Sunday, February 28, 2010

Year C 2nd Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen 15:5-12.17-18; Ps 27:1.7-9.13-14; Phil. 3:20-4:1; Lk 9:28b-36

Transfiguration is a big word. Big words seem to intimidate us and so obscure the meaning of what is being communicated. So, it is important for us to realize that nowhere in today’s Gospel do we encounter the word transfiguration. Instead, we hear that Jesus "took Peter, John, and James… up the mountain to pray" and "while he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white" (Lk. 9:28b-29). Transfiguration means nothing other than being changed. The change God seeks to bring about in us through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is not just in appearance, it goes far deeper, as St. Paul indicates in our second reading when he writes that Christ "will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself" (Phil. 3:21).

This leads us to ask the question, what is the power that enables the Lord to subject all things to himself? Is it the power of almighty God to bend all things to his holy will by hook or by crook? If Jesus is the revelation of God, we can automatically rule out that answer, not because God is not all-powerful- omnipotent, to use another big word- but that Jesus never does that, ever! The power that enables Jesus Christ to subject all things to himself, which is the power that created and redeemed the world, and is now at work conforming our lowly bodies with his glorified body, is love, which is given as grace, a free gift to all who accept it.

It is clear from St. Luke’s account that the three disciples were not sure what they experienced. This is different from not knowing what they had seen. They saw Jesus’ appearance change, his clothes become dazzling white, and they saw Moses and Elijah, who represent the Law and the prophets, respectively. Their response was silence, as was Abram’s. In both instances perception is enhanced by the obscuring of their senses. Abram, Peter, John, and James knew what they had seen and what they had heard, but it was only in the silence of their hearts and through subsequent experience that they came to understand what it meant.

We talk about Lent as a time of baptismal renewal in preparation for Easter because it was through our baptism that Christ began his work in us, conforming us to himself. What happens in baptism? Well, like Abram’s encounter with God and the disciples witnessing Jesus’ changing in appearance and his conversing with Moses and Elijah, more than we could ever say, write, think, feel, or paint. When we bless water to use for baptism, the celebrant prays that "all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism [may] rise also with him to newness of life" (RCIA, par. 311). Death, then, is how Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, changes our lowly bodies "to conform with his glorified body." The first and most obvious effect of our dying, being buried, and rising to new life in baptism is that we become members of Christ’s body, the church.

It is by passing through death to new life that Christ conforms us to himself. We began Lent on Ash Wednesday by being marked with ashes in the shape of the cross with the words, "Remember you are dust and to dust you will return." These words were spoken by God in Genesis to our first parents after they were disobedient (3:19). Earlier in Genesis, God breathed life into the creature fashioned from the elements of the earth, in Christ Jesus, God gives us his Word, his very breath, which is not only life-giving, but the source of life! Indeed, cruciform is the shape anyone’s life takes who truly follows Christ.

Lent is about dying to ourselves, mortifying, that is, killing our sinful behaviors through penitential practices, which is how we cooperate with God, expressing our desire for that change he is bringing about in us, making us ever more who we already are, who we are created to be, which is not someone else, but our true self. We must not forget that Lent isn't an exercise in negativity. It is not a time, as Resurrectionist Fr. Harry Williams put in an Ash Wednesday homily many years ago, "to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we are." Jesus Christ is not only proof that God loves us, he shows us how much God loves us. Hence, the means we use during Lent to willingly conform ourselves more to the Lord are all positive: prayer, fasting, and intentionally performing acts of charity daily and doing none of these things ostentatiously.

In thinking of death we must not evade the fact that someday we will die. Death, as philosopher Martin Heidegger observed, is the horizon against which we, as human beings, live our lives. This is captured well by the Latin phrase memento mori, which means remember death. The use of this phrase, appropriated by long ago Christians, pre-dates Christianity and is said to have been whispered in the ear of conquering Roman generals by a slave as the conqueror rode his chariot through Rome in a parade celebrating his conquest. So, my dear friends in Christ, let us gently remind ourselves and each other over the course of this Lent that we are, indeed, ashes and dust, but let us do so with an eye toward Easter and with the understanding that, in and through Christ Jesus and by the power of his Spirit, God accomplishes great things working with these materials, like bringing life from death because God is love and love is stronger than death.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Who do you trust? The One who loves you!

In the wake of the massive earthquake, registering 8.8 on the Richter scale, that struck central Chile early this morning, I am praying for the people of that area and for the people who inhabit the islands being threatened by tidal waves resulting from this massive tectonic shift. I posted this prayer intention as my status on Facebook this morning. A friend responded that she couldn't imagine being on one of the islands now on alert and anticipating a tsunami. I reminded her that here along the Wasatch Front in Northern Utah we live in proximity of a pretty large fault-line ourselves and that someday, in all probability, we, too, will have a massive earthquake. Indeed, this is a scary realization. This realization, which is a fact, is also my thread for this Lent.

These facts about the world, among which is the fact I alluded to yesterday- memento mori (i.e., remember death)- the fact that we will die, leads all of us, inexorably, to ask questions about life. Heidegger said that death is the horizon against which we, as human beings, live our lives. Christ's resurrection, not just as an historical fact, but as we experience it in the events our lives, gives us a glimpse over this horizon (mandatory Καθολικός διάκονος cultural allusion: Ozzy's Over the Mountain 1982 with Randy Rhoades, of course), beyond which we otherwise could not see.

The questions posed by memento mori are, What is the meaning of my life? In what or whom do I place my hope, that is, my trust? What really matters? If I am really honest, most of the time I just kick these questions down the road, like an empty, rusted, old aluminum can.

Picture from BBC News

In my reading of Ascend during these days of Lent, I came across this in a portion entitled Is death beautiful?: "The Christian doesn't fear death. For Christians, the experience of death is often [not always] something very beautiful... the concept of Christian death...involves a great act of trust [in] and love of God... Why can Christian death be called beautiful? Because the dying person knows, without a doubt [hope is certainty about one's destiny], that he or she will be happy forever and that one day God will raise up his or her body...We'll be released from sickness, loneliness, addiction, poverty, injustice - whatever made our lives painful" (pgs. 50-51).

Addressing, yet again, the perennial question about whether natural disasters are God's punishments, the authors of Ascend, both of whom are Roman Catholic deacons, write: "Natural disasters and other catastrophes are not evidence of the punishment of God. For example, your authors live in Southern California, with full knowledge that one day a huge earthquake will strike, perhaps killing hundreds and destroying cities. Shall we then blame God?" It is a rhetorical question, whereas, the question, In what or whom do you place your hope?, which is another way of asking what someone who examined your life would say you value the most, is most definitely not!

This post is not a note of either pessimism or optimism, but of hope. Perhaps it is a provocation to point to the One, not only in whom we find hope, but who is our hope, which is certainty, not sentiment. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are not gifts God gives me to evade reality. On the contrary, these gifts are precisely what allow me to engage the reality of my life daily in all its depth, with all of the triumphs, joys, pains, and sorrows I experience. In this way, I "can collaborate in the salvation of the world[:] by accepting the sacrifice of the circumstances through which [I am] made to pass" (Is It Possible? vol. 3).

Daily during this Lent I am reminding myself that I am ashes and dust, but I do so looking forward to Easter in the realization that, in and through Christ Jesus and by the power of the Spirit, God shows me what truly great things he accomplishes working with these materials. In other words, calling to mind the pity God takes on my nothingness gives me hope! With St. Paul, "I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in [me] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). Maybe, as Green Day suggests, it's not so much a question, as "an answer learned in time."

