Sunday, January 30, 2011

Year A Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Zeph. 2:3; 3:12-13 Ps. 146:6-10; 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Matt. 5:1-12a

Preaching on the Beatitudes is a daunting task because they constitute the very heart of the Gospel. Therefore, it is wise to begin by looking at today’s second reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in which the apostle urges the Christians of Corinth to consider their calling, that is, their selection by God, the call to which baptism and participation in this Eucharist are responses. I think what Paul writes about the Christians in ancient Corinth applies just as well to our congregation: not many of us are wise by human standards, not many of us are powerful, which means able to influence people and events on a large scale, my guess is that not many of us belong to wealthy, influential families (1 Cor. 1:26). This brings up some questions- "Why did God choose me?" "Why did God choose us to accomplish His purpose in the world?" Surely, there must be people better equipped to help usher in the victory that Christ won for us.

Paul gives us the answer in a very straightforward way: "God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God" (1 Cor. 1:27-29). Indeed, Jesus of Nazareth was born a marginal person among a marginal people, which is why Fr. John Meyer entitled his magisterial three volume work on the historical Jesus A Marginal Jew.

"The Beatitudes," we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "take up the promises made to the chosen people since Abraham” and "fulfill the[se] promises by ordering them no longer merely to the possession of a territory, but to [the realization of] the Kingdom of heaven," which also means extending the covenant to all people (par. 1716). In addition to conveying to us "the countenance of Jesus Christ," the Beatitudes express our baptismal vocation, which begins our initiation, our immersion, into the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection (par. 1717). These teachings constitute the very core of Christian praxis, shedding "light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life" (par. 1717). On Christian terms, the best way of determining the authenticity of these teachings is to see that "they are the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations; they proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ's disciples; they have begun in the lives of the Virgin Mary and all the saints" (par. 1717).

What is meant by calling them paradoxical? Well, let’s look at just one-"Blessed are those who mourn" (Matt. 5:4). It is important to note that the word "blessed," with which Jesus begins each of the nine beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel, is the Greek word makarioi, which simply means "happy." Well, for anyone who is now mourning, or who has ever mourned, probably one word you would not use to describe this experience is "blessed," let alone "happy." As the text indicates, happiness is not the result of mourning, but the result of being comforted. The paradox, then, arises from the fact that in order to be comforted you must first mourn. Another way to translate the Greek word we usually translate as "shall be comforted" is, hearkening back to the Latin Vulgate, "consoled," which comes from the word consolatio, which suggests being with another in her/his solitude precisely so that s/he ceases to be alone. But even when we think of being comforted in our mourning our thoughts likely turn to someone putting their arm around us, or giving us a hug, and telling us it will be alright. While this is nice and, for most of us, even necessary, it does not make us happy because it cannot change what has happened that caused us to mourn in the first place. It is possible to analyze each of the beatitudes in this way. For instance, how can persecution of the kind our Christian sisters and brothers are now experiencing throughout the Middle East be a source of happiness? It is not the persecution that makes them happy, but Christ’s promise of the kingdom of heaven.

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (deacon), by Valentin de Buologne 1621-1622

Death and suffering are for many great obstacles to faith. In his encyclical letter, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict addresses the issue of suffering, which, he notes, "stems partly from our finitude and partly from the mass of sin which has accumulated over the course of history" (par. 36). While following Christ requires us to "do all we can to overcome suffering," our finitude prevents us from simply banishing "it from the world altogether" (par. 36). "[O]nly a God who personally enters history by making himself man and suffering within history," the Holy Father continues, is powerful enough to do this (par. 36). Hence, only through faith in the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death has "hope for the world's healing… emerged in history," making it a well-founded hope (par. 36). Christ does not just give us hope, he is our hope. It is our hope, which is not yet fulfillment, the Holy Father teaches, "that gives us the courage to place ourselves on the side of good even in seemingly hopeless situations" (par. 36). When we speak of the theological virtue of hope, which, like faith and love, is a gift from God, too often we think of it as synonymous with wishing, but what it really indicates is trusting in a promise. As we all know from experience, a promise is only as good as the one who makes it.

Our desire for happiness, that is, for beatitude "is of divine origin," which "God has placed" in every human heart in order to draw each one of us to Himself (par. 1718). As St. Thomas Aquinas observed, "God alone satisfies" (par. 1718, quoting Exposition on the Apostles Creed, I). Everyone wants to be happy. "In the whole human race," wrote St. Augustine, "there is no one who does not assent to this proposition" (par. 1718 quoting Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, 1.3.4). So, the Beatitudes show us the goal of our existence, which is happiness, total and complete satisfaction, not just eventually, but right now! Indeed, in every circumstance we face "God calls us to [experience] his own beatitude" (Catechism, par. 1719). This call is addressed to each one of us personally and to the whole church, which is comprised of "the new people," about whom Zephaniah prophesied, the people who believe the promise "and live from it in faith" (Catechism, par. 1719).

Let’s end as we began, by turning to First Corinthians, where read that "Christ Jesus…became for us wisdom from God" and that he is our "righteousness, sanctification, and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). Just as it is not enough to say that Christ gives us hope, neither is it enough to say that Christ redeemed us. We must acknowledge that He redeemed us for Himself. He is our beginning and our end. He is our beatitude. We seek beatitude because we are made for it. So, with St. Augustine, we pray- "let me seek you, [O Lord], so that my soul may live, for my body draws life from my soul and my soul draws life from you" (Confessions 10, 20). Fully recognizing this, my friends, is beatitude.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Purgatorio, the fire within

Sandro Magister's 17 January article over on Chiesa in which, prompted by Pope Benedict XVI's 12 January catechesis on St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), he took up the topic of purgatory is something I have thought a lot about this past week. St. Catherine of Genoa is best known for her vision of purgatory. In particular, Magister points out the congruence between the Holy Father's audience and a passage from his magnificent encyclical letter, which is too little known and read: Spe Salvi. I cannot think of purgatory, however, without taking into consideration N.T. Wright's objections to what he sees as a late-developing and uniquely Catholic doctrine.

Wright lays out his objection to the doctrine of purgatory in a chapter of his book Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. In fact, Wright's vehement argument that purgatory is effectively a made-up doctrine, like the doctrine of limbo- that place in between heaven and hell that was posited to give unbaptized infants a place to go and that was effectively retracted by the International Theological Commission, which belongs to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a 2007 document that was some ten years in the making, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized- sparked a charge of anti-Catholicism against him by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. The good news is that these two friends, while never agreeing about purgatory, did attain reconciliation. Anyone who is interested can read Fr. Neuhaus' objections to Wright's critique in his piece The Possibilities and Perils in Being a Really Smart Bishop in the April 2008 issue of First Things and Wright's response in the June/July 2008 issue of the same journal.

It is not my intent to lay out Wright's argument contra purgatory at great length. "Purgatory," he correctly observes, "is basically a Roman Catholic doctrine. It is not held as such in the Eastern Orthodox church, and it was decisively rejected, on biblical and theological grounds and not merely because of antipathy to particular abuses [i.e., the selling of indulgences] at the Reformation." Wright goes on to accurately observe that purgatory was intially laid out at some length by "Aquinas in the thirteenth century and Dante in the early fourteenth." It is here that Bishop Wright points out something very vital about purgatory that gives the idea impetus and theological credibility, namely that as a result of these treatments of purgatory, likely more Dante's than Aquinas', "the notion became woven deeply into the entire psyche of the whole period." Of course it remains deeply woven into the psyche of subsequent periods, too. Wright goes on to note that "[t]he poetic and dramatic power of the idea of purgatory is evident," not only in Dante, but also in Newman's lovely poem Dream of Gerontius.

