Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why Lent Must Rise Again

This article on Lent by United Church of Christ minister and journalist G. Jeffery MacDonald appeared in the Boston Globe 11 March 2011. I found it on an Orthodox blog. Yes, that darn Sanidopoulos again.

This past Wednesday marked the start of Lent, the 40-day Christian season of fasting and sacrifice in preparation for Easter. Lent resembles the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, though with one big difference: Muslims actually take Ramadan seriously. American Christians talk about fasting and deprivation, but most practice nothing of the sort. For Christians in this country, self-denial makes life less pleasurable. So why do it?

The question goes to the heart of what’s happening to Christianity in America. Practitioners are purging the tradition of its sacrificial dimensions. We’re remaking it as a type of spiritual self-help whose effectiveness is measured by how well it entertains us and affirms what we already believe. Since Americans love parties and hate to do without, Christianity is evolving to deliver. The diminution of Lenten practices illustrates the trend and highlights what’s lost when religion becomes a consumer commodity.

To see how far we’ve come, let’s recall our roots. Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and other biblical figures used 40-day periods of self-denial to cultivate humility as they prepared to face major challenges. Lent itself began in the early fourth century during a time when Christians were being fiercely persecuted. Seeking divine strength in discipline, some ancient communities would fast during daylight hours for weeks. Others would eat a minimal diet – no meat, no dairy, scant oils – as the Orthodox still do today. Repentant prayer and alms giving became other hallmarks of a serious season for pondering and practicing the costs of discipleship.

Today Lent is widely ignored in Christian America. Seasonal sacrifices, if observed at all, tend to be token. For Catholics, “abstaining” can now consist of sumptuous fish dinners on Fridays; even a Good Friday “fast” can include two small meals. Some Protestants conveniently eschew sacrifice altogether – if no one can earn divine favor, why bother? Still others bring a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, marked by promises to exercise daily or do without sweets for a few weeks. True deprivation is rare. As a pastor I know once told me, giving up something for Lent “is kind of a big joke.”

How did Christianity’s most serious season become a joke in this supposedly religious country? We let desire become our master, and desire has no use for sacrifice. For centuries, Christianity sought to temper primitive desire for addictive pleasures, dominance of neighbors, hoarding of resources, and other idols that ruin lives. But the broader culture has persuaded us to cut loose, to obey our lowest passions, lest they fester into perpetual frustration.

Now religion is desire’s handmaiden. Americans routinely quit churches that fail to please them. And churches, anxious to survive, vie to offer what congregations want: happy, clappy celebrations; entertaining multimedia shows; supportive gatherings of like-minded people. Meanwhile, they jettison the harder and more edifying parts of Christianity, such as practicing repentance, sharing in others’ sufferings, and observing Lent.

In purging self-denial from the tradition, American Christians play into the hands of corporate merchandisers, who hope we’ll spend more and more year-round to quench unquenchable desires. Yet the highest price we pay is spiritual. Self-denial for a season fosters humility. It blunts the insidious delusion of entitlement. It shapes compassion for the poor and hungry by raising at least a measure of awareness of their circumstances. It breeds courage as we tell our lowest desires: No, you are not my master. I answer to a higher authority. With God’s help, it opens a way for higher desires to take root – for the creation of a new heart, in biblical parlance. To trade the inherited wisdom of this way for the cheap platitudes of self-help therapy is costly indeed.

Strangely, Americans recognize the value of sacrifice in pursuing material goals, such as prosperity via education. Yet we tell ourselves that spiritual growth can be cost-free.

It’s time for American Christians to reclaim the power of their tradition. Lent is the right time to start. The season beckons Christians to grow in character and compassion by walking in their ancestors’ footprints. Sure, we have no desire to fast, pray, or give alms this month. But that’s exactly why we should.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a minister and the author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My Lenten journey, grace with every footstep

Okay from nothing much on Saturday to full and overflowing on Tuesday. Deo gratias!

Over the course of the past two days I have been introduced to someone, an encounter that has changed me. Frankly, it is an answer to my prayer for this Lent. The way Christ gets my attention is by dropping things on my path, or introducing to me people along the way, even if those people have passed (I must write again sometime about how I became friends with St. Gianna Molla). He is never heavy-handed, but uses my natural curiosity and, to paraphrase Abe Lincoln, appeals to what the better angels of my nature. At the beginning of Lent I picked up and read Kallistos Ware’s book The Orthodox Way, from which I quoted liberally. It is a basic book, which really didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, which is why I was able to read it in such a way that it struck me. It was from Bishop Kallistos’ lovely little book that the Lord gave me my theme for this Lent: moving from image to likeness. Hence, my constant prayer over these days of fasting has been the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner"). It was a great grace to recognize this theme, not in order to generalize it so that I could seek to impose it on others, but to see how I am being called to conversion, to change, to move from image to likeness, to become more Christ-like. My Lenten journey has been a truly ecumenical journey.

Another diaconal bow to John Sanidopoulos, who blogs at Mystagogy for bringing this movie trailer to my attention.

This year I entered the desert via the Eastern Church and very organically I began to come more into contact with Evangelical and even Pentecostal Christianity. My post from a couple of Sundays ago that featured a short video by Billy Graham was prompted by watching one his Crusades from the late 1950s. How did I come cross this television show? Well, I was sitting in my room with my 5 year-old son doing something I almost never do these days, watching t.v. Not knowing what to watch, I was surfing and I noticed this program on Trinity Broadcasting and thought, “This looks interesting, I’ll check it out”. Both of us watched the whole program, especially Dr. Graham’s message, in which he proposed Jesus Christ as the answer to all that ails the world.

This week I came across the name of a missionary and evangelist from the 1970s, the so-called hippie preacher, Lonnie Frisbee. Frisbee died from complications related to AIDS back in 1993. In addition to being an evangelical/Pentecostal missionary and evangelist, Frisbee was homosexual (I eschew the article “a”(n) because I don’t think anyone can be defined by her/his sexuality- I am heterosexual, not a(n) heterosexual, as if that says everything about me, when it doesn’t even come close to saying the most important thing about me, which is that I am a beloved child of God). This is why you almost never hear Frisbee’s name mentioned among evangelicals. Frisbee was instrumental in the beginnings of two major evangelical movements that rose out of the Jesus People Movement, which started among hippies in the late 1960s, Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard. David Di Sabatino made a documentary, which I can’t wait to see- Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

In an interview with the OC Weekly, Connie Bremer-Murray, who was married to Lonnie for several years in the 1970s, related something Ted Wise, who was Frisbee’s first mentor in San Francisco, speaking of the time before he knew Christ, "I used to think, from the way I saw Christians talk and act, that Jesus was like a guard in the merchant marine, or at the very least a Republican". Connie continues by saying that Ted said that most Christians with whom he came into contact before his conversion wanted to know "where I stood on the issues". This is why Wise said that he never read the New Testament until much later in his life and that when he finally did, it "surprised" him that "Jesus was so cool and totally different than I'd been told".

After she left Frisbee, Bremer-Murray goes on to say how she conformed to what she calls standard Christianity, saying, "I blocked abortion-clinic doors. It seemed so right. But after the third or fourth time, God jerked me by the collar and said, 'Would I do this stuff? Would I do this anywhere?' You need to walk with him to get those messages. The enemy comes as an angel of life, appearing as good and right. Don't expect the enemy to have horns and steam coming off him. I believe the enemy will come right out of the mist of the religious-right movement".

