Friday, September 30, 2011

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Little Flower

The Little Flower dressed as Jeanne d'Arc for a play at the convent

Before going on retreat for the weekend I must acknowledge tomorrow's memorial of the Little Flower, who I love so much and who loves me and intercedes for me. While thinking about her this morning, it dawned on me that our retreat master for this weekend, Deacon Owen Cummings, is the same person who made me aware of the great devotion the brilliant and lovely French chantuese Édith Piaf had to the Little Flower. She was taught this devotion by a prostitute who worked in a brothel in which Édith's maternal grandma, in whose care her father left her, was the madam. Indeed, in every age it is the tax collectors and prostitutes who enter the Kingdom of God before many of us.

Just last year I wrote an article for Il Sussidiario entitled St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Little Flower and Édith Piaf, Little Sparrow. I am struck, yet again, by what a beautiful story of God's grace this is.

Little Flower, passionate heart so on fire with love, pray for us that, like you, we might love Jesus before, after, above, and beyond anything or anyone else! Bring us to the realization that it is only by loving Him first and foremost that we can love each other as He taught us to do.

"offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline"

Shortly before his premature demise Kurt Cobain said that REM handled fame and fortune like saints. I think he was pretty close to the truth. In an article for MTV online Gil Kaufman dicusses Stipe's relationship with Cobain.

All I can write is thanks Michael, Peter, Mike, and, yes, Bill, who retired some years back after surviving and bouncing back from a brain aneurysm, for 31 years of music that still, even in middle age, says something to me about my life. Logically, "The End of the World (As We Know It)" is our Friday traditio this week.

"Every motive escalate. Automotive incinerate. Light a candle,
light a motive. Step down, step down. Watch a heel crush, crush. Uh oh,
this means no fear - cavalier. Renegade and steer clear! A tournament,
a tournament, a tournament of's time I had some time alone... and I feel fine!"

While I am on the subject of time alone, I am on retreat with my brother deacons beginning this afternoon through Sunday. So, things here will be quiet. Please pray for us.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rosh Hashanah

As the sun goes down this evening Jews throughout the world begin the High Holy Days with the celebration Rosh Hashanah marking the Jewish New Year. The ten days between now and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are the Days of Awe. Rosh Hoshanah marks the creation of Adam and Eve. So, it is something like the birthday of mankind and brings to the fore the special relationship between God and humanity.

Mendel Weitman cantor for Chad Lubavitch of Utah (photo from Deseret News)

Last week and this week on his daily 15 minute radio program Fire on the Earth, Peter Herbeck has been interviewing Messianic Jewish Catholic Mark Neugebauer. Last week Mark told his life-story up to and including his reception into the Catholic Church in 2009. This week Neugebauer discusses the relationship between the seven great Jewish feasts and Catholic observance. I encourage you to listen to all ten programs over the Days of Awe. I am confident you will find it enlightening and inspiring.

So, to all my Jewish friends and readers, Leshanah tovah, tikateiv Veteichateim- meaning May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Because I liked it so much last year, here it is again:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reality, ideality, and perception

As I await the arrival of Milan Kundera's latest book of essays. Encounter, I am re-reading a book of his short stories, Laughable Loves. Kundera certainly ranks among those who make-up the high end of my literary universe, along with Camus, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, David Foster Wallace, W.G. Seabald, Jack Kerouac, Paul Auster, et al.

In the very first story of the collection, Nobody Will Laugh, which is about a would-be academic seeking the endorsement of a credible academic in order to have an extensive essay he wrote published in a leading journal, Kundera writes what he says "could serve as a parable on beauty." Mr. Zaturecky, the persistent would-be academic, after suffering a grave insult by the narrator of story, who dishonestly accuses him of trying to sexually assault the young woman with whom the narrator is living when he arrives to inquire about the status of the endorsement while the narrator is not at home, goes to the factory at which the young woman, Klara, works in order to identify her. He says she is tall and blond, when she is neither. It is clear from the beginning of the story that Klara is very beautiful.

When Mr. Zaturecky had seen Klara for the first time at my place, he was so dazzled that he actually hadn't seen her. Beauty created an opaque screen before her. A screen of light behind which she was hidden as if behind a veil...

...Only the inner greatness of beauty lent her in Mr. Zaturecky's eyes a semblance of great physical size. And the glow that emanates from beauty lent her hair the appearance of gold.

And so when the little man finally approached the corner where Klara, in a brown work smock, was huddled over a shirt, he didn't recognize her because he had never seen her

A Pensive Moment, by Eugene de Blaas

While I was struck by this same parable of sorts the first time I read the story, it had more resonance for me this time because of what I am concurrently reading; Giussani's The Religious Sense, specifically chapter seven. In this chapter Giussani outlined the various ways we reduce the existential questions that inevitaby arise as a result of being alive and being human. We reduce them to lessen their impact. One of the ways he gives is to reduce reality to an illusion, like Zaturecky reduces Klara by exaggerating her beauty.

As an example of reducing reality to an illusion he cites a poem by Eugenio Montale, called in English "Perhaps Some Morning:"

Perhaps some morning walking in a vitreous, clear
air, turning I shall see the miracle appear,
the nothingness around my shoulders and the void
behind, and know the terror of the drunken paranoid

Then suddenly, as on a screen, confusion
of hills, and houses, planted in the usual illusion
But it will be too late, and I shall be warier
as I move along those men who do not turn, with my secret terror
Giussani goes on to write that the persistence of reality causes us to realize that things are either created "by an Other, or else they are illusions and nothing." The kind of idealistic response to reality exhibited in Zaturecky's encounter with the lovely Klara makes the poor man more or less everyman. It is reality, not ideality, that leads us to something deeper, to destiny.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Year A Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezk. 18:25-28; Ps. 25:4-5.8-10.14; Phil. 2:1-11; Matt. 21:28-32

As our readings for last Sunday and today demonstrate, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways God’s ways (Isa. 55:8). In our first reading taken from the book of the prophet Ezekiel, God, speaking through His prophet, chides Israel for complaining that "[t]he LORD’s way is not fair" (Ezk 18:25). God reminds Israel that His way is not only fair, but more than fair; God’s way is merciful. We are reminded in this passage not only that sin is death, but the death that results from sin is the consequence of choices made by the sinner and not the sinner’s punishment by God. Who is the sinner? We are all sinners. Our first reading implies what St. Paul makes explicit in his Letter to the Romans, "all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). If this were not the case, we would have no need for God’s mercy and we would certainly not need a savior.

Self-righteousness is a parody of righteousness because the self-righteous person believes himself to be without fault he tends to be critical and merciless towards others. He feels perfectly comfortable demanding that each one be coldly given what he deserves. It is precisely this kind of all-too-human fairness, which we often call justice, that gives rise to such ideas as an a eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, or that other religious concept so at odds with grace, karma, which holds that what goes around comes around, that in the end you will inevitably and inescapably get what you deserve. Grace, by contrast, only requires you to acknowledge your failings and ask for God’s mercy.