Lust, which artwork based on Dante's Purgatorio I chose due to another post I read and commented on today

The his catechesis on St. Catherine of Genoa, the pope notes that "Catherine, in her mystical experience, never received specific revelations on purgatory or on the souls being purified there." Nonetheless, in her writings about purgatory we encounter "characteristics that were original in her time." First among her unique insights is "the 'place' of the purification of souls." Prior to her time purgatory "was depicted mainly using images linked to space: a certain space was conceived of in which purgatory was supposed to be located." For Catherine purgatory is "an interior fire." This insight flows from "her own experience of profound sorrow for the sins committed, in comparison with God’s infinite love." So, from the first "moment of [her] conversion... [she] suddenly became aware of God’s goodness, of the infinite distance of her own life from this goodness and of a burning fire within her. And this is the fire that purifies, the interior fire of purgatory." So, rather than locating purgation in the afterlife, St. Catherine "begins with the inner experience of her own life on the way to Eternity."

"'The soul', Catherine says, 'presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God'. Catherine asserts that God is so pure and holy that a soul stained by sin cannot be in the presence of the divine majesty." We, too, are "aware of the immense love and perfect justice of God and consequently [we] suffer for having failed to respond in a correct and perfect way to this love." The Holy Father concludes that "love for God itself becomes a flame, love itself cleanses it from the residue of sin."

Magister points out that the relevant parts of Spe Salvi are paragraphs 43-48. Central to this part of the Holy Father's letter on hope is when he points to the writings of "recent theologians" who "are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation 'as through fire'. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God" (par. 47).

As Pope Benedict and Bishop Wright both indicate, such matters are too important to be left entirely to theologians. Painters, poets, composers and, in modern times, film-makers demonstrate how consonant the doctrine of purgatory is with the human heart (how deeply woven it is into our Christian psyche), arising from our experience of being fallen creatures in a fallen world, albeit one in the process of being redeemed and purified (Rom. 8:18-30). The obvious example is the Purgatorio of Dante's Divine Comedy (I urge you to check out the Divine Comedy via the University of Texas' wonderful website). Cardinal Newman's Dream of Gerontius holds a special place for me, as does Elgar's brilliant oratorio that sets Newman's poem to music, which I was privileged to hear at The Cathedral of the Madeleine back in August 2009.

Friday, January 28, 2011

"Nothin's gonna help you more than rock n' roll"

I heard this song on Monday morning and, well, it just hit me in the heart with a much needed ray of light. So, Boston's Feelin' Satisfied is this Friday's traditio:

"You gotta have a little rock 'n' roll music
To get you through the stormy weather
And do whatever you feel"

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Experiencing resurrection in the here and now

Today I glanced over the notes from Fr. Carrón's most recent School of Community, in which he discussed the final chapter of the third volume of Is It Possible to Live This Way:? An Unusual Approach to Christian Existence. The chapter is about virginity and how it applies to the lives of all Christians.

As I scrolled down my eyes came to rest on the words of a letter written to Fr. Carrón by a woman whose father-in-law passed away suddenly (through a mutual friend, Carlo, I was able to learn that her name is Rossella). Given the circumstances I am living I was very struck by her words, not because I am bereft, but because her words are descriptive of, or at least consistent with, my own recent experiences:

God the Father, by Quellinus Erasmus II, 1682
"I also felt moved by the tenderness the Mystery had for us in these last few days, because He had us experience a fatherhood that is even bigger than this man’s. Pain did not crush us. Instead, it put us face to face with the need for conversion, so we had to wonder: we had to ask ourselves questions about the reasonableness of faith. Saying that not everything is over with death, and that he is in the Lord’s arms, is either just an idea, or it is because of the Presence that we have experienced ever since we encountered the movement. So, faced with something about which the whole world can only say, "I am sorry: I have no words"...the funeral, and friends have been the sign of a Man Who has entered our life, and Who can say, 'Woman, don’t cry!' So the question about my father-in-law’s destiny made me realize that this fatherhood dominates all my days, more so than my feelings (which otherwise would be low, due to the recent circumstances). Whatever happens, I am embraced."

What can save us from ourselves?: The tragedy in Arizona

I noted in the immediate aftermath of the tragic shootings in Tucson, Arizona that ideological moralizing is an inadequate response to evil. Beyond that, it is an act of self-deception, in which we try to convince ourselves that a few feeble legislative actions will solve the problem of evil in the world. The following is a statement by Communion and Liberation in the U.S. on this horrendous event and proposes the only adequate response, Christ Jesus, the Lord:

Who cannot be saddened and sickened by the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and seventeen others, including six who died, among whom was a nine year-old girl? Yet, we so quickly seek the source of blame. We announce our findings. We accuse others or inadequate policies. We provide solutions that can be implemented. Then we argue about them for a time and move on. These events, however, invite us to ask profound questions, such as why such a thing should have happened in the first place, or to ask questions regarding the meaning of justice and evil.

We all thirst for love and truth, for goodness and fulfillment, and the shootings in Tucson outrage us for they contradict these desires. Yet, despite our thirst, evil dwells in all of us. This dramatic event is a reminder of the wound that affects each and every one of us, a reminder of our own evil.
We desire justice, and yet human justice is so limited in front of evil: it possesses so little power to restore the good destroyed by it. No one can give back the lives of those killed. No policy can resurrect a nine year-old girl. There is only One who possesses the power to restore all the good destroyed and he ardently desires to use it: God. “Man […] needs an answer that he himself cannot give,” as Pope Benedict states in his most recent book.

What is needed on our part? That our thirst for happiness become a simple acceptance of the gift of His presence among us. A real conversion is needed, and “Part of this conversion is putting God in the first place again. […] We must, so to speak, dare again the experiment with God—so as to allow him to work within our society.”(Benedict XVI)

We offer the words of Pope Benedict in his homily on Christmas Eve as the most adequate statement on such a tragedy, particularly pained by the suffering of the families of those who died or were wounded:

"God has anticipated us with the gift of his Son. God anticipates us again and again in unexpected ways. He does not cease to search for us, to raise us up as often as we might need. He does not abandon the lost sheep in the wilderness into which it had strayed. God does not allow himself to be confounded by our sin. Again and again he begins afresh with us. But he is still waiting for us to join him in love. He loves us, so that we too may become people who love, so that there may be peace on earth."

Communion and Liberation
January, 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"East Germany with a good PR company"

Sadly, conservatism in the U.S. usually gets conflated to a few silly notions mostly revolving around firearams and free market economics. However, there is a conservatism worthy of the name, one that takes its cues not from any powerful gun lobby and especially not from big multinational corporations, but a conservatism that seeks above all to conserve our humanity. To my mind, Mr. Peter Hitchens, whose brother is Christopher Hitchens, is an exemplar of what I am tempted to call "true conservatism." This kind of thinking is also articulated very well in the writings and observations of G.K. Chesterton.

