Friday, August 31, 2012

UPDATED: Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini, Requiescat in pace

If any proof is required that His Eminence enjoyed being an agent provocateur, courtesy of my dear friend Jean-François, comes a BBC report on an interview he gave to an Italian newspaper the very month he passed away, in which he opined that the Church was 200 years behind. Personally, I don't really agree with what article says about Martini's critique (I'd will read his interview for myself as I am quite certain there are insights that are very salient, while this BBC report was boiler plate, a sure sign it's not Cardinal Martini). I'm quite certain that, as another friend put it, we don't have much to lament for not keeping up with nineteenth century "fashions and practices... eugenics, scientific racism, nationalism - or of the 20th [century] Europe - socially or nationally revolutionary genocide..." Predictably Church teaching on divorce, which it received directly from the mouth of Christ, and on contraception, not what is incorrectly stated as birth control, come in for particular focus by the BBC's David Willey. This despite the fact that he has to reach all the way back to 2008, beyond the interview, for the nugget on condoms.

I learned this morning that Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini passed into eternity. He was the archbishop emeritus of the great Ambrosian See of Milan. His Eminence was a wonderful shepherd. Furthermore, he was a provocative thinker and a bit of a contrarian, which qualities endeared him to me. If loose reports are to be believed, next to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal Martini received the most support in the conclave of 2005, convened to determine who would follow the still acutely missed Bl. Karol Wojtyla. This should be heartening to all Catholics, to know that the "contest" was between the two very best to serve as Christ's Vicar, to walk, borrowing the title of the first book of Morris West's papal trilogy (the only book of the 3 to be made into a movie, starring Anthony Quinn as Pope Kiril I), In the Shoes of the Fisherman.

Cardinal Martini, a member of the Society of Jesus (a.k.a. the Jesuits), was a Bible scholar, who spent much of his retirement in the Holy Land, but above all he was a great pastor, as well as a first rate preacher and teacher.

As a thinker and sometime agent provocateur, he showed that he loved the Church too much to let us fall into so many lazy assumptions, which render us smug.

Two of his books that I return to frequently are, On the Body: A Contemporary Theology of the Human Person, and The Gospel According to St. Paul: Meditations on His Life and Letters. In the latter book he wrote, "faith itself is living the dialectic tension between the seen and the unseen."

I posted something from the former book earlier this year, during Lent: Sickness shows us the limits of human satisfaction.

Requiem Aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetuae luceat eis. Requiescant in pace.

"So old in my shoes"

This week's Friday traditio is Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm." I offer it with no commentary.

Disarm you with a smile/And leave you like they left me here/To wither in denial/The bitterness of one who's left alone/Ooh, the years burn/Ooh, the years burn, burn, burn

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Praying for Fr. Benedict Groeschel

In a recent interview with the National Catholic Register, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, a man I don't mind saying publicly, even in the wake of the firestorm ignited by this interview, I admire greatly, made some comments that were perhaps none too prudent in and of themselves, especially given the current climate, but that have been torn from context and distorted beyond all belief. Predictably, the Catholic circular firing squad has been mustered and has commenced firing.

Because of the controversy it sparked, his interview (sadly) is no longer available, but the url now features a statement by the newspaper, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, an amazing religious order Fr. Groeschel not only belongs to, but helped to found, and a humble statement from this humble friar, priest/psychologist:
I apologize for my comments. I did not intend to blame the victim. A priest (or anyone else) who abuses a minor is always wrong and is always responsible. My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be. I have spent my life trying to help others the best that I could. I deeply regret any harm I have caused to anyone
The reason I wrote that it is sad the interview was taken down is because now people cannot judge for themselves, but are at the mercy(lessness?) of commentators to make a judgment. I understand that this does nothing to diminish the pain and broken-ness, the heartbreaking loss of innocence, experienced by those who suffered abuse, especially at the hands of a priest or religious. We all do well to tread lightly when discussing this deeply disturbing issue.

