Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A few updated thoughts on faith and politics

I was very happy to read an interview that Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, did back in February with The Atlantic’s Eleanor Barkhorn, shortly after the release of his most recent book, The King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus. I was particularly gratified by his answer to Barkhorn’s question, “How does Redeemer respond to the difficulties of being a church in a place that is skeptical of religion?” Referring Robert Putnam’s new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, in which, according to Keller, Putnam observes “that in the end of the '60s, the mainline liberal churches got very politically involved with liberal politics. They identified with liberal politics. And that put them way out of step with the mainstream. And there was actually a real reaction against it, and people left the mainline. It just turned them off.” In further explicating Putnam’s book, notes “that in the '80s and '90s the evangelical church did the same thing, except with conservative politics. Because it identified so strongly with conservative politics, that also put them somewhat out of step with the mainstream. The mushy middle is kind of moderate about politics, really.” He notes that this alliance has led to a backlash against Evangelicals. An example of this backlash appeared just yesterday in an article for by David Sirota, Are evangelicals a national security threat?”.

Keller goes on to note that he has witnessed this backlash firsthand in New York City during his 20 years there. He says that “because of the identification of orthodox Christianity with conservative politics, there's actually more antipathy here than there was 20 years ago.” He attributes the success of his church to the fact that they’ve always put the Gospel first, saying, “We're about Christianity, not politics. And we know that your Christian faith is going to affect your political views. We know that—we're not saying that won't happen. But we also don't think that your Gospel faith necessarily throws you into one party or the other.”

One point I feel the need to make periodically is that while faith certainly forms and informs the politics of any Christian, we should take care not to reduce our faith to politics, thus making it an ideology. For me personally, I do not belong to any political party as a matter of conscience. I readily admit to voting for far more Republicans than Democrats, but I have never voted a straight-party ticket. While I vote most of the time and have voted more regularly as I have gotten older, I have not voted in every election for which I have been eligible. While voting is a right, as Peter Hitchens pointed out recently, it is not compulsory. I agree that when there is no serious candidate worthy of my vote I can either vote for an obscure third-party candidate, which I have done, or not vote at all. I will no longer vote for third-party candidates merely as an act of protest, which is something I have done a few times in the past, reasoning that if nothing else it may assist a third-party achieve the necessary 10% to qualify for federal matching funds, the idea being that we need more political diversity (an idea to which I still adhere). So, any third-party candidate for whom I might vote must be as worthy of my vote as any major party candidate, perhaps even more so.

I used to feel otherwise. I have written on this very blog that voting is a moral obligation. I would say now that it is not an absolute moral obligation. Not voting, as long as it is a conscientious act and not merely an exercise in laziness and/or apathy, is certainly morally justifiable in certain circumstances. And guess what? If should I choose not to vote, I have not thereby surrendered my right to complain or comment on the state of governance.

It is right and good for a Christian to render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s, which implies knowing to whom you are ultimately loyal. As the psalmist remarked long ago: It is “[b]etter to take refuge in the LORD than to put one’s trust in mortals. Better to take refuge in the LORD than to put one’s trust in princes” (Ps. 118:8-9). Too often we act and interact as if everything depends on politics, when, in fact, everything does not, not by a long stretch.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some thoughts on chasity and obedience

Writing for Christianity Today, Gina Dalfonzo, in her article "Abstinence is Not Rocket Science" addressed the issue of abstaining from sexual relations until after you are married. She begins her article by writing about Elna Baker, a LDS young woman who wrote two articles for Glamour magazine. Baker's first article, Yes, I'm a 27 Year-Old Virgin. The title of her second article, written less than a year after the first, proclaimed, Guess What? I'm Not a Virgin Anymore!.

What caused Baker to change her viewpoint was that her throughout her life, at least up until the point she "gave in" and had sex outside of marriage, she did her best to live by what she described as "those rigid tenets" of her LDS faith because she believed that her adherence to these tenets would get her what she now says she "thought" she wanted, which was to meet a marry a fellow Latter-day Saint for time and all eternity in a LDS temple. She came close to realizing that, but it necessitated her relocating from New York to Utah, leaving behind a city and career she loved. So, it seems it was not merely a matter of getting what she wanted, but having it at little or no cost, without any sacrifice on her part.

Baker's experience might be explained in terms of LDS belief. In Section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants, one of the three books other than the Bible revered by LDS as scripture, God, speaking to and through Joseph Smith, declares, just before proclaiming that God "[t]he Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's" that "There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated." If this tenet played a role in Elna Baker's decision, then it amounts to not being able to verify what she believed through experience. If God promises to give us certain blessings as the result our obedience, then we have every right to hold God to his word. More than critiquing LDS theology, I think Dalfonzo is quite correct to see in Baker's story "an appealing but dangerous belief," one often held by both Evangelical Christians and Catholic Christians alike- "Obedience will get you what you want."

What we want most of all is God, who is our origin and our destiny. As St. Augustine is endlessly quoted as recording in his Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

In his wonderful book, What Is the Point of Being a Christian, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, in a chapter entitled "The Body Electric," which is one of the very best things I have read on chastity, points out that the central act of our faith is Jesus giving us His body in the Eucharist. He asserts, rightly in my view, that this has to be our starting point for our sexuality. He points out how difficult it is to live what the Church teaches about sexuality, in this instance, that it is wrong for to engage in sexual relations with anyone to whom you are not married. Nonetheless, our approach to matters of the body is positive, not negative. "The Christian claim is that to give one's body to another person is an act with an intrinsic meaning and that if we sleep around promiscuously we are contradicting the meaning of our bodies, which is bound to lead to frustration and unhappiness." Sex without commitment is lie. The lie, according to Radcliffe, consists of saying "something with our bodies which we deny with our lives." Sex without commitment, he continues, "is like saying to someone 'I love you,' and then forgetting a minute later that they exist." If not a minute later, as in very casual sex, but sometime later, as in many relationships that endure for some period of time. In either case, it seems to me, it is the same lie.

I appreciate very much Dalfonzo's wise and practical conclusion: "Sometimes obedience doesn't get us what we imagined. But then, ... God didn't say that it would. Our hope and consolation are—they have to be—that he is worth it. No other hope or consolation will do." A lot more can and probably should be said about obedience, what it is and why be obedient, but this will have to suffice for now.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A thought for an Advent Monday

It's funny how one thing builds on another. Last Friday, along with my weekly traditio, I posted an extract from David Foster Wallace's Broom of the System, which built on an observation made by Kafka. Foster Wallace wrote: "that it is the person who does not want to do the ridiculous thing who feels out of place and uncomfortable and self-conscious... in a word, ridiculous."

Today, I came across the reason why I posted that, stated very succinctly: "A time is coming when people will go mad and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying 'You are mad, you are not like us'"- St. Anthony the Great. Indeed, we live in times like that, times when we wonder out loud about what when wrong when an act of intercourse results in conception, times when, despite widespread cultural and societal breakdown, we stand not only watch the demise marriage and family, but often aid and abet in this demise, and consider those who act positively in this regard as narrow-minded and intolerant, etc. There are a lot of other directions I could go with St. Anthony's observation. For example, there is nothing more counter-cultural than one's willingness to forgive.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Year B First Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isa 63:16b-17.19b.64:2-7; Ps. 80:2-3.15-16.18-19; 1 Cor. 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the day we start a new year of grace. As our Gospel and our reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians make plain, the season of Advent is a season of waiting in joyful hope for the Lord’s return and not just a commemoration of His birth in Bethlehem. We are all familiar with expectation from our cultural observance of the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when we wait with great excitement and expectation for Christmas morning when we hope to find everything we asked for under the tree. One feature of Christmas I remember, even from when I was pretty small, is how anti-climactic it all became once all the presents were open. Looking back, this seems to me an object lesson in not placing my hopes in things that, while not bad in and of themselves, will not ultimately satisfy the longing of my heart, which remains oriented to the infinite, to what is ultimately satisfying.