In his Mail Online blog on Monday, Hitchens, being "profoundly bored by scandal" turns to writing about what he calls "small matters." He writes about how we have let ourselves become enslaved to our gadgets. His frustration with his cellular phone leads him to the observation I want to take note of, namely his "many reasons" to doubt "that 'market forces', left to themselves, will make us all free and happy." He goes on to observe that these "market forces" often seem more "like East Germany with a good PR company and more efficient distribution. East German cities used to have uniform high streets in which the same basic goods were available everywhere, or not available, in more or less identical shops. So do we, except that we have an illusion of variety. And before anyone goes on about fresh fruit and vegetables, I have been virtually unable to find a fresh Cox's Orange Pippin apple this season (a pulpy, smooth-skinned impostor which tastes as if it has been in a chiller for ten years and goes soft in a day, is offered under this name, but it is not a proper rough-skinned Cox) and only a very few decent Russets. Foreign varieties, often from the far side of the world, are sold here even during the English apple season."

Hearkening back to my post from a week ago Monday, Hitchens gives more concrete examples of his thesis, like the "razor that worked" just fine, but has now "been improved, and replaced by another one that is far more expensive and actually not as good. The marmalade that you like has been wiped off the stock list of all the (supposedly competitive) supermarket chains, and can now only be obtained by mail order via the United States, though it is made in Manchester."

His point is that we are not the driving force behind the market. Rather, the market drives us. More choice does not equal more freedom. I went to a store last week to find black shoelaces. What an enlightening experience that was! In other words, having 100 kinds of soda pop to choose from does not equal freedom. Of course, the fix is not massive governmental interference or regulation, but a recognition of the dehumanizing forces at play and the appropriate resistance this recognition calls forth.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Paulussturz (i.e., Spill of Paul), by Parmagianino, 1527-1528

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, which is undoubtedly a most important event, not just in the history of the church, but in all of salvation history. Saul of Tarsus, a Jew, steeped in Hellenistic culture, and also a Roman citizen, was uniquely positioned for the apostolic role assigned him by divine providence. As both of my readers know, I do a lot with the writings of St. Paul throughout the year. So, let's be content today just to read Paul's account of his own conversion:

"For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

"Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, 'He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.' And they glorified God because of me" (Gal. 1:11-24- ESV).

St. Paul, holy apostle, pray for us!

Last Sunday the English edition of Il Sussidiario published an article I initially posted over on Cahiers Péguy, where I post occasionally. I also contribute to Il Sussidiario on a fairly regular basis.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hierarchy update

The Holy See announced today that Bishop Robert Vasa, who, until today, served as bishop of the Diocese of Baker, Oregon, will become coadjutor to Bishop Daniel Walsh for the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California. Bishop Walsh turns 75, the canonically mandated age at which bishops must submit their resignations to the pope, in October 2012. Most often a coadjutor is appointed at the request of the retiring bishop, particularly if he is considering retirement before reaching 75, which he can do for serious reasons, such as declining health.

With this move the number of vacant Latin Rite dioceses increases to 5: Baker, OR; Salina, KS; Fresno, CA; Joliet in Illinois; Rapid City, SD. The Ruthenian archeparchy of Pittsburgh also remains vacant.

There remain eight ordinaries serving past age 75- Justin Cardinal Rigali archbishop of Philiadelphia; Bishops Boland of Savannah, GA; Sevilla of Yakima, WA; McCormack of Manchester, NH; Bruskewitz of Lincoln, NE; Galeone of St. Augustine, FL; Zipfel of Bismarck, ND; Gettelfinger of Evansville, IN.

Speaking of coadjutors, in February Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles turns 75 and will likely be succeeded by his coadjutor Archbishop Gómez at that time. Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Illnois also turns 75 next month.

I can't write too many of these without drawing attention to the very valuable service provided by the Catholic Hierarchy website and blog, which is worthy of your support.

Not just another "manic Monday"

What prevents today from being "just another manic Monday," at least for me, is that it marks the seventh anniversary of my ordination as a deacon, which apart from my marriage, my own baptism, confirmation and being brought into full communion (Easter Vigil 1990), along with the birth of my children, is the most significant thing that has ever happened to me. So, to my brother deacons of the Diocese of Salt Lake City who were also ordained 24 January 2004 by then-Bishop George Niederauer, I say happy anniversary and ad multos annos! On this date, too, I remember our brothers who were ordained with us and who have gone home: Gerry, Aniceto, and Scott (Chisholm), as well as our brother, Deacon Bob Quintana, ordained in the second class of deacons for our diocese, who passed away last week and whose funeral is tomorrow (thanks to Deacon Silvio Mayo for the correction concerning the class of deacons to which Deacon Qunitana belonged).

Since I have already mentioned now-Archbishop Niederauer, who celebrates the sixteenth anniversary of his episcopal ordination tomorrow on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, it is opportune to point out that today is also the forty-fifth World Communications Day. What links all of this, in addition to the fact that part of my diakonia (and by no means the main or most important part) consists of my various on-line activities, is the fact that Archbishop Niederauer, who is truly a master communicator, sits on the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Formerly he served as chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Communications. World Communications Day falls each year on the Feast of St. Francis de Sales because he is the patron saint of the Catholic press, writers, as well as journalists. While not officially proclaimed, St. Isidore of Seville, back in 2003, was proposed as patron saint of the Internet. As I mention in the caption under his image over on the right, whoever gets that job has her/his work cut out.

Each year the Holy Father issues a message for World Communications Day. In his message, promulgated today, Pope Benedict reminds those of us who take an active role in what Pope John Paul II described as "the Areopagus" of our times that "[t]o proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one's own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preference and judgments that are fully consistent with the Gospel." To me this says that Christian witness does not only consist of what we say, but how we say it; the necessity of communicating the truth with love (i.e.,agapé) (Eph. 4:15).

In his message the Holy Father succinctly describes what I hope, at least to some extent, this blog already does and what I pray it will more fully do as time goes on, namely recognizing "that the truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its 'popularity' or from the amount of attention it receives," but communicates the truth "in its integrity, instead of seeking to make it acceptable [by] diluting it," thus providing "daily nourishment" instead of just being "a fleeting attraction." "The truth of the Gospel," the pontifical message continues, "is not something to be consumed or used superficially; rather it is a gift that calls for a free response." Above all, "[e]ven when it is proclaimed in the virtual space of the web, the Gospel demands to be incarnated in the real world and linked to the real faces of our brothers and sisters, those with whom we share our daily lives. Direct human relations always remain fundamental for the transmission of the faith!".

His conclusion, in true Benedictine (i.e., Ratzingerian) fashion, sets forth both the significance and the potential for on-line activity: "In the final analysis, the truth of Christ is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communion and meaning which is reflected in the immense popularity of social networks. Believers who bear witness to their most profound convictions greatly help prevent the web from becoming an instrument which depersonalizes people, attempts to manipulate them emotionally or allows those who are powerful to monopolize the opinions of others. On the contrary, believers encourage everyone to keep alive the eternal human questions which testify to our desire for transcendence and our longing for authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived. It is precisely this uniquely human spiritual yearning which inspires our quest for truth and for communion and which impels us to communicate with integrity and honesty."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jesus Christ, the light who has risen

"Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death
light has arisen."

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'" (Matt. 4:15-17).

This excerpt from today's Gospel, in which Jesus begins his public ministry by moving from Nazareth to Capernaum by the sea, speaks directly to my heart after the events of the past two weeks. Matthew's point is direct: Jesus Christ is the "great light" that shines on us. Otherwise, we sit in the darkness of a land overshadowed by death. His call of repentance is nothing other than the change necessitated by our recognition of the fact that He conquered death. Repentance, which means so much more than just being sorry for our sins, or even having a firm purpose of amendment, is what Don Giussani discussed as living in the awareness, not only of my own destiny, but that of all with whom I come into contact, regardless of circumstances. Jesus is the one who teaches us that to truly love another means loving his/her destiny.