I don't have anything terribly insightful to add, or new to say. I do want to publicly express how much I love Fr. Groeschel, express my appreciation for his amazing ministry and that of his wonderful friars, and assure him of my prayers. I echo the sentiments of Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who put it plainly by situating his remarks in context:
In a recent interview, [Fr. Groeschel] hypothesized how a young person (14, 16 or 18, as he put it) could conceivably take advantage of a priest who was having a nervous breakdown. He also referred to Jerry Sandusky, the disgraced Penn State football coach, as “this poor guy.” For these remarks, and related comments, he is now being labeled as a defender of child abuse.

The accusation is scurrilous. In the same interview, Groeschel emphatically said that priests who are sexual abusers “have to leave.” His reference to Sandusky was exactly the way a priest-psychologist might be expected to speak: “poor guy” conveys sympathy for his maladies—it is not a defense of his behavior! Indeed, Groeschel asked, “Why didn’t anyone say anything?”
Have we really reached the point that a priest cannot publicly express a little compassion for a person, like Sandusky, who has done something egregious without being accused of blessing his sins? If so, we're in worse shape than I thought.

I stand with Mark Shea, who, on his blog, Catholic and Enjoying It, wrote:
All I know of the man is that he has lived a lifetime of compassion for the weak, of charity, mercy, fidelity, and holiness. I pray for him in this hour of terrible trial and thank him for his life of goodness to so many people as I thank God for the gift of Fr. Benedict. May God bless him through Jesus Christ our Lord. Mother Mary, pray for your son Benedict.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist

Traditionally, today is the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. In the Roman Catholic Church, we observe it nowadays as the much less violent and bloody liturgical Memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist.

The Gospel reading for today (Mark 6:17-29) started me thinking along the same lines that resulted in my last homily, preached this past Sunday, based on the second reading, a lengthy passage on marriage at the end of the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians, particularly this extract:
Herod was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. John had said to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so
Of course, Salomé, the daughter of Herodias, after performing a dance that pleased Herod, after Herod promised her anything she might ask of him, requested the head of the Baptist on a platter.

There is a brilliant film version of Oscar Wilde's wonderful play, Salomé's Last Dance, directed by Ken Russell (I have not seen the recent one with Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain- I can't imagine it being better). In the film, Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas come to the brothel of a friend late on Guy Fawkes Day, where they are treated to a surprise performance of Wilde's play, which has just been banned from being performed publicly.

Erotic dances, beheadings, Beckett, Wilde, Ionesco all in one early mid-week evening puts me in mind of Ionesco, who, after a trip to Mount Athos as a young man, remained a devout Orthodox Christian the rest of his life, particularly his epitaph. But before getting to that, because it is related, I also think of the passage in the eleventh chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel (because I watched Pasolini's film last week):
When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (verses 2-6)

Translated, Prirer le Je Ne Sois Qui J'espère Jèsus-Christ, means, "Pray to the I don't-know-who: Jesus Christ, I hope." It's pretty cool that this picture, complete with epitaph and translation, is on his Wikipedia page!

"when all my dust has settled"

It's been a long time since I posted anything on Samuel Beckett. Hence, I was most interested to come across an interview with Robert Wilson on the Economist's "Prospero" blog, on the occasion of his staging and performing, himself (after a ten year hiatus from acting), Beckett's play, "Krapp's Last Tape." I was surprised to learn that Wilson's production of of this play at the first, appropriately-named, “Happy Days” Beckett Festival, which will be in the town of Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, will be its English and Irish premiere.

Photo from The Economist "Prospero" blog

I have a long and fruitful fascination with the theater of the absurd, which is why I love Camus and Ionesco. It would be saying too much to type that I love Beckett, while I have a certain fondness for the kind of existential honesty he sought to reveal, I can only admit to having a deep fascination with him. The result of reading Beckett is similar to being punched in the gut.