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Friday, February 26, 2010

"a little voice inside my head said 'don't look back, you can never look back'..."

The Ataris' remake of Don Henley's Boys of Summer. Man, I love this song and this version of it! "I thought I knew what love was, but did I know?" Nothing!

Alas, without looking back we refuse not only to see who we are, but how God is helping us become who we are created to be. Nonetheless, in the spirit of Lent: memento mori

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Some exciting stuff

As stated in my blog header, my purpose for blogging at all "is to foster Christian discipleship in the late modern milieu in the diakonia of koinonia." I really do think that as a deacon, as a parish director of religious education, and as a Christian that being present and active on-line in this day is not optional, it is necessary. The Holy Father apparently agrees, as he encouraged priests during this year of the priest to be present on-line and, yes, to blog! Maybe he assumed that, like St. Stephen, who was supposed to be serving at table while the apostles preached, that deacons were already up and engaged on-line! I don't know!

In addition to revamping the look of Καθολικός διάκονος, I have also been at work revivifying our parish RCIA blog, which went on-line a few years ago, Vivre l'Evangile, which means "to live the Gospel" in French. Why, French, you ask? Because my parish, The Cathedral of the Madeleine, is a fracophone way of being The Cathedral of the Magdalene. It also has a connection to he work of the great French philosopher, Jacques Maritain.

This revamping is timely as we have been transitioning to the full implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in our parish, moving to a year 'round process that includes a pre-catechumenate, year-long catechumenate, and period of mystagogia after initiation. Our next group of catechumens, for whom we will celebrate the Rite of Acceptance on a Sunday of Easter, will be members of our first year-long catechumenate. This requires a revamping of our catechumenate program. I cannot tell you how excited I am that we will be using Ascend: The Catholic Faith for a New Generation as our text, our point of reference. Needless to say, I was excited this morning to find this video on the Ascend blog, The Catholic Story:

I find this video very inspiring, but not as inspiring as I am finding reading the book, which I am working through a chapter a day during Lent. As I told one of the authors, Deacon Eric Stoltz, who I am privileged to call a friend: "God always surprises me during Lent. Yesterday, I just picked up your book and started to read. It is what I needed. I don't know why, other than it just reassured me of a lot of things, mostly of God's love and the way God works in the world and in my life." Another dear friend, Fran, informs me, via a comment, that she reviewed Ascend for her diocesan newspaper (i.e., the Diocese of Albany, New York), The Evangelist.

I am also excited about using the St. John's University (Collegeville, MN) Seeing the Word lectio divina for our Sunday dismissals, beginning in the fall. Dismissals constitute our catechumens' direct engagement with sacred Scripture during their catechumenate and their period of enlightenment and purification. Through the good efforts of the Director of our diocesan Office of Liturgy, Timothy Johnston, the Cathedral is one 30 parishes nationwide piloting this program during Lent.

Those preparing to be fully incorporated into Christ's Body, the Church, at the Great Easter Vigil this year, participated in the Rite of Election/Call to Continuing Conversion this past weekend. This is always a joyus event for our local church. So, by the grace of God, Lent is proving to be a fruitful time, a springtime, a time when life bursts forth, not despite our Lenten discipline and austerity, but precisely because of it!

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Deacon's Prayer

Dear Lord, be with me now as I assist the priest in the Holy Eucharist. Let my mind and heart be focused upon the mystery of your Presence, the mystery of Your incredible self-gift. You want to share your body and blood with us all. Help me to know your personal love for me as I proclaim your word, intercede for the needs of your church, and distribute the precious blood which is life for us all. In my small tasks at your holy altar draw me closer to your through simplicity. Especially teach me, Lord, that you have called me to this altar so that I might be graced to share in your own eager availability and so serve the spiritual and corporal needs of your church. Amen.

-- from A Deacon's Retreat by Deacon James Keating

A deep diaconal bow to my dear friend, brother, enabler, and internet co-conspirator Deacon Greg Kandra, from whose blog The Deacon's Bench on Beliefnet, a daily must read, I gently lifted this lovely prayer composed by a fellow deacon.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Being Catholic in Utah

This evening I was to pointed an article that ran in the Deseret News back on 1 February: Catholicism has a rich, varied history in Utah. This very brief article is accompanied by seventeen pictures, which tell the story of the Catholic Church in Utah over the past 30 years, or so. I have to say that with our centennial coming to a close yesterday when we observed the dedication of the Cathedral, which is a solemnity for the parish and so was a reprieve from Lenten discipline, that the local news media has been very good to the Catholic Church and the Cathedral over this past year. Something that Bishop Wester pointed out at the end of our noon Mass yesterday.

As it is Lent and I work with the people going through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at the Cathedral, I am reminded that this year marks my 20th anniversary as Catholic. I was thrilled that among the pictures accompanying the Deseret News story, was the picture below:

This photograph features Fr. Tom DeMan, OP, who was the pastor of the University of Utah Newman Center/St. Catherine of Siena parish when I became Catholic. Fr. Tom, who served there with Fr. Thomas Kraft, OP (Tom and Thomas then, Peter and Pete at the Newman Center now), prepared me to enter the church, baptized, confirmed, and brought me into full communion. Of the two students in the picture, I remember Consuelo (the darkhaired girl) who was finishing her studies and leaving as I was arriving. This must have been some kind of official photograph because I never saw Fr. Tom wear a Roman collar. He wore his Dominican habit a lot. When he was not in his habit he wore khaki pants and polo shirts with Birkenstocks. The first time I met him I thought he was the custodian or a plummber because he was in work clothes fixing a pipe in the sacristy.

At Easter I hope to find and post the picture of me being baptized.

While I am on the subject of being Catholic in Utah, you may have heard that His Eminence, Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago and president of the USCCB is here. After touring the campus, he spoke at BYU this afternoon about faith in the public square, and dined with the LDS Quorum of the Twelve this evening.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Hierarchy update

The Holy See announced this morning that Fr. Terry LaValley has been named bishop of the Diocese Ogdensburg, New York and that Msgr. Joseph Bambra will be the next bishop of the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania. It is very rare that a priest is named the bishop of the diocese he is from, but both of these men are from their respective dioceses. Both bishops-elect are 53 years-old.

These appointments, which fill vacancies without creating new ones, leave only three vacant Latin Rite dioceses in the United States: Harrisburg, PA; LaCrosse, WI; Springfield in Illinois. Additionally, there are two archbishops (Brunett of Seattle and Beltran of Oklahoma City) and two bishops (Skylstad of Spokane, WA and Higi of Layfayette in Indiana) serving past the canonically mandated retirement age of 75. All of these prelates have submitted their resignations to the Holy See, the Holy Father has yet to accept them.

The Holy See has been most generous to the churches in the United States, not letting churches linger for long without bishops. The pace of episcopal appointments last year and now this year is likely unprecedented.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Monday, February 22, 2010

He is if he changes

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Monsignor Luigi Giussani. I am tempted to follow that first statement with the phrase, "founder of Communion and Liberation," but that is just too pale to apply to Don Giussani. Much better to write that through Giussani God gave a powerful charism, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, to the church and to the world, a charism that struck me in 1994 when I read a little pamphlet that was sent out with issues of the Italian magazine 30 Giorni nella chiesa e nel mondo (i.e., 30 Days in the church and in the world). The booklet was entitled He Is If He Changes. I was a Philosophy student at the time, a convert of some three years who was eagerly looking for connections between the philosophy I was studying and theology, about which I knew little. He Is If He Changes was a tremendous help, as was Anglican theologian John Macquarrie's Hensley Henson lectures delivered in Oxford during the 1993-94 academic year, published as Heidegger and Christianity, but I digress.