The word “Advent” refers to the coming or arrival of something, or someone extremely important. For Christians Advent is the season that shows us that our very lives are an advent, positioned as we are between the already and the not-yet. In one aspect, Advent points us backwards to the Incarnation of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Roman province of Palestine more than 2,000 years ago. In another aspect, the one made clear to us today in our reading of God’s word, it directs our attention to that day when Christ will return in glory to judge the living and the dead.

This season of joyful expectation, which certainly includes a penitential dimension, prompts us to ask, “How do I live the tension of existence between Jesus Christ’s Incarnation and His Second Coming?” The prophet Isaiah, even though he wrote before Christ’s Incarnation, indicates the urgency of our lives even while highlighting our tendency to forget, to become impatient and start to live our lives as if we have no ultimate purpose: “There is none who calls upon your name,” the prophet laments, “who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt” (Isa. 64:6). The good news, even then, is that God is our father, ever faithful, shaping and molding us, as a potter shapes and molds wet clay (Isa. 64:7).

Marcello Mastroianni as Rubini in La Dolce Vita

Our deepest desire, the desire of every human heart, is to be happy. Hence, the most important question becomes, “What is happiness?” The seventeenth century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, in his monumental work Leviathan, sought to overturn what moral philosophers before him had laid out, namely that human happiness consisted of “resting” the will in the acquisition of an ultimate good, a Finis ultimus, culminating in the Summum Bonum. Hobbes, who also asserted that human life is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short,” insisted that “there is no such Finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor Summum Bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.” Rather, Hobbes claimed, happiness “is a continual progress of desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.”

Dominican Brother John Sica is correct to point out that, at least in light of what had come before, “the true radicality of [Hobbes’] claim is shocking.” Sadly, it is not so shocking to us now, awash as we are in our consumeristic culture, which entices us to seek happiness in precisely the way Hobbes insisted human happiness must sought, through the endless acquisition of finite goods. According to this mode of living, we desire, appropriate, consume and discard, pursuing fulfillment simply by repeating this cycle.

Hobbes was correct in noting that our hearts are restless in our pursuit of happiness, of complete and total satisfaction. In the words of Bruce Springsteen, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” The answer to Hobbes’ contention that happiness consists of acquiring one thing after another was given by St. Augustine more than a millennium before Hobbes made his shocking claim. St. Augustine noted that our tireless pursuit of imperfect worldly goods results in what he termed “lassitude,” more commonly called boredom, that anti-climax we experience after all the excitement is over. Pushed to its extreme lassitude leads to hopelessness, to what Br. John terms “an existential malaise,” like that experienced by Marcello Rubini, the main character in Frederico Fellini’s ironically-named film La Dolce Vita, meaning “the sweet, or good, life,” which is a story about a week in Marcello’s life spent in Rome searching for both happiness and love that will never come.

It is not too much to say that by pursuing finite goods, we really choose ourselves as our own last end, instead of God, whose benevolence becomes measured by how easily we attain everything we want. Such a pursuit typically ends in disgust, not happiness. Our gift-giving is not in vain as long we exchange gifts as a way of recognizing our having received the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ. So, on this first day of the season of Advent, amidst all the hustle and bustle, with the Psalmist, let us pray with all our hearts, “Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.”

Saturday, November 26, 2011

"always and everywhere to give [God] thanks"

I am often provoked by people who fear faith so much that they want to relegate people of faith to second-class citizenship, something the current Administration seems intent on doing. I am equally provoked by others, coming from the opposite end of the spectrum, who are so worried about the purity of faith that they want to keep it safely locked away in the sanctuary. This causes me to think that perhaps the spectrum, rather than being linear, bends backwards at both ends, bringing the opposite poles into some kind of contact. What prompts this is an exception taken to the Thanksgiving Day greeting I posted on both Facebook and Google+.

For those who do not live in the United States, and even for some who do, Thanksgiving is a civil holiday set aside for the specific purpose of giving thanks to God as a nation. Hence, as a clergyman, I think it is useful to remind and encourage people in my country to recall the origin of this day and to observe it in some meaningful way.

When we gather for worship as the Church a major feature of our worship, but by no means the only one, is to thank God for what He does for us in Jesus Christ, which is certainly distinct from gathering around our tables at home. But, while distinct, the two should not be wholly unrelated. In the Sacramentary approved for use in the U.S., we even have a special Mass for Thanksgiving Day, complete with Preface.

The Greek word eucharistía is a feminine noun and refers to "the act of giving thanks." It is certainly not an abuse of the word "Eucharist" to employ it as a verb, simply meaning "to give thanks." So, there is nothing in the least untoward about encouraging people to make an act of thanksgiving, an eucharistía, if you will, to God no matter how else they observed Thanksgiving. This seems a safe enough point to make without sparking contention, but then few things are that safe.

In Eucharistic Prayer II, addressing God, the priest says (words from the new English translation), "It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Father most holy, through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ..." Yes, "always and everywhere" to give God thanks. What was I thinking? Let's not lose sight of the fact that very word "Mass" itself is derived from dismissal, helping us to see that the Eucharist is not an end in itself, but the means to God's end in and for the world.

All of this reminds me, again, of John O'Donohue's poem, The Inner History of a Day, "Where eucharist in the ordinary happens."

To those who are wondering, I have nothing to offer about the new English translation of the Mass. I am guessing this weekend will be rather clunky and awkward, but I think we will accommodate quickly. Hey, it's a great Sunday to invite someone along to Mass with you because they won't feel so self-conscious about not knowing what to do or say!

Truth and love, or love of Truth, in the Apocalypse

"Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus" (Rev. 12:17). The reason the dragon, who is that "ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world," became angry is because he was unable to destroy the woman and her child, but God kept rescuing them. The dragon is "the accuser," which is what "Satan" means in Hebrew. By contrast, as Joseph Mangina notes in his theological commentary on Revelation, Jesus Christ is "the true witness, the one who tells us the truth about us by claiming us as God's own." Indeed, we become God's children by adoption through Jesus Christ. Hence, the Church, while it is a visible reality, cannot ultimately be equated with any visible group of people, but consists of "those who keep God's commandements and bear witness to Jesus," who constitute "the rest of her offspring." This seems to me what is meant but such observations that merely going to Church does not make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. This in no way diminishes going to Church, participating in the liturgy, which is one of the best and most explicit ways of keeping God's commandments (there are ways we love God that are distinct from loving our neighbor- worship) and bearing witness to Jesus. Participation in the liturgy is what might be called a necessary, but not sufficient condition of being a Christian.

William Blake, The Great Red Dragon and the Beast From the Sea, 1805-10 (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

It is precisely these who grasp what is at stake, who recognize the struggle in which they are engaged against the powers and the principalities. Commenting on some verses in chapter thirteen of Revelation, Mangina helps us to see the absolute dependence of God's children on God. In verse seven of chapter thirteen, we read that the beast, who is the spawn of the dragon, "was also allowed to wage war against the holy ones and conquer them." According to this, it seems that the saints are beaten. Mangina sagely observes that this result will only seem disappointing to those who "embrace the beast's criteria for what constitutes success." To wit: "The church that imagines it has a successful strategy for confronting the principalities and powers on their own terms had better think again. It is not only that the church, by submitting to the court of human judgment rather than to the decrees of the just judge, will lose its own soul; ironically, it will not even gain the world" (Mangina 162).

In these trying times, when everyone it seems is some sort of an economic determinist, it is useful to be reminded,as Mangina reminds us, "The realm of economics is preeminently a realm dominated by the principalities." It is "because Christ speaks the truth," Mangina continues, "the Christian, too, is summoned to a vocation of courageous truth-teller." So, any time "the Christian refuses to go along with the devil's lies, she confirms her love both of the true witness and of the neighbor who suffers the burden of the false witness."

Next week I hope to post a few words about ideology.