Talking about the time when she and Lonnie were living Orange County and Lonnie was ministering at Chuck Smith’s church, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, Bremer-Murray recalls that "[p]eople would come from all over the world to sit in our living room and talk to us like we were some kind of gurus. Lonnie and I would look at each other and break out giggling. They would come all this way to hear us say love is the door you open to reach God. But how about feeding them? How about loving them? Churches lock their doors. My heart goes out to gay people. Lonnie would say he got saved from that, but when you walk out of the world of the spirit, you walk into what you were in before. But that's no more of a sin than making the children of God live on the lowest rungs". (underlining emphasis mine) Chuck Smith’s son, Chuck, Jr., who is also a pastor, but who has broken theologically with his Dad, reflecting on how poorly Frisbee was treated by Chuck, Sr. and others, "If the church says to anyone, you cannot come here, you cannot engage in the life of the church, where are they supposed to go to find Jesus?" As a Catholic deacon all of this goes hand-in-hand with something the always wise Trip D posted yesterday on his blog, Deacons Today.

Here’s a clip of Lonnie preaching:

David DiSabatino, whose master’s thesis became the film, alluding to Matthew 7:21-23, says, in the same interview, “I think people (from the Christian right) are seduced by the same thing Christians are supposed to rail against: power and money. Those things have nothing to do with Jesus. What's even worse is they use fear as a motivational tool. Fear has nothing to do with faith [see 1 John 4:18]. What scares me to death is their image of judgment. Some of these people are going to come up, say they did all these things, and God is going to say, ‘You're not on my team; you didn't get it’”. DiSabatino goes on to quote a woman from his film on Frisbee- “If I'm sick of my own sin, don't heap more scorn on me when I come to you with my problem."

Matt Coker, who, beginning with his March 2005 article, The First Jesus Freak, has written a number of fascinating articles for the OC Weekly on Frisbee and his influence, contrasts Frisbee’s being shunned for being gay with something that happened to a Calvary pastor just last year, a man who came to Christ through Frisbee. Coker is indeed correct when he asserts that Frisbee "obviously picked the wrong sin".

The words of the apostle Paul are still ringing in my ears from last Sunday: "but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us". (Rom. 5:8- ESV). I think Lonnie, who understood this from his experience, his encounter with the Risen One and who is now likely realizing it in its fullness, would agree.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Year A Third Sunday of Lent

Readings: Ex. 17:3-7; Ps. 95:1-2. 6-9; Rom. 5:1-2. 5-8; Jn. 4:5-42

On this Third Sunday of Lent we shift gears, that is, we turn from reading Matthew’s Gospel and shift our attention to John’s Gospel for three Sundays beginning today. For six weeks, from the fourth through the ninth Sundays of Ordinary Time, we read from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which began with our recitation of the beatitudes. Relevant to our readings for this Sunday is the beatitude, "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied".(Matt. 5:6) Jesus, through whom God manifested His righteousness apart from the law, is the One, the only one, who quenches our thirst. (Rom. 3:21)

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom describing his youthful atheism spoke of how happy he was when at the age of fourteen, his Russian émigré family was finally able to live under one roof in Paris. They had been forced to live apart for several years. He described being reunited at home with his family as happiness and even bliss. He said that it was “odd to think that in a suburban house in Paris one could discover perfect happiness”. (Beginning to Pray 8) He went on to talk about what happened once he found himself "confronted with perfect happiness", namely "that if happiness is aimless, it’s unbearable". (8)

In describing this experience, Anthony said that as long as he had to overcome pain and struggle, there was always something beyond, a desire that allowed him to endure in the face of many hardships. Once he overcame all the suffering and pain and was reunited in a home with his family, because he believed in nothing, happiness quickly became unsatisfying, even dis-satisfactory. (8-9) In his youthful idealism, which tolerates no half-measures, he determined that if in one year he could not discover meaning, he would kill himself. Thankfully, God looked with great mercy on this thirsty young man. Within a few months of this pledge, due to a very reluctant encounter with a priest through a Russian youth organization, an encounter that introduced him to the Gospel, which he initially found "profoundly repulsive" and that left him feeling very indignant, he went home and for the first time in his life he picked up the Bible and, not wanting to waste any precious time, perused all four Gospels to see which one was the shortest. He started reading The Gospel According to St. Mark and before he reached the third chapter, he "suddenly became aware that on the other side of [his] desk there was a presence".(10)

Anthony quickly became certain that it was Christ who was there with him. Discussing this as an old man, the great spiritual master said that from that time forward he lived in the awareness that the Lord was his constant companion. The reason this was a turning point, a true conversion for him, was because he knew the Lord is alive. So, the Gospel did not unfold for the future metropolitan archbishop as a series of propositions, or even as a story, that he could choose to believe or disbelieve, but as a personal encounter with the resurrected and living Lord. (10) He later said of this experience, "I met Christ as a Person at a moment when I needed him in order to live, and at a moment when I was not in search of him. I was found; I did not find him".

This encounter with the risen Christ became his datum for experience, what we might call his filter for reality. This is why St. Anselm of Canterbury’s remark, "I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand", is descriptive rather than prescriptive and can only be internally realized, but never externally imposed. In this we also see the truth of what Pope Benedict wrote in his first encyclical letter: "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". (Deus Caritas Est, par. 1).

This brings us to the event described in today’s Gospel, which took place in Samaria and that became for a certain woman a life-changing encounter. Note that Jesus, apart from describing the woman’s less than stellar track record when it came to matters of the heart, performed no dramatic miracles. (Jn. 4:16-18) As a result of his intimate knowledge of her personal life, the woman was amazed, but only confessed Him to be a prophet before saying that, like the Jews, the Samaritans awaited the Messiah, "the one called the Christ", who would lead them to all truth. Hence, Jesus had to tell to her, "I am he, the one speaking to you". (Jn. 4:26) Like the young Anthony’s stark realization that happiness cannot be aimless, the woman’s failures in love only demonstrate to us how thirsty she truly was and what it was she thirsted for: love, which turns what into a Who.

It is interesting that some of the residents of Sychar came to believe that Jesus was the Christ on the basis of the woman’s testimony, "Many more began to believe in him" as a result of their own personal encounter with Jesus, saying "to the woman, 'We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world'". (Jn. 4:41-42) This shows us that you and I are no different from Anthony Bloom, the woman at the well, or the ancient Samaritan villagers, who had life-changing encounters with Christ. You might ask, how I can say this with such confidence. I can say this confidently because you are here participating in this Eucharist where we receive from the altar the bread of life and the cup of salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Our Elect are here, too. These are women and men who have been preparing over the last year to be incorporated into Christ’s Body, the Church. In this first of three scrutinies, they acknowledge the Lord Jesus as "the fountain for which they thirst". They acknowledge they need Him by confessing their faults, acknowledging, with St. Paul, that the Father’s love for us is proven "in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us". (Rom. 5:8) They do this in the confidence that, like the woman at the well, He will quench their thirst, giving them the water that will become in them "a spring… welling up to eternal life" (Jn. 4: 14). Today as they come forward, they "boast in hope of the glory of God", showing us that "hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into [their] hearts through the Holy Spirit". (Rom. 5:2b.5)

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Overcoming our "petty expectations"

Today I am grateful that I have little to say, nothing burning, nothing urgent. It is truly a grace for me. I was very struck this morning by a short review of Andre Dubus' film, which I now intend to watch, We Don't Live Here Anymore by my friend Sharon. It made me think about love and worthiness. Moreover, it made me grateful that I do not have to be worthy to be loved. This is certainly true of God, but it remains abstract if we have not experienced it for ourselves. So, I am even more grateful for those who love me despite my often manifest unworthiness. My wife shows me this all the time, through my good days and bad days.