Reading the letters in the current issue of Traces last night before going to sleep, I was struck by a letter from Jerry Brungardt in which he discusses "the gaze" of Christ and how we experience His gaze through the eyes of others. Being able to look at another with "the gaze" is what it means to love another by loving her/his destiny. It is also what it means to truly see. Jerry concludes his letter by writing "I beg that I will be able to share with others this gaze... as I look more and more on reality- and those around me- as a friend, as an opportunity for me in my conversion, to recognize Christ in the here and now."

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"What is spiritual is local"

Tim Vivian begins his introduction to the life of Saint George of Choziba in his book Journeying Into God: Seven Early Monastic Lives, by pointing out succinctly that "[w]hat is spiritual is local." Very often, perhaps most of the time, when we think about spirituality it is "all soul and no body." When we consider spirituality as disembodied, Vivian continues, "what is spiritual drifts without hometown or date of birth" becoming "homogeneous and homogenized."

The great French literary theorist Roland Barthes asked, "Isn't storytelling always a way of searching for one's origins...?" His question, of course, is rhetorical with the answer being "Yes." When I come to know that "my origins are certain in God," observes Eugene Peterson in his Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, I can easily discern by way of implication "that my future is also certain in him." Discerning this is what allows "me to live by faith in the present" moment.

Jesus' genealogy is interesting whether you turn to Matthew or Luke because it is not what we would call, looking at the story of the people of Israel, pure. To give just one example, Ruth, who was a Moabitess, that is, not of the chosen people, but who, through her marriage to Boaz, with whom she bore Obed, who was the father Jesse, who, in turn, fathered David, is one the Messiah's fore bearers. Of course, there are some less than exemplary figures, at least in moral terms, who also appear in Jesus' lineage, like Rahab the harlot (Matt. 1:5).

The implications for this are huge for all of us because, by virtue of our baptism, we are brought into the Messianic family, into the household of God. Our adoption, as it were, is not dependent on our worthiness, on our moral rectitude at any given moment (i.e., sometimes we're in and sometimes we're out). "If, via the story," Peterson continues, "I can experience what it means to be taken seriously, and, via the genealogy, can find that my life is part of the story of salvation, I can live with confidence." I can live with confidence because my hope is in the Lord who made heaven and earth and my life is part of the unfolding story of God's creation, of salvation history, what Von Balthasar called Theo-drama.

Let's not forget that any authentically Christian spirituality has as its center gathering together around the Lord's table, which is why, at least for Christians, being religious is a necessary (though not sufficient of itself- which is why going to church alone does not make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car) part of being spiritual.

Friday, January 21, 2011

"You us made for yourself, O Lord"

Stephen Roger Dodge

If you know our Dad, whether for a few years, or for a very long time, you know that he is a man worthy of being honored. He is the kind of man in short supply today. When people speak of the crisis of fatherhood and the inability of men to make and honor commitments, our Dad stands as an example of a man who honored his commitments as a husband and a father and did it with great love, which he often found impossible to express in words...

One of the nights last week, after sitting with Dad for a few hours at McKay-Dee Hospital, after we had made the decision to bring him home for his last days, I went for a walk. Before heading back down the hall that led to the room where Dad was being cared for on the third floor, I stopped and watched people coming and going through one of the main doors. I saw young couples leaving with newborn babies, people in leg and arm casts, anxious looking parents, spouses, friends, and children, as well as people who were seriously ill. While it was beautiful in a way, I thought about how industrialized and antiseptic life and death have become. It occurred to me then that Dad came into this world in the home of his Grandma Batchelor and was going to leave it from his own home. This is the kind of thing I would routinely point out to him. I can see just how he would respond had I been able to share this with him: he would have appeared to shrug it off as insignificant, but he would agree that it is the way to come and go...

It is not just important, but absolutely necessary to point out that death is not the end. God is our beginning and our end, as St. Augustine passionately observed many centuries ago: “You us made for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions Book I, Chapter 1) In the book of Revelation, John writes that he “heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (21:3-5a- ESV). Indeed, the great work of God is bringing life from death and hope from despair. Eugene Peterson observed that “When nothing we can do makes any difference and we are left standing around empty-handed and clueless, we are ready for God to create. When the conditions in which we live seem totally alien to life and salvation, we are reduced to waiting for God to do what only God can do, create.”

Picking up the same passage from Revelation, John heard a voice telling him “[w]rite this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (verse 3- ESV). Christ then says to the revelator “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment” (verses 5-6 ESV). Up until the end, Dad was thirsty, which is why we gave him water, ice chips, and that last popsicle he enjoyed so much; the one he held to his chest and jokingly said, “Mine,” when I tried to help him with it. But if we’re honest and true to our own hearts, in touch with what really desire, we’re forced to acknowledge that we’re thirsty, too and for something more than water, ice, popsicles and sodas. In John’s Gospel Jesus asks the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well for a drink. She is surprised that a Jew would ask a Samaritan, a people with whom the Jews of Jesus’ day shared a mutual dislike, for a drink and he replied that if she knew who she was talking to she would ask him for a drink. She quickly pointed out that he had nothing with which to draw water, to which Jesus gently replied, referring to the water from the well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman responded as anyone would, saying, “give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (John 4:7-13- ESV).

Being the son of his mother, Isabelle, Dad grew up listening to and, from an early age, reciting poetry. A week ago Wednesday, when things were not looking good, but there was still a slim chance they would turn around, Dad wanted to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, even the little ones. Given the circumstances, it was a lovely evening. As I gathered my children, kissed him and told him I was taking them home and that I would be back in the morning, he took my hand and recited Edgar Allan Poe’s poem Eldorado:

After finishing the poem, he kept holding my hand and said in a whisper, “You don’t have to go anywhere to find it,” then tapping his chest over his heart, he said, “It’s right here.”

Excerpts from my remarks at my Dad's funeral.

"Just a little deuce coupe with a flat head mill"

On Monday, after learning of my Dad's death, I was driving North on I-15 to my parents' house. It was a cold, gray day. As I neared the exit near their house, the sun suddenly came out and the Beach Boys' song Good Vibrations came on. It was unusual, though not unheard of, for the station I was listening to- 103.5 The Arrow- to play the Beach Boys. My Dad loved their music, but Good Vibrations was far from his favorite song, but as The Stones observed- "you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need. Needless to say, it was very much a sign for me.

Today is my Dad's funeral. So, his favorite Beach Boys song, Little Deuce Coup, is our Friday traditio. I am very appreciative of all the thoughts, prayers and expressed condolences throughout these difficult days.

Under normal circumstances I would have posted something on the passing of Sargent Shriver, but I'll turn this one over to Bono, who writes about Shriver in the New York Times. Given the theme of Monday's post, here's the bit from Bono I'll leave as a take away: "He and his beautiful bride, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, would go to Mass every day — as much an act of rebellion against brutal modernity as it was an act of worship. Love, yes, but love as a brave act, a bold act, requiring toughness and sacrifice." Amen brother Hewson!

A deep diaconal bow to Webster Bull for bringing Bono's piece and the relevant quote from it to my attention.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What about "the glory that is to be revealed to us"?

"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now" (Rom. 8:18-22- ESV).