Incorrigible as we often are it is only because we are the recipients of God’s mercy, given in Christ Jesus, that we are able to be merciful. If receiving God’s mercy fails to make us merciful, then we are like the man in the parable of Jesus we heard two weeks ago, who after being forgiven a very large debt by the king, was merciless in collecting a much smaller debt owed him. Upon learning of the mercilessness of the one he had forgiven so great a debt, the king summoned the man and "in anger… handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt" (Matt. 18:34). Then Jesus says these sobering words: "So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart" (Matt. 18:35). This is what gives weight to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer in which we ask the Father to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

All of this was brought to the fore in a very concrete way this past week with the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, even though Davis’ execution was more a question of simple justice than of mercy. While, traditionally, the Church has not forbidden the death penalty, assuming that the identity and guilt of the one condemned is fully and clearly ascertained, it must be reserved to those times when it is the only way to effectively protect society "against the aggressor" (Catechism of the Catholic Church par. 2267). In his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, Blessed Pope John Paul II taught that if less than lethal means "are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the… common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person" (par. 56). On this basis, he concluded that “given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime” through incarceration and even rehabilitation, cases in which the death penalty might be given today "are very rare, if not practically non-existent" (par. 56).

Fairness means treating everyone the same way, not playing favorites. God does not play favorites. He extends His mercy to all. It is the Father’s deepest desire to reconcile everyone and everything to Himself through His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. This is why God’s way is not merely fair, but more than fair. God’s way is mercy, which He gives us gratuitously, which is a dressed up way of saying that God gives His mercy freely to anyone who asks for it. In this context, it is interesting to note that our English word "mercy" comes from the Latin word meaning "merchandise," something for which a price is paid. The price of God’s mercy was the life of his only begotten son, who, St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Philippians, "humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). My brothers and sisters in Christ, we were purchased at a price beyond our reckoning!

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, one of the great Christian spiritual masters of the last century, writing about devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, said,
When we turn to the Mother of God in prayer, we should realize more than we do that any prayer we offer [to her] means this: "Mother, I have killed thy Son. If you forgive me, I can be forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness nothing can save me from damnation" (Beginning to Pray 110)
Certainly, the Blessed Mother, who, by a unique and singular grace, was preserved from sin, will forgive us for the responsibility we bear for Christ’s death because, like her Son, she is merciful, which is why we, Eve’s poor banished children, cry out to her using such titles as Our Lady of Mercy, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and Our Lady Help of Christians.

In the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict, citing a passage from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews (12:24), reminds us "that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel" (187). Unlike Abel’s blood, which cried to God from the ground for vengeance against Cain, his brother who murdered him (Gen. 4:10), Jesus’ Precious Blood "does not cry out for vengeance and punishment,” but instead “brings reconciliation" (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week 187). His blood, the Holy Father continues, "is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all" (187).

At the end of His parable in today’s Gospel, Jesus says to those listening, applying the parable to those who hear it, "When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him" (Matt.21:32). For Jesus, the tax collectors and prostitutes, that is, those who recognized their dire need for God’s mercy, who heard and heeded the Baptist’s call to repent and were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, are examples of the son who said "No" when asked by his father to work in the vineyard, but then went. By contrast, the observers of the law, who believed they could justify themselves by strictly observing the law, were the like the son who said "Yes," but then did not go. So, the unsettling question Jesus poses to each one of us today is, Are you the sinner in need of God’s saving mercy, or are you confident in your own righteousness, not believing you need God’s mercy?

In thinking about your response, bear in mind two things: what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: "the merciful… will be shown mercy" (Matt. 5:7), also remember what is written in the Letter of James: "the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment" (Jas. 2:13). Jesus Christ is mercy’s triumph over judgment.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The neglected importance of the occupation of Wall Street

Raymond De Souza, writing on John Paul II and the Problem of Consumerism, notes that human beings are "set free in Christ in order to be more fully [themselves]." In other words, we realize who we are and why are by giving ourselves wholly to God and neighbor. De Souza goes on to note that anything seeking to replace "that end" renders us "less free to be truly human." Among those other things that seek to replace the end for which are created and redeemed are those "things that are evil in themselves, such as drugs or pornography." There also those things "that are good in themselves, like the many goods we need to survive and flourish as corporeal creatures," that can easily become ends in themselves.

He goes on to use the definition of consumerism articulated by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in his otherwise very flawed commentary on JPII's Centesimus Annus:
Consumerism is, quite precisely, the consuming of life by the things consumed. It is living in a manner that is measured by having rather than being. As Pope John Paul II makes clear, consumerism is hardly the sin of the rich. The poor, driven by discontent and envy, may be as consumed by what they do not have as the rich are consumed by what they do have. The question is not, certainly not most importantly, a question about economics. It is first and foremost a cultural and moral problem requiring a cultural and moral remedy
Indeed, in Christ we have "been set free for freedom," De Souza notes before going on to observe that John Paul insisted "that economic freedom is part of that freedom, but only part." While clearly favoring a free economy, John Paul II cautioned:
But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed with a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative (Centesimus Annus par. 42)
This brings me to the occupation of Wall Street, which began a week ago. Thanks to our hopeless and hopelessly compromised and dysfunctional fourth estate, it has not been big news despite its size and the fact that it cuts across the ideological divide.

Dustin Slaughter, writing for The Public Record, sets the agenda quite clearly: "The encampment that began there on Saturday, September 17th, is a vocal and stark reminder of growing American youth discontent. Banks and other corporations are sitting on record profits and CEO salaries continue to climb at an unprecedented rate, while students and the average American worker face an anemic job market and growing economic disparity." Especially on Wall Street, it is time for the status quo to end.