Friday, November 25, 2011

"I can't get through the smoke that's surrounding you"

Our Friday traditio for this Thanksgiving week is the Afro Celt Sound System's wonderful song, When You're Falling, featuring guest vocalist Peter Gabriel.

This is one of those really lovely tunes that we all too easily forget, which is why I am putting it up. I could post some commentary, but one of the wonderful things about songs like this is the polyvalence it possesses.

This past week, I posted the video for my favorite song off REM's very last studio album, Collapse Into Now, It Happened Today, on Facebook. Someone expressed puzzlement as to what the video meant. While I am not into abstraction just for the sake of abstraction, I like that not everything has to be representational all the time. I guess that is why I like a lot of the literature I like, such as the works of David Foster Wallace, who I have finally been able to read again just this past week, something I had been unable to do since his suicide. In his novel Broom of the System, for example, there appear random ideas for writing fiction, the jottings of Rick Vigorous:
Ideas for Monroe Fieldbinder Story Collection, 27 August

1. Monroe watches a house burn down. Or Monroe's house burns down, symbolizing destruction of the structure of his life as estate attorney, a plunging into chaos and disorientation
, etc... [skipping 2.]

3. Monroe Fieldbinder sees psychologist to bounce ideas off him. One of Fieldbinder's ideas is that the phenomenon of modern party-dance is incompatible with self-consciousness, makes for staggeringly unpleasant situations (obvious resource: Amherst/Mt. Holyoke mixer '68) for the at all self-conscious person. Modern party-dance is simply writhing to the suggestive music. It is ridiculous, silly to watch and excruciatingly embarrassing to perform. It is ridiculous and yet absolutely everyone does it, so that it is the person who does not want to do the ridiculous thing who feels out of place and uncomfortable and self-conscious... in a word, ridiculous. Right out of Kafka: the person who does not want to do the ridiculous thing is the person who is ridiculous. (Idea: Kafka at an Amherst/Mt. Holyoke mixer, never referred to by name, only as "F.K.," only one not dancing) Modern party-dance an evil thing... [skipping 4. also]
I can see through the clouds/I can walk right through the walls/Hang me off the ceiling/But I can't take the fall/Should have crossed the river/But I may get swept away/Out there on the water/You can still see me wave

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A personal thanksgiving

For Christians giving thanks to God is a way of life, or it should be. I admit to not always being thankful, or even as thankful as I should be. While there are many things to be grateful for, life is the first and greatest blessing. To answer Hamlet's timeless query, it is better to be than not to be, even though sometimes we may wonder. I can remember arguing with my Mom when I was a teenager and saying to her, in that particularly overwrought teenage way, "I didn't choose to be born." This is a true enough statement, but it misses the point that to be born is a gift, that is, existence is given to me by God with the cooperation of my parents.

I mention this because today marks the first Thanksgiving since my Dad's passing. When I thought about this last night I started to cry. Then I remembered something my Mom told me after my Dad's death. They had gone out to eat at their favorite Chinese restaurant one evening in the early fall of last year, a few months prior to his fatal diagnosis. Once they were seated, my Dad asked my Mom if her life had turned out better or worse than she had hoped. My Mom admitted to being taken back by the question, which was not the kind of thing my Dad inquired about very often. As she told it, her answer was tentative.

So, as just about anyone would, she turned and asked him the same question. She said he looked at her with a little irritation, like the answer should be obvious, and said, "Oh, way better; better than I could have imagined."

So, today I am thankful for life, for my Dad and Mom, my lovely sisters, my beautiful wife and six wonderful children. I am grateful for dear friends, for companions, those with whom I share the Bread of Life and who, quite improbably care about me, love me, assist me in walking my path toward destiny. I am grateful to be set aside as a servant to serve the Church and the world, even when I realize God has far better people on whom to rely than me- I am the guy with only one talent, but, unlike the servant in Jesus parable, I didn't bury mine. Even in the end, if God lets me retain my one talent only because I didn't bury it, not multiplying it, I will be grateful. I am grateful to live in these United States, which remains exceptional in many ways. This blessing helps me to realize, over and again, that where much is given much is expected.

It is important for me to express all of this because very often I expect too much out of life and feel disappointed when everything doesn't work out according to my own plans, designs, and desires. Life is beautiful, even in its terrifying aspects and moments, as these are only invitations to really trust God, to see that Christ will never abandon us. He is at our side as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Hence, we have no need fear. Apart from my life, my being, I am most thankful for Jesus Christ.

So, with the Psalmist I sing: "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, Though its waters rage and foam and mountains totter at its surging" (Ps. 46:2-4). This is especially timely for me as I am making my way through Revelation.

On Facebook this morning I wanted to type a Thanksgiving message. So, I just started to write and here's what came out: "Despite grousing in certain quarters, I am glad that our nation sets aside a day each year to give thanks to God for all our many blessings. As with so many things, we Catholics have a fancy word for this, "Eucharist." As many will know, Eucharist is Greek for thanksgiving. "it is right always and everywhere to give [God] thanks," even (especially) in our difficulties. To one and all, however you choose to give thanks today, have a blessed day."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tebow: "because Jesus Christ comes first in my life"

As a lifelong Raiders fan it is very much in my DNA not to like the Denver Broncos. I always had grudging respect for John Elway simply because he was such a great quarterback. I must admit that despite his obvious deficiencies as a QB, I also like Tim Tebow a lot. So does Jake Plummer, the former Denver quarterback who led the Broncos the last time they were a good team. In a recent interview in which he mostly lauded the young quarterback, Jake the Snake, after saying "I think he's a winner and I respect that about him," went on to say, "I think that when he accepts the fact that we know that he loves Jesus Christ, then I think I'll like him a little better."

I certainly get where the Snake is coming from and even understand it to an extent. Be that as it may, I was really pretty blown away by Tim's response, which, as always, was respectful, but direct:
If you're married... and you really love your wife, is it good enough to only say to your wife 'I love her' the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up and every opportunity? And that's how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ is that it is the most important thing in my life. So any time I get an opportunity to tell him that I love him or given an opportunity to shout him out on national TV, I'm gonna take that opportunity. And so I look at it as a relationship that I have with him that I want to give him the honor and glory anytime I have the opportunity. And then right after I give him the honor and glory, I always try to give my teammates the honor and glory. And that's how it works because Christ comes first in my life, and then my family, and then my teammates. I respect Jake's opinion, and I really appreciate his compliment of calling me a winner. But I feel like anytime I get the opportunity to give the Lord some praise, he is due for it
Asked later in the ESPN interview conducted by Skip Bayless if God makes him a better football player, Tim simply said his faith gives him comfort and peace while playing.

Tebow certainly endures a lot of sniping and ridicule for being upfront about his faith. It's amazing that he never complains, or criticizes others for engaging in it, using it to put himself front-and-center or say, "Oh, poor pitiful me." A good example of this was during the disastrous game against Detroit, when Tebow's play was awful, Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch, after sacking Tebow, engaged in "Tebowing," as did Tulloch's teammate Tony Scheffler after catching a touchdown pass in the same game.

This prompted ESPN's Jemele Hill to ask in an article after the Detroit game, "if Tebow were Muslim or Jewish, would Tulloch and Scheffler have been so quick to execute a prayer parody?" Of course, hers is a rhetorical question. She went on to observe, "Prayer is a sacred component of any religion. Making fun of someone else's spiritual connection is on par with ridiculing them about their family. You don't have to be a Christian to get that, just someone who understands the concept of respect."