“Krapp’s Last Tape” is a philosophical take on a 69-year-old man, who, on his birthday, listens to a thirty year-old tape. It is a reflection on life and fleeting nature of happiness, which is a major theme in St. Augustine's Confessions (his liturgical memorial was yesterday). Below is a performance by John Hurt in a critically acclaimed performance from a recent performance, a review of which you can read here.

I would love to see Wilson's production, which will be performed
I start with the light movement first which are not dependent on the audio score. They have their own structure and laws and can be performed separately. But when seen together, something else happens. They can reinforce one another without having to illustrate each other. I try not to impose any one means to a work. It remains an open question.

My work is formal. It is not interpretive. To me interpretation is not the responsibility of the director, the author or the performer: interpretation is for the public
I love this quote because it could (and should) be applied to liturgy as well. Otherwise, it just takes on the idiosyncracies of the presider. I mean, there is plenty to think about and to do in preparation for a formal celebration, but I love liturgical presiders, directors and performers who aim for this. To do otherwise is arrogant.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A sign of contradiction

"It is the great inversion of method which marks the passage from the religious sense to faith, the surprise at a fact that occurred in the history of mankind. This is the condition–surprise at a fact–without which we cannot even talk about Jesus Christ" (Luigi Giussani).

As Simeon said to the Blessed Virgin Mary when she brought the infant Jesus to the temple: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted" (Luke 2:34).

Writing of Him who is the living stone, the inspired author of 1 Peter wrote: "Therefore, its value is for you who have faith, but for those without faith:'The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,'and 'A stone that will make people stumble, and a rock that will make them fall.' They stumble by disobeying the word, as is their destiny" (1 Pet. 2:7-8).

In his book, Sign of Contradiction, John Paul II wrote that the "sign of contradiction" might be "a distinctive definition of Christ and of his Church."

If one definition of a sacrament is a visible and tangible sign of Christ's presence in and for the world, then by virtue of our baptism, we are to be a sacrament, that is, a sign of contradiction.

It is the existential perpendicularity of the Christian that gives being a Christian its cruciform shape.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Year B Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Josh 24:1-2a.15-17.18b; Ps. 34:2-3.16-21; Eph. 5:21-32; John 6:60-69

“This saying is hard; who can accept it?” The Greek word for “hard” in this sentence is sklayros, which, when applied to things, such as Jesus’ teaching that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53), can also mean violent, or rough, or offensive, even intolerable. Judging from the reaction of many of those who heard this “hard” saying, it was likely taken to mean all of the above.

What is notable about our Gospel reading today, at least towards the end, is that it is focused on the reaction of those who, up to that point, had been Jesus’ disciples, who, the sacred author tells us, because of this “hard” saying, “returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6:66).

There are many sayings of Jesus that are hard. These are hard because there is no love without truth. They can also seem hard and offensive because He speaks "Spirit and light" to a world, to people (you and I), in darkness. Especially in these politically correct times His words, spoken through His Church, often give offense and are sometimes intolerable to many people, both Catholic and non-Catholic. Certainly what the Church teaches about marriage often falls into that category.

Marriage is a sacrament (another word for sacrament is mystery) because Christian marriage is a concrete and efficacious sign, “the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church par. 1617). A sacrament, according to traditional Catholic theology, is an efficacious sign because it does not merely signify something, that is, stand in for something that is absent, “but actually makes present what it signifies” (USCCB, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan 32). This is exactly what the inspired author of the Letter to the Ephesians says at very end of our second reading, summarizing this lengthy passage by writing, “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).