Giussani died the same year as his friend, a great supporter of the Movement, the pope who, in 1982, elevated CL to an "Association of Pontifical Right," John Paul II. In fact, Giussani pre-deceased JPII by only 42 days. Because John Paul II was very ill, he did not go to Milan to celebrate the funeral of his friend, but instead sent then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as papal delegate to preside at the liturgy. Ratzinger, too, was a friend of Giussani's and, not only a friend of the Movement, but involved in the Movement. This great theologian who succeeded John Paul II is said to have told another priest that Giussani "changed my life." Now, as Pope Benedict XVI, his papal household is managed by members of Memores Domini, a part of CL, the members of which live consecrated lives (i.e., vows of poverty, obedience, and celibacy) in the world and with whom the Holy Father gathers for School of Community.

In his homily at Don Giussani's funeral, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said: "Fr Giussani always kept the eyes of his life and of his heart fixed on Christ. In this way, he understood that Christianity is not an intellectual system, a packet of dogmas, a moralism, Christianity is rather an encounter, a love story; it is an event." These words are echoed towards the beginning of his first encyclical as pope, Deus Caritas Est: "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" (par. 1). It is fitting that Giussani entered eternity, realized his destiny, the destiny to which he encouraged so many to "see," teaching us that it does not lie over the horizon, but is present here and now, a Presence that accompanies us always and everywhere, on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

Beyond all the grandeur, all the papal approval is the fact that Giussani changed my life. As I write I can feel my heart swelling with gratitude to God for him. It is Luigi Giussani who taught me how to be a witness of what I have seen and heard, that is, of what I experience.

Addendum: My dear friend Suzanne over on Come to See shares something very wonderful about Giussani in her post Shouting and other expressions of love.

Don Giussani- pray for us!

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What's the big idea?

If one thing is evident as we enter into the second decade of the twenty-first century it is that the time of big ideas is over. It seems that the era of big ideas really got going in the nineteenth century, when great systems were hatched, these are all-encompassing ways of looking at the world. I am thinking here of Hegelianism, Marxism, Kantianism, Darwinism, Freudianism, et. al. Even Christians got in on the act, constructing large theological systems rooted in various schools of philosophical, scientific, even in schools of nascent social scientific (i.e., sociology, economics, psychology) thought. It was not until the twentieth century that these ideas, these systems, showed us in horrifying clarity that ideas have consequences.

Whatever other deficiencies Nietzsche's thought has, his basic thrust and parry is to reject and prophetically denounce these largely inhuman and inhumane systems, which, in his day, grew to include parts of European Christianity. It was Fyodor Dostoevsky who explained that the only predictive power most of these systems could muster was through coercion and manipulation. Søren Kierkegaard who, much like the prophet Hosea, in the specific instance of Danish Lutheranism being infected with Hegelianism, offered a critique of Christianity for whoring after these overarching systems. Oh, the horrors of the age of ideology! A good thing about all the new media (i.e., cell phones, iphones, internet, Skype, etc.) is that it all helps to level things by toppling many of these imposed ideologies and the not-so-sacred hierarchies each generated, but these, too, can be dehumanizing.

"In the time when new media was the big idea/that was the big idea" (from U2's song Kite). To illustrate, not with a big idea, but an experience, I point to an article from The Front Porch Republic that my dear friend Suzanne recently brought to my attention: Facebook and Friendship, which, in turn, points to an October 2008 article in the New York Times magazine by Hal Niedzviecki in which he writes about inviting his 700-or-so Facebook friends to a party and only one bothered to come. Yes, I understand the irony of this paragraph, the paradox inherent in getting my point across in this way!

There is good news, that is, euvangelion (Greek- eu= good; angelion= message): Christianity is not a big idea! It is a singular person, a human being, Jesus Christ, the one who died and rose from the dead. Pope Benedict made this clear this past Christmas through his homilies by stating plainly that Christ is God's sign who "makes himself small for us." He becomes "so small so that we [can] understand him, welcome him, and love him." So small does Jesus become "that our hands can enclose him." This small idea is something I can deal with today.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Parshat Acharei Mot

In Torah, Leviticus chapter ten to be exact, the first two verses to be even more exact, we read about an episode involving Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu. Like their father, Nadab and Abihu are designated priests of the LORD, as are all males of Israel belonging to the tribe of Levi. In this episode, these two sons of Aaron enter the portable tabernacle to make an offering of incense to the LORD. The fire they offer and the manner in which they offer it is not in keeping with what is commanded by the LORD, it is, in the words of Torah "a strange fire," an aysh zarah (Lev. 10:1). No sooner than they made their strange offering a fire that "went out from the LORD consumed them and they died before the LORD" (Lev. 10:2).

Most often this story is interpreted flatly, which is to say that we read as though Nadab and Abihu messed up, enraged God, and were struck down for doing something that was not permitted. Turning yet again to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's magnificent work, 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, which I am not so much reading as mining, she puts into the mouth of a Hasidic rabbi an interpretation of the strange fire offered by the sons of Aaron straight out of Jewish kabbalistic midrash, an explanation given by the Arizal (i.e., one Isaac Luria, a sixteenth century Galilean rabbi, mystic, and master of kabbalah- Arizal meaning Lion), which is a mystical interpretation, one that is at odds with more conventional interpretations.

The rebbe begins by citing the third verse of Leviticus chapter ten to the effect that Aaron was speechless. In typical English translations, it is stated even more clearly: "And Aaron held his peace." The rebbe goes on: Aaron's "silence was not only of words but of all reaction." Keep in mind this is in response to two of his sons, his heirs, being struck down! "Not a single tear crossed his cheek. Not a groan or wail escaped his lips," our interpreter says. The rebbe asks, "Was he speechless from horror? From grief?" "Maybe from self-protection, afraid to cross a line when, at that moment, the Judgment from On High had descended? Or was [Aaron's] the silence of an understanding that has answered its own question?" What does he mean here, to what is our Hasidic rabbi alluding? "What", the rebbe asks, "could have kept him from crying out after them?"

It is here that the rebbe pulls in Arizal "[i]n the last dr'ash that the Arizal gave before his death..." he compares the sons of Aaron "to the fawns of the gazelle." According to the Zohar, which, quoting Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, is "[t]he most famous work of kabbalah," with its origins in the thirteenth century, the gazelle "requires the serpent's bite in order to give birth." Based on this comparison, the rebbe, says, "Nadab and [Abihu] were...sacrifices, to hasten the coming of the Moshiach" (i.e., the Messiah). Hence, "[d]o not make the mistake of thinking that" the strange fire could be "idol worship." After all, the nephews of Moshe Rabenu (i.e., Moses our rabbi, the Lawgiver) would never give in to idolatry! So, on this kabbalistic interpretation, "[t]he strange fire was the redemptive fire that leaps out to purify the world, consuming the innocent only to return them back again in to the holy service, as it will always be, the gilgul turning round and round until the redemption of our days." He ends with, "may it be in our lifetime, Amen." For those of us in Utah, with our famous Gilgal Garden, it may be interesting to note that Gilgul neshamot is a kabbalistic term meaning something like "cycle of souls". As such, it is also something of heretical concept, as reincarnation is not found anywhere in Torah.