I have to admit that when I first read Plummer's comments I was inclined to agree. Tebow's remarkable response, along with remembering other responses he has given to similar suggestions, changed my mind and even made me determine that this was worthy of a post. Being overt about your religious beliefs makes a lot of people uneasy. That's just life in these United States. But it should not deter us from being open about our love for Jesus Christ. As St. Paul wrote: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: for Jew first, and then Greek" (Rom. 1:16).Contra Plummer, I'd like Tim a little less if he stopped being so forthright about his faith. After all, while he is a brother in Christ, he still plays for the Broncos!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"We are not of the night or of darkness"

As I prepare to read through the second half of Revelation with the aid of Joseph Mangina's insightful commentary, I was struck this morning by the reading for Morning Prayer, which is from St. Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians. Again, it is either this letter or the apostle's First Letter to the Corinthians that was first book of the New Testament to be written. It seems that the immediate occasion of this first letter to the ancient Church of Thessaloniki was a disturbance caused by some of the early believers dying. This was disturbing to the Church because it was the expectation of the earliest Christians that Christ's return was imminent. This was certainly Paul's expectation, too. Apparently, many were convinced that the Lord would return before any of the saints died, which understanding seems to be an element of false, that is, non-apostolic, teaching.

As might be expected, this disturbance created a further opportunity for false teachers to whip people into a frenzy. In this letter Paul takes on these false teachers in a direct way. At the beginning of the fifth chapter of 1 Thessalonians the apostle reminds his sisters and brothers of what they already know and patiently works out the implications of their knowledge:

Concerning times and seasons, brothers, you have no need for anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. When people are saying, “Peace and security,” then sudden disaster comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness (1 Thess. 5:1-5)
What is significant about this passage is that Paul insists that the "children of light," even though they do not know exactly when the Lord will return, will not be caught off guard because, like the five wise virgins from Jesus' parable (Matt 25:1-13), they are always ready. Further, he notes that just like a pregnant woman suddenly goes into labor, or a thief who relies on the element of surprise for his thieving, it is impossible for anyone to know exactly when Jesus will return in glory.

There is the probably apocryphal story of St. Francis of Assisi at work in a garden when one of the friars asked him what he would do if the Lord returned at that exact moment, to which Francis replied, "I'd keep tending the garden." Historically accurate or not, this is the response of a true child of the light, exactly how the apostle is trying to get the Christians of ancient Thessaloniki to view the matter and how we, some 2,000 years later, are to approach this great mystery. All of this seems fitting in a year when so much false teaching about Jesus' return has created a lot of stir, just like the false teachers who frequented the ancient Christian communities of Asia Minor.

I'll end with the Church's prayer for this Thirty-fourth Tuesday of Ordinary Time:

Lord Jesus Christ,
true light of the world,
you guide all mankind to salvation.
Give us the courage, strength and grace
to build a world of justice and peace,
ready for the coming of that kingdom.

You live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today we observe the Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Temple. It is a feast generally observed both in the East and the West. Among Eastern Christians today's observance is known as the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. This feast originated in the sixth century around the time of the construction of a basilica in Jerusalem near the ruins of the Temple and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, which means God-bearer.

Given my focus on Revelation leading up to Christmas, in which we read of God's plan reaching its ultimate fulfillment, of all the liturgical propers for this feast, today I was struck by the Troparion from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: "Today is the prelude to God's munificence, and the announcement of salvation of men: in the Temple of God the Virgin is seen openly, foretelling to all the coming of Christ. Wherefore let us cry out to her with all our strength: 'Joy to you, Fulfillment of the Creator's Plan!'"

While the event we celebrate can only be found in apocryphal literature, namely the Protoevangelium of James, it is worthy of celebration. It is hard for many to appreciate an observance like this precisely because it seems to not have an historical basis. It is important because it emphasizes that from the beginning of her life, the Blessed Virgin was wholly dedicated to God. Moreover, we attend to the fact that her own body became an even greater temple than the Temple in Jerusalem. After all, don't we revere her as the new Ark of the Covenant, too? While it doesn't happen every year, it seems fitting that this year this memorial falls the day after the great Solemnity of Christ the King.

Remember, O Most Blessed Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Solemnity of Christ the King

With sunset we usher in the last Sunday of another year of grace, which we mark by our observance of the Solemnity of Christ the King. Our faith holds that at the end of time Christ will return in glory "to judge the living and dead." This is when God's reign will be definitively, universally, and unmistakably established. His has begun among those who already recognize Him and serve Him. Christian communities a sort of like beachheads of God's kingdom in the world. When He returns, who He is will be reveled, unveiled, apokalpysised. So, it is fitting that we celebrate our hope on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. In the hope that reading it and contemplating it beforehand will help us enter deeply into the cosmic meaning of this great day, I am posting the Preface to the Eucharistic prayer for this solemnity:

Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,
we do well always and everywhere to give your thanks.

You anointed Jesus Christ, your only Son, with the oil
  of gladness,
as the eternal high priest and universal king.

As priest he offered his life on the altar of the cross
and redeemed the human race
by this one perfect sacrifice of peace.

As king he claims dominion over all creation,
that he may present to you, his almighty Father,
an eternal and universal kingdom:
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven
we proclaim your glory
and join in their unending hymn of praise.

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus...

In the eleventh chapter of Revelation, after the seventh angel blows his trumpet, "There were loud voices in heaven, saying, 'The kingdom of the world now belongs to our Lord and to his Anointed, and he will reign forever and ever' The twenty-four elders who sat on their thrones before God prostrated themselves and worshipped God and said:

 'We give thanks to you, Lord God
   who are and who were.
 For you have assumed your great
     and have established your reign.
 The nations raged,
   but your wrath has come,
   and the time for the dead to be
 and to recompense your servants, the
      and the holy ones and those who
   fear your name,
     the small and the great alike
 and to destroy those who destroy the earth'" (15-18).

When the seventh angel blows his trumpet all heaven breaks loose. The return of the One for whom we wait in joyful hope will be astounding! Of course, the imagery of Revelation is highly symbolic and not to be taken literally and is prone to being employed quite irresponsibly. On the other hand, it is important to realize that it cannot be dismissed, insisting that it tells us nothing at all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"I am human and I need to be loved"

I am posting our Friday traditio the evening before because in liturgical time a new day starts at dusk, plus I will preserve more time in the morning for prayer. Like last week, I am reaching back to the '80s, except this time for The Smith's How Soon Is Now? Like a lot of The Smith's music, this is a song about the difficulty of connecting on a meaningful level. In short, it is about belonging without compromising one's self. .

The difficulty of connecting the way we yearn to connect with others was dealt with beautifully by the late John O'Donohue in his book, Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Yearning to Belong:
In post-modern culture there is a deep hunger to belong. An increasing majority of people feel isolated and marginalized. Experience is haunted by fragmentation. Many of the traditional shelters are in ruins. Society is losing the art of fostering community. Consumerism is now propelling life towards the lonely isolation of individualism. Technology pretends to unite us, yet more often than not all it delivers are simulated images. The “global village” has no roads or neighbors; it is a faceless limbo from which all individuality has been abstracted. Politics seems devoid of the imagination that calls forth vision and ideals; it is becoming ever more synonymous with the functionalism of economic pragmatism
We all seek, or at least say and often think we seek, authenticity both in ourselves and in others. We want to be ourselves, that is, who we are meant to be. In this quest we quickly recognize we have no self apart from others.

Truth in an incoherent world

The veritas before caritas meme has me in its grips. This afternoon as I drove home from work I was behind a car that bore a number of bumper stickers that were placed to express the car owner's worldview. One sticker on the top of the passenger-side rear window read "Banish hate" and on the other side of some indiscernible symbol, "Invoke love." Directly below this, on the back of the trunk lid, was a sticker that urged all who read it to "Be a voice for choice," underneath which it expressed the desire for "Every child a wanted child."

I took the latter bumper sticker to mean that unwanted children should be aborted. Now, I don't impugn the intentions of the one who sought to express her/his position in this way, but what incoherence! With Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, I am hard pressed to think of anything more violent than the destruction of a child in the womb of his/her mother. How is this eschewing hate and invoking love? While seeing such things is nothing new, I was astonished in the face of the incoherence I saw right in front of me. I consciously asked myself, "How does one live in such a confused human environment?" The answer, of course, is as a witness to the Truth, expressed as love.