Sharon's review of Dubus' film put me in mind of the book of the prophet Hosea, which demonstrates this very dramatically: "When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, 'Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord'. So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son." (Hosea 1:2-3) Then begins the story of fidelity, which requires that we overcome ourselves.

Thinking on these things forces me to revisit something I posted late last month on not repaying evil for evil. Elder Sampson, a Russian Orthodox monk, who insisted that his spiritual children forgive, said, referring to the unwillingness of some under his direction to forgive, "I’ve always concluded: this means that they still have not gotten the point, that the whole secret, that all the salt of Christianity lies in this: to forgive, to excuse, to justify, not to know, not to remember." I took issue with his insistence on justifying. This morning I think I understand, at least in my mind, what it means to be justified by Christ a little better, a little deeper.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Friday, March 25, 2011

"But what's puzzling you is the nature of my game"

"I watched with glee/while your kings and queens/fought for ten decades/for the gods they made"

Pope Benedict has observed and publicly stated more than once that violence committed in the name of God or religion is false. In the second volume of his life of our Lord he states, "Violence does not build up the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it is a favorite instrument of the Antichrist, however idealistic its religious motivation may be. It serves not humanity, but inhumanity."

Even though today is Friday, is not a day of either fasting or abstinence because today we observe the Solemnity of the Annunciation. So, say a Memoraré and have a cheeseburger. Let's remember that by His cross and resurrection, Christ broke the cycle of violence showed the great lie behind the myth of retributive violence. This is why we should all rejoice that just before Lent Pat Quinn, the governor of Illinois, abolished the death penalty in that state.

Magnificat anima mea Dominum

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

Sunset begins our observance of the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, which, as I mentioned last Saturday, falls nine months prior to our observance of the Nativity of the Lord. Because the Annunciation is a solemnity, though not a holy day of obligation, we are not required to abstain from meat on this particular Friday of Lent because we observe solemnities as we do Sundays. In the Latin Church Sundays are always feast days, not fast days.

"Lowliness is assured by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity. To pay the debt for our sinful state, a nature that is incapable of suffering was joined to one that could suffer. Thus, in keeping with the healing that we needed, one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in another...

"He took the nature of a servant without stain of sin, enlarging our humanity without diminishing his divinity. He emptied himself; though invisible he made himself visible, the Creator and Lord of all things he chose to be one of us mortal men. Yet this was the condescension of compassion, not the loss of omnipotence. So, he who in the nature of God had created man, became in the nature of a servant man himself." (Pope St. Leo the Great)

The Annunciation, by John William Waterhouse, 1914

Of course, this occurred in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

From the Christian East Hieromonk Athanasios the Iviritan, speaking to a Lutheran minister from Norway, said, "We worship God, we honor the saints, and we venerate the only Mother of God with pure filial emotions, for she is our sweetest Mother by grace. Oh, how you are deprived... because you do not venerate her who is the second after God to administer His gifts to all mankind."

East meets West when Athanasios notes that it was none other than St. Augustine who said, "three things could not have been more perfectly created by our omnipotent God than these: the Incarnation, the Virgin, and the blessed life of the just in the life to come."

A deep diaconal bow to John Sanidopoulos, who blogs at Mystagogy for the part by Athanasios. The excerpt from St. Leo's sermon comes from the Office of Readings for the Solemnity of the Annunciation.

Veni Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We were to fast from the beginning; our refusal was our downfall

St. Basil in an ancient and comprehensive sermon notes that "fasting is even older than the Law. If you wait a little, you will discover the truth of what I have said. Do not suppose that fasting originated with the Day of Atonement, appointed for Israel on the tenth day of the seventh month. (Lev. 23:27) No, go back through history and inquire into the ancient origins of fasting. It is not a recent invention; it is an heirloom handed down by our fathers. Everything distinguished by antiquity is venerable. Have respect for the antiquity of fasting. It is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in Paradise.

Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden, by Masaccio, ca. 1426-1428

"It was the first commandment that Adam received: 'Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat. (Gen. 2:17) Through the words 'ye shall not eat' the law of fasting and abstinence is laid down. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not now be in need of this fast. 'They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.' (Matt. 9:12) We have been wounded through sin; we are healed through repentance, but repentance without fasting is fruitless. 'Cursed is the ground.... Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth for thee.' (Gen. 3:17-18) You were ordered to live in sorrow, not in luxury. Make amends to God through fasting. Yet even life in Paradise is an image of fasting, not only insofar as man, sharing the life of the Angels, attained to likeness with them through being contented with little, but also insofar as those things which human ingenuity subsequently invented had not yet been devised by those living in Paradise, be it the drinking of wine, the slaughter of animals, or whatever else befuddles the human mind."

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"A regard for every person starts the dialogue"

I am working very hard to avoid politics, apologetics, confrontations over the course of this holy season. Nonetheless, the world marches on and, alas, I am still me. So, with a deep diaconal bow to my dear friend Sharon, I want to draw attention to something written by Giorgio Vittadini, whom I admire very much. In addition to bringing Vittadini's remarks to my attention on Cahiers Péguy, Sharon also translated them into English from Italian. Her translation of Giorgio's piece appears in its entirety on the English page of the on-line publication Il Sussidiario, which is a site I urge you look at every day. In the interest of full disclosure and by way of a "plug", from time-to-time the editors of Il Sussidiario pick-up items from this blog and occasionally I write exclusive pieces. My most recent piece was on Egypt.

Getting to the point, here's an excerpt of what Vittadini wrote about the incoherence of the politics of armed intervention over the past two decades. With Vittadini, I ask, is this the best response?

"The excuse is always a humanitarian intervention or the defense of peace in jeopardy. It began with Serbia in the 90s. With the justification of humanitarian intervention, Belgrade and Serbia were indiscriminately bombed, leading to the overthrow of Milosevic.

"Arrested and tried for crimes against humanity at The Hague, he put attorney Carla del Ponte in a corner by demonstrating, in the light of international principles, that the reasons given for the action against his government had no legal basis. At that point, he died mysteriously in prison. Milosevic's was not an exemplary government with regard to the rights of his people, but he was democratically elected and his was not worse than other regimes (such as China) to which countries like France have bowed. Then it came to Saddam Hussein and the two Bush wars: the first for the invasion of Kuwait, the second for alleged possession of nuclear weapons. It turned out that Saddam did not possess any weapons of mass destruction. Only John Paul II and a few others, in fact, were against the war."
Pres. Obama seems to positively embrace incoherence, looking straight into the cameras yesterday in Santiago, Chilé and saying with a straight face that while it is his administration's determination that Col. Qaddafi must relinquish power, getting him to let go of power is not an objective of our military intervention. So, again, what are the implications of our involvement and our determination to get rid Qaddafi, do these decisions, as seemingly incogruent as they are with each other, take into consideration, as Vittadini insists they must, "all the factors at play"?