Of course, the more conventional reading of this astounding episode, is set forth by Robert Alter in his magisterial The Five Books of Moses. Alter tells us that Nadab and Abihu "would have filled the fire pans with glowing coals, not actual fire." He also points out that the adjective we transliterate as "alien," "strange" (i.e., zarah), or, in the case of the English Standard Version, to which I linked, "unauthorized," which is also an interpretation, one that certainly would not permit the kabbalistic interpretation given by the Arizal, likely means "unfit." Zarah, according to Alter, probably "indicates in cultic contexts a substance or person not consecrated for entrance or use in the sacred precinct, which is what prompts later translators to use "unauthorized." Alter further observes: "The consensus of of modern interpreters, with precedents in the classical Midrash," as opposed to mystical, that is, kabbalistic Midrash, "is that the fire is 'alien' because it has been taken from a profane source - e.g., coals taken from an ordinary oven."

Since the source of the coals is not given in the text, it remains an open question. It is the source of the fire, I think, on which the kabbalistic interpretation turns, as it could not be taken from a profane source and, as the rebbe points out, because it is unthinkable that Moses' nephews would engage in idolatry. The other axis on which the mystical interpretation turns is Aaron's peaceful response to his sons' being struck down. It is inconceivable to the rebbe that holy Aaron, the first high priest, would not be moved by sight of his sons being consumed by fire. But was it not Aaron's idea to fashion the ēggel hazâhâḇ, the golden calf (Exo. 32:1-4)?

Even today, for cultic (i.e., worship) purposes we do not light the sanctuary candles around the altar with a match, but with a beautiful brass taper, though we light the taper with a match.

In the words of John Cleese from Monty Python's Contractual Olibgation album: "And it came to pass that Saint Victor was taken from this place to another place... Here endeth the lesson."

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Friday, February 19, 2010

"I could possibly be fading, or have something more to gain"

Mazzy Star's Into Dust is our traditio for this first Friday of Lent.

I remember being at a diocesan meeting a few years back and talking about how a newly established parish in our diocese was faring. The parish was having Mass in a movie theater and holding religious education classes in a building in a cemetery. Sr. Patricia said you could look out the window at the graveyard. Memento mori, indeed.

Of course, we tend to lift our gaze above the plane of earth to the horizon beyond and yearn, that is, desire that for which we are made: the eternal. Death is the gate of eternity and it looks to me a lot like the images in today's video: awful. Please do not conflate awful with ugly. Use it precisely= full of awe.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

I always find it amazing how we conflate words, especially words that are important. For example, we conflate infinite and aeternal (i.e., eternal). Both words have negative prefixes (i.e., in and ae), but finitude has to do with space and aeternity with time. When we discuss the divine nature we say God is infinite and aeternal, that is, God is not bounded by space nor limited by time. A little closer to my point, we also conflate repent and guilt, as well as guilt and contrition. On my view, which arises from my experience, guilt is what leads me to contrition, which means being truly sorry for my sins. In this way, true contrition leads to true repentance. On Monday I quoted the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who sums this up well: "To repent is not to feel bad but to think differently." So, while contrition is necessary for repentance it is not sufficient in of itself. What allows us to move through guilt to contrition and ultimately to repentance, to perceiving things in a new way, is mercy. God's mercy, as Brit Hume recently, controversally, and correctly pointed out, much to the chagrin and even embarassment of some of his colleagues in the news media, is Jesus Christ.

This brings me finally to the conflation that concerns me this morning, the conflation of justice and equality. As Bishop N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England and a leading scholar of the New Testament and the early church, pointed out last summer in an article for The Times of London, in which he addresses a vexing issue that gives rise to a lot of confusion precisely because of the frequent failure to make important distinctions when we address it, "the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls...never means 'treating everybody the same way', but 'treating people appropriately', which involves making distinctions between different people and situations." It strikes me that our unwillingness and increasing inability to make important, if sometimes detailed, distinctions between different people and situations is the pressure point at which we try to jam these two words together. Stated simply, justice and equality are not the same, there is no identity.

The Holy Father makes much the same point as Bishop Wright in his Lenten message this year, in which he takes as his starting point Romans 3:21-22: "The justice of God has been manifested through faith in Jesus Christ." He begins his message with a reflection on the fundamental meaning of justice and by quoting one Ulpian, an ancient Roman jurist, to the effect that justice is "to render every man his due."

Our Lenten disciplines of intensified prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are time tested means of growing in our love of God and neighbor, whom we are to love without distinction, which is very difficult. Nonetheless, what it means for me to love one person concretely looks different from what it means for me to love another person. A major factor that determines this is my relationship with that person. It is not unjust for me to recognize that I have more responsibility towards wife than I do to any other woman, even my mother, or to my children than to other young people, etc. Above all, I am incapable of being perfectly just because I am limited. For example, I am neither infinite nor aeternal. So, with the psalmist, I pray: "Do not call your servant to judgment for no one is just in your sight" (Psalm 143:2).

Mercy is what brings justice and equality into conversation. God is merciful. In Christ, God gives us Divine Mercy. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, the Holy Father pointed out that "[g]race does not cancel out justice" (par. 44). Mercy is certainly a grace, the greatest of all the many graces, that is, gifts our good and loving God showers on us. Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict explains this dynamic very plainly:

"God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened" (par. 44).

This is not to assert that evildoers cannot and will not sit at that table, they can and will because Jesus Christ is our invitation to the heavenly banquet. The Holy Father's observation prescinds, I believe, from just this point. In the end, we all want the same thing: happiness, fulfillment, completion. Heaven is all of that and more. Even though it is what we are made for, let's be honest, heaven is not our due. At the end of the opening paragraph of his Lenten message, Pope Benedict asks a question posed by St. Augustine long ago: What is our due when we desert God? It is a rhetorical question which merits a one word answer: hell. But condemning us is inconsistent even with God's justice because God made us, we did not make ourselves (this is an observation that requires some explanation). God's justice requires that He take pity on our nothingness. The giving of His only begotten Son is proof positive both that God loves us, not mention how much, and that God is just. "In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10).

Before we protest that we would never desert God, let's be mindful that deserting God is a very succinct definition of sin. In other words, we would and we do desert God. Another, more traditional, way of defining sin is preferring something, some activity, even some person to God. For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

A deep diaconal bow to KRad for today's title, which I adopt as my Lenten focal point this year.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

"Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris."

"in sudore vultus tui vesceris pane donec revertaris in terram de qua sumptus es quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris" (Genesis 3:19).

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tuesday before the Great Lent

"And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil" (Luke 4:1-2a).

Jesus' "exodus" into the wilderness following His baptism by John in the Jordan "has a dual symbolism (1) the OT type of Israel in the wilderness Exodus following 'baptism' in the Red Sea and (2) our new exodus of salvation from darkness to light" through our mortal sojourn (a note on Luke 4:1 from The Orthodox Study Bible).

Today is the day before the Great Lent. Yesterday, as my friend Paul Z. pointed out over on his blog Communio, was what Eastern Christians call Clean Monday.

Lent tends to proliferate all kinds of activity, exercising more, spending less money, losing weight, etc. Not to dampen any one's enthusiasm for doing good things for themselves, but we must remain conscious that Lent is not about making ourselves healthier, wealthier, and wiser. Lent is about drawing closer to God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is about opening ourselves to God so that we can be more conformed to the image of Christ Jesus, our Lord, which means being open to how God surprises us. We must get over thinking that by doing x, combined with y, the result I achieve will be z because agape/caritas/charity/love is not calculating. Honest experience shows that God frequently opts out of our schemes. Like God giving us Christ, what we do we do gratuitously and what God does we receive in gratitude. Lent is not about regaining control, but surrendering to God, who is love (1 John 4:8.16). The means we use to accomplish this end, the only end that really matters in the end, are intensified prayer, fasting, and alms-giving.