As many people know, "martyr" is Greek for "witness." I recognize that in contemporary English there is a distinction between a witness and a martyr. To us a martyr, at least in Christian terms, is one who is killed for his faith. In his commentary on Revelation, theologian Joseph Mangina insists that being a disciple of the One who died and rose again is a "public confession of faith leading to martyrdom." He goes on to observe that for Christians today the relevant question is whether we see "martyrdom as an exotic relic" from the past, or if we see it as still relevant. It seems to me that far too often we are willing to make peace with the powers and principalities to safeguard ourselves from the negative consequences that inevitably follow from challenging them. This holds true across the ideological spectrum, indicating that even as Christians, whether conservative or liberal, we are far too willing to take our cues from ideologies instead of from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, like the martyrs past and present.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Truth and love revisited

Just as St. Anselm of Canterbury's definition of theology, faith seeking understanding, gets things the right way around by beginning with faith, so does the exhortation to speak the truth in love, by putting truth before love. In both pairings the two things are distinct from one another. However, like loving God and loving our neighbor, they are inextricably bound up. In the fourth chapter of the New Testament Letter to the Ephesians, under the heading, at least the most recent edition of the New American Bible, "Rules for the New Life," in verse 15, we read: "Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members one of another."

Msgr. Giussani had a unique way of stating this: we love another person by loving her/his destiny, which, at least to my mind, is a way of saying that friendship is not about telling my friend what s/he wants to hear, but the truth. While the truth requires me to make a judgment, it is not merely giving my opinion, a piece of my mind, or the world according to Scott. Of course, how I speak the truth matters and the circumstances under which I speak the truth also matter. Of course, there must be a relationship of trust, a friendship. As St. Paul writes, as members of Christ mystical Body, His Church, "we are members of one another."

Last night I finished reading David L. Schindler's article in the most recent issue of Communio, "America's Technological Ontology and the Gift of the Given: Benedict XVI and the Cultural Significance of the Quaerere Deum". Quaerere Deum, a Benedictine and, hence, monastic quest, meaning to seek God. The Holy Father gave a remarkable talk on how the Quaerere Deum is at the root of European culture in Paris during his visit there in September 2008. This speech is Schindler's starting point.

Schindler contends that in the U.S. our "historically dominant understanding of man embeds a voluntaristic idea of freedom, an instrumentalist idea of human reason, and a positivistic idea of religion: in a word, what may be termed a technological conception of the human act." Schindler terms this dominant American understanding "ontological pelagianism." He goes on to note that the anthropology set forth by the American theologian John Courtney Murray, SJ exemplifies how these conceptions have crept into Catholic theology and thought in the U.S. Murray was one of the main architects of the groundbreaking declaration of religious freedom issued by the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatus Humanae. It is a fascinating article, one that resonated with me because it takes aim at the theological aiding-and-abetting of Western liberal democracy by viewing God and man as extrinsic to each other, instead of God being immanently present in each and every human person as her/his constitutive origin. Giussani expressed this truth by saying that the human person is a direct relationship with the Mystery. This is no trivial point. It is fundamental. It is axiomatic. The truth about the human person matters.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity (only because I have been thinking of martyrs all day)

To hopefully bring this post back full-circle, the question is, "What is the truth about the human person?" Schindler's contentions flow from what he sees as an inadequate "sense of the original givenness of the creature’s relation to the Creator, and, inside this relation, of each creature’s relation to other creatures." "This givenness of relation," for Schindler is "constitutive" of the human person. This relation, he insists, "is first established in us by God in his act of creating us and thus reaches to the inmost depths of our being. The relation to God, in other words, is not something first created or contracted by the creature, is not added simply posteriorly to an already constituted substance. The creature, I wish to propose, is the origin." He goes on to cite 1 John 4:10 as "the scriptural ground" for a more authentic Christian ontology: "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us . . . ." "At the ontological level and in terms of human being," he continues, "this implies that man’s first act is a 'filial' act which somehow grasps that his being is from another, even if he himself is unaware of the full implications of this fact."

Genuine love, what is most often referred to in the New Testament as agapé, is rooted in the truth about ourselves, others, and the whole of the cosmos. The fundamental truth about the human person is that s/he is a direct relationship with the Mystery. As I see it, truth makes love concrete instead of abstract. After all, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (John 3:16).

It is in the light of this truth, consciously grasped and not sentimentally intuited, that we are to live. As martyr Fr. Daniel Systoyev said in one of his last interviews before being shot to death inside his Church back in October 2009:
Trust in God alone is most important. If we do not have trust in God, then our prayer turns into a torturous rule. A spiritual father turns into a psychoanalyst. Everything else becomes only empty development. We need to trust God personally. We must remember that we are under the care of God and He is with us. God truly holds us in His Hands. And no one can separate us from Him; as the Apostle Paul says, Who shall separate us from the love of God? [Rom. 8:35] Truly, if we are with God, all the remaining virtues will be formed. Prayer will become communion with God Who is with us. Obedience will become the ability to hear His Holy Word-to make it out in the uproar of this world

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A digression on fasting

As Eastern Christians, Orthodox as well as many Eastern Catholics, enter the Nativity Fast (this is not a Roman Catholic observance) it seems a good time to reflect again on the necessity of fasting.

Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are absolutely indispensable for leading a Christian life, for living as a disciple of the Lord. By itself prayer can easily become self-absorbed. In and of itself alms-giving can turn into do-goodism, into a form Pelgianism by which you seek to multiply good works and tip the scales against your sins, thus saving yourself. Fasting is necessary to bring the opposite poles of prayer and alms-giving into balance within yourself. Fasting, when done in the proper spirit, serves as something of a reality check.

The purpose of fasting is not how I once heard it described by a Protestant minister in an ecumenical setting- "starving yourself for Jesus." Rather, the purpose of fasting is to focus on what really matters, God’s Kingdom. We do this by putting aside for a time even the good things of the world. Fasting frees us from dependence on worldly things. The one who fasts faithfully, that is, in accord with how our Lord taught His disciples, fasts secretly, not judging others, nor holding himself up as an example of righteousness, not thinking himself better in any way.

It is necessary to mention some of the reasons that do not give rise to Christian fasting. As with all the spiritual disciplines, fasting is neither an end in itself nor is it a means of pleasing God. We are not asked to fast as a punishment for our sins, or as any kind of atonement. Christ atoned for our sins and offers this to us freely as a gift. Hence, salvation is not something earned through meritorious effort, which is the same danger as reducing to faith to orthopraxis (i.e., doing good things- "If I serve two hours weekly at the food pantry, I don’t have to go to Mass") at the expense of orthodoxy (i.e., right belief). I know some readers choked on these words the last time I used them in a post. I am Catholic because faith does not mean checking my intellect at the door of the sanctuary.

Jesus’ two great commandments remain: "love God with all your heart, might, mind, and strength" and "love your neighbor as yourself." It is also true that the one who says he loves God and despises his neighbor lies. However, the two are not the same. Loving our neighbor is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, of loving God. There is a tendency in Western Christianity, the most prevalent sign of which is people who identify themselves as Christians and who say, "I am spiritual, but not religious." As Pope Benedict XVI powerfully demonstrated in Deus Caritas Est, only right practice that arises from right belief is truly caritas. This is yet another example as to why veritas ("truth") comes before caritas (i.e., "charity," agape). In this context a seeming digression is necessary.

According to Fr. Divo Barsotti, Romano Amerio, author of the very important tome Iota Unum, held that after Vatican II the Catholic Church came to adopt one of "the most serious ills present within Western thought today"- placing caritas before veritas. It is here that the necessary relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxis comes into bold relief. Reversing this relationship creates a disorder that, according to Barsotti, "turns upside-down the proper understanding that we should have of the Most Holy Trinity."