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Monday, March 21, 2011

Challenging aspects of following Christ

With a deep diaconal bow to my fellow deacon, Charles Joiner, who is Orthodox, I am posting an excerpt from the late Fr. Seraphim Rose’s book, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, in which he comments on much of what passes for Christian spirituality today:

"The life of self-centeredness and self-satisfaction lived by most of today’s 'Christians' is so all-pervading that it effectively seals them off from any understanding at all of spiritual life; and when such people do undertake 'spiritual life,' it is only as another form of self-satisfaction. This can be seen quite clearly in the totally false religious ideal both of the 'charismatic' movement and the various forms of 'Christian meditation': all of them promise (and give very quickly) an experience of 'contentment' and 'peace.' But this is not the Christian ideal at all, which if anything may be summed up as a fierce battle and struggle. The ‘contentment' and 'peace' described in these contemporary 'spiritual' movements are quite manifestly the product of spiritual deception, of spiritual self-satisfaction––which is the absolute death of the God-oriented spiritual life. All these forms of 'Christian meditation' operate solely on the psychic level and have nothing whatever in common with Christian spirituality. Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, which fully begins only with the dissolution of this temporal world, and the true Christian struggler never finds repose even in the foretastes of eternal blessedness which might be vouchsafed to him in this life; but the Eastern religions, to which the Kingdom of Heaven has not been revealed, strive only to acquire psychic states which begin and end in this life."
In trying to keep it simple, I will add only one observation, namely the banishment from contemporary Christian life, at least in the West, of those traditional disciplines that are difficult. First among these are the disciplines of fasting and abstinence. It seems that those of us in the well-fed and over-sexed West see the need to fast from virtually everything except food and sex. The reason for this is because when we do we get hungry and horny, which means grappling with these basic desires of our flesh, which are not intrinsically evil, just as our bodies are not evil. However, these desires often rule our lives, or at least exercise undue influence over us. Christ wants to liberate us from all that enslaves us, from all that distracts us from loving as we are loved, which means dying to ourselves. So, we are loathe to eliminate meat, cheese, milk, indeed, all animal products, including fish, from our diet for a prescribed season, or even a few days a week, let alone wine and conjugal relations, which disciplines have been part of Christian praxis from the very beginning. Sure these things can take on a dead formalism, but this, too, must be resisted. It is not resisited by falling into being lax.

When Philippine Archbishop Paciano Aniceto, who serves as chairman of the Commission on Family Life of the Philippines’ Conference of Catholic Bishops, suggested to married Catholics in his country at the beginning of Lent that they might consider abstaining from sexual relations by mutual agreement over these forty days, citing Muslim practice during the month of Ramadan, his suggestion, at least in the U.S., was met with sarcasm and smug ridicule, despite the fact he made it clear that he was only making a suggestion and not seeking to impose anything, which is only to suggest what Sacred Scripture itself recommends, when St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

"Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: 'It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.' But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control". (1 Cor. 7:1-5- ESV- underlining emphasis mine)
If I am not mistaken, Lent is a time we devote ourselves to prayer more intensively. Passages like this in Scripture are often dismissed by Western Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, as antiquated, outdated, and irrelevant to contemporary life. While I certainly do not take a literalist approach to Scripture, I cannot dismiss challenging passages with the wave of my hand. I fully recognize that for some people this would never occur as a possibility and I would never insist that it is incumbent upon married couples to do this for even a day, let alone for a week, month, or six weeks, but I think as Christians we have to acknowledge there may well be something to it.

Of course, such an undertaking requires a certain amount of spiritual maturity, meaning it cannot be done on a whim or for superficial, legalistic, or moralistic reasons. It also requires competent spiritual direction in order for it to be fruitful, competent spiritual directors are in short supply these days. Like all disciplines it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We do not become holy by our own efforts, God is the one who transforms us, but not only does God not change us against our will, He does not do so without our cooperation. So, while our reasons for doing these things must be primarily spiritual, like fasting from food, it also has practical benefits, such as deepening marital intimacy, which is surely fostered by such things as praying (more) together, engaging in spiritual reading together, etc. Those who undertake such a spiritual endeavor must do so quietly, not seeking to draw attention to themselves, so that it might help them be transformed from image to likeness together, which is what the sacrament of matrimony is all about. (Mark10:6-8; Gen. 1:27)

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Christ can fill that cosmic void in your heart"

Just to prove that nothing is all bad, Trinity Broadcasting, which airs some truly odd and even grossly heretical programming, has started to re-broadcast Billy Graham Crusades from down through the years on Saturday nights. From the time I became a Christian myself (I remember well the night and circumstance I asked Jesus to fill the void in my own heart- in a flash I recognized that only He can fill it, only He can bridge the infinite gap, the gulf between myself and the Father), I have been an admirer of Dr. Graham. You know the preaching is good, Spirit-filled, when it holds a five year-old enraptured and prompts him to start asking serious existential questions.

Privileged as I am to lead our parish RCIA program, I frequently get the question, "Which Bible should I buy?" After warning them away from truly bad versions, like the New World Translation and paraphrase translations, I quote Dr. Graham: "Buy the one you're going to read."

Television preachers often prove to be charlatans. This should shock nobody because they become just like rock stars and, thinking themselves above it all, eschew accountability, worrying about and preaching against the motes in the eyes of other people while pridefully ignoring the beam their own, all the while raking in cash, living an opulent life-style, and generally suffering from what can only be described as a messiah complex. This phenomenon is nothing new. It even goes back to radio days, as Sinclair Lewis' 1926 novel Elmer Gantry, which was made into an award-winning film in 1960, clearly shows. One of the reasons I admire Billy Graham so much is that he has always taken being accountable seriously. He has, what my Evangelical brothers and sisters call, a true heart for the Lord. Dr. Graham is now ninety-two years-old.

Despite being a very public figure, he has always strived to live a simple and quiet life, taking only a modest salary from his multi-million dollar ministry. With Dr. Graham it is never just a show. Graham even overcame his early anti-Catholic bias. In fact, during the ministry of Cardinal O'Connor, when the Billy Graham Crusade came to New York City there were Catholic counselors waiting to talk to Catholics who turned their life back to Christ at the event. Here's a brief clip from his crusade in Milwaukee in 1979 that is appropriate for addressing the transformation today's Gospel call us to. He reminds us that we need help, that is, God's grace to move from image to likeness.

It is my prayer that you hear from the pulpit or ambo in your church this morning something equally inspiring, challenging, and hope-filled- not the old worn-out saw of I'm okay and you're okay. If you're okay, then why did Jesus have to go to the cross for you?

Dr. Graham has written a number of books. I particularly like his books on the Holy Spirit and on angels. Knowing Jesus, living in fellowship, that is, communion with Him is happiness. In a world in which nothing satisfies our restless hearts, He is our hope and our joy.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"He saved us and called us to a holy life"

"And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. (Matt. 17:2)

"He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." (2 Tim.1:9-10)

On this Second Sunday of Lent we are called to further open ourselves, allowing God's grace to build on our nature, to be transfigured, moving from image to likeness. After all, my dear friends, this is what Lent is about!