In his most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the Holy Father noted, that today nation states find themselves "having to address the limitations to its sovereignty imposed by the new context of international trade and finance, which is characterized by increasing mobility both of financial capital and means of production, material and immaterial. This new context has altered the political power of States" (par. 24). These limitations are very much at odds with the common good. Citing Gaudium et Spes, Pope Benedict takes the opportunity "to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world's economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: 'Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life'" (par. 25). I could go on multiplying examples of how the movement and allocation of capital seems designed these days not to benefit society and common good, but to concentrate more and more wealth in the hands of the already wealthy, but I will just cite Caritas in veritate once more:
Without doubt, one of the greatest risks for businesses is that they are almost exclusively answerable to their investors, thereby limiting their social value. Owing to their growth in scale and the need for more and more capital, it is becoming increasingly rare for business enterprises to be in the hands of a stable director who feels responsible in the long term, not just the short term, for the life and the results of his company, and it is becoming increasingly rare for businesses to depend on a single territory. Moreover, the so-called outsourcing of production can weaken the company's sense of responsibility towards the stakeholders — namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society — in favour of the shareholders, who are not tied to a specific geographical area and who therefore enjoy extraordinary mobility (par. 40)

Veritas precedes caritas: Benedict XVI on faith and reason

The speech he delivered on Thursday to the Bundestag in his native Germany, along with the speeches he gave in Regensburg in 2006 and Paris 2008, Pope Benedict articulated the very heart of his papal magisterium. I’m not sure what the significance of all these speeches being given in September is (the 2006 and 2008 speeches were both delivered on 12 September), other than September is the time when many return after the summer holidays and after the Holy Father has been at Castel Gondolfo. I believe such messages can only be spoken, even by someone as brilliant as Joseph Ratzinger, after much fasting and prayer.

The unique genius of Pope Ratzinger’s magisterium, which began with his pre-conclave homily at the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff, in which he warned:
Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An "adult" faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.

We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith - only faith - that creates unity and is fulfilled in love
At Regensburg, the Holy Father sought to show the necessary and very practical connection between faith and reason:
Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the λόγος". This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist.
Building on this in Paris two years later, he noted the indispensability not just of Christianity to European culture in the past, but its necessity for the present and the future:
The fundamental structure of Christian proclamation "outwards" – towards searching and questioning mankind – is seen in Saint Paul’s address at the Areopagus. We should remember that the Areopagus was not a form of academy at which the most illustrious minds would meet for discussion of lofty matters, but a court of justice, which was competent in matters of religion and ought to have opposed the import of foreign religions. This is exactly what Paul is reproached for: "he seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities" (Acts 17:18). To this, Paul responds: I have found an altar of yours with this inscription: 'to an unknown god'. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you (17:23). Paul is not proclaiming unknown gods. He is proclaiming him whom men do not know and yet do know – the unknown-known; the one they are seeking, whom ultimately they know already, and who yet remains the unknown and unrecognizable. The deepest layer of human thinking and feeling somehow knows that he must exist, that at the beginning of all things, there must be not irrationality, but creative Reason – not blind chance, but freedom

In his address on Thursday, he turned to faith and reason in a different way, looking at the necessity of faith, or at least belief and if not belief, then replacing the pervasive and expanding etsi Deus non daretur (i.e., "even if God did not exist"- often translated as "as if God did not exist") with veluti si Deus daretur (i.e., "as if God existed").
Let us come back to the fundamental concepts of nature and reason, from which we set out. The great proponent of legal positivism, Kelsen, at the age of 84 – in 1965 – abandoned the dualism of "is" and "ought". (I find it comforting that rational thought is evidently still possible at the age of 84!) Previously he had said that norms can only come from the will. Nature therefore could only contain norms, he adds, if a will had put them there. But this, he says, would presuppose a Creator God, whose will had entered into nature. "Any attempt to discuss the truth of this belief is utterly futile", he observed. Is it really? – I find myself asking. Is it really pointless to wonder whether the objective reason that manifests itself in nature does not presuppose a creative reason, a Creator Spiritus?

At this point Europe’s cultural heritage ought to come to our assistance. The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions. Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights. To ignore it or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and to rob it of its completeness. The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe
In all of this, Joseph Ratzinger, in his very person and through his papal ministry, demonstrates exactly what Don Giussani meant when he passionately insisted that "[a]uthentic religiosity is the defense, to one’s last breath, of reason, of human of conscience" and, ultimately, of reality (The Religious Sense 72). The present Roman Pontiff also seeks to correct an error that is as deleterious as it is simple, just as the existentialists reversed the order of essence and existence by insisting that existence precedes essence, so we have put caritas prior to veritas. Hence, a project of the Holy Father's papal magisterium is put this back in right order, as his encyclical Caritas in veritate, along with these important speeches, demonstrate.

Friday, September 23, 2011

"I have filled this void with things unreal"

Along with Adele, another new musical passion over the past few months, is Mumford and Sons. Hence, Roll Away Your Stone is our traditio for Fri-hodie

It seems that all my bridges have been burned/
But you say, "That's exactly how this grace thing works"

Fr. Giussani insists that the existential questions, foremost among which is, "What is the purpose of my life?", constitute my personhood. Hence, the answer "has to touch me" because "it directly concerns me." This is so necessary that there is no answer "unless it is given to me, for me" (The Religious Sense 76).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Despair arises "from the images of appearing" that do not appear

In discussing the many ways we seek to desperately negate the existential questions, Msgr. Giussani wrote: "In the morning when your alarm rings and you have to get up, a voice in your head says: 'Stay here.' You would not be living up to yourself to remain there in bed" (The Religious Sense 73). So, you get up and get going. Giussani likens this experience of getting out of bed with what Theodor Adorno claimed in his work Minima Moralia about our hope for salvation. When we experience a longing for wholeness, completeness, and satisfaction, which makes us realize all too well how far we often are from such a state, a recognition that causes us to realize we need to be saved, Adorno claimed "when we hope in in salvation, a voice in our head says that hope is vain" (73).

Giussani countered by insisting that if we are not living up to ourselves by getting out of bed in the morning, then we certainly living below ourselves if we heed the voice that says our deepest human longing is unrealizable. In fact, we do not act reasonably by heeding this because, according to Don Gius, this voice "does not provide a reason why [our] hope still persists" (73). Adorno did not stop there, but proceeded to say that it is precisely this false hope that allows us to continue to live. Adorno calls this phenomenon the "ambivalence of sadness" (73). This existential ambivalence arises as the result of affirming a contradiction, placing a contradiction at the center of my self-awareness; the hope I have that I cannot realize. Hence, according to Gius, Adorno claims that all we can do is "patiently redraw new approaches to and images of the ambivalence of sadness: the truth is not separable from the obsession that salvation emerge from the images of appearing without appearing" (73).

Bringing clarity to this convoluted idea, Giussani noted, "The mental and psychological choice which Adorno describes - that is, the affirmation that there is no salvation - is not separable from the 'obsession that salvation emerge from the figures of appearance.' The true aspect of Adorno's position lies in his latter observation. What Adorno calls 'obsession' is the structure of the human being, it is what we call 'heart,' or elementary experience: to negate it is to deny the existence of something that is real" (73) I agree with Giussani that such a denial is both "unreasonable" and "inhuman" (73).

Returning to Don Giussani's opening image, the difficulty of waking up, I am reminded of what St. Paul wrote in Romans:
it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness [and] put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day... put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh (13: 11b-13a.14)

Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and evangelist

Today is the Feast of Matthew, whom we venerate as one of the four Evangelists, that is, the inspired human writers of the Holy Gospels. The Gospel According to St. Matthew is clearly the most Judaic of the four canonical Gospels, built as it is around five discourses, which are reminiscent of the first five books of the Bible, which Christians call the Pentateuch (Greek for "five books") and Jews revere as Torah, a Hebrew word meaning "Instruction."