I spent a good part of yesterday morning discussing what St. Paul writes about in the above passage with my 16 year-old son. It was a good and frank discussion. He understood that it is the nature of such discussions not to settle the matter once and for all, but to springboard you deeper into the Mystery. Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, writing about the post-Christmas tsunami of a few years ago, pointed out that whether or not you believe "in such glory, or [have] faith in its final advent, or can in fact 'see' it even now through the veil of death and our estrangement from God... one should be able to grasp that it is not a glory immediately revealed in cosmic or human history, but rather one that appears before, alongside, within, and beyond that history, always present, yet also deferred..." He concludes this great insight by stating that the glory that is to be revealed "is not simply the hidden rationality of history, but a contrary history that pervades and that will finally overwhelm the world of our fallenness."

I think that too often we approach the way God works in the world and in our lives as something like a "hidden rationality." This is far too mundane for our God. After all, look at His crowning achievement in the world: the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which had to be preceded by His passion and crucifixion. We're always better off just living the circumstances in which we find ourselves because this is precisely where we will catch glimpses of God's glory at work in our lives, which is how God draws you into His contrary history. God changes things by changing you. The means God employs to change you are the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

Bentley Hart's exposition of the words of St. Paul from his Letter to the Romans is confirmed elsewhere in Scripture. I spent a part of yesterday afternoon reflecting on Revelation chapter twenty-one, in which we read:
"And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away'" (verses 2-4- ESV).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"What I do is me; for that I came"

A much needed restorative

- As Kingfishers Catch Fire, by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
  As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
  Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
  Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
  Selves - goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me; for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
  Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -
  Chríst. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
  To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Monday, January 17, 2011

For our "love of aimless stimulation"

Aldous Huxley, who, along with Witggenstein, Camus, Kerouac, W.G. Seabald, Bob Dylan, W.H. Auden, the Welshman Dylan Thomas, Orwell, Von Balthasar, Eugene Peterson, Ratzinger, Pater Tom, Wojtyla, and Giussani, all Trappists, Carthusians, Caremlites, the early Karl Marx (before he went all dialectician on us) as well as others too numerous to name in a blog post, recognized the great peril in which we have placed our humanity, which, oddly, may have been best exemplified recently by the people in the film Wall-E, hits the nail on the head in his essay Distractions - I, observing in full prophetic mode way back in 1946:

"But it is upon fashions, cars and gadgets, upon news and the advertising for which news exists, that our present industrial and economic system depends for its proper functioning. For...this system cannot work unless the demand for non-necessities is not merely kept up, but continually expanded; and of course it cannot be kept up and expanded except by incessant appeals to greed, competitiveness and love of aimless stimulation. Men have always been a prey to distractions, which are the original sin of the mind; but never before today has an attempt been made to organize and exploit distractions, to make of them, because of their economic importance, the core and vital center of human life..."

I came across this quote from Huxley last night while reading Tim Vivian's introduction to The Coptic Life of Antony in his book Journeying into God: Seven Early Monastic Lives, which is a book well worth any one's while.

He also includes a nice corollary to Poe's Eldorado, as well as a lovely antithesis to what Huxely so accurately describes, when he quotes Pater Tom: "Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, of deepening and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts."

Just as I was finishing typing this post and getting ready to go see him, my Mom called and told me that my Dad passed away this morning. We got him home from the hospital yesterday knowing he would pass, but not knowing when. If you knew my Dad, you would know that he would endorse the message in this post.  Rest in peace, Dad. His last decision was to leave the hospital to die at home, being cared for and surrounded by his family.

Stephen Roger Dodge 17 June 1938 to 17 January 2011.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Hierarchy update

Today it was announced that the Holy Father accepted the resignation of Bishop Joseph Adamec as the bishop of Altoona-Johnstown, PA, upon having reached the canonical age limit for bishops. It was also announced that Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of Erie, PA, Mark Bartchak, was named to succeed to Bishop Adamec. Bishop-elect Bartchak is 56 years-old and was ordained a priest back in 1981.

With the changes in Pennsylvania, there remain 4 vacant Roman Catholic dioceses in the U.S.: Salina, KS; Fresno, CA; Joliet in Illinois; Rapid City, SD. The Ruthenian archeparchy of Pittsburgh also remains vacant.

With Bishop Adamec's retirement, there are now eight ordinaries serving past age 75- Justin Cardinal Rigali archbishop of Philiadelphia; Bishops Boland of Savannah, GA; Sevilla of Yakima, WA; McCormack of Manchester, NH; Bruskewitz of Lincoln, NE; Galeone of St. Augustine, FL; Zipfel of Bismarck, ND; Gettelfinger of Evansville, IN.

Looking ahead to February, both Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, who already has a coadjutor in the person of Archbishop Gómez, and Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Illnois will turn 75, which will require them to submit their resignations to Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope John Paul II declared blessed

The cries of "Santo Subito!" heard so loudly in St. Peter's Square after the death of Pope John Paul II were heeded. The process for his canonization has been underway since 2005. Just today Vatican Radio published in full the decree of beatification "of the late great Servant of God John Paul II."

The great Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, whom JPII created a cardinal, rightly expressed concern about the practice of popes canonizing other popes. This seems to me to be a very legitimate concern and something that must be safeguarded against. One reason (among many) it must become more of a rarity is that it obscures the holiness of those who walk in the shoes of the fisherman and who are truly saints. John Paul II, beginning with his cultural resistance to the German occupation of Poland as a young man and ending with his witness to the beauty of life during the years of his illness, truly demonstrated heroic virtue. It must be noted that the practice of creating great theologians and scholars cardinals in recognition of their major contributions to the church, as with so many things, was initiated by Pope John Paul II. It must also be noted that Congar accepted the red hat only on condition that he not be ordained a bishop, a concession that Pope John Paul II made for him.

At one time in the church, the only way to be recognized as a saint was by proclamation of the faithful, who simply venerated holy men and women, thus elevating them to sainthood. Indeed, the cries of Santo Subtio on the lips of literally millions of the faithful is probably the best argument in favor of the canonization of Karol Józef Wojtyła.

In his second encyclical and then throughout his life, he taught us that "[t]he Cross is in fact the most profound humbling of God before man. The Cross is like a touch of eternal love on the most painful wounds of man’s earthly existence" (Dives in Misericordia, 8).

It appears that his beatification ceremony will, appropriately, take place on 1 May 2011, which is Divine Mercy Sunday. Like the beatification of the Bl. John Henry Newman, the ceremony will undoubtedly be presided over by Pope Benedict, his close friend and collaborator.

Papa Wojtyla, pray for us!

"Singing a song, In search of Eldorado"

My Grandma Dodge lived for poetry, not because she was an educated woman (she never graduated high school and worked as hospital cleaning woman), but because it spoke to her heart and helped her see the beauty of the world and of each person. She never travelled anywhere, but stayed in Ogden pretty much her whole life. She never even had a driver's license. She imparted this love to her children, stepchildren and to her many grandchildren. I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with her, especially when I was very young. She's been gone for a long time now.

Last night, lying in his hospital bed, as I was leaving, my Dad took my hand and recited this poem to me, which is why this Friday's traditio is Eldorado, by Edgar Allan Poe:

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old-
This knight so bold-
And o'er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow-
"Shadow," said he,
"Where can it be-
This land of Eldorado?"

"Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,"
The shade replied-
"If you seek for Eldorado!"

Edgar Allan Poe

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What we must never lose sight of...

Following on the heels of yesterday's appeal by Fr. Zvěřina to Christians in the West, written forty years ago, appealing for us not to forfeit an authentic, that is, Christian anthropology, for a revolutionary view of the human person that ultimately smacks of gnosticism and in accordance with what I am experiencing right now in my own life, I am posting some reflections from Eugene Peterson's invaluable book, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Ministry, in which he touches on this same problem, but in a different context.