Our holy mother, the Church, sets forth an indispensable minimum for observing Lent: fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals on all Fridays, as well as encouraging us to pray, not just more, but better, along with intentionally performing more acts of caritas. To take a page from Jeff Foxworthy: if your Lenten discipline consists of participating in a Biggest Loser competition, you might be a Jamesian pragmatist. With that said, increased fasting, to include not eating meat, eating less, or no, diary, etc., serves the primary end of drawing us closer to Christ by acknowledging Him as the bread we truly desire, but we also need to spend more time in prayer and in service to others. If some of these have the secondary or even tertiary effect of making us healthier, so be it. My point is that if loving God and our neighbor is neither objectively what our Lenten discipline aims at nor constitutes our subjective intent, it ain't Lent you're observing!

Just as Lent is not re-making ourselves into our ideal worldly image, neither is it about denigrating ourselves before God. Just prior to Lent for the past 3 or 4 years, I have read an article written by Deacon Owen Cummings for Emmanuel magazine, published by the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament: The Spirituality of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Each year I am struck by this quote from one "Harry Williams, a member of the Community of the Resurrection, " who "began a sermon on Ash Wednesday and Lent with these words: 'It is a pity that we think of Lent as a time when we try to make ourselves uncomfortable in some fiddling but irritating way. And it’s more than a pity, it’s a tragic disaster, that we also think of it as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we are'." Lent is not about making ourselves good enough for God through strenuous effort. Rather, it is about recognizing God's goodness, especially in and through the gift of His only begotten Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, and responding freely in love. Quadragesima est sancta quia Deus Caritas Est!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Miscellania for a pre-Lenten Monday

Today is President's Day, a day on which we honor our first president, George Washington, the father of our country, and our sixteenth president, the man who preserved our union, who is certainly revered as the greatest U.S. president, if not the single greatest person our still relatively young country has produced, Abraham Lincoln. Even with all of the inevitable hagiography put to the side, the achievements of these two great men are worthy of living on. Lincoln presided over our nation during a time of civil war. When it was over, in his magnificent Second Inaugural address, after pointing to the fact that the U.S. Civil War amounted to Christians fighting Christians, but nonetheless decrying the grave injustice of slavery, he said, "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged" and ending with these words:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Today also finds us on the threshold of another Lent, a time each year during which we are invited to take stock, take inventory of our lives and to endeavor, through honest effort performed in cooperation with God's grace, to change and/or modify our behavior, our thinking, our manner of being, to be more conformed to Christ. In a word, we are invited to repent. We often make repentance synonymous with guilt, meaning that to repent is to feel bad for the sins we commit.

In the second verse of the third chapter of St. Matthew's gospel, St. John the Baptizer preaches: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand". Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder's comment on this is equally short and powerful: "To repent is not to feel bad but to think differently". This single sentence captures well an idea I was trying to communicate in a homily a few years ago, the Gospel for which is Jesus' preaching at the beginning of his ministry, which begins in the very next chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel:

"Jesus’ announcement of God’s Kingdom is simple: 'Repent' (Matt. 4,17). What does it mean to repent? Does it merely mean being sorry for my sins? Well, that is contrition, which is a necessary, but not sufficient part of repentance. The Greek word used in this passage is met-an-o-eh’o, which literally means a change of mind, or, more precisely, to perceive anew. Met-an-oeh’o is a compound word consisting of the preposition meta, meaning beyond and the verb no-eh’o, which means to perceive in a new and different way, to gain deeper understanding. This change of mind/change of perception is what we call conversion, which comes through faith, the gift of God that is truly knowledge, a way of engaging reality. To convert is to change from one state to another. Changing in this way, becoming like Christ, is the means of fulfilling our deepest desire. St. Augustine expresses this human desire in a letter written to a widow: 'We want only one thing, the life which is simply life, simply happiness'."

In his message for Lent this year, the Holy Father encourages us to focus on justice, taking as his point of departure Romans 3:21-22a: "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe."

Pope Benedict sums up nicely what this passage from St.Paul demonstrates:

What we, as human beings, need most cannot be enacted by governments. "In order to live life to the full, something more intimate is necessary that can be granted only as a gift: we could say that man lives by that love which only God can communicate since He created the human person in His image and likeness. Material goods are certainly useful and required – indeed Jesus Himself was concerned to heal the sick, feed the crowds that followed Him and surely condemns the indifference that even today forces hundreds of millions into death through lack of food, water and medicine – yet 'distributive' justice does not render to the human being the totality of his 'due.' Just as man needs bread, so does man have even more need of God. Saint Augustine notes: if 'justice is that virtue which gives every one his due ... where, then, is the justice of man, when he deserts the true God'?" (De civitate Dei, XIX, 21).

May all our Lenten disciplines serve no other end than to make us more receptive to God's gift, Jesus Christ.

This is the 1,400th post on Καθολικός διάκονος

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Blogging: responsibility, accountability, and integrity

Blogging as a Roman Catholic deacon requires responsibility, accountability, and integrity. As a deacon blogger, I strive to be responsible, to have integrity, and to be accountable. None of this means renouncing my right to express myself freely. To that end, on the main page of Καθολικός διάκονος, I have written what I call Integrity notes. These notes have appeared on my blog for the better part of two years. In addition to dealing with issues of copyright and fair use, I also have an extremely clear disclaimer:

"Due to the fact that I blog as a Roman Catholic deacon, I strive to maintain accountability by keeping my pastor informed of my activities, inviting him to read what I post, and insuring that the authorities of my diocese are also aware of my blogging. This in no way implies that what I write reflects the views of my pastor, of the Cathedral of Madeleine, or of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, or even that my views are endorsed by any of the above. Neither does any of this imply a canonically granted imprimatur or nihil obstat. To wit: all thoughts and opinions expressed on this blog are exclusively my own, especially that which proves to be stupid and/or erroneous.

"Given the purpose of this undertaking, I also look to my readers to keep me honest, constructive, and charitable."

More importantly, my wife reads what I write and post on a regular basis, often at my invitation. While it is fair to say that our opinions diverge from time-to-time, she knows what I am doing, which is important to me because this also means being responsible and accountable.

Being responsible as a writer (even one whose preferred genre is uncreative non-fiction), also requires me to be honest and authentic. The way I see my efforts here is that at a time and in a culture when Christian faith is alternately reduced either to sentimentality or to morality, it is important to take an intelligent and adult approach to the way I express my faith by attending to all the factors that constitute reality, especially in the realm of contemporary culture (i.e., literature, film, music, theater, television, et. al.). In service to that end, it is inevitable that I will be provocative and challenging from time-to-time. By no means do I expect everybody to agree with all the conclusions I draw or my way of presenting certain issues. I certainly invite disagreement, especially when it results in intelligent discussion. On the rare occasion I post something I know will cause offense, I give warning in big red letters.

Passive-aggressive is a therapeutic way of saying coward. Because it is a poor way to conduct oneself, it is contrary to the Gospel: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother," etc. (Matt. 18:15-17). So, if you have objections to what I write and you are a person with any integrity, you have three alternatives: state them to me personally by commenting on the post that provokes you, by e-mailing me, or talking to me in person; read it and remain silent; or don't read my blog. Otherwise, I have no interest in your critique.

I always do a self-reflective post on blogging during Lent. This year's came a little early.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Now for some local news...