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

St. Joseph, husband of the Blessed Vigin Mary

St. Joseph holding the Christ child

Roman Catholics throughout much of the world observe today as a holy day of obligation. While the Solemnity of St. Joseph is not a holy day here in the U.S., it is an important day, as is our solemnity next Friday, the Annunciation of the Lord. For those who perpetually confuse Mary's Immaculate Conception with Christ's conception, the Annunciation falls nine months before our observance of the Nativity. In any case, the saints are indispensable and have been since the beginning of the church.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote that "unless we are aware that we are outside the kingdom of God, that we need to knock at a door to be allowed in, we may spend a great deal of our lives in imagining that we are inside, behaving as though we were and never reaching that depth where the kingdom unfolds itself in all its beauty, its truth and its glory." Without trying to be too cute, we know people who are inside, as it were. These people we call saints. We ask them to intercede for us from the inside.

All fathers and husbands should have some kind of a devotion to St. Joseph, who, along with his spouse, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a most efficacious intercessor on our behalf. I want to wish my pastor, Msgr. Mayo and our Vicar General, who is also our Vicar for Clergy, Msgr. Fitzgerald, a happy saint day today!

St. Joseph's day is huge in Italy and in many Italian-American communities here in the U.S. So, my Italian friends, enjoy this break from our Lenten austerity!

you entrusted our Savior to the care of Saint Joseph.
By the help of his prayers may your Church continue
to serve its Lord, Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever. Amen.

St. Joseph, pray for us

Friday, March 18, 2011

"I guess this is our last goodbye"

This old Police song, off their early album Regatta de Blanc, is certainly about adolescent angst over losing a love, or a supposed love. Nonetheless, it says something really striking about our mindset at times, our self-absorption. If being an adolescent is about anything, it is about being completely absorbed by yourself, seeing yourself as alone, unloved, unworthy, yet with a heart, that is, a desire bigger than the world.

When we become completely turned-in and obsessive about this, it can be tragic and lead to people injuring themselves, starving themselves, or even worse.

These words are particularly striking:

And you don't care so I won't cry
But you'll be sorry when I'm dead
And all this guilt will be on your head
I guess you'd call it suicide
But I'm too full to swallow my pride

My life has been touched several times by suicide. By order of magnitude, from my extended family, to friends, to people who have sought my pastoral guidance, as well as dealing with people in the aftermath of a suicide.

By His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ, shows us that we are always accompanied on our way. He shows us that love is stronger than even death. Further, He is the fulfillment of our desire, as the title of the hymn, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, indicates.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Padric, Dewi Sant and a few Lenten notes

Today is the liturgical memorial of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. For Roman Catholics in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a solemnity and a holy day of obligation. Next to St. Francis of Assisi, probably no saint is better known in the West. Patrick, however, was not Irish by birth. He first went to the Emerald Isle at age 16 after being taken captive in his native England. He was then sold as a slave. He was probably a native Welsh-speaker. He remained in Ireland six years before escaping and returning home. After being formed in monasteries at Tours and Lérins, he was ordained a priest and then a bishop before returning to Ireland as a missionary. As I mention each 17 March, Patrick is something of a pan-Celtic figure. Each entity of Great Britain has its own patron saint: St. David for Wales, St. Andrew for Scotland, and St. George for England.

Incidentally, 1 March is traditionally the memorial of St. David. His memorial remains on the Anglican calendar. I assume that with the institution of the Anglican Ordinariate, St. David’s memorial will resume, in some places, being observed by Catholics, but his feast is not on the Roman calendar, nor on the universal Orthodox calendar.

St. David of Wales

We learn in one of Patrick’s two extant letters that his mother, Conchessa, was a near relative of St. Martin of Tours. It was around AD 433 that Patrick began his mission among the Irish. The date of his death is held to be 17 March 493.

St. Patrick, along with Sts. David and George, is also venerated by Orthodox Christians, given that his life and holiness spread throughout the universal church prior to the Great Schism of AD 1054. Of course, his veneration by our Eastern sisters and brothers is most prominent among the English-speaking Orthodox, who are growing in number, many of whom convert from various Christian traditions, mostly Protestant and, at least in the U.S., many Evangelicals, and even some from Catholicism.

St. Padric of Ireland

While I’m putting up a post, I will take the chance to mention that Tuesday morning I was looking at Arthur Jones’ new Marian blog over on NCR. Given my Lent-long review of my own on-line activities, I take that I went to this webpage as providential. He expresses what I think is a healthy wariness of internet activity (i.e., Facebook, e-mail, Tweeting, etc.), namely ”that we’re all in danger of information overload”, which goes hand-in-hand with the chronic vice of our culture in this age; busyness for busyness’ sake. I say that his wariness is healthy because it doesn’t go to the extreme of dismissing such activity as wholly pointless, or even unnecessary (he starting a blog, after all); on-line activity has its place. My particular challenge is finding and focusing on what is useful for my readers. I am interested to see what fruit this insight bears over these next days and weeks.

I implore, Sts. Patrick and David pray for us. I also invoke the intercession of St. Joseph, whose feast, which is a solemnity and, in most places, but not in the United States, a holy day of obligation, we look forward to this Saturday. Last year, falling as it did on a Friday, we were able to fore go Lenten abstinence. This year, due to the vigil falling on Friday, we will be able to end it a bit early, at sunset.

I also look forward to a solemnity next Friday, 25 March, when I will commemorate and celebrate the Annunciation by having chicken for lunch and eggs for breakfast.

As you walk your Lenten path, Go n-eírí an bother leat (i.e., may road rise up to meet you).

I will end with the beginning stanzas from the Lorca of St. Patrick:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

So, here's a Welshman, Sir Tom Jones, singing a Gospel tune, a little something about another 40 days and 40 nights in the Bible- Didn't It Rain? There's a bit about cat cruelty thrown in for good measure.

Friends don't let friends drink green beer. If you're going to imbibe this evening, enjoy a nice Guinness or a Harp, or, better yet, have a glass of Irish whiskey.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Following Christ, living in the real world

"As Christians we are always in tension - in anguish and at the same time in bliss. This is mad, ridiculous. But it is true - accepting the dark night just as we accept the brilliance of the day. We have to make an act of surrender - if I am in Christ, there are moments where I must share the cry of the Lord on the cross and the anguish in the garden of Gethsemane. There is a way of being defeated, even in our faith - and this is a way of sharing the anguish of the Lord. I don't believe we should ever say, 'This cannot happen to you'. If we are Christians we should go through this life, accepting the life and the world, not trying to create a falsified world.

"But, on the other hand, the Christian is like someone who lives in three dimensions in a world in which the majority of of people live in two. People who live freely and within a dimension of eternity will always find that something is wrong, they will always find themselves being the odd man out. The same problem was faced by the early Christians when they said their only king was God. People turned round to them and said, 'If you say that you are disloyal to our king' and often persecuted them. But the only true way of being loyal to this two-dimensional world is to be loyal to the three-dimensional world, because in reality the world is three-dimensional. If you really live in three dimensions and do not simply live in two and imagine the third, then life will be full and meaningful" Metropolitan Anthony Bloom from an interview that serves as the introduction to his indispensable book Beginning to Pray.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Sunday, March 13, 2011

First Sunday of Lent

Today Lent begins in earnest. Jesus' forty days and our forty days: straight-up, today's Gospel is the scriptural basis for Lent. The temptations Jesus dealt with are archetypal of the temptations we face all the time. It's easy to overlook that Jesus was fasting and these temptations came "afterwards". Strengthened by His fast, he was able to resist what the devil threw His way.