"Pastoral work, Peterson insists, "takes Dame Religion by the hand and drags her into the everyday world." You see, given her exalted nature, Dame Religion, "is shy, retiring, and private; or else she is decorative and proud - a prima donna." Indeed, "[p]astoral work is that aspect of Christian ministry" that "specializes in the ordinary." However, for several decades now "perspectives generated by [the] "behavioral sciences have dominated the literature directed to" those of us engaged in pastoral ministry.

It is the rationale behind this much pushed for change in perspective that makes it so troubling and it is also what links it directly to Zvěřina's prophetic warning. This rationale insists that since we live in a time of such rapid change and "so much of what we encounter is unprecedented," add to this our quantum leaps in knowledge and technology," it is easy to see "anything that worked in an earlier age won't work now." It is precisely this erroneous and illogical assumption that Peterson seeks to correct. As this attitude prevails more and more "we are charmed into forgetting the very wisdom that we are called upon to share with others: the reality of God and the immediate significance of each personal and local detail in the story of redemption."

"We are told," Peterson continues, "that we must be [up-to-date] in the ways of looking at, studying, and working with persons, and that psychology and sociology will revolutionize our capabilities, putting us in the vanguard of those who will achieve a new human potential." This is, indeed, a lie, a subtle one, but a lie nonetheless because "the work which has to do with the [human being's] relation to God and God's will for [him/her] does not come from knowing more about the times but from knowing about humanity - and God." This, as Peterson points out, "has to do with continuities, not novelties; with what is essential in the human condition, not with what is accidental." His point is that what is essential about our humanity, namely that we are created in the imago dei with God as our origin and our destiny, never changes. Even more, to forget this, to deny this, to ignore this distorts everything and corrupts us.

God's way of reminding me of all this through these days is by putting the words of St. Augustine in my heart and on my lips: "You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You." This is the Truth to which we must come to know through experience, meaning what happens to us every day, all day long.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"But reflect, I beg you, what it means to accept this world"

In 1971, well before anyone could foresee the day when the Berlin Wall would be torn down and the subsequent fall of the empire of evil, established by the Soviet Union, events that happened as a direct result of human desire being trampled on for far too long, Josef Zvěřina, a Czech Roman Catholic priest and theologian, wrote A Letter to the Christians of the West. Not long ago, a dear friend of mine, who is also a steadfast companion, Fred, sent an e-mail to what I can best describe as our little group, which, in addition to Fred and I, consists of Sharon and Suzanne, with a copy of Zvěřina's letter attached.

In other times many have specualted that Zvěřina would have been at least a bishop, if not a cardinal of Holy Roman Church. His excellence stood out from a very young age and was recoginzed especially when, as a young priest, he studied in Rome. "Instead," as his fellow priest and theologian, Odo Madra, wrote, in accord with the calling the Lord placed on him, "his life became a model of a directly downward career." Fr. Zvěřina was imprisoned by the Czech communist régime from 1952-1965. He said of his experience in prison, "In prison you learn about living the Gospel, that God sends rain and light on the good and bad." Below is the letter he sent, which remains very relevant during this age of ideology that seeks even to revise, reform, revolutionize something as basic as the family and which is resurgent after the fall of the great evil known as Marxist-Leninism:

Fr. Josef Zvěřina


You have the presumption of being useful to the Kingdom of God assuming as far as possible the saeculum, its life, its words, its slogans, its way of thinking. But reflect, I beg you, what it means to accept this world. Perhaps it means that you have gradually lost yourselves in it? Sadly, it seems you are doing just that. It [is] difficult these days to find you and recognize you in this strange world of yours. Probably we still recognize you because in this process you are taking your time, because you are being assimilated by the world, whether quickly or slowly, but late all the same. We thank you for many things, or rather for almost everything, but we must distinguish ourselves from you in one thing. We have much to admire in you, so we can and must send you this warning.

"Do not conform to this world, but transform yourselves by the renewal of your minds, so that you will be able to recognize the will of God, what is good, what is pleasing to him, what is perfect" (Rom. 12:2). Do not conform! Me syschematizesthe! How well this expression reveals the perennial root of the verb: schema. In a nutshell, all schemas, all exterior models are empty. We have to want more, the apostle makes it our duty, "change your way of thinking, reshape your minds" metamorfoùsthe tè anakainósei toù noós. Paul's Greek is so expressive and concrete! He opposes schèma or morphé – permanent form, to metamorphé – change in the creature. One is not to change according to any model that in any case is always out of fashion, but it is a total newness with all its wealth (anakainósei). [It's] not the vocabulary that changes but the meaning (noùs).

So not contestation, desacralization, secularization, because this is so little compared with Christian anakainósis. Reflect on these words and your naïve admiration for revolution, Maoism, and violence (of which, in any case you are incapable) will abandon you.

Your critical and prophetic enthusiasm has already borne fruit, and we cannot indiscriminately condemn you for this. We simply realize, and tell you sincerely, that we have more esteem for St. Paul's calm and discriminating invitation, "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?" (2 Cor. 13:5).

We cannot imitate the world precisely because we have to judge it, not with pride and superiority, but with love, just as the Father loved the world (Jn. 3:16) and for this reason pronounced judgment on it.

Do not phroneîn – think, and in conclusion hyperphroneîn- but sophroneîn, think with wisdom (Cf. Rom. 12:13). Be wise, so that we can discern the signs of the will and the time of God. Not the fashion of the moment, but what is good, honest, and perfect.

We write as unwise to you who are wise, as weak men to you who are strong, as wretched men to you who are even more wretched! And this is stupid of us because there are certainly among you some excellent men and women. But precisely for this reason we need to write foolishly, as the Apostle Paul taught us when he took repeated Christ's words that the Father has hidden wisdom from those who know a lot about these things (Lk. 10:21).

This translation of Fr. Zvěřina's letter is taken from pages 110-112 of the book Generating Traces in the History of the World: New Traces of the Christian Experience, by Luigi Giussani, Stefano Alberto, Javier Prades.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ideological moralizing, an inadequate response to evil

The level of moralizing self-righteousness in the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona last Saturday, which critically wounded Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords and left six others, including U.S. District Court Judge John Roll, dead has reached sickening levels. The others killed by Jared Lee Loughner, in no particular order, were Dorwan Stoddard, nine year-old Christina Green, Phyllis Schneck, Gabriel Zimmerman, and Dorothy Morris. That the names of the dead, except for Judge Roll and, less frequently, Giffords’ staffer Zimmerman, are not heard in reports on Loughner’s evil and cowardly actions is a good indication that ideology is at work. Let me cut to the chase, Sarah Palin is not responsible for Jared Loughner’s evil actions, neither is Rush Limbaugh, or Speaker Boehner. I’ll go one step further, given his murderous intent, as with the Columbine killers and others bent on carrying out evil, no gun law can be held to account either. The most telling sign that ideology is at work is when the conclusions being arrived at and rapidly disseminated by the media are simply not supported by the evidence, but turn into an exercise in imposing one’s preconceptions onto reality.

First, let’s to turn some facts about the murderer, Jared Loughner, starting with his personal animosity towards Rep. Giffords, which apparently dates back to a 2007 encounter he had with her at event like the one he shot up last Saturday. It bears noting that this event pre-dates both the rise of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin’s selection by John McCain to be his running mate in 2008, prior to which she was relatively unknown outside Alaska. According to a Wall Street Journal article, "[a] safe at Mr. Loughner's home contained a form letter from Ms. Giffords' office thanking him for attending a 2007 'Congress on your Corner' event in Tucson." According to the Journal piece, Loughner’s "safe also held an envelope with handwritten notes, including the name of Ms. Giffords, as well as 'I planned ahead,' 'My assassination,' and what appeared to be Mr. Loughner's signature, according to an FBI affidavit." One high school friend’s only recollection of Loughner’s political opinions was him expressing some "frustration with the Bush Administration."