The first discourse is Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, which makes up chapters 5-7. His second discourse, found in chapter 10, is termed Missionary Instructions. Collection of Parables is the third discourse and comprises chapter 13. The Lord's fourth discourse, which is chapter 18, is called Community Instructions. The fifth and final discourse, which runs from chapter twenty-three to chapter twenty-five, is His Sermon on Eschatology.

Given all of this it is fitting to look to the Sermon on the Mount for continuity, not only between the Hebrew Scriptures and the uniquely Christian Scriptures, but between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, those things that constitute our fundamental praxis: prayer, fasting, alms-giving.

St. Matthew

take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you (Matt. 6:1-4)

When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you (Matt. 6:5-6)

When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you (Matt. 6:16-18)
I am convinced that if we practiced these disciplines more fervently and regularly we would not have as many personal problems and far fewer ecclesial problems. After all, humility is necessary to advance in virtue. Besides, these practices help us to judge according to all the factors that make-up reality, thus helping us to overcome the very human tendency to reduce.

St. Matthew, pray for us.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"For Christ's sufferings overflow to us"; so we are encouraged

The book of Scripture I am currently reading and re-reading, cycling through for the month of September, is St. Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians. Beginning another cycle through this evening, I was struck by these words from the very beginning of the letter:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are encouraged, it is for your encouragement, which enables you to endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is firm, for we know that you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement (1:3-7)

For me, at least, this seems a very nice way to end this Sunday.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Magnifying Christ in your body

Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit (Phil. 1:20c-24)
Our second reading for the Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time strikes me as a very good reading to sum up last week's posts and focus on suffering. Besides, in a phone conversation a few weeks back my friend Fred and I discussed the books on monasticism that both of us were then reading. The essence of our conversation was how much these works aided us in understanding and better living the charism in which we are privileged to share.

Moving once again to the subject of monasticism, this reading puts me in mind, yet again, of the powerful scene from the film Of Gods and Men, in which Frere Luc declares himself a free man because he was not afraid to die. Because he was a Christian, his freedom was not merely a stoic acceptance of the inevitability of death, but hope in eternal life, which for him, and his brothers, meant literally laying down their lives for those Algerian Muslims among whom they lived and who they served.

The abbot of Our Lady of the Atlas monastery, which was in the village of Tibhirin, Dom Christian De Cherge, wrote a testament to be opened and read should he be killed. It begins-

If it should happen one day -- and it could be today -- that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.

To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: How worthy would I be found of such an offering? I would like them to be able to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones allowed to fall into the indifference of anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil that seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and even in that which would strike me blindly.

I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity that would enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

For Dom Christian and his brothers, like St. Paul, the only concern was to magnify Christ in their bodies, that is, to live it out the love they received, to make it real in the world, to incarnate God's love, each one an alter Christus (i.e., another Christ), a part of history.

Don Giussani observed that the powers of the world are incapable of keeping the awakening that occurs when one encounters Christ from happening, "but," he warned, "as soon as they see it, they try to stop it from becoming history." (quoted in "Whoever Is In Christ Is A New Creation, 32). Fr. Carrón, picking up this thread, continued by noting that the powers "act on its staying power over time, its duration, the permanence of what was wakened. How do they act? Trying to reduce our desires as soon as they are awakened by the encounter. How often have we discovered that we have returned to the situation of before."

Martyrdom for the monks of Algeria became a joy, not a burden, nor a stoic acceptance of fate; for the disciple of Jesus there is no such thing as fate, only the will of the Father, which is our path to destiny, to happiness, fulfillment, total and complete satisfaction. Rather, it became a joy:

This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that JOY in and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place, besides my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, a hundredfold as was promised!

And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing,
Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU and this A-DIEU -- to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy "good thieves" in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. AMEN!
Jesus promised His disciples that there is not one "who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age" (Mark 10:29-31).

Giussani often reminded people of Jesus' promise of the hundredfold in the here-and-now. What he taught was no "health and wealth" prosperity gospel, but that by following Christ "you will live a hundred times better" your love for your wife or husband, your family, your friends a hundred times more, plus "have a hundred times more passion for study, love of work, enjoyment of nature."

Don Gius uses a line from a poem by Milosz to make this point: "Raise up therefore a man in some place on this earth and grant that by looking upon him I may admire You." Jesus Christ is the man raised up on this earth in Whose face we see God. Giussani proclaims, "But Christ is in you and in me, and that is a tremendous thing (tremendum mysterium); it is the source of our responsibility and of our humility, something we must inevitably confront because we are the physical sign of His presence."

This, my friends, is what it means to "conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ" (Phil. 1:27).

Friday, September 16, 2011

"just our hands clasped so tight, waiting for the hint of a spark"

In an excellent look at Deathcab for Cutie's complete ouvre Will Jones, writing in Christianity Today, citing the song's chorus, wrote of I'll Follow You into the Dark when Deathcab's frontman Ben Gibbard sings-

"If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied/And illuminate the 'nos' on their vacancy signs/If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks/I'll follow you into the dark"-
that the song's take away, as is that of the entire album, Plans, on which it appears, "is that life is short and difficult with no ultimate meaning, but if we can just huddle together, we may find some cure for our loneliness and despair. There is no heaven or hell, just the body heat of another mortal to keep us warm."

This seems an appropriate traditio this week.

In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle wrote: "...although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison... (4:16b-17). While both attempt to account for reality as we often experience it and to grapple with the questions that inevitably arise merely from being alive and being human, one is hopeless while the other is hopeful; one denies and even seeks to foreclose the possibility of an an answer, the other makes a proposal. Both know the necessity of love and our deep not to be alone.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows

Our Lady of Sorrows from a triptych by the Master of the Stauffenberg Altarpiece, Alsace c. 1455

The day after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is the liturgical memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, or, in Latin, Mater Dolorosa. Though less popular these days, we have the devotion of the Seven Sorrows of Mary (to balance this, we also have her Seven Joys).

The first sorrow is The Prophecy of Simeon, found in Luke 2:34-35: "Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, 'Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.'" Next is the Holy Family's flight into Egypt (Matt. 2:13ff); losing the 12 year-old on their pilrimmage to Jerusalem (Luke 2:43-45); meeting her Son as he walked the via dolorosa (Luke 23:26); Our Lady was present as Jesus died on the Cross (John 19:25); she received the body of her Son after His crucifixion (an image on which the Pietà is based- Matt. 27:57-59); seeing her Son's body placed in the tomb (John 19:40-42).