If you’ve ever wondered about the theological grounds on which the Church opposes any and all forms of plural marriage, it is because if marriage is a sacramental sign of the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church, Christ has only one bride, namely the Church. This also goes some distance towards explaining much else the Church teaches regarding marriage, including the impermissibility of divorce, the need for sexual complementarity, and, because the passage cites the same Scripture Jesus used in his disputation with Pharisees concerning marriage (Matt. 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12), keeping in mind that there is no way two people become one more than by having children together, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24), the very current and relevant topic of contraception. Because the purpose of marriage is to make visibly and tangibly present a divine reality, always making it, when lived authentically and joyfully, both revelatory and prophetic, it is not within the purview of the Church to alter it.

As the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, puts it,
"the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission (par. 10)
Marriage is not a subordinate relationship, but an equal partnership. Flowing from the Eucharist, it is a communion, a deep communion between persons. One of the reasons the passage that constitutes our second reading today is often ignored, or winnowed down, thus removing all the potentially offensive verses, the “hard” sayings, as it were, is because it is very easy to misinterpret, attempting to make it say something it clearly does not. So, let’s look at the beginning and the end.

The passage begins with the injunction to “[b]e subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Our reading cuts off verse thirty-three, an important verse that, in the context of the letter, both completes the passage and brings the chapter to its end: “In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband” (Eph. 5:33). I think we would all agree that love, being an act of the will, a choice, and not merely a feeling, or a set of affective feelings, of necessity includes a healthy portion of respect, which necessity Aretha Franklin has catechized us on very well.

Even when we look at how marriage is defined in the Code of Canon Law, we see that it is a covenant a man and woman enter into by which they “establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of [children]” (Can. 1055 §1). By definition, a partnership, at least one that is not a limited partnership, sets the partners on an equal footing. If we must insist that there is an inequality in this passage, the unequal, meaning the heavier burden, is placed squarely on the husband.

So, my dear friends in Christ, keeping in mind that God is merciful, standing always ready to receive us and to reconcile us, we are often faced with the same dilemma as were the Twelve in our Gospel today, Do I stay, or do I go? If you go, to whom will you go? Who else has the often “hard” words of eternal life? Who else loves you enough to tell you the truth? Who else loves your destiny, the end of for which you were made and redeemed? Let us answer as did the tribes of Israel at Shechem, when challenged by Joshua, Moses’ successor, “[W]e also will serve the LORD, for he is our God” (Josh 24:18b). It is only by committing to serve the Lord that we can taste and see His goodness.

Friday, August 24, 2012

"You pour yourself over me"

Because I didn't want to do something predictable and mundane, I postponed putting up the Friday traditio until this afternoon. After some consideration, I chose Peter Murphy's "Cuts You Up."

Murphy began his career with Bauhaus, one of the original goth bands. He had a successful solo career. I have always loved his "sound," as it were. Raised in a Catholic family, Murphy became fascinated by Sufi Islam. In an interview about his becoming a Muslim he said, "There was no conversion, just a recognition that it was the same message, only clearer. You don't convert, you discover an aspect of surrender, which is what Islam means."

Peter and Beyhan Murphy

His wife, Beyhan, is Turkish. They met in London and moved to Turkey in 1992. She is a well-known choreographer and is currently the choreographer at the State Opera and Ballet. She was also the Director of Theatre and Performing Arts in Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Agency.

Calling like a distant wind/Through the zero hour we'll walk/Cut the thick and break the thin/No sound to break no moment clear/When all the doubts are crystal clear

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Paul Ryan's "softening" on abortion

After compiling an admirable pro-life record as member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Wisconsin, which included being opposed to abortion in cases of rape, Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan today announced that because his running mate, Gov. Mitt Romney, was not opposed to abortion in cases of rape, incest, or life of the mother, mentioning that if they are elected Romney would be president and, therefore, "sets policy," that he was "comfortable with" Romney's exceptions "because it's a good step in the right direction." It is the last phrase I find troubling.