Even more enlightening is an interview conducted by Nick Baumann of Mother Jones, which can hardly be accused of being a conservative rag, with a friend of Loughner’s, Bryce Tierney, whom the killer called just 8 hours prior to going on his rampage. "Tierney," Baumann writes, "recalls Loughner complaining about a Giffords event he attended" back in 2007. Tierney is "unsure whether it was the same one mentioned in the charges" (i.e., the one for which he received the form letter found in his home safe). Tierney went on to say that Loughner "might have gone to some other [Giffords] rallies," but, Baumann continues, the 2007 Q and A event "was a significant moment for Loughner." Tierney recalls Loughner telling him about the 2007 event during which Rep. Giffords "opened up the floor for questions and he asked a question. The question was, 'What is government if words have no meaning?' Giffords' answer, whatever it was, didn't satisfy Loughner. He said, 'Can you believe it, they wouldn't answer my question,' and [Tierney] told him, 'Dude, no one's going to answer that.'" From the time on, recalls Tierney "he thought she was fake, he had something against her."

Phyllis Schneck, one of six people murdered by Jared Loughner

From that time forward, Tierney told Baumann, "Loughner would occasionally mention Giffords," but "[i]t wasn't a day-in, day-out thing, but maybe once in a while…the thing I remember most is just that question. I don't remember him stalking her or anything." According to Baumann, Tierney went on to state "that Loughner did not display any specific political or ideological bent: 'It wasn't like he was in a certain party or went to rallies...It's not like he'd go on political rants.'" According to Tierney, Loughner believed "that government is 'fucking us over.'" Now, if we’re going to start filling our courtrooms with people who, whether on the political left or right, state such a forthright view of the government, then our constitutional rights are, indeed, imperiled!

I cannot agree more with David Weigel, who writes in Slate urging Pennsylvania representative Bob Brady not go forward with legislation "making it a crime to use words or images that looked violent or threatening to public officials." Opines Brady, "You can't put bull's eyes or cross-hairs on a United States congressman or a federal official," which, by the way Sarah Palin’s website does not do, it has images of crosshairs over maps of congressional districts, which are targeted for political action, not nuclear obliteration, or random shooting sprees. Citing no evidence whatsoever, Brady goes on to parrot the prevalent ideological view that "[t]he rhetoric is just ramped up so negatively, so high, that we have got to shut this down." Weigel goes on to ask whether it "[w]ould it be rude to point out" that there is "no evidence—none—that violent pictures or words inspired the violence in Arizona."

I for one think that urging others to act in accordance with reality is necessary for civil discourse precisely because what we say matters a great deal. When it comes to responding to heartbreaking tragedies, it seems that for every action there is an unequal and slightly askew legislative overreaction of the kind Rep. Brady is proposing. I remember the call for "tighter gun laws" in the wake of the Columbine massacre, despite the fact that one could enumerate many, many federal, state, and local gun laws and ordinances that were broken in the commission of those horrific crimes, going all the way back to the illegalities involved in the way the murderers procured the firearms they used to mow down students, staff, and faculty of Columbine High School. Such overreactions might make you feel better, but they don’t make you safer, just less free.

If the net result of Jared Lee Loughner’s hideous crime is placing restrictions on speech, then we are at the whim of unhinged people like him and become a less rational society, which by definition means a less civil society. It is utterly unconscionable to pin Loughner’s evil deeds on one’s political opponents. Using a tragedy like this to settle political scores not only strikes me as uncivil, but utterly dishonest and lacking in integrity. As one who frequently reminds myself and others that how we make our point is as important as the point we seek to make, I can hardly be accused of not being concerned about civility and even charity in public discourse, which is why I proposed the Ephesians 4:29 Rule.

A spiritual lesson from a re-reformed party girl

When teaching about practicing the spiritual disciplines, one of which is fasting, I always feel it necessary to point out that such practice can easily lead to a kind of non-clinical neurosis. A week or so into the New Year, as our resolutions start to fade, seems like a good time to write about not overburdening ourselves with good intentions. An article by British journalist Laura Topham about her decision to quit drinking on New Year’s 2008, illustrates my point well. Prior to her quitting drinking Topham was a hard-partying young woman who wrote a column on single life in London. According to her own reckoning, on an average night out she consumed "several glasses of wine, a couple of cocktails, a few gin and tonics and sometimes shots of Jagermeister." A quiet evening meant she only drank "half a bottle of wine."

For the whole year of 2007 she knew she had to do something about how much she was drinking as she was starting to experience the skin of her face throbbing after drinking, ever worse hangovers and a weakened immune system that often required her stay in bed sick. At one point, her doctor diagnosed her with tonsillitis and informed her that she would either have to stop drinking or have her tonsils removed and without hesitation she opted for the tonsillectomy. The trouble was that because of her alcohol consumption she was never in the physical shape she needed to be in order to have the surgery. As a result, on New Year’s 2008, she started what was intended to be a detox lasting a few weeks, meaning that she was going to stop drinking long enough to get it all out of her system and then resume consumption on a more moderate scale. Two weeks turned into six months and then into two years.

During her years of not drinking she experienced three things: being socially ostracized, negative peer pressure not only to drink, but to drink to excess and a lot of negative internal pressure. It is the last of these that demonstrates my point because the first two are no reasons either to start or resume drinking. Because she came to view alcohol consumption as such a negative thing, whenever she gave in and had a drink, a single glass of wine or a gin and tonic, which she imbibed because of peer pressure, she describes hating herself the next day. "In hindsight," she recalls, getting to the crux of the matter, her self-directed anger was not about having a drink, "but about being weak." Her self-berating after having a drink resulted in her feeling "like a failure for a week, for a month – for as long as it took till a prolonged period of teetotalism prevailed." Eventually, she simply stopped going out so as not to "be exposed to alcohol."

Commenting on her behavior, a psychologist observed that when "we embark on controlling behavior, that obsession becomes stronger and stronger so life becomes less balanced," which results in the obsession growing. As a result "[a]nxiety increases and the obsession gets so big" and you "become set on perfection." In other words, it ceases to be about the initial problem.

Of course, I am not glorifying alcohol use, or encouraging anyone to drink, least of all those who are alcoholics, meaning people who, once they start drinking, are unable to stop and/or control how much they consume. I am merely using Ms. Topham’s experience to dramatically demonstrate the point with which I began the post. In fact, during the period she did not drink she vigorously researched "the affects of alcohol and read up on untimely deaths from liver cirrhosis." She informed herself about the other health risks posed by alcohol usage, including "lost brain cells, premature ageing, increased cancer risk," etc. Indeed, she "came to consider booze as a dangerous toxin and addictive drug," which it is for many and for anyone who drinks to excess.