As the lives of Jesus and Mary show us, suffering is an inherent part of being human. It is not the whole of life, just an inescapable aspect.

On Monday I read short extract of a book by Sri Lankan Christian leader, Ajith Fernando, The Call to Joy and Pain, who serves that country's urban poor:

The church in each culture has its own special challenges—theological blind spots that hinder Christians from growing to full maturity in Christ …. I think one of the most serious theological blind spots in the western church is a defective understanding of suffering. There seems to be a lot of reflection on how to avoid suffering and on what to do when we hurt. We have a lot of teaching about escape from suffering and therapy for suffering, but there is inadequate teaching about the theology of suffering ….

The "good life," comfort, convenience, and a painless life have become necessities that people view as basic rights. If they do not have these, they think something has gone wrong …. One of the results of this attitude is a severe restriction of spiritual growth, for God intends us to grow through trials.
Mater Dolorosa, ora pro nobis.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today is the great Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. On this day we commemorate the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which was built at the behest of St. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, who discovered the True Cross in Jerusalem in 326. The Church, built for the specific purpose of exalting the Cross of Christ in perpetuity, was dedicated in the holy city on 13 September 335. From that time until now the great Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross has been observed on the following day, 14 September. Like last week’s feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, today’s feast, dating more than 700 years prior to the East/West schism, which occurred in 1054, is observed by Christians East and West, Catholic and Orthodox.

As the narrative handed on by tradition tells us, St. Helena discovered the True Cross buried beneath the Roman Temple of Venus, built in Jerusalem by the emperor Hadrian in 119. In 614, after the Persians captured Jerusalem, they removed the True Cross from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was recovered as the result of peace treaty with the Persians in 628, when it was taken to Constantinople.

Today’s feast brings up once again what I call the inverse property of redemption, that is, without Good Friday, Easter Sunday not only lacks meaning, but is not even possible; without Easter Sunday, Good Friday becomes positively scary! The good news of the Gospel (i.e., the good news of the Good News) is that Christ conquered sin and death so that we might live as free people. In the recent movie about the holy Cistercian martyrs of Algeria, Of Gods and Men, Luc, the monk/doctor, who from the get-go refuses to abandon the villagers he has dedicated his life to serving, says to the abbot, Christian, after the monks unanimously decided to remain at their monastery despite the near certainty that they would be attacked by Islamic extremists and likely even killed, “I'm not scared of death, I'm a free man.” Indeed, living in the light of what Jesus accomplished for us in and through His passion, death, and resurrection is what makes us free and even happy regardless of circumstances.

Experience is the only way we can really grasp what the above is about. So, it’s always interesting for me to remember that it was 14 September 1984 that I graduated from Marine Corps basic training.

Today and every day I long to pray wholeheartedly with St. Paul, the holy martyrs of Algeria, the martyr-bishop Luigi Padovese, St. Gianna Molla, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and all the other witnesses, that I may “never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). Stated simply, I long to, like Frere Luc, to live as a free man.

I am very pleased that this is the 2,000th post on Καθολικός διάκονος!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Reducing faith to morals ultimately means rejecting Christ

Msgr. Luigi Giussani, in an article published in Italian in 1963, which originated as a talk he gave to some of his fellow priests in 1960, and translated in to English as in 1997 as Open Christianity, asks us to consider what goes on in confession, even now, for many Catholics: "Have you said your prayers? For how long? Have you followed meditations diligently? What about purity, how’s it going there? How many sins did you commit last month? Next month you’ve got to get that down by three or four. This week you sinned a dozen times by being angry. Next week you’ve to keep that figure to a maximum of ten." He is not saying we shouldn't examine our consciences in order to know what sins we have committed and be able to answer how often we've indulged ourselves since our last confession. What he is saying is that this "reflects a highly imperfect method and is far too wanting if we consider the true content and newness of Christianity."

Socrates, he goes on to note, had already extolled self-control, our very human need for a kind of acesis in the recognition that living by instinct and impulse is not a human way of living, even before Jesus came along. So, being a Christian does not simply mean conducting ourselves according "to a pre-Christian asceticism." To live that way, he asserts, is to imply that "Jesus's message [is] useless." To wit: "Self-control was not invented by Christianity; it is a terrestrial paradise conceived as a preventative, the effort or illusion of great stoic personalities."

On this last point, he offers his own mea culpa "for having yielded to stoic asceticism instead of Christianity." He charged himself "with having placed ninety percent of my cards on the structures of human will, on the exercise of freedom and its feeble energies, and then simply sticking on a label with the words 'Jesus Christ.'"

In light of this, what is one to do? We are to turn to Christ "who is imprinted upon every Christian. Jesus Christ, and in this case every Christian, is something else, another form. Jesus Christ has another meaning, other dimensions. Philanthropy and Christian charity are two totally different worlds."

Indeed, "whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Cor. 5:17).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On the anniversary itself

Last night, just before signing off, my friend Kim Luisi, who is a New Yorker, wrote: "I really have no desire to relive the scariest day of my life. It's been 10 years and I will pray, but I will not watch any footage. I remember well enough." I think this is the case with almost everyone old enough to remember that terrible day.

So, today, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I really think something like the Lux aeterna from Rutter's Requiem is all we need. Well, that along with readings for Mass on this Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, which remind us/tell us what it means to follow Christ even in the most difficult and painful circumstances.
Wrath and anger, these also are abominations, yet a sinner holds on to them. The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance; indeed he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor the wrong done to you; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven (Sirach 27:30-28:2)
"Peter approached Jesus and asked him, 'Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus answered, 'I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times'" (Matt. 18:21-22).

Frankly, I am suffering from 9/11 fatigue this morning. It's not an indictment of anyone, let alone a condemnation. But in true U.S.- style, it seems to me we have succeeded in turning reverence into irreverence by sentimental over-reverence. Jesus corrects us by levelling our gaze and putting our attention on what's right in front of us, or inside of us, weighing heavy on our hearts.

I am very grateful and appreciate very much that President Obama read Psalm 46 at yesterday's 9/11 Memorial in New York, which begins: "God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress. Thus we do not fear, though earth be shaken and mountains quake to the depths of the sea..."

On this note, it bears pointing out that to forgive, to really forgive, implies not forgetting. This is at least part of what Bl. John Paul II explained when he posited the "purification of memory" with regards to the National Socialist mass murder of Jews and others. In his encyclical letter, Spe Salvi, Benedict XVI observes, in response to Dostoevsky's protest, articulated in The Brothers Karamazov, that according to some Christian accounts grace cancels justices, turns wrong into right, noted that this is not so. Grace, he states unequivocally, "is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value." In the end, "evildoers... do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened" (par. 44).