I am happy to draw attention to two wonderful on-line developments here in the Diocese of Salt Lake City. The first is Bishop Wester's blog, Tuesday Tapestry. I welcome His Excellency to the Catholic blogosphere! I'm guessing he'll post stuff on Tuesdays.

Additionally, I am very pleased that Dr. Gary Topping's From the Archives feature is back on the main page of our diocesan website. Dr. Topping, our diocesan archivist and historian, a man whose services we are so very blessed have, is also a Cathedral parishioner. Additionally, Gary is a dear personal friend, a brilliant man with a sparkle in his eye and tremendous sense of humor, who wears his erudition lightly.

I don't mind letting the cat half way out of the bag, but Dr. Topping has written an article for our diocesan newspaper, The Intermountain Catholic, about our first bishop, Lawrence Scanlan. Bishop Scalan is interesting because for such a recent historical figure, he remains very enigmatic. For example, a few years ago Gary told me that nowhere in our extensive diocesan archive do we have anything that Bishop Scanlan preached. His article will appear in an upcoming issue. So, stayed tuned!

You will find links to both over on the right side of Καθολικός διάκονος under the Our Local Church heading.

"Love's gonna find you, yes it is..."

The J. Geils Band's Valentine's Day classic, Love Stinks, performed live at PinkPop 80, is our Friday traditio: "You'll hear it call/Your heart will fall/Then love will fly/It's gonna soar."

It's been almost two years since my Valentine's Day Go-Gos 'splosion.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes

Our Lady of Lourdes by Hector Garrido

Today is also my lovely wife's birthday. She is devoted to Our Lady. So, for her on this day, I pray:

Remember, O most blessed Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.

May the Blessed Virgin's prayers and unfailing intercession help us to rise above our human weakness.

Speaking of rising above our human weakness, in the current issue of Traces, to mark the 50th anniversary of his untimely death, Luca Doninelli has a very insightful article on Albert Camus. Her piece, A Man in Revolt, a take on his most influential and best work L'Homme révolté, is quite wonderful. One of the two quotes she uses to demonstrate Camus' "irreplaceable all of literature," taken from his Cahiers: "Beginning to give yourself means condemning yourself to never giving enough even when you give everything. And you never give everything." Our inability to give everything is an ontological limitation of our fallen humanity. Doninelli is certainly correct that the Nobel literature committee's very surprising decision to award him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957 "was perhaps the last act of true courage of the Swedish Academy."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Some fuzzy math

Sometimes it is difficult for me articulate strands of my thinking. Last Sunday, as we were discussing the Sunday readings during the dismissal of catechumens, the scriptural chain below emerged and I have been chewing on it since. It is about identity, who we are, who God is, about knowing as we are known, which is what moves us from the partial to the perfect. In her brilliant novel, 36 Arguments For The Existence Of God: A Work of Fiction, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein puts the following observation in the mouth of Jonah Elijah Klapper, Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature, and Values at Frankfurter University, ignominiously dubbed "the Klap" by the irreverent Roz: "Maimonides... was the rabbi who performed the mixed marriage between the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover and Yahweh." Undoubtedly, Moses Maimonides was guilty (if that is the right word) of identifying the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the so-called God of the philosophers, a misidentification that causes much distress, especially as regards theodicy.

Exodus 3:4-
"God called to him out of the bush, 'Moses, Moses!' And he said, 'Here I am.'" "Here I am" in transliterated Hebrew= hinei, also transliterated enni, the same word Abraham says to God when he is commanded to sacrifice Issac Gen. 1:21-22. Hinei is most literally translated "behold me."

Exodus 3:14-
"God said to Moses, 'I am who I am [= אֶהְיֶה].' And he said, 'Say this to the people of Israel, "I am [= אֶהְיֶה] has sent me to you."' - U2 begins their song Vertigo "Uno"= first part (i.e., Hebrew Scriptures); "dos"= second book (i.e., Exodus); "tres"= third chapter; "catorce" (not quatro)- fourteenth verse, an ur verse in holy writ, wherein we encounter the sacred tetragrammaton, which is either never to be spoken, or, as in Christian practice, used sparingly and always with great reverence, as the Holy See reminded us awhile back.

Recent Sunday readings:

Sunday, 31 January:
Jer. 1:5-
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

1 Cor. 13:12-
"For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known."

Sunday, 7 February:
Isaiah 6:8-
"And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' Then I said, 'Here am I! Send me.'" Again, hinei.

1 Cor. 15:10-
"But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain."

So, for what it is worth...

For those serious about Scripture study, here is a tremendous on-line resource, a Hebrew-English interlinear, with Hebrew, transliteration, and literal translation, then dynamic equivalent (i.e., the Hebrew Scriptures as we read them): Scripture4all. I can remember when doing this required me to have no fewer than three or four large volumes laid out before me, which is why I study on the floor and not at a desk.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The solemn observance of Super Bowl Sunday

Yesterday, which marked Super Bowl Sunday on the liturgical calendar, was also Meatfare Sunday. For Orthodox and many Eastern Catholics, Meatfare Sunday is the day following which no meat is eaten until Easter. Next Sunday is Cheesefare Sunday, which marks the end of eating dairy just prior to the beginning of the Great Lent, which commences Wednesday, 17 February. In this way we ease into Lenten observance. I am grateful I was able to enjoy the nice spread laid out for the Super Bowl.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention how moved I was by shots of our service men and women from an aircraft carrier and Afghanistan during the singing of America the Beautiful and our national anthem. I thought about how unifying this must be for them serving us so far from home. It made me give thanks for their service on our behalf to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

I loved the Super Bowl yesterday. Two great teams in a very close game most of the way. Given that my Raiders weren't involved and likely won't be for the foreseeable future, it was tough to root against either team, both led by quarterbacks who are great football players and great role models. Like most of the country, I was rooting for the Saints, but I was kind of heartbroken when Peyton Manning threw the pick-six. I want to point out that quite a few professional sports franchises call themselves the fill-in-the-blank Nation, this all began with the Raider's Nation, of which I am a charter member. Deacon Greg has an interesting piece over on The Deacon's Bench about Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, who is a grounded, that is, grateful guy, despite the sometimes over-the-top antics of Saints fans, which is understandable in light of yesterday's victory. Let's not forget that fan is short for fanatic.

I liked The Who's half-time show. It is such a limited format, but they did well. It was workman-like, but all about the music- I feel a traditio brewing!

I didn't write anything in the lead up to the game about the controversy surrounding Pam and Tim Tebow's pro-life Super Bowl ad for Focus on the Family. Now that it has aired I will simply say, God bless Pam and Tim. I loved their Super Bowl ad for life! I thank them for their witness, which was fortified by their refusal to defend themselves in the face of a lot of really nasty criticism. Tim's story, which is really his mother's courageous story, is compelling and rooted in experience, not ideology. Ideology is the the source from which the criticisms of their detractors sprang. Visit the Focus on the Family website to learn the story behind their inspiring ad. I thought that those of feminist bent would have something to say about Danica Patrick's Go Daddy ads instead of getting all bent out of shape about Pam Tebow's decision to give birth against the advice of her doctors. St. Gianna Molla, pray for us:

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"You have judged rightly"

Sticking with a theme that emerged last week, in the last chapter of the third volume of Is It Possible to Live This Way? on charity, Giussani is discussing virginity. He asserts that whether one is called to a life of consecrated virginity or not, that "[t]o truly love a person you need detachment." He asks, "does a man adore his woman more when he looks at her from one metre away, in awe at the being he has before him, almost on his knees, even if he's standing, almost on his knees in front of her; or, when he takes her for himself?" No! No, when he takes her for himself , it's over." The key phrase is "takes her for himself." This is an act of selfishness, self-indulgence. I think he is referring primarily to pre-marital relations, but the same can be true in marital relations, too, though not necessarily and certainly not ideally.