In a letter he wrote to philosopher Augusto Del Noce, which was the genesis of Iota Unum, Amerio explained his purpose: "to defend essences against the fickleness and the syncretism of the spirit of the age." Above all this required "defending the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity and their processions, which, as theology teaches, have an unchangeable order." He notes that Scripture unequivocally teaches that "In the beginning was the Word." In the Credo we solemnly profess "Filioque procedit" (i.e., and also proceeds from the Son). Hence, Amerio noted, "Love proceeds from the Word, and never the other way around."

Recitation of the Creed can easily become for us a vaguely comprehensible sentimental profession instead of an accurate description of reality. Truth is what makes love concrete instead of abstract. Years before he became pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stated this quite plainly by insisting that you can only really love people individually because an imagined love of all humankind, no matter how sincere, remains abstract.

It is precisely from this seeming digression that the question arises, "Why do we fast?" It is here that we see fasting is what holds prayer and alms-giving in balance, it is the discipline that unites orthodoxy to orthopraxis, truth to love, in our very person. We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us. In fasting we turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting is not obsolete or irrelevant today, but more necessary than ever. Fasting is not something to be done by someone else, like monks, nuns, and those more “religious” than you are.

To be clear, by fasting I mean fasting from food altogether and from certain foods, likes meat, dairy, seafood, for set periods of time and for specific intentions. Fasting is not incumbent on pregnant and nursing mothers, on anyone who is seriously ill, or one who has a health condition that makes fasting dangerous. Above all do not fast without prayer and without alms-giving.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Watching our language

It was either Nicholas Lash or John Macquarrie who averred that a theologian is one who watches her/his language in the presence of God. By that, of course, is not meant the scrupulous avoidance of something like saying the f-word in front of your Mom. It means living with ever more awareness the mystery of your I, not truncating your inquiries into reality, being content with instrumental answers to what Garrison Keillor, in his Guy Noir skits, calls, "life's persistent questions." Or, in the words of Fr. Carrón who kept insisting in his Communion and Liberation Opening Day talk, discerning a Presence in everything that is present to you at each given moment, keeping alive our sense of wonder and awe.

This morning, for a very specific reason, I was thinking about my ministry as a deacon. As I thought an empty, throwaway phrase I often use when thinking, talking, or even writing about my diaconal service crossed my mind: "Well, I am not God's gift to pastoral ministry." During Morning Prayer, as I was praying for a number of the people I am privileged to serve in various ways, I was caught up short and quickly saw that nothing could be further from the truth from my lazy qualifier: I am God's gift to pastoral ministry!

It is a gift to be a deacon and in being a deacon I make myself a gift to others. If this is not true, then I should just hang it up. Recognizing that I am, in fact, God's gift to pastoral ministry in no way asserts that I am not limited, or that I am always super-effective. It just means that, like servants to whom the "talents" are entrusted in Matthew's Gospel, I offer the gifts God has given me in the confidence that God can use me to accomplish His purposes in the lives of those I am called to serve and to the community I am called serve. Of course, this insight is not only applicable to me personally, but anyone who offers her/himself to serve others. Catechists are God's gift to catechesis, ministers of hospitality are God's gift to the community and those they welcome, etc.

I don't mind saying that where I serve is a challenging place. There are so many hurting, wounded people who need immediate help, something akin to spiritual and emotional triage, that I sometimes foolishly think all of this gets in my way, if I may use that sorry phrase. What I mistakenly feel such situations get in the way of are my cherished initiatives aimed at building community. As Owen Cummings reminded us at our annual diocesan deacons' retreat last month, I should be more concerned about not getting in God's way! In other words, at least for me, being God's gift means putting myself in the service of Jesus Christ by serving those who seek my help, the real people in need, not some ideal community I wish create in my own image. In short, serving God often means letting go of my own plans, recognizing my own limitations, and better living my priorities. It sounds easy, but sometimes I gripe about it inwardly to God.

Earlier this year, once I genuinely discerned my need to live my priorities better, I met with a trusted friend of mine who is a priest. I remember saying to him, "I don't know what's next for me, where I am going to serve." He said, "Why does there need to be a next?" He continued, saying that in his estimation I am well-suited to serving where I serve and that he thought my unique gifts and abilities are best used there, stating that my assignment would not suit a lot of deacons, or quite a few priests. I don't know whether that was a compliment or not, but it does not matter because I quickly came to see the truth of what he said. After all, it easy to disdain ministry when it ceases to gratify my ego.

The question for all of us who follow Christ is, "How and to whom will I be God's gift today?" After all, the Eucharist, which constitutes the beating heart of faith, bringing us into communion with Christ, who, in turn, unites to each other, is an exchange of gifts. Christ offers Himself body, blood, soul, and divinity, as the traditional formulation goes, and we offer ourselves, body, blood, soul, and humanity, putting our lives at His disposal to accomplish God's purpose in and for the world. This gives me a lot to think about the day before I begin the Nativity Fast.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"an ignorance that tries to negate nothing"

It has been quite sometime since I posted anything about my dear Camus. Albert Camus, along with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Robert Spaemann, Jacques Ellul, George Orwell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Saul of Tarsus, Augustine of Hippo (Camus' fellow North African), Hans Urs von Balthasar, Luigi Giussani, Joseph Ratzinger (even prior to becoming pope), Karol Wojtyla, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Anthony Bloom, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Milan Kundera, David Foster Wallace, and W.H. Auden, is one those whose thought has not only deeply influenced my own, but has shaped and formed me. No such list is ever complete, but I think I have captured those whose contribution to my formation, for better or worse, is major and permanent, as opposed to minor and/or passing. Yes, it is an eclectic group.

Reading my opening paragraph I feel compelled to write that this is not an exercise in tedious name-dropping, but one of reflection and rumination a few days after my forty-sixth birthday. What prompted this reflection? An article by Robert Zaretsky that appears in Tablet, a magazine that claims to be "A New Read on Jewish Life." The title of Zaretsky's article is "Camus the Jew". Making all of this even more personal is the fact that Camus was born on 7 November and died in a car accident, which some have speculated was a suicide, in 1960 at the age of 46. I doubt anyone, with the possible exception of George Orwell, has influenced my political thinking more than Camus. Zaretsky also wrote a book on Camus, Albert Camus: Elements of a Life

The subtitle claims that Camus "died an atheist." I think making so bold an assertion pushes the matter entirely too far, especially when we look at the blabbering idiocy of the so-called "new atheists," such as Dawkins, Harris, and their ilk, whose philosophically sophmoric rants would not merit a passing grade in an undergraduate philosophy class. I think Camus is more accurately described as an agnostic. He was agnostic about many things, that is to say, ambivalent. I use the term "ambivalent" in a qualified and precise, or psychological, sense, meaning simultaneously occurring positive and negative thoughts and feelings s toward the same person, object, or action, having the effect of drawing a person so conflicted in in opposite directions. While he was an expelled member of the Communist party who became an insightful critic of scientific socialism that is, Marxism and its terrible spawn, he was no fan consumeristic, laissez-faire, capitalism. He was far too humane to be impaled on either horn of this vicious and false dilemma.

Camus in 1957- lifted from Zaretsky's article

Apart from the unfortunate introduction, which was may not have been written by the author, "Camus the Jew" is a very good article about Camus' life-long friendship with many Jewish people and his championing, against the cultural grain, of the rights of Jewish people. The most colorful of Camus' Jewish friends mentioned by Zaretsky is philosophy professor André Benichou, a Jew who Camus and his wife Francine came to know while living in Francine's hometown of Oran, Algeria. Apparently it was Benichou's practice to proclaim "his atheism at a local café every year on Yom Kippur, Good Friday, and the first day of Ramadan." Camus was deeply offended by the Vichy regime's anti-Semitic laws, which is partly why he was living back in Algeria at the time. He vehemently denounced Vichy's Nazi-inspired laws and defied them at every opportunity. After World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel, Camus remained a staunch supporter of the Jewish state to the end of his life.