Similarly, when we read about the fall in Genesis, it is easy to miss the obvious, namely that the tree from which our first parents ate was forbidden them, which is a form of fasting. Fasting does not merely consist of not eating, but, at least within the Christian tradition, both East and West, not eating certain foods, like the meat of warm-blooded animals, dairy products, wine, olive oil, et al. for fixed times, as, for Christians, all food is clean.

Fasting is indispensable for anyone who seeks to follow Christ, no matter what anyone tells you. Whose word carries more weight than the Master's? We do not fast for health reasons, to lose weight, to detox. Lent is not the Catholic diet plan. It is undeniable that there are health benefits to fasting. Despite this we fast for spiritual reasons, as Jesus shows us. One reason we fast is that through our self-denial we are strengthened to resist temptation. The great wit Oscar Wilde once averred, "I can resist anything but temptation." Maybe he should've considered fasting.

In his Wednesday audience for Ash Wednesday, Pope Benedict reminded us that the Church Fathers taught the interconnectedness of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving:

"Saint Augustine calls fasting and almsgiving the 'wings of prayer', since they prepare our hearts to take flight and seek the things of heaven, where Christ has prepared a place for us. As this Lent begins, let us accept Christ’s invitation to follow him more closely, renew our commitment to conversion and prayer, and look forward to celebrating the Resurrection in joy and newness of life."
St. Paul synthesizes Genesis and today's Gospel, showing us starkly that we are not saved by our own obedience because, frankly, we are disobedient. Only the Son, Jesus Christ, was obedient to the Father in all things, which is why only He can reconcile us to God, to each other, as well as redeem the whole of fallen creation.

On this First Sunday of Lent, let's not forget the people of Japan. Let's fast and pray that the Lord will meet their spiritual needs and be generous in our response to their material needs.

There are several subjects I am actively avoiding this Lent. At the top of my list is the suspension of twenty-one priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia after a Grand Jury report showed credible allegations of child sexual abuse against them. In addition, another priest, this time from the chancery, is being charged with child endangerment for knowingly placing abusive priests in situations in which they could abuse again. I could chime in, but it's all being said or has been said. I refer anyone who is interested to Nicholas Cafardi's piece in Commonweal. I am bereft, especially for the victims. I am disturbed that, even after the Dallas charter, the same mistakes and cover-ups are still going on, at least in some places.

Next on my list is the renewed persecution of Christians in Egypt. Where is the coverage on that? Well, it doesn't fit the preferred narrative of the long discredited fourth estate: "The evil tyrant is gone, democracy is fully realized, even without a revised constitution, and they all lived happily ever after."

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The where and how of conversion

This morning finds us one day short of the First Sunday of Lent, which will begin this holy season in earnest. Last night I read a post over on Cahiers Péguy by my friend Sharon that struck me as being what Lent is all about. Lent is not about doing things we don't do the rest of the year, including not eating meat on Fridays and, ideally, even fasting. On my view, it is about doing these things more intensively and conscientiously, which means striving to live more in the awareness of destiny. This brings up, yet again, the reality that the disciplines we intensify during this holy season are means to an end, namely starting from image and moving to likeness, a movement only made possible in Christ, with Christ, and through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sharon's post, A vocation to the real, takes this up in a very concrete way. She points out that the where and the how of Christ at work seeking to make you over into His likeness is staring you in the face at every moment.

On this interstitial Saturday in Lent I want to turn back to my fellow deacon, the Syriac, St. Ephrem, who brings up the need we have to die to ourselves, giving it the gravity it deserves by putting it in the context of destiny:

"On that dreadful and amazing day, You shall say to us sinners, O Lord: ‘You men know well what I have undergone for you; what have you suffered for Me?’…The martyrs will point to their wounds, their sufferings, the severed parts of their bodies… The ascetics will point to their asceticism, to their long fasts and vigils, to their liberality…But I, idle, sinful, transgressing as I am, what shall I be able to point to? Spare me, O merciful One! Spare me, O Thou Lover of mankind!"

I am always dismayed at the amount of what I can only call silliness that spills forth on and around Ash Wednesday concerning Lent, thus trivializing what is a solemn and holy season. As one who sees the benefit and even the need to be interconnected, I suppose much of this has its place, given the tremendous pastoral need. So, I can deal with those efforts that don't consciously strive to be merely entertaining. Efforts aimed at entertaining, as well-intentioned as they may be, only serve to add more clutter to a culture increasingly made up of distractions.

Starting this Monday I will be posting less, at least over the remainder of Lent. I will definitely continue our Friday traditio and I will put something up on the Sunday readings. I take a kind of odd pride in posting something everyday. So, I will be working on that over Lent. One feature that I am discontinuing altogether is the U.S. hierarchy updates. The best resource for keeping up on these events is the Catholic-Hierarchy News blog, which I feature in my blogfeed over on the right.

I have never judged the success of this endeavor by any quantitative method. Suffice it to say, I do not see myself as an entertainer, but as a deacon who hopes he is providing a service. One service I hope I provide is a blog that has some continuity and coherence from post-to-post, day-to-day, week-to-week, etc., even if I run the risk of being a little repetitive. After all, continuity requires overlap. It also bears mentioning that being serious does not mean being either joyless or humorless.

One cannot post during these days without continuing to ask for prayers for the people of Japan. This morning an explosion was reported at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant that was damaged by the 8.9 earthquake. The explosion raises the concern that one of plant's reactors has started to meltdown. Lord, hear our prayer.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Friday, March 11, 2011

"O God, cleanse me a sinner"

-Lenten Prayer, by St. Ephrem the Syrian:

O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk+

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant+

Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother; For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen+

+= prostration for first recitation

St. Ephrem the Syrian, deacon

Monday through Friday during Lent this prayer is read two times at the end of each service in Orthodox and many Eastern Catholic churches. When recited the first time a prostration comes after each petition. Between the first and second recitation everyone bows twelve times while saying, "O God, cleanse me a sinner." After this, the prayer is said again followed by a final prostration.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

"Some say we're born into the grave"

Former Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr died in Salt Lake City last Tuesday, 8 March 2011. Starr waged a difficult battle against drug addiction for many years. So, Them Bones off Alice in Chains' album Dirt is the first Friday traditio of this Lent.

Spencer Roddan, Starr's friend, with whom he was living in SLC at the time of his death, said that he preferred to remember his friend "as a fun-loving jokester who loved eating gyros at local fast-food chain 'Mad Greek.'"

Here's the part that gets me: "The night before he died, he said to Roddan, 'Spencer, I love you.'"

"He was messed up and I didn’t know what to do," said another of Mike's friends, referring to a conversation that same night, "I gave him a hug and said I loved him."

Dust rise right on over my time
Empty fossil of the new scene
I feel so alone, gonna end up a
Big hole pile a them bones

Last night I had dream about the last time I saw my Dad alive. It was exactly how I remembered it: I was looking at him and he was looking up at me. I kissed him on his forehead and, with tears, I said "Dad, I love you." He took my hand, held it tightly, and said "I love you so much." I told him I needed to leave, but that I didn't want to. He gently said "Go." I told him I was worried that wouldn't be there when I returned.

Memento mori, indeed!