This remark put me in mind of Genesis 2:21-24: "So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

'This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.'

"Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." Of course, verse twenty-four is the ur-Scripture for marriage. Here the man is detached, standing at a distance and marveling.

There is nothing inherent in the text of the Gospels to indicate that St. Mary Magdalene was the prostitute who entered the house of Simon the Pharisee and washed Jesus' feet with her tears and dried them with her hair apart from this coming immediately before the author of the Gospel identifying women who accompanied Jesus, some of whom "had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities" (Luke 8:2). One of these was "Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out" (ibid). Nonetheless, this connection is certainly part of the Tradition. Hence, Giussani, to make his point about detachment clear, says, "Who possessed Magdalene the prostitute more: Christ, who looked at her for an instant while she was passing in front of him, or all the men who had possessed her? When, a few days later, that woman washed his feet in tears, she answered this question" (Luke 7:36-50).

Friday, February 5, 2010

Flowing without the need of a wound

WARNING: Graphic language

I was at work yesterday researching something when I followed a link to an article on The Huffington Post. As I finished reading the piece germane to my research I glimpsed to the right and saw this article. Not wanting to pursue this line of inquiry at work, I waited until this evening to read The 7 Weirdest Things Women Do To Their Privates, which, in addition to reporting something Jennifer Love Hewitt said on George Lopez's show about vagazzling her vajayjay (a variation of words she used), provides a link to an article on AltNet, by Andy Wright: The 6 Weirdest Things Women Do Their Vaginas- HuffPo's seventh being Love Hewitt's vaggazzling.

On a certain level this is kind of funny. On another level it has do with what Catherine Breillat addresses in her film Anatomie de l'enfer, a film about which I wrote awhile back: Opposing God to nature: the denial of the ontologically obvious. The anatomy referred to in the film's title is that of a female. In the film the woman, who, like the man, is given no name, referring to her period, says, "Because of this blood they say we are impure. Sometimes they won't shake our hands... In fact, they're scared of this blood that flows without the need of a wound." A few minutes later, after saying that inserting a tampon is like giving yourself an injection, she says, "As if to staunch a wound that is painful and highly senstive."

Perhaps vaggazzling and the other six weird things propounded and made available by what Andy Wright calls, in her AltNet piece, "the beauty-industrial complex" is not as trivial as it first appears, though it remains as ridiculous.

"Ransom my heart, baby, but don't look back"

Ah, Pat is still lovely and rockin' at 57! She hit her peak in the early '80s, when I was in high school. This video is from a live show in London, Ontario, Canada back in 2007. Despite it being spontaneously shot, the sound is reasonably good. The look and feel of this video reminds me of all the shows at Fairgrounds in Salt Lake. This a good traditio for these late winter days of desolation, one of those it's us against the world, at least for one night, songs. You know the kind from way back, when you'd meet someone, have an intense encounter that seemed to alter the fabric of time/space, then you either acted like you didn't know each other the next day, or you never saw each other again?

Don Giussani asked: "You care a lot for a particular person, but how can you care for that person, how can you feel tenderness towards her, while thinking that tomorrow you may not see her anymore...?" Here's why in those days I was not capable of tenderness, that I was complicit in the cover up: "Only if you perceive the eternity of the companionship with this person, what she brings out in you, is the sign of your relationship with the eternal, only then is the relationship with this person an eternal relationship. Love for this person is eternal love." I am grateful that I have such a companion who brings out in me my relationship with the eternal. It is my prayer daily that I bring out the same in her. It was the eternal, even then during long nights spent looking for something, I didn't know what, beckoning me and now I am able to "proclaim your mighty works for you have called us out of darkness into your own wonderful light" (Preface I for Sundays in Ordinary Time).

Reducing faith to morals blinds us to how passionately God loves us. Increasingly, I come to see morality as descriptive of the life of one who follows Christ by living her/his experience, which means not seeing morality as proscriptive or prescriptive (i.e., you must not do this and you must do that). You have to be honest about your experience, which is not as easy as it sounds. Hence, you need a method.

St. Agatha, the virgin and martyr whose feast is today, gave witness to how tenderness for another is rooted in eternity when she said to Quintianus, "My courage and my thought be so firmly founded upon the firm stone of Jesus Christ, that for no pain it may not be changed; your words be but wind, your promises be but rain, and your menaces be as rivers that pass, and how well that all these things hurtle at the foundement of my courage, yet for that it shall not move"- ora pro nobis!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"...we must refuse to speak in sanitized clinical euphemisms"

This is a re-posting of something I wrote last summer for la nouvelle théologie. It is provocative and was written after being provoked. I still intend to post something on our increasing tendency to work from an androgynous anthropology, which is what the Holy Father sought to address and, to a degree, correct in his 2008 Christmas speech to the Roman Curia, which I quote below. I will link again to a Communio article that really sets forth this contention: Liberal Androgyny: “Gay Marriage” and the Meaning of Sexuality in Our Time, by David S.Crawford, who serves as assistant dean and assistant professor of moral theology and family law at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

WARNING: Graphic language

Last year I wrote a lot about married sex and porn, especially about the toll it takes on the lives of those who make it. I also harshly critiqued a certain post-feminist approach to matters of sex. It almost goes without saying, that our Evangelical sisters and brothers, especially those younger than, say, 50, do a better job of discussing sex and the spiritual life more frankly and biblically than do we Catholics. As in all things there are exceptions, like Dawn Eden, who [wrote] unabashedly about sex and the single Catholic woman, making a great case for chastity, over on The Dawn Patrol [she no longer blogs, but her wonderful insights are still available].

A couple of months ago I taught a RCIA class on sexual morality. In the end, the only thing anybody really challenged me on was masturbation, which, along with any kind of sex outside marriage, I said is objectively wrong. I also said something about how masturbation and lust always co-exist together (be careful about about metaphors and similes when discussing sex!) and that indulging in masturbation can be enslaving because it can all too easily, at least for men, become compulsive, that is, something over which you have little or no control. I also said that masturbation and the lust that goes along with it render a man less capable and, if it goes too far for too long, ultimately incapable, of engaging in healthy intimate relationships with women. One reason for this is because intimacy gets reduced to sex, becomes a euphemism for sex.

With the 24/7 availability of Internet porn-on-demand, the way the lust that fuels the desire to masturbate often gets flowing and sustained is by viewing pornography. So, I want to draw attention to a resource from The Resurgence blog, which "is an outgrowth of the teaching ministry of Mars Hill Church," a thriving Evangelical community in Seattle. The free on-line booklet, written by Pastor Mark Driscoll, who has generated no small amount of controversy with some of his comments on sex, is available as a .pdf. The booklet is entitled, Porn Again Christian: a frank discussion on pornography and masturbation. The booklet begins with this statement:

"You are part of a culture that spends more money each year on pornography than country music, rock music, jazz music, classical music, Broadway plays, and ballet combined. In Paul’s day, he accused some people of worshiping their stomachs as their god, and in our day it appears that our god has simply moved a short distance south" (pg. 3).
For whom did Mark Driscoll write this book? "[M]en wanting to encourage other men to lives of purity, I pray this booklet would be a useful and readable piece of literature that you could pass on to as many dudes as possible as a pedagogical tool for cranial-rectal extraction" (pg. 3). I am trying to pass it along for just that purpose.