I owe a deep diaconal bow to my friend Alex, who posted the Lux Aeterna from Rutter's Requiem this morning. Alex's calm quiet demeanor is always a comfort to me.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The reality of 9/11 reveals the incoherence of moral relativism

Hampered and impeded as I am from studying Philosophy seriously from a young age, it is difficult for me to reflect back on 11 September 2011 and its aftermath (10 years of uninterrupted war in two countries) without thinking about right and wrong. I am always mildly amazed and comforted that reality is the best refutation of wholly idealistic modes of thought, like moral relativism, which seems intellectually respectable, but, in the end, turns out to be barbarous and deleterious to our common humanity. A little more than a month after the hi-jacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and a remote field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Prof. Stanley Fish penned an article in the New York Times about how moral relativism permits moral condemnation: Condemnation Without Absolutes.

In this early article, Fish grasped the difficulty we would have in coming to grips with how best to respond to the terrorist attacks, anticipating such extremes as Ward Churchill’s "little Eichmanns" comment, and the idea Fish holds that 9/11 was a test for postmodern moral relativism, which posits "that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one." Because we cannot independently determine which interpretation of a given event is true, there is no "hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone." These observations take us immediately to very fundamental issues, not just the nature of right and wrong, but the nature of the truth, which constitutes reality. Fish informs us that it is no use of appealing to "abstract notions of justice and truth" because our enemies "lay claim to the same language." He even goes on to observe that "No one declares himself to be an apostle of injustice." I find this last claim, too, incredible. Has Fish not read Nietzsche and as a self-described postmodern intellectual is not versed in the thought and writings of Nietzsche’s postmodern disciples and their positive embrace of nihilism?

Some ten years later, less than two months prior to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Paul Boghossian, who holds the Silver Chair of Philosophy at New York University, and who is one of the foremost philosophical opponents of moral relativism, entered the fray with his response to Fish, also published by the New York Times: The Maze of Moral Relativism. Boghossian begins by noting that for many thoughtful people, especially those who are unwilling to derive morality from religion, moral relativism seems unavoidable. He goes on to note that moral relativism, defined as "right and wrong relative to this or that moral code," in the end can lead to no other conclusion than moral nihilism.

Boghossian demonstrated this by positing two examples: belief in witches and Einstein's theory of special relativity. "When we decided that there were no such things as witches," he asserts, "we didn't become relativists about witches." Instead, we stopped talking about witches as if they were real altogether, "except by way of characterizing the attitudes of people... who mistakenly believed that the world contained witches," or making believe at, say, Halloween. When it comes to witches, we are what Boghossian calls, "eliminativists." By way of contrast Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity demonstrated that no two events can be absolutely simultaneous. There is, however, "simultaneity relative to a (spatio-temporal) frame of reference." So, we are relativists about simultaneity, but not eliminativists.

In the case of simultaneity, while it can only be discerned within a given spatio-temporal frame of reference, it remains something that can be observed in reality. It can also be repeated and verified. So, while there is such thing as absolute simultaneity of two occurrences, the world contains, as it were, simultaneity's relativistic cousin. So, two events may be "simultaneous relative to frame of reference F." He goes on to designate "T" as the content of a belief system that includes belief in the reality of witches. Hence, "the property of being a witch according to belief system T" is just a way of setting forth the contents of belief system "T", you're not saying anything about reality, about the world.

So, you might ask, how does this bear on moral relativism other than to show that one can be a moral relativist, judging a moral dictum by the moral code from which it issues forth, in the same way I can hold to simultaneity with regard to a particular spatio-temporal frame of reference? "When we reject absolute moral facts," Boghossian asks, the kind that holds that it is always and everywhere wrong to murder innocent people, is the outcome moral relativism or is it moral nihilism?

On this basis, Boghossian goes on to say that whether you can a be moral relativist along the lines of simultaneity or believing in witches depends on whether "right" and "wrong," which for a moral relativist cannot be absolute, like simultaneity, have relativistic cousins that play the same role as "right" and "wrong." He points out that because "right" and "wrong" are "normative terms," meaning they are employed when describing "how things ought to be, in contrast with things actually are." By their "normative" nature, it is difficult to see how one could even generate "relativistic cousins" that would not have properties identical to actual "right" and "wrong."

Boghossian goes to on to employ example of how the assertion "Eating beef is wrong," while a normative statement, when considered in the context of the Hindu moral code, makes sense, but, like the example of witches, is merely descriptive of the content of the Hindu moral code. In other words, it is impossible to disagree with the statement "that eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus." So, when we find ourselves among Hindus, we may even respect their belief by not eating beef. The latter is a matter of etiquette, an ethical issue, but not a fundamentally moral one. After all, Boghossian goes on to observe, etiquette itself is under-girded by moral absolutes, like "we ought not, other things being equal, offend our hosts."

I think Prof. Boghossian quite correct to assert that
There is not half-way house called "moral relativism," in which we continue to use normative vocabulary with the stipulation that it is to be understood as relativized to particular moral codes. If there are no absolute moral facts about morality, "right" and "wrong" would have to join 'witch' in the dustbin of failed concepts

One other argument against moral relativism is that if we examine human moral codes there arise certain norms that are, with perhaps very few and eccentric exceptions, accepted universally as moral norms. The Ten Commandments, as set forth both in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, prohibits what transliterates from Hebrew as thrtzch, meaning "murder." Such a prohibition is one found universally among all human moral codes, including the Islamic moral code, which, if their insistence that Christians and Jews are, in fact, "peoples of the book" (referring to the Bible, which Muslims at least claim to revere as divinely inspired, if incomplete), is not just a form of flattery or patronization, applies to them because it is revealed by God.

In his letter to the archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, the Holy Father pointed this out in his clear, but indirect and gentle matter, when he wrote that
The tragedy of that day is compounded by the perpetrators’ claim to be acting in God’s name. Once again, it must be unequivocally stated that no circumstances can ever justify acts of terrorism. Every human life is precious in God’s sight and no effort should be spared in the attempt to promote throughout the world a genuine respect for the inalienable rights and dignity of individuals and peoples everywhere
The Qu’ran itself, in Surah 5:32 states "On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people." Islamic jurists, both past and present, interpret this Surah to mean that if one kills an innocent person, it is like killing the whole of human kind. What makes the analysis of those in the West, like Churchill, so repugnant is that they seek to provide justification for the murder of innocents on the basis of universally accepted moral norms, by laying guilt on the innocent, on those who were murdered. In Fish's moral universe, in which there are either no moral absolutes, or no way of knowing what they are, a response like Churchill's is as acceptable as that of Pres. Bush's morally indignant response.