The tie in with the spiritual discipline of fasting, about which I alluded to in my post last Tuesday, or even the spiritual discipline of prayer, comes with making the practice of these disciplines ends in themselves and not means to the end of opening yourself up to God. By making our practice of the spiritual disciplines ends- -in- themselves, I refer to a subtle turn that happens (the danger of which constitutes the most eloquent argument of the need we have for a spiritual director), which results in thinking that we make ourselves perfect by doing these things. A good example is a renewed determination to pray or to read Scripture every day, the kind of resolution we make around the New Year. Let’s say that you successfully practice lectio divina with the daily Gospel reading for the first five days in a row, then, on day six, for whatever reason, you don’t do it. Your response to this is a good gauge about your attitude towards why you are practicing lectio every day. The reasonable thing to do would just be to say "I’ll pick it up again tomorrow" and not give it another thought until tomorrow when the time you have set aside rolls around. After all, you have not committed a sin, either mortal or venial! But what very often occurs is we think "Well, I’ve blown it" and we just let it go, meaning we stop, we’re done, we can’t do it perfectly and so we won’t do it all, we’ve let both our self and God down.

Fasting in the Eastern Christian manner, with which Western Christians were formerly more in sync, is a good discipline to develop a sense of spiritual balance precisely because it is so challenging, especially for Christians living in today’s West. It is because fasting in this way is so demanding that you are likely "fail" at some point in your efforts, especially during the prolonged Nativity Fast (the Eastern Christian version of Advent) and the Lenten fast. The traditional Christian discipline of fasting, which consists mostly of not eating as much and abstaining from certain foods, usually meat of any kind and animal products, as well as alcohol, is best described as tee totaling veganism, can easily become what Eamon Duffy described "as nothing more than the dead hand of the past," something we do because we must even though we really don’t understand why. What concerns me more are those who, like me, know the whys and wherefores of practicing these disciplines and freely endeavor to incorporate them into our lives.

So, how we learn to practice these disciplines is very important. The website of the Byzantine Catholic parish of Our Lady of Fatima in San Francisco, which is an outstanding resource on these matters, begins the pages dedicated to fasting by reminding us that "[t]he least important (but most visible) aspect of this fasting is a change in the quantity and quality of food: we eat one meal a day, with no animal products" before going on to state that "[t]he object of fasting is not simply self-discipline, it is that turning of the soul to God, the re-shaping of the will, that the Greeks call Metanoia (usually translated into English as 'repentance'). If one's health allows one to observe the fast with regard to food, one should feel the need to do the best that one can, but all should fast of the spirit. In the words of St. John Chrysostom the fast is of no advantage to us unless it brings about our spiritual renewal" (underlining and emboldened emphasis mine).

Discussing the importance of the Lenten Fast we are warned of two opposite dangers "phariseeism" and "laxity":
"the temptation is to imagine that a perfect obedience to the fasting guidelines is an end in itself, and can save us. This is wrong. No one and nothing saves us except God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We dispose ourselves to divinization through our ascesis and other practices, but theosis is a free gift of God… If our health, work, energy levels, economics etc. demand some concessions in fasting and abstinence, so be it. On the other hand, the reaction when one realizes that he or she cannot keep the fast perfectly is often to give up all-together: 'What's the use? I can't avoid some (whatever: meat, tuna, cheese, etc.) during Lent. I might as well just quit now'… As the Western Christian writer G.K. Chesterton once quipped: 'Anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly.'"
In a weird twist, the very practices through which we seek liberation can become ways of oppressing ourselves and negatively judging others.

The danger I am addressing in this post is obviously "phariseeism," but worries about phariseeism easily turn into excuses for laxity. It seems to me the case that many Roman Catholics missed the authentic of spirit of Vatican II with regard to the reform of our corporate practice of fasting and abstinence, which was not to do away with these practices, but that by no longer being compelled to observe them on pain of sin we would embrace what Duffy describes as "life-giving… observances" freely in the confidence that these time-tested disciplines would bear fruit in our lives. A quote I have used twice before here on Καθολικός διάκονος by James Kushiner, who is an Orthodox Christian, sums all of this up very well: "What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace," or, as the Lord reassured St. Paul as he struggled with what he described as "[a] thorn given [him] in the flesh"- "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:7-9).

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

"Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?' Jesus said to him in reply, 'Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.' Then he allowed him. After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened (for him), and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove (and) coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased' (Matt.3:13-17).

After Vespers this evening, we re-enter Ordinary Time until Wednesday, 9 March, when the Great Lent begins. I truly hope everyone had a blessed and happy Christmas, enjoying friends and family along the way, partying and bringing some light, fun, and beauty to these dark days of winter, which, since the solstice, are now getting longer. Truly Jesus Christ is "the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (Jn. 1:4). This what we are called to witness and, in turn, to give witness.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Deacon Tom and Tekton Woodworks

I awoke this morning to find in the Salt Lake Tribune an article by Kristin Moulton of the Trib, who remains a very good religion reporter, a species of reporter that is rarer and rarer, on Deacon Tom Tosti and his chosen craft of building furniture. Tom was a classmate of mine with whom I was ordained seven years ago this month:

Before he begins building any piece of furniture — an altar, a pulpit, a desk, a chair — Tom Tosti prays.

He asks God to help him do his best work and help him turn the wood into a thing of beauty and function. But mostly, and always, he asks for humility.

“I pray that it’s for his glory, not mine,” says Tosti, an ordained Catholic deacon who is carving out a reputation as a designer and craftsman of liturgical furnishings.

As his son, Dominic Tosti, puts it: “It’s more than just a cabinet shop.”

Indeed, the name of the family business, housed in a shop 20 yards from the family home in the Summit County town of Oakley, is the first clue it’s not a typical furniture factory.

Tekton Woodworks gets its name from the Greek word for craftsman in wood, metal or stone. Tosti chose the name to honor two carpenters from Galilee: Jesus Christ and his stepfather, Joseph.

Photo by Chris Detrick for the Salt Lake Tribune
On the first day of the new year, Tosti has a presider’s chair with rich tapestry and green marble ornamentation sitting in his office, ready to deliver to a Catholic church at the University of San Diego.

A modern altar with Romanesque arches, made of quilted oak and maple with a medallion of bird’s-eye maple, rests on a dolly. It will be loaded into a van and delivered to the Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church in Park City later on this New Year’s Day.

Two drop-leaf tables await their finishes. They are bound for the LDS Church-owned City Creek Center project in downtown Salt Lake City, where they will go in condos as sales models.

That commercial work is an offshoot of other work the Tostis have been doing for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tekton custom-designs and builds baptistry desks that the Utah-based faith puts in its temples around the world.

Dominic Tosti, who works with his father and mother, Nancy Tosti, in the family business, says the LDS Church is the company’s biggest current customer.

And, seven years after turning his woodworking hobby into a full-time career, Tom Tosti is still a bit surprised by its success. Business was up 30 percent in 2010, and Tekton has a six-month backlog of orders, including work for several California churches.

Read the rest of Moulton's 'Deacon Tom' builds faith and furniture.

Veni adoramus

Friday, January 7, 2011

"What's your price for flight?"

Members of Night Ranger, in a VH-1 Behind the Music episode in which they were featured, said that the term "Motoring" used in the song's lyrics- "You're motoring. What's your price for flight? In finding Mr. Right?"- refers both to driving around in a car (as in "Cruising the 'vard" where I come from) and to picking someone up for casual sex. The song was written by the band's drummer, Kelly Keagy, who had heard that his younger sister had done the latter. Indeed, what's the price for flight? I think Sister Christian is the perfect traditio given the subject of my posting this week and looking forward to one I have on tap for the beginning of next week.

Indeed, "There's so much in life Don't you give it up
Before your time is due."

Veni adoramus

Year B Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:13-15.17-19; Ps 4:2.4.7-9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:25-48 “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his incredulous...