funeral Mass. During his lifetime, even while cardinal archbishop of Paris, he could sometimes be seen in the main synagogue of Paris reciting Kaddish for his mother who, along with St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.

I'm not really sure that I have "point" this morning. If I do it is that God is with us always, even if we don't perceive God's often unobtrusive presence. God is with us in suffering, in sadness, in uncertainty. God is our companion on the way always and without exception. The challenge of the spiritual life is not to find God, but discern God's abiding presence, and to ultimately become like Christ, or Christ-like. Often this companionship is a silent accompanying. The reason why the poem "Footprints in the Sand" is so popular and so meaningful for so many is that it articulates our experience, or at least our hope, of God's accompanying us. At the same time, just as imperceptibly, God is holding it all together for us and for the world that God, who is love, created out of love, for love (1 Jn 4,8-16).

In St. John's Gospel we read of the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Logos: "What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (Jn 1,3b-5). This is good news, indeed. It is a message we need to not just hear, but heed. In other words, God is not a fixer, a genie we summon when things get tough, who magically, with a nod of his head, makes it all better. Isn't this one of the main points of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness, of his drinking the cup that he prayed would pass from him? Are we, his disciples, greater than the master we freely choose to follow because we love him? If Jesus had not drained the cup of his passion and death, if he had not emptied himself for us, the greatness of God, which to us is paradox and mystery, could not have been shown. We are to imitate Jesus, to incarnate him in our own lives and in our life together, which means the daily and painful dying to self.

Today is Friday, a day of recollection, a day of penance, a day on which we observe and remember Jesus' death on the Cross. If we do nothing else on this day we are to abstain from the meat of warm-blooded animals, pray more, and give charitably. In doing so may we all come to see more clearly not just that God is with us, but how, in what manner, God is present. May we live in the confidence that if God is with us nothing and nobody, in the end, will stand against us.

"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it" (Eph. 2,13-16).

Thursday, August 9, 2007

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

In keeping with what has proven to be in many ways and for many reasons a long, sad week, it bears noting that today is the anniversary of the death of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (i.e., Edith Stein). Rather than write anything, which I am not really up for, I refer you Sr. Edith's post over on Monastic Musings entitled Edith Stein, 1891 - 9 August 1942.

I also want to draw attention to a quote from Balthasar over on Deep Furrows, which begins, "When God demands of us something difficult, we often seek to be aided in our compliance by motives that rob the action of its whole value." To read whole thing, follow the link.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross- pray for us!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Mass tommorrow for trapped miners

"On behalf of the Catholics of Utah, I wish to express our prayerful support for the miners, their families and colleagues during this most difficult time.

Tomorrow afternoon at 5:15 p.m. I will celebrate Mass in the Cathedral of the Madeleine for the miners and their families, as well as for all those who are working so hard and courageously on their behalf. We also pray for the people of Huntington who are so deeply affected by the collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine.

May the patron of our Huntington Mission, the Archangel Raphael, bring healing and strength to all involved.

+Bishop John C. Wester
Bishop of Salt Lake City"

I just posted this to The Cathedral of the Madeleine blog, The People of St. Mary Magdalene. For those of you who are local, please come and let us join together in prayer tomorrow evening for the miners, their families, and those working so hard to rescue them! For those of you who are not, please add these men to your prayers, for their survival and for comfort and strength to their families.

Never forgetting means always remembering

Today we mark the sad anniversary of the dropping of the second atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. The anniversary of the dropping of the first bomb on the city of Hiroshima was yesterday. Let us never forget! Also, let us not forget, as the teacher and the psalmist reminded us Sunday, our life here is transitory. We are limited, contingent beings.

Apropos of a day of remembrance, Into Dust.

In my other post today (linked to above- click on the word "forget") I wrote:
" One thing families do, albeit with far less frequency than they used to, out of love, is remember. We are in danger of forgetting. One sign of this is that on Memorial Day, instead of visiting the graves of our beloved dead, we recreate, we go on trips, we go to the movies, etc. In other words, we seek distractions instead of dealing with reality. Forgetting has consequences." Just to give an example in order to demonstrate that I am not writing about some lofty, abstract concept with no bearing on life, I have an uncle Lamar. He was a decorated World War II veteran who fought bravely in the Pacific theater. He was my Dad's oldest half-brother. He was badly wounded in the war, having lost two fingers of his right hand. More than the physical wounds and the resulting disabilities, he was spiritually and psychologically devastated by what he experienced as a young soldier. He died an alcoholic before I was born. If not for my grandma, who was Lamar's step-mother, my Dad and his sisters and brothers telling us about Lamar, who never married and, hence, died childless, who would remember him?

We must also remember, especially in light of the grave subject-matter of this post, that mature Christian faith is hopeful. Hence, we should not leave this subject desparing. I draw attention to something Gregory Glenn wrote yesterday for the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord: "this altogether reliable prophetic message of Jesus Christ still rings true: that we are created for love, and we are most like our Creator when we are engaged in love that pours itself out, in our homes, schools and places of work" (Awaiting the Morning Star).

In a homily, given during a Mass concelebrated with Swiss bishops last November, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, concluded his homily by highlighting the fact that problems "cannot be resolved if God is not placed at the center, if God does not become visible in the world once more, if He does not become a determining force in our lives, and if He does not, through us, decisively enter the world. It is my belief that the destiny of the world today, in its current dramatic situation, depends upon this: whether God - the God of Jesus Christ - exists and is recognized as such, or whether He disappears. Our concern is that He should remain present." Put simply, it is up to us, His Body, to make him present.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Of Bernanos and other things

Over on Deep Furrows you will find what is described as "an excerpt from a satirical sermon by Georges Bernanos." The post is The Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Thérèse [of Lisieux]. Here is an excerpt:

"My dear brothers. I keep on saying the same thing, because it always is the same thing. Had you followed that saint instead of applauding, Europe would never have known the Reformation, nor the religious wars, nor this horrible Spanish Crusade. Saint Francis was calling to you, but death did not pick and choose: death descended on us all. The danger is the same today."

Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. As Greg Glenn reminded me, in the post to which I link, today also marks the death of much maligned, but very courageous and, to my mind, even saintly, Pope Paul VI. Rest in peace Papa Montini! Sadly, we also mark the dropping of the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger died yesterday. Many of you may not know who he is. I cannot imagine a more fitting tribute than that written by George Weigel over on the Observations and Contentions, the First Things blog. Marking these three events (i.e., the deaths of Paul VI and Cardinal Lustiger and the dropping of the first atomic bomb) should give us all pause to consider the words of the Qoheleth and our Lord from yesterday.

Year C, Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Eccles. 1,2. 2,21-23; Ps. 90,3-6. 12-14.17; Col. 3,1-5.9-11; Luke 12,13-21

Summed up in one word today’s readings are about detachment, detachment from things that do not matter. This is a challenge for us because we live a culture obsessed with things that truly do not matter. In a world in which wars are being fought on a massive scale, in which injustice breeds violence, in which people starve daily and preventable and treatable diseases kill tens of thousands, especially on the forgotten continent of Africa, a world in which human activity is having a deleterious effect on the planet’s environment, we remain concerned about the travails, the ups-and-downs of celebrities. Instead of concerning ourselves with the injustices in our society, our broken and practically non-existent immigration system, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the tens of millions who go without health care, in true escapist fashion we often allow ourselves to be distracted, we seek distractions, we look for anything to take our minds off what St. Paul calls “what is above” (Col. 3,1).

In the first verse of our first reading from Ecclesiastes the word for vanity is used five times. In Hebrew this frequent usage in the verse stands out even more because in its original language the verse consists of only eight words. The word literally means breath or vapor. Therefore, it refers to that which is transitory, lacks substance, or, put as bluntly as it is meant, that which is meaningless. In our three year lectionary cycle we read from the Book of Ecclesiastes, or, to use its Hebrew designation, Qoheleth, meaning one who teaches and preaches to the assembly, only this once.

Among those things the teacher tells us are meaningless are things that are considered in the rest of Hebrew Wisdom literature to be meaningful, like working hard and enjoying the fruits of our labor. The man in the example used by Qoheleth "labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill" (Eccles. 2,21). For the teacher, however, this is precisely where the transitory nature of life is revealed. We die and another, perhaps less deserving person, reaps the rewards of our hard work! So, if these meritorious activities ultimately prove meaningless, how much more is this true about those things that not only do not ultimately matter, but do not even matter right now?

This is enough to almost drive us to despair. Paradoxically, nothing could be further from the truth or the intent of this observation. Our Psalm today summarizes well the point Qoheleth seeks to make: "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart" (Ps. 90,12). In order to gain wisdom of heart we must realize two things. First, we must acknowledge the reality from which we most seek to distract ourselves, that we will die. As a result of the first realization, we come to see that we must live a life that matters. What matters is not the measurable success of our endeavors, but that our endeavors have value in and of themselves, just as each person has inherent value. Therefore, this what that matters is transformed into a who. Other people are who matter, be they our spouse, our child, our parent, our sibling, our co-worker, our fellow parishioner, our friend, the stranger we encounter, and in a special and challenging way, the person in need, the poor and the oppressed. Possessing wisdom of heart means devoting ourselves to others without worrying about achieving pre-determined outcomes, or, put more traditionally, serving others without counting the cost or calculating the return. Satisfaction is to be found in the labor itself, not in the rewards of our labor.

We see this in our second reading from St. Paul. When the apostle discusses "what is above," he is not talking about being distracted from the here and now. He is dealing with the reality that in baptism we died and rose to new life. It bears reminding that eternal life does not begin after mortal death, it begins at baptism. What dies is our old way of being. In the Our Father we pray week after week, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven" (Matt. 6,10). What the apostle is talking about is ushering in the Reign of God. This, my sisters and brothers, is nothing less than the mission of the Church, the mission entrusted to us by Christ, it is the reason we are gathered here right now.

From this letter to the Colossians we glean very practical advice about how to live for others by dying to self. We bring about God’s will by forsaking lust, greed (which Paul equates with idolatry), dishonesty, indeed, all evil desires. Just in case there is any doubt that what matters in life is being other-centered and not self-centered, Paul tells us at the beginning of this passage that in baptism our "life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3,3). Then, to mop up any resistance, at the end of our reading we are told that Christ overcomes all that divides, be it wealth, social status, or ethnicity, in order that Christ might be "all and in all" (Col. 3,11).

God asks the man in Jesus’ parable from today’s Gospel, who worked so hard to store up treasure on earth: "You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong" (Luke 12,20)? After this parable our Lord gives us a warning: "Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God" (Luke 12,21). What matters to God are people, not things.

Today, dear friends, in our gathering, we have heard God’s voice, may we harden not our hearts and "May the favor of the Lord our God be ours" and may God "Prosper the work of our hands" (Ps. 90,17). As Qoheleth shows us, paradox is an inescapable reality of the spiritual life. The ultimate paradox, taught us by our Lord himself, is that only the person who loses his/her life for his sake will save it. The true master of death, the wise Albus Dumbledore says to Harry Potter, "does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying" (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pg. 721). The true master of death, Jesus Christ, shows us that it is only by dying to self that we live forever!

Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hosea 2:16.17c.18.21-22; Ps 145:2-9; Matthew 9:18-26 Our Gospel today is Saint Matthew’s version of events first written about ...