This brings us to an appropriately Christian response. In his Letter to the Galatians, referencing the uniquely Jewish moral code, the Law, which he unfailingly holds up as the standard of righteousness, St. Paul wrote that if you seek to justify yourself by living according to all 613 mitzvot (i.e., observing the rules) of the Law, then that is how you will be judged. To be judged according to this standard, without fail and with only one exception (i.e., Jesus Christ) is to be condemned. This is why Paul wrote that even though he was a member of God's covenant people by birth, he knew "that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:15- ESV). So, he "believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified" (Gal. 2:16-ESV).

It is on this basis that we are provoked by the words of the apostle- "For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Gal. 5:14- ESV). If the neighbor of the ancient Samaritan, according to the teaching of Jesus, was the Jew who despised him, how much more is the Muslim, who, along with us and the Jews, "adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful" (Nostra Aetate, par. 3)? Indeed, Islam means submission. Hence, a Muslim is one who "wholeheartedly" submits even to God's "inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself" (Nostra Aetate, par. 3).

So, while no one, with the exception of Nietzscheians, proclaims himself to be an apostle of injustice, holding that we can condemn in the absence of moral absolutes is certainly to espouse an unjust position. Stated simply, condemning without moral absolutes cannot be a just condemnation because it is arbitrary. Fish states up-front that we cannot appeal to justice, even imperfect justice that strives towards the absolute. Arbitrary condemnation leads to arbitrary retaliation that need take no account of proportionality, or bringing things to a better state after the retaliation, or any of the other judgments required by, say, just war principles. Neither does it allow for a meaningfully merciful response. It is just this kind of short-circuited reasoning that leads to the kind of moral conclusions reached by those who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks and those, like Ward Churchill, who seek to justify their evil deeds.

Back on 9/11/2006, I preached at daily Mass at Holy Family Parish in South Ogden, Utah. So, if you're interested see Year II 23rd Monday in Ordinary Time- 9/11: Justice & Mercy.

Friday, September 9, 2011

"if you could return, don't let it burn, don't let it fade"

For some reason, as I was walking down the hall this morning thinking about what I might put up as our Friday traditio, one Cranberries' song after another started running through my head. When I found this live performance by Simon Le Bon, of Duran Duran, and Dolores O'Riordan singing the Cranberries' Linger, well, it became obvious.

O'Riordan has the most Celtic style of any popular contemporary singer. She is the only singer I am aware of whose Irish inflections carry over into her singing. Simplicity and passion.

Late summer/early fall always evokes a lot of nostalgia, which, as Milan Kundera noted, is "[t]he Greek word for 'return' is nostos. Algos means 'suffering'. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by and unappeased yearning to return."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today, nine months after the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we observe the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom we revere as Theotokos, God-bearer, Mother of God. Our observance of the Nativity of the Theotokos on 8 September is an ancient observance. Hence, this day is observed by Roman and Eastern Catholics, as well as by the Orthodox.

Taken from The Festal Menaion translated from the original Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware

Joachim and Ann keep festival, having brought into the world the only
Theotokos, first fruit of our salvation. With them we celebrate the feast today, blessing the pure Virgin from the root of Jesse.

The Maiden in whom God came to dwell, the pure Theotokos, glory of the prophets, the daughter of David, is born today of Joachim and Ann sober in spirit; and by her birthgiving she overthrows the curse of Adam that weighed upon us.

Come, all ye who love virginity, and who are friends of purity: come ye and welcome with love the boast of virgins. She is the fountain of life that gushes forth from the flinty rock; [Exodus 17:6] She is the Bush [Exodus 3:2] springing from barren ground and burning with the immaterial fire that cleanses and enlightens our souls.

The Virgin, offspring of Joachim and Ann, has appeared to men, releasing all from the bonds of sin.

Veni Sancte Spiritus, Veni per Mariam

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Certainty is confidence in the way you approach reality

I don't know the method most bloggers use to determine what to post about, but my method is one that, while I believe it allows people to read each post discretely, is best read in continuity. In other words, there are different threads that, woven together, make Καθολικός διάκονος. Recently I posted a couple things about faith and certainty. Last Saturday I drew attention to a bit from an article by Santiago Ramos on the significance of the music of Kurt Cobain. Ramos wrote: "even for those who have been given the gift of faith in their lives—those for whom the God-shaped hole has been filled up to the brim—the drama of life does not end. Faith merely makes you look at the drama in a different way."

Then yesterday, citing Origen, I averred that our faith in Christ is made firm through suffering.

Today I want pass along without commentary something by John Waters that, at least for me, synthesizes my two previous posts that bear on the the matter of faith and reality. Writing about CL's annual event The Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples, held in Rimini, Italy, which this year dealt with the theme
And existence becomes an immense certainty," Waters observes: "We can speak words, write them, hear them, look at them, sometime for many years, and yet not know what they signify, what their possibilities are. Such a word, we have to concede in the wake of the 32nd edition of the Rimini Meeting, is "certainty".

We went there certain of what certainty was: to know something absolutely, to be without doubt, to have examined the matter fully. We came away with a different definition: certainty as being to do with the confidence with which we approach things, the steadiness of the step upon the path, the resoluteness with which we apply a method of pursuing the truth, being certain, always, that there is something great to discover (underlining emphasis mine)
Reality, that is, the daily circumstances of your life, is the way Christ, who is the greatest discovery of all, draws you to Himself.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Experience: How your witness of Christ is made firm

Preaching on 1 Corinthians 1:6- "even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed among you"- Origen (ca. 185-ca. 253) said:
Christ, we might say, is the chief witness, and while there are many who witness to Christ through their death, he is the first of the witnesses. This witness of Christ is firm among some, but among others it is not firm but wavers. For if a person's faith in what is attested is such that he can say, out of true inner conviction, I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor the other things, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord [Rom. 8:38-39], then the witness is firm in such a person. But if we are not like this, but waver according to the circumstances, the witness of Christ is not yet confirmed in us
Challenging words, maybe even words that provoke you, especially in a relativistic time when so many Christians, in an effort to be seen as hip and ironic, compete to see how much doubt and uncertainty they can have and still be considered believers. Sure, it's very important not to pretend to a certainty you don't have, but don't you want to know, I mean, really know?

What I take Origen to mean is that the way our witness of Christ is made firm is through experience, through the circumstances we face daily, especially those circumstances that afflict us, whether in matters large or small. This was summarized well by the Holy Father in his second Christmas Urbi et Orbi address: "Christ does not save us from our humanity, but through it; he does not save us from the world, but came into the world, so that through him the world might be saved" (John 3:17).

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mother Teresa, pray for us

In addition to Labor Day, today is also the liturgical memorial of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta (a.k.a. Mother Teresa). Her work and the on-going work of her Missionaries of Charity is certainly necessitated by appalling and unjust economic conditions. It is notable that, in addition to being present throughout most of what John Stott insisted on calling "the majority world" instead of the Third World, but are also present in Western Europe and North America, including the United States.