Zaretsky notes that Camus' bond with the new state "was a political bond" due to Camus' (cherished) estrangement from the French left, which, Zaretsky notes, "had grown deeply anti-Zionist in the wake of the Suez War." This brings to my mind the stir created at the recent G20 Summit at Cannes when the French president, who is of Jeiwsh descent on his mother's side, and who is as obnoxious a political leader as there is in the world today, who, along with the rest of E.U., remains in the grips of an odd and disturbing animus towards Israel, even tilting towards anti-Semitism (one under-reported element of the surge of Islam in Europe is the resurgence of a lot of anti-Semitism, like the desecration of Jewish graveyards). What was surprising about this incident was not that Sarkozy called Israeli prime minister Netanyahu a liar, but the disappointing agreement of Pres. Obama, who is certainly no friend of Israel. Camus' reasons for supporting Israel, Zaretsky continues, "still echo today: Not only must Europe accept Israel’s existence as the only possible response to the continent’s complicity in the Final Solution, but Israel must also exist as a counter-example to the oppressive rule of Arab leaders."

Zaretsky may be correct to assert that Camus was "naïve" to hope that Israeli democracy, of which Camus would almost certainly not have remained uncritical, would serve as an example for Arab leaders. He goes on to suggest "that Camus’ attachment to Israel was existential" noting that Camus' "plea for cooperation and collaboration between Jews and Arabs in Israel echoed his pleas to his fellow pied-noirs and Arabs in Algeria." Zaretsky cites Camus' journey "to Algiers in 1956 to urge a civilian truce between Arabs and French Algerians." While he was there he noted "that Arabs and European settlers were 'condemned to live together'" as evidence of his assertion, noting that his assertion about the necessity of living together was falsified by subsequent events, noting that the parties in Algeria "instead concluded they were condemned to kill one another—a conclusion, were he alive today, [Camus] would urge both Israelis and Arabs to avoid while there is still time."

What I am most interested in is Zaretsky's application of Camus' notion of the absurd, which colored how he viewed everything. To my mind, faith does little to make the world seem less absurd. In fact, in light of Christ's crucifixion, faith arguably adds to the absurdity, something about overcoming it by embracing it. "Job and Sisyphus," Zaretsky notes, referring to the biblical book and Camus's essay The Myth of Sisyphus, "are heaved into a world shorn of transcendence and meaning. In response to their demand for answers, they get only silence. Herein lies the absurdity, Camus writes: It is 'the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.'"


Zaretsky article ends with this fascinating insight:
We think we know how the story of Job ends: Rewarded by God for his loyalty, Job is paid back with even more children and sheep and property. But is this the ending? A number of biblical scholars suggest the Job we hear in the final chapter, the one who accepts and resigns himself to God’s power play, is not the same Job we hear in the preceding 40 chapters. Instead, he is a throwback to an earlier story that was grafted onto the otherwise perplexing account. Instead, the real Job is Camus’ Job. He is a Job who answers God’s deafening and dismal effort at self-justification with scornful silence
Every year I re-read published fragments of a talk Camus gave to the Dominicans of the monastery of Latour-Maubourg in 1948. In his remarks he asks, "By what right, moreover could a Christian or a Marxist accuse me, for example, of pessimism?" He goes on to defend his philosophical approach by asserting,
I was not the one to invent the misery of the human being or the terrifying formulas of divine malediction. I was not the one to shout Nemo bonus or the damnation of unbaptized children. I was not the one who said that man was incapable of saving himself by his own means and in the depths of degradation his only hope was in the grace of God. And as for the famous Marxist optimism! No one has carried distrust of man further, and ultimately the economic fatalities of this universe seem more terrible than divine whims.

Christians and Communists will tell me that their optimism is based on a longer range, that it is superior to all the rest, and that God or history according to the individual, is the satisfying end-product of their dialectic. I can indulge in the same reasoning. If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man. And not in the name of a humanism that always seemed to me to fall short, but in the name of an ignorance that tries to negate nothing
It seems to me that it is this "ignorance that tries to negate nothing" that constitutes Camus' agnosticism. While clearly not identical to Giussani's method, which teaches us to let the nature of the object and the situation determine the method, it bears more than a passing resemblance. Both seek to overcome ideology, the all-pervasive sway of the powers. What Camus took exception to in his remarks to the friars is the reduction of Christianity to an ideology. It's a good thing that the Church has taken to heart many of these criticisms and set about correcting them.

Stay awake, alert, and sober

Concerning times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. When people are saying, "Peace and security, " then sudden disaster comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober (1 Thess. 5:1-6)
This week St. Paul addresses, again, his main reason for writing to the Church at ancient Thessaloniki, namely assuaging their concerns that some of their number had died and the Lord had not yet returned. It is important to note that while Paul, like all early Christians, expected the Lord to return soon, he made no predictions about the exact time or day, apparently not even teaching that Jesus would come before any of the first generation of believers died. It is important, however, to recognize that Paul certainly believed the Lord would return soon and almost certainly taught the imminence of the parousia as part of his apostolic proclamation.

By writing that "the apocalypsing of Jesus Christ," to use Mangina's striking phrase from his commentary on Revelation, "will come like a thief in the night," the apostle seems to be echoing words handed down from our Lord Himself (Matt. 24:42-44). Since I am already using a quote from the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Matthew, I will note that the late-developing (i.e., unknown to Tradition) doctrine of the Rapture, in addition to arising from last Sunday's second reading, also taken from St. Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, stems from this chapter of Matthew, specifically verses forty and forty-one: "Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left." It is sometimes amazing to me that Christians in the past often read Scripture more intelligently than many in our own day.

Paul is exhorting the saints after the manner of Jesus, "Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come" (Matt. 24:42). We often speak in a similar manner when we say things like, "You never know, you could be run over by a bus tomorrow!" Of course, we believe in Christ's glorious return, His "apocalysing," His unveiling, but our end-time could definitely precede this cosmic event. For those who already know Jesus Christ, know who He is, who, like Peter, have had Him unveiled to them, who know Him as Messiah and Lord, will be like the five wise virgins in last week's Gospel, or the two servants who made the most of what the Master gave them. This is why Paul exhorts the Christians in Thessaloniki and, by extension, us to stay awake, stay alert, and to remain sober.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The unveiling of Jesus Christ

I had great aspirations as far as composing a post for today. However, in light of of our CL-Utah Opening Day, I had to lower my expectations. I will probably get around to posting my synthesis of Fr. Carrón's very timely and in-depth presentation at some later date. In the meantime, I had the opportunity to go to confession on this day following my birthday immediately following Opening Day, which is always a grace and great way to start a new year of life, which is the greatest gift God gives us, which is why He goes to so much effort to redeem us.

Looking forward to the beginning of the Nativity Fast, which starts on Tuesday, 15 November, I have decided to read and re-read several times the Book of Revelation. I have already begun by reading the first three chapters yesterday and re-reading chapter one today. The commentary I am going to use is part of the outstanding series, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Joseph Mangina's Revelation. It is amazing so far and I have not yet progressed beyond the introduction

Apocalypse means something like "lifting of the veil." The veil is lifted to reveal something that was previously hidden. There are those who have already seen what is behind the veil. Hence, when Jesus returns He will be revealed to those who did not already know Him. Mangina, introducing a long quote by Douglas Harink from Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity, writes, "A properly theological understanding of apocalypse begins when we learn to use the term with a primary christological inflection." He then cites Harink:
Most simply stated "apocalypse" is shorthand for Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, in particular for Paul, all apocalyptic reflection and hope comes to this, that God has acted critically, decisively, and finally for Israel, all the peoples of the earth, and the entire cosmos, in the life , death, and resurrection, and coming again of Jesus, in such a way that God's purpose for Israel, all humanity, and all creation is critically, decisively, and finally disclosed and effected in the history of Jesus Christ
I Mangina's phrase, "the apocalypsing of Jesus Christ."