I agree very much with what Pastor Mark has to say, when he writes: "there is a propensity in many churches to take sexuality out of the hands of theologians and place it in the hands of secular counselors, whose philosophy is dominated by unbiblical evolutionary concepts of humanity and gender. This error prevents the church from speaking about men and women because they’re only permitted to see androgynous humanity" (pg. 5). This is something of a pastoral take on what the Holy Father said in his Christmas speech to the Roman Curia regarding the need for a new ecology of man:
"What is necessary is a kind of ecology of man, understood in the correct sense. When the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman and asks that this order of creation be respected, it is not the result of an outdated metaphysic. It is a question here of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation, the devaluation of which leads to the self-destruction of man and therefore to the destruction of the same work of God. That which is often expressed and understood by the term 'gender', results finally in the self-emancipation of man from creation and from the Creator. Man wishes to act alone and to dispose ever and exclusively of that alone which concerns him. But in this way he is living contrary to the truth..."

As much as I appreciate and highly value his booklet, I am in deep disagreement with chapter 5. I cannot recommend this booklet without addressing these issues. The main issue is his view, not just on masturbation, but marital sexuality. Another, lesser issue, is with lust. Driscoll writes that "Scripture does not forbid masturbation outright because there are some occasions in which it may be done in an acceptable and sinless way" (pg. 22). This way of putting it begs the question. In other words, this seems more like eisegesis than exegesis, a reading into instead of an authentic interpretation from. If he is to avoid the fallacy of begging the question, it seems the argument he has to make is- since Scripture does not outright forbid masturbation, it is, at least in some cases, permissible. If this is the case, this, too, is bad logic. One cannot validly infer from the fact that something is not forbidden outright that is, even sometimes, alright.

According to the teaching of the Church, "masturbation is... the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure" (Catechism 2352). I find this definition too broad. After all, would not sexual intercourse be masturbation under this definition? The Catechism continues by quoting the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith's 1975 declaration, Persona Humana, to the effect that by masturbating: "sexual pleasure is sought outside of 'the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.'" So, I offer what I hope is a more precise definition: masturbation is the deliberate and, usually, manual stimulation of one's own sexual organs for purpose of deriving sexual pleasure. Given that, it is impossible to see how Genesis 2:24 can be used as a proof text to justify masturbation in marriage.

Driscoll also employs verses from the Song of Songs, with which I do not take as much issue as I do with his use of Genesis 2:24. However, I think Song of Songs 2:3 and 4:12 are more ambiguous than his use of them indicates. In other words, none of the verses he cites from the Song give sanction to masturbating as long as it is with "the blessing and in the presence of one’s spouse" (pg. 19). I will grant that Song 2:6 does seem to be a fairly clear depiction of the man manually stimulating his wife. In any case, in what way does masturbation make spouses "one flesh"? It is my understanding that mutual masturbation, which for a man has to stop short of orgasm, is permissible in the marital bed as, say, foreplay. The same holds true for oral sex. Given the natural differences between men and women the same is not true vice-versa, especially if a man takes seriously that sex should be pleasurable to his wife as well as to himself. [There are several married women of my acquanitance who have taken the opportunity to disagree with this assertion since I originally posted it, thus making me less certain about it.]

I also take issue with the conclusion Pastor Mark draws from citing Titus 1:15 and Ephesians 2:3; that "[i]t is most certainly possible that a man could masturbate without violating these simple biblical principles, but highly unlikely" (pg. 21). The verse from Titus, like St. Augustine's "love God and do what you will," can easily be put to dubious use when taken out of context. I do not believe that a man can "masturbate without violating" both the letter and the spirit of the proof texts he offers. To suggest that such a thing is even possible demonstrates a Gnostic, that is, an unacceptably dualistic anthropology, one that leads to moral incoherency and confusion.

I also find it interesting that of the five reasons he gives for the immorality of masturbation, not one has to do with the fact that masturbation is not and can never be procreative. The closest he gets to this is with his second point: "masturbation is a form of monosexuality because it is sex that does not include another person. Since sex is given for such purposes as oneness (Gen. 2:24), intimate knowledge (Gen. 4:1), and comfort (2 Sam. 12:24), having sex with oneself seems to miss some of the significant biblical reasons for sexual intimacy." Additionally, Driscoll seems not so much to miss as to completely ignore, especially as it pertains to the last two verses to which he points, one "of the significant biblical reasons for sexual intimacy," having children. In fairness, I know that Driscoll, as a father, is not anti-children.

By accepting that sexual relations have no morally necessary procreative dimension, Driscoll cannot make a strong case against homosexual sex. Rowan Williams, the current archbishop of Canterbury, pointed out this problem succinctly in his highly controversial essay, written in 1989, when he was still a theology professor, The Body's Grace:

"in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures."
My guess is that Driscoll would resort to the former, deploying in a fundamentalist manner some scriptural texts, several of which are not as ambiguous as Williams would like to think. The trouble with such a move is that it does not allow one to avoid the pesky Why? question. Why does God forbid same sex relations? After all, if God is not arbitrary and capricious, and we know He is neither, there has to be a reason. Once you start explaining it according to some natural law argument, you arrive back at the contradiction that forbids homosexual sex, but permits deliberately non-procreative heterosexual sex. What is important here is that in his first point against masturbation, he rails against it as "bordering on homosexual activity," but, for him, you have not crossed the boundary while looking at nude pictures of your wife while traveling and manually stimulating yourself.

Driscoll himself shows the ridiculousness of employing texts in a fundamentalist manner when he rejects the use of Ecclesiastes 9:10 as a justification for masturbation (pg. 20). On the other hand (pun fully intended), this verse gives one rather little hope for the after-life. In Sheol, which is neither heaven nor hell, but a kind of limbo that is our sure destination according to the preacher, "there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom." Given the working assumption of this verse, one could turn on Longview by Green Day and well... None of this bodes well for the vital relationship between faith and reason.

"Lust," as it is defined in the Catechism, "is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes" (2351). In other words, it is not alright, as Driscoll suggests, to lust after one's own wife. On my view, it is certainly alright for a man to desire his wife, to engage in sexual relations with her, to enjoy and rejoice in such a beautiful, fun, not just life-affirming, but potentially life-giving activity! If I have not made my fundamental point explicit enough, divorcing procreation from sex is not a biblical view of sex.

Overall, I like Driscoll's direct approach largely due to the fact that we (i.e., Catholics) still tend to be fairly Manichean when it comes to sex. I even like his Q & A that comprises chapter 7. It is good and very practical, a nice change from the advice he gives in chapter 5. It was chilling to read a transcript of Ted Bundy's interview with Dr. James Dobson the day prior to his execution. I like this resource and thank Pastor Mark for making it freely available. When it comes to sex Catholics most often have no moral high ground because we too often accept as normal all kinds of behavior that is objectively immoral...

To paraphrase something that Fr. Groeschel said recently: Sanctity is despised because when we encounter it, we feel guilty. Let's not get all nutty about the word guilt. Guilt is good if it helps us to repent. Guilt is the natural and normal response of one's conscience to sin. If repentance does not occur, then it becomes a wound from which we bleed hope. I very much like Driscoll's ending- "In closing, sin leads to death. Jesus died for your sin. You are in a war. Be a man. Put your sin to death." I would just add that you need to be man enough to realize that you cannot do it alone, you need grace, you need companions. In short, you need assistance, guidance, and accountability.

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 ...