I thank my friend, who is also a companion, Allison (who composes a wonderful blog- Rambling Follower) for provoking me yesterday by her gentle insistence that I provide a concrete example of how love (agapé) connects orthodoxy to orthopraxis, which is nothing other than showing how Truth leads to love. Such provocations are a sure sign of true friendship. In response, I pointed her to several people, all of whom, quite unintentionally, were women (i.e., Dorothy Day, Madeleine Delbrêl). These women were all faithful daughters of the Church, that is, orthodox through-and-through. At least when it comes to Dorothy Day, this scandalizes many.

Another concrete example, the one with whom most people are familiar, is Mother Teresa. Here is a quote that I think succinctly answers Allison's inquiry and that is most appropriate for this Labor Day: "Love, tenderness, and compassion are real justice. Justice without love is not justice. Love without justice is not love."

Labor Day 2011: reflection, not celebration

It seems to me that we need Labor Day this year more than ever. Worker's rights, the result of hard fought battles over decades, are in danger of being rolled back. Take the Wisconsin law that actually repealed the right of state workers to collectively bargain as an outstanding example of this tendency. On the other hand, unions have not always done a good job representing their members, meaning, like many companies and even governmental entities, they often work against the common good.

I have to express my personal dismay that for the first time in my life it seems that powerful economic and political interests (as the powers in play in Wisconsin reveal) have succeeded in getting people to advocate against their own interests. This odd state-of-affairs favors the perpetuation of the status quo; an economic environment in which more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of an increasingly smaller percentage of people. This does not bode well for our present or our collective future.

Labor relations are supposed to be a balancing act. Employees of a company have to realize that the company must remain profitable. Public sector employees need to realize that their wages are paid largely by the taxes of their fellow citizens, or at least by revenues generated by the government, making those revenues the common fund of everyone. Conversely, those on the ownership, management end of the table need to show that they care about those who perform the work without which their enterprise would collapse. Nonetheless, the answer cannot be seeking to legally strip workers of their rights. Neither can the answer be refusing to make concessions during very tough economic times, which are not likely to get easier any time soon.

As Bishop Stephen Blair of Stockton, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development wrote in this year's annual Labor Day statement,
Union workers are part of a smaller labor movement and experience new efforts to restrict collective bargaining rights. Hunger and homelessness are a part of life for too many children. Most Americans fear our nation and economy are headed in the wrong direction. Many are confused and dismayed by polarization over how our nation can work together to deal with joblessness and declining wages, debt and deficits, economic stagnation, and global fiscal crises. Workers are rightfully anxious and fearful about the future. These realities are at the heart of the Church’s concerns and prayers on this Labor Day

The bishops' Labor Day statement goes on to confront our current difficulties head-on, noting that
"[t]his year is less a time for celebration and more a time for reflection and action on current economic turmoil and hardships experienced by workers and their families. For Catholics, it is also an opportunity to recall the traditional teaching of the Church on dignity of work and the rights of workers. This Labor Day, the economic facts are stark and the human costs are real: millions of our sisters and brothers are without work, raising children in poverty and haunted by fears about their economic security. These are not just economic problems, but also human tragedies, moral challenges, and tests of our faith
The USCCB statement goes on to cite the Holy Father's too-little read and reflected upon encyclical, Caritas un Veritate, to the effect that our "current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negatives ones. The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future" (par. 21). Undergirding this shift must be the simple axiom that the economy (an extremely complex reality at best) exists to serve people, people do not exist to serve the economy, but God and each other precisely through their work.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Attn Moralists: at least be entertaining and ironic

I spent a nice part of the afternoon reading to my children from Hilare Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children (a book you can obtain for free from Amazon for your Kindle, or, if you're like me, the Kindle software for your PC). It brings back wonderful memories of being read these poems by my Grandma Dodge, albeit from a book.

What caused me to open the file and begin to read out-loud, which is what drew the crowd, is that I am really opposed to the notion that everything worthwhile either can be or is best wrapped up with a nice little moral story. I am beginning to see that moralism leads to sentimentality. I hate to be the bearer of the bad news, but faith ain't about nursing a perpetual warm fuzzy. Don't the saints show us this, or am I missing the point?

In a delightfully ironic way, Belloc's wonderful verses help make my point. Consider just one:

Rebecca, Who slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably.

A Trick that everyone abhors
In Little Girls is slamming Doors.

A Wealthy Banker's

Little Daughter

Who lived in Palace Green, Bayswater

(By name Rebecca Offendort),
Was given to this Furious Sport.

She would deliberately go And Slam the door like


To make her Uncle Jacob start.

She was not really bad at heart,
But only rather rude and wild: She was an aggravating child....
It happened that a Marble Bust
Of Abraham was standing just
Above the Door this little Lamb
Had carefully prepared to Slam,
And Down it came! It knocked her flat!
It laid her out! She looked like that.

Her funeral Sermon (which was long
And followed by a Sacred Song)
Mentioned her Virtues, it is true,
But dwelt upon her Vices too,
And showed the Dreadful End of One

Who goes and slams the door for Fun.

The children who were brought to hear
The awful Tale from far and near Were much impressed,
and inly swore

They never more would slam the Door.
—As often they had done before.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

"love is the fulfillment of the law"

This Sunday we continue reading through the letter of St. Paul to the Romans. He exhorts us to "[o]we nothing to anyone, except to love one another." The one who loves the other, according to Paul, "has fulfilled the law." Beyond these general exhortations, the apostle goes on to remind his readers and listeners of the commandments: "You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet," as well as "whatever other commandment there may be." Like Jesus, Paul insists that all the commandments are summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

For some reason, this reading leads me to consider the necessary connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. In our times, as in other eras of the Church's earthly history, we tend to privilege orthopraxy over orthodoxy. People in the U.S., being nothing if not pragmatic, do this to an even greater extent than people elsewhere. Such an approach reveals our inherent tendency towards Semi-Pelagianism. Indeed, to discuss orthodoxy and orthopraxis is, to a very large extent, to deal, yet again, with the issue of faith and works.

While I could write much more on this subject, I will limit myself merely to observing that Paul is correct in his simple assertion that love is what turns orthodoxy into orthopraxis, which is what makes love, that is, agapé, the key to being a Christian. This is why, as Heather King explains (link to her video), St. Thérèse of Lisieux said her vocation was to love. I never tire of reminding my sisters and brothers in Lord, as well as myself, that there is only one vocation: to follow Christ, which is nothing other than a call to love. Let's not distort our call by reducing it to mere sentiment, another tendency we easily fall into. While it is the fulfillment of the law, loving another is often hard work and there are usually many obstacles to overcome, chiefly myself and the other person. So, we can love only because we are first lov-ed.

Monday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-6; Ps 5:2-7; Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus, Ahab, or Jezebel? This is the question posed to us by our readings. What do yo...