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Let us die young or let us live forever"

11-11-11 marks my forty-sixth birthday. Today is the Feast of St. Martin of Tours and here in the U.S. it is also Veteran's Day. Along with St. Stephen, St. Martin of Tours, on whose feast I was privileged to be born, is my patron. Like St. Stephen, he is a good companion for my journey. Looking back on my past birthday posts, last year's effort is my best: "[H]e neither feared to die nor refused to live".

St. Martin of Tours, pray for us

This is also my first birthday without having my Dad here to celebrate it with me. He wasn't a really physically affectionate man, but I will miss him leaving my house tonight, giving me a hug, patting me on the back and saying, "I love you pal." My best gift this year is our son, Evan. I am a blessed man who believes in grace and grateful the God does give me what I deserve.

For today's traditio I picked Alphaville's timeless classic Forever Young sung Gregorian-style. If you don't like it, please cut me some slack, it's my birthday!

We don't have the power but we never say never/sitting in a sandpit, life is a short trip/the music's for the sad men/can you imagine when this race is won/turn our golden faces into the sun


The digital camera delay caused a few issues. (No re-try. Hey, life is imperfect. Well, mine certainly is).

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jesus Christ: Judge and Savior

November is the month that Roman Catholics remember and pray for our beloved dead. So, I am trying to compose posts this month that deal with some aspect of this important and, I am afraid, disappearing aspect of our faith. Probably because it was distorted so badly, we tend to ignore Purgatory. The distortion of Purgatory was equating it with a kind of temporary hell. Well, linking back to last night's post on St. Francis and suffering, I think it is very often case that mortal life serves that purpose quite well for many people. The reading for Morning Prayer today, from the eighth chapter of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, highlights this:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it,o in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God (verses 18-21)

In his second encyclical, Spe salvi, Pope Benedict notes, "Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour" (par. 47). The Holy Father, whose subject in this letter is hope, went on to write,
The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God (par. 47)
Commenting on this more hopeful way of thinking about purgation, theologian Lawrence Cunningham wrote that what he found attractive about this passage is how the pope "re-imagined [purgatory] in the light of Christology," employing "an aspect of Christology not always emphasized: Christ as (just) Judge."

This strikes me as a very good point of reflection as we come to the end of another year of grace, approaching the great solemnity of Christ the King

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

St. Francis of Assisi and suffering

Looking back over some old files, I found a homily I preached on the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi back in 2007. The first reading for the Mass of the Day was Job 9:1-12.14-16:

Like many holy men and women, St. Francis suffered. He suffered at the hands of his own followers, dying outside the Franciscan order. He suffered in the early days following his conversion from ridicule and abuse heaped on him by former friends and the people of Assisi, who thought he had gone crazy. As we all know, he was led by the Lord to the little, dilapidated Church of San Damiano, where, while praying before the crucifix, he was told by the Lord "Rebuild my Church." True to his trusting and childlike nature, which was a gift of his conversion, part of his transformation from a world-wise playboy and would-be merchant, he obeyed literally by rebuilding San Damiano and restoring it with his own hands. More significantly he rebuilt a Church badly in need of reform by his poverty, chastity, obedience and overall evangelical zeal, all motivated by love. Along with his contemporary, St. Dominic, he was instrumental in bringing about a revival in the Church by the breath of God, the Holy Spirit.

St. Francis accepted all the suffering, be it physical, mental, or spiritual, that came his way as a privileged channel through which, in imitation of our Lord and Savior, he was made perfect, even receiving in his own body the wounds of Christ. With genuine humility, Francis felt himself unworthy to bear the wounds of Christ and always sought to hide them, with many close to him not knowing that he had received the stigmata until he died.

Very often we are distracted from the fact that God made us to know him, love him, and serve him in this life and to live and be happy with him forever in the next life. Speaking about the effect that the Russian Revolution had on the Russian Orthodox Church, which, under the Tsars, had enjoyed such privilege, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, head of all the Russian Orthodox in Western Europe for many years, said: "During the Revolution we lost the Christ of the great Cathedrals, the Christ of the splendidly architected liturgies; and we were vulnerable, we discovered the Christ who was rejected just as we were rejected, and we discovered the Christ who had nothing at His moment of crisis, not even friends" (Beginning to Pray 17-18). Too often today, with so many preachers offering a health and wealth gospel, we are prone to believe that if things go wrong we have lost God’s favor because of our sins or lack of faith. St. Francis stands as a sign of contradiction to such distortions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and world that rejects the salvific meaning of suffering. It is funny that Job’s friends seek to explain his afflictions, including the death of his children, to some sin Job had committed, or seek a reason why Job has lost God’s favor. However being wiser and more spiritual than his well-meaning friends, Job refuses such facile explanations, and so should we.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A short take on reality

This morning in my devotional reading I came across something very timely that struck me with great force: the defining characteristic of sin is that sin can be forgiven. Of course, sin is not automatically forgiven, but it is always already forgiven. So, what is required for sin to be forgiven, or for me to realize the forgiveness that is always already mine in and through Jesus Christ? Well, recognition that I sinned is a good place to start, then contrition. I read the following yesterday morning by the Desert Father, Abba Poeman: "I prefer a man who sins and repents to one who does not sin and does not repent. The first has good thoughts, for he admits that he is sinful. But the second has false, soul-destroying thoughts, for he imagines himself to be righteous.”

"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:18). More importantly, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8).

In this regard, Lawrence Cunningham noted "that faith should not be mistaken for therapy" and "should serve, at the same time, to upset and give hope."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Thoughts on the ecclesisal nature of Christian marriage

I owe a very deep diaconal bow to Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who blogs over at the Christianity Today blog Her.menutics, for this post. In her post Yes, We Can Learn Something from the Kardashian Fiasco, Pulliam Bailey observes that theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in his essay "The Radical Hope in the Annunciation: Why Both Single and Married Christians Welcome Children," "challenges the romantic notion that 'a couple falls in love and comes to the church to have their love publicly acknowledged.'" "The congregation," she goes on to note, "is not a passive on-looker while the couple independently embarks on this new journey. Instead, the congregation of family and friends makes that journey tenable in the first place." She then cites Hauerwas at length:
the church rightly understands that we no more know the person we marry than we know ourselves. However, that we lack such knowledge in no way renders marriage problematic, at least not marriage between Christians; for to be married as Christians is possible because we understand that we are members of a community more determinative than marriage. That the church is a more determinative community than a marriage is evidenced by the fact that it requires Christian marriage vows to be made with the church as witness. This is a reminder that we as a church rightfully will hold you to promises you made when you did not and could not fully comprehend what you were promising. How could anyone know what it means to promise life-long monogamous fidelity? From the church’s perspective the question is not whether you know what you are promising; rather, the question is whether you are the kind of person who can be held to a promise you made when you did not know what you were promising. We believe, of course, that baptism creates the condition that makes possible the presumption that we might just be such a people.

This put me in mind of a wonderful observation made by Dr. Owen Cummings in his still very relevant lecture "Images of the Diaconate"- "There is a tendency," Cummings insisted, "at least at the popular level, to think of the sacraments of marriage and orders as equivalent to the celebration of the rites. Thus, one hears people say, "I was married so many years ago...This way of understanding is most inadequate. The sacrament in both cases consists in the entire lives of the married and the ordained until death. The sacrament begins with the public celebration of the rite but does not end there. That is why for example getting married in church, that is, with the rite of Catholic marriage, means so very little unless being Church for the couple is an important priority. It is essentially being Church that makes the marriage fully sacramental, Church understood as the fundamental sacrament of Christ, Christ understood as the fundamental sacrament of God."

Indeed, this a very challenging understanding of marriage helps us to better grasp the sacramentality of matrimony. In light of Archbishop Sheehan's very straightforward pastoral letter earlier this year, it seems we have a lot of catechetical and pastoral heavy-lifting to do!

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...