In either case, love is stronger than death, which is what keeps death from turning us into a pile of them bones. In Psalm 51, which recite each Friday at the beginning of Morning Prayer, we say, "Make me hear rejoicing and gladness, that the bones you have crushed may revive. From my sins turn away your face and blot out all my guilt."

Of course, this morning we pray for those affected by the tsunami in northeastern Japan, caused by a 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of that island country.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What is penance and why do it?

After the big production that is Ash Wednesday, believe it or not, Lent continues today. Each year I am aware of the incongruency between reading the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, in which Jesus teaches us not to pray, fast, or give alms in manner that can be seen, and then coming forward and having a big, black cross, or, like Deacon Greg, a smudge, smeared across my forehead. As you awoke up this morning, slightly hungrier than usual from your fasting, and looked at the faded ashes on your forehead, how did Lent look to you? I hope the prospect of seeking to draw closer to Christ over these weeks still looks attractive. I think it is necessary to point out that Lent is very straightforwardly a penitential season. Having been corrupted not only by Philosophy, but by what is often termed linguistic philosophy, and more specifically by Wittgenstein, I always find it useful to define terms. One of the reasons I find the writings of both Don Giussani and the Holy Father, both as pope and prior to stepping into the shoes of the fisherman, is that both go to great pains to define terms.

A good example of this is that just before Lent I re-posted something I originally put up on my parish’s RCIA blog, There really is something about Mary. My post sparked a comment about seeing the Blessed Mother as an archetype. I responded by saying that to see Mary as an archetype is to reduce her. The subsequent discussion highlighted the fact that both Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger refer to Our Lady as an archetype, or at least employ the term archetype, in their writings. Hence, I was forced to clarify by pointing out that the word archetype has two distinct meanings, one that I would say simply refers to the term in its original, or received, sense and another that indicates a reference to a specific aspect of the psycho-philosophy of Jung. In short, I accept the latter and reject the former because to see Mary as a Jungian archetype, in my opinion, reduces her because it de-historicizes her.

With that background I want to look at what the word penance means in the ordinary sense, that is, how does the dictionary define it? According to Merriam-Webster, penance is "an act of self-abasement, mortification, or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin." While this definition helps narrow down what we mean by "penance," it doesn’t define the term clearly. On a Christian view, we can certainly eliminate self-abasement from our definition of penance. This leaves us with penance as acts of mortification and devotion. I believe that here we are on quite solid ground.

To mortify simply means to kill. Through mortification we seek, with God’s help, to die to ourselves, to put all our selfish, death-dealing, tendencies to death. It cannot be pointed out too often that the paradox of dying to self in order truly live constitutes the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. The purpose of Lent is to bring us face-to-face both with this reality in general and, more particularly, with what needs to die in you so that you can live.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in answer to the question what is the sacrament by which we are reconciled to God and the church called, we are told that it is called both the sacrament of conversion and penance (par. 1423). It is called "the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion": "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand…" (CCC par. 1423; Matt. 3:2). The Catechism goes on to say we also refer to it as "the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner's personal and ecclesial steps" towards being converted, that is, changed (ibid). These changes make us more like Christ, who is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15). I would only note that the word Christian implies sinner, albeit a redeemed one in the process of being sanctified!

Contrition differs from and comes prior to penance. To be contrite is to be sorry. To be sorry means to recognize the wrong I have done, to see the harm it causes me as well as others, and to see the damage my sin inflicts on the church's communion. Being contrite about something I have said, done, or failed to do entails a commitment on my part to do everything in my power to avoid doing it again, which is not enough. To be penitent means being willing to make those changes in my life that will enable me, with God’s help, as the Act of Contrition indicates, to overcome whatever sinful tendencies I discover in myself by examining my conscience.

I want to double-back and focus on the phrase, "with God’s help." We need God’s help in order to realize our potential, for image to become likeness. Our likeness to God is forfeited through sin, whereas the imago dei, the divine image we bear in the very core our being, is ineradicable and is what makes conversion always and everywhere a possibility. In his book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster notes that St. Paul uses the word "righteousness" in his Letter to the Romans thirty-five times. In every instance, Foster goes on to point out, the apostle is emphatic that righteousness "is unattained and unattainable through human effort."

If we do not become righteous through our own efforts, then why bother with these disciplines at all? In the same vein as Kushiner’s succinct summary of why we practice the spiritual disciplines (i.e., as ways to overcome our ego, thus opening us up to God’s grace), Foster insists "God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace." Being wary of analogies, I nonetheless suggest that a good way to think about our practice of the spiritual disciplines is tuning into God’s frequency. Foster, dealing with the matter more directly, writes, "The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us."

As we begin our Lenten journey, let’s not lose sight of our goal and remember that penance leads to conversion, conversion leads to gratitude, and gratitude leads to joy. It is never too early in Lent to note that we celebrate our joy in all its fullness at Easter.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Image and likeness, what Ash Wednesday is all about

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.‘ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-27- ESV).

In his book, The Orthodox Way , Bishop Kallistos Ware, wonders about what Scripture clearly teaches regarding human beings created in God’s image and likeness. This brings up an interesting question, in the above verse from Genesis, do image and likeness represent a repetition employed to highlight our deep, abiding and ineradicable relationship to God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or is there a distinction to be made between image and likeness? In keeping with what has been handed on by tradition, Ware holds that there is an important distinction to be made. However, this distinction only serves to highlight our relationship to God in the very depths of our being.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, was a disciple of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who, in turn, tradition indicates, was a disciple of the Apostle John, wrote in his seminal work, Against the Heresies, that "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." As Bishop Kallistos notes, the Talmud also teaches that "The glory of God is man." As to being created in God’s image, as noted on Monday, human beings are a tri-unity of body, soul, and spirit. Or, on another view, with reference only to our spiritual soul, we are memory, will, and intellect. In either instance, or in both instances, human beings are an ikon of the Triune God, that is, each bears in her/his own person the divine image, the imago dei, which is ineradicable. Nonetheless, being a bearer of the divine image indicates not merely human potential, but the potential to be what God created, redeemed you, and is now sanctifying you to be, namely like God, who is love, that is, agapé (1 Jn. 4:8.16- ESV). More contemporarily, this is often called "becoming who you already are."

So, if image is potential, likeness is the realization of your potential. In short, likeness is destiny. Bishop Kallistos points us to Origen, who discerned, "Man received the honor of the image at his first creation, but the full perfection of God’s likeness," what is called theosis, or divinization, "will only be conferred upon him at the final consummation of all things."

Pater Tom, who immersed himself in the study of the Desert Fathers, and whose own view of the human person remained very rooted in their take, writes about this reality in his characteristically deep, but accessible way:

"At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely" from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
You must verify what Pater Tom writes through your own experience, or it only remains a sentimental thought, a kind of daydream. Verification is no easy task, but it is not an academic exercise; it is purely existential. For example, I think George Carlin verified at least part of this- the part about there being "a point of pure truth" at the center of our being- when he famously averred, "Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist." In other words, we have an inherent sense of how things are supposed to be. The part about being cynical, I believe, verifies what Pater Tom wrote about our center being impervious to illusion.

All of your Lenten disciplines are merely means that serve the very end for which you were made. This is why we begin Lent with a communal memento mori. Or, as James Kushiner, himself an Orthodox Christian, succinctly put it: “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.” Practicing the disciplines taught us by the Lord and verified through the experience of men and women over two millennia serve no other purpose than teaching us to live in the awareness of our destiny. Ash Wednesday puts us face-to-face with the inescapable paradox that in order to truly live, you must die to yourself.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Monday, March 7, 2011

Knowledge and ignorance: Northwestern & BYU

Over the nearly five year history of Καθολικός διάκονος I have only had one guest post, that is, until today. Last week my good friend Dan Szynal suggested a topic for my blog. So, I suggested he write something and I would post it. He did.

After a long period of formation, Dan was recently commissioned as lay ecclesial minister for his diocese in Illinois. With no further adieu, below is the fruit of his diligent effort:


St. Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, gives some very pastoral teaching when he tells them, "'Everything is lawful,' but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is lawful,' but not everything builds up" (1 Cor. 10:23).

No truer words could be spoken this week in light of two controversies that have been reported in the media this at two separate college universities. These two stories have some strange similarities, and yet travel along polar opposite lines. That these two stories stand in marked contrast to each other points to the great divide in this country about worldview. However, I think that both point to something that hasn’t been covered in the media blitz.

The first case comes from Northwestern University; a well known school in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Earlier this week, a demonstration was conducted in a course on human sexuality that is offered for academic credit. This demonstration, which was conducted after the class had ended, involved a volunteer woman who had a sexual act performed on her, while nude in front of the class, by a "sex toy". The reason given for this demonstration was that the accompanying lecture in course discussed different sexual experiences and offered this knowledge to the students so that they could have a more whole understanding of human sexuality. The subsequent demonstration was described during class, and the students were given the option to stay or leave afterward as it was characterized as information that would not be tested on. The controversy was reported all over the local Chicago land media with the professor as well as the volunteer giving statements that they felt this was a positive experience for everyone to give them the knowledge to make informed decisions about their own sexuality.

The second case comes from Brigham Young University in which star forward Brandon Davies, has been suspended for violating the school’s honor code of living a chaste and virtuous life. The countrywide publicity that has come from this did not stem from the fact that a young unmarried man was having sexual relations with his girlfriend, but instead came from the suspension from BYU as it chose to enforce its honor code that students are asked to affirm.

There are several angles to this story; the way in which the media covered both stories; a comparison of sexual attitudes in America, the public reaction and any consequences to each University from the publicity (whether good or bad). However, I think that St. Paul hints at something that applies to these stories here. In a way, a common thread to both of these stories revolves around the question of "knowledge"?

We live in a time and a society that respects the value of knowledge and the free exchange of ideas. I don’t think that anyone would deny that one of the core freedoms of our country is contained in that ideal. However, St. Paul, in a certain way, gives some guidance to the beneficial limits of knowledge to those who follow Jesus Christ.

There are two types of knowledge, an intellectual knowledge which seeks to know and understand facts and truths. There is another kind of knowledge which is experiential, a knowledge of the heart, if you will. It is a knowledge that seeks to integrate the experience into part of whom we are.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a course on human sexuality. There is nothing wrong with academic pursuits that seek to gain knowledge so that a person can learn to think critically, solve problems, and make judgments about different situations. This is, after all, the goal of higher education.

Then there is experiential knowledge. Is all experiential knowledge beneficial? Does it build up the body? Does it lend to make a person whole? Does the integration of that experiential knowledge benefit the person, or can it be destructive?

Such is the kinds of questions that revolve around the acts of Brandon Davies and the demonstration at Northwestern University.

I think that Archbishop Fulton Sheen, of blessed memory, speaks directly to this when he says,

“The words of Jesus and Mary suggest there is value in not knowing (evil)... The great fallacy of modern education is the assumption that the reason that there is evil in the world is because there is ignorance, and that if we pour more facts into the minds of the young, that we will make them better… How often the disillusioned say, ‘I wish I had never tasted liquor’. Think not that in order to know life, you must experience evil” (1)

Forgetting, for a moment, whether or not society, in general, would characterize the Northwestern or BYU incidents as "evil", the question becomes, how do these experiences of knowledge help integrate the person into the wholeness of the person that God has created us to become? How will the experiences of knowledge affect the students at Northwestern in their future relationships? Will the tacit approval of alternative forms of sexual expression lead them to a fuller integration of their sexuality as an icon of the inner life of the Trinity as a mutual giving and receiving of love and life that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful? Will this demonstration lead them to being able to integrate a healthy and wholesome sexuality who’s end is not self gratification, but a true giving of self and deep intimate communion with an other to whom

How will Brandon Davies move forward from the consequences of the actions that led to his suspension? There is no doubt that his conscience, which led him to act in telling the school of his actions, will also guide him to reflect on his experience, and will hopefully lead to a teaching moment that will lead him closer to God, which always makes one more whole, more human. Good can always come from our wrong actions. That is the mystery of grace.

Never should knowledge be banned. However, there can also be wisdom in “not knowing”. There were two people who never knew sin; Our Lord, and Our Blessed Mother. Let us pray that we may truly possess the ignorance of sin so that we may be filled instead with the knowledge of God’s love.

(1) Seven Words of Jesus and Mary, Fulton J Sheen, Ligouri/Triumph, 2001, pgs 14-18

"A little lower than the angels..."

Bishop Kallistos Ware, writing in his book, The Orthodox Way, about the tripartite nature of our common humanity (i.e., body, soul, and spirit) says that while the human being can be viewed as body and soul, a three-fold schema is the most accurate way to understand the human person, especially in our own time because we have a tendency to confuse soul and spirit. Besides, many today seem completely unaware that they posses "a spiritual intellect." At least in the West, our educational system is solely concerned with the brain, with instrumental reasoning. Hence, we are, to a very real extent, alienated from ourselves, from God, and the world in which we live.

Body, soul, and spirit constitutes a kind of a three-in-one and, as such, serves as something of an ikon of the Blessed Trinity. Similarly, St. Augustine, the greatest among the Latin church fathers, posited that intellect, memory, and will, which together make our souls spiritual, as an ikon of the Blessed Trinity. God created two orders, the noetic (i.e., spiritual) and the material, the seen and unseen, as we say when we recite the Creed. Human beings are unique because we inhabit both orders at the same time, which makes us even superior to the angels. Beyond that, each human being, precisely because we inhabit both realms, is an imago mundi, meaning a small universe, also known as a microcosm.

I think our intensification of the spiritual disciplines during Lent is meant to remind us of all of this at a very fundamental level, to reconnect us, to make us hale and hearty, which is what the English word "holy" in essence means. In a word, the holy season of Lent should help to make us whole. Sure, we are dust and to dust we will return, but we are not only dust and, more importantly, we will rise with Christ from the ashes. In fact, in baptism, we have already done this. So, we do not enter or observe Lent as if Christ has not already conquered sin and death. Just as I go to confession knowing that I am always already forgiven, but go in order to more fully realize this for myself, I observe Lent to more fully realize that Christ has conquered sin and death in me and to help me experience in my very person the great paradox that it is only by dying to myself that I truly know what it means to be alive.

As Richard Foster observed, the reason we practice the spiritual disciplines is to gain "liberation from the stifling slavery to self-interest and fear."

By way of a preview, on Ash Wednesday, I will post a little something by Pater Tom, which he, in turn, gleaned from his study of the Desert Fathers, that illustrates more fully what Bishop Kallistos writes about, with some thoughts on the oft-overlooked distinction between image and likeness.

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...