It is well-known that President Obama is an enthusiastic supporter of abortion. On 23 January 2012, Obama, speaking on the thirty-ninth anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, said about his support for abortion "rights" that abortion "ensure(s) that our daughters have the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams." Funny how the issue of making our sons sexually irresponsible louts never came up, but I digress. The sad fact is that anyone who favors putting any restrictions on abortion, including the horrific late-term form, which really amounts to infanticide, known as "partial-birth abortion," would be at least an incremental step in the right direction.

What I find particularly vexing in Ryan's "softening" of his position is that he bailed on his convictions at a crucial moment, namely during the Akin debacle. For those not "in the know," Rep. Todd Aiken, who is running for U.S. Senate in Missouri, in a televised interview with St. Louis' KTVI, commenting on his opposition to abortion in cases of rape, offered that "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down." He went on to say that a physician he knows imparted that bit of nonsense to him. Of course, the implication is that if a woman is raped and conceives as a result, she was not "legitimately" raped. This has led to many people, including several prominent Republicans, to call on Akin to abandon his Senate bid. It seems to me that this was a golden opportunity to note that Akin reached the correct conclusion by way of defective, even moronic, reasoning and to demonstrate that there are sound logical and moral reasons for being opposed to abortion in cases of rape, as awful that may sound to many people.

Ryan's reasoning is now as incoherent as is that of many people on this subject and looks something like, "I am opposed to the murder of innocent, unborn children except in cases my boss tells me not to be opposed," or, "unless I feel it jeopardizes my chances of becoming VP." It is an issue with that much moral gravity! So, again, while proportional reasoning, which shows Romney and Ryan to be a much better choice when it comes to abortion than Obama and Biden, still needs to be applied, it is quite a spectacle to see matters of conscience dealt with so glibly. I think a better summary of his "softening" would be, "A bad a step in a better, but not ideal direction."

Given all that, maybe the relevant question for Paul Ryan is, "If you were find yourself as president, what would your position be?"

Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary

A week after celebrating the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we observe the liturgical memorial of Her heavenly queenship. Of course, our Blessed Mother's bodily Assumption into heaven and Her coronation as Queen of Heaven are the fourth and fifth Glorious Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary. The fruits of these mysteries respectively are, the grace of a happy death, and trust in Her intercession. As St. John Damascene observed: "When she became Mother of the Creator, she truly became Queen of every creature."


Hans Urs Von Balthasar believed the Church, in her innermost essence, or being, exemplified by the laity, is Marian above all else, coming before what he set forth as her Petrine, Pauline, and Johannine dimensions. So, in the final chapter of his still very relevant and short essay, written prior to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Razing the Bastions, he wrote:
Because the Church (also in her social being) is always present where there is a genuine Christian, and the more purely his Christian existence shines forth and becomes incarnated, the more purely the idea of the Church shines forth, it follows that the Church is present in her purest idea in the bodily Mother and spiritual Bride of the Lord: Mary. Thus, if one speaks of "ecclesial attitude", one must mean the attitude that filled Mary, since she is the embodiment of the Church as lived reality

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Justice and mercy are often excruciating...

but always life-giving.

With a diaconal bow to Deacon Greg, over at what we here at Καθολικός διάκονος simply refer to as The Bench, and another of my partners in crime, Frank, whose choice stylings you can check out at Why I Am Catholic, and while the Missouri GOP work vigorously to set the pro-life movement back years, if not decades, by reaching the correct conclusion using poor, pseudo-scientific, and downright offensive arguments, I urge you to think about Rebecca, who courageously, if briefly, tells her story, courtesy of a great group, Feminists for Life-

I have a friend of long-standing who became pregnant when she was gang-raped as a young woman. She gave the child birth and let him be adopted by a childless couple. To wit: rape is never a blessing, it is one of the worst things a person can do to another person. But courageous women, like my friend Shauna, who for several years shared her story on a limited basis, who refuse to be victims, or to victimize others, are magnificent, grace-filled people who give amazing witness to the beauty of life! They possess what I can only describe as heroic virtue.

Jesus and politics: Facebook musings

I made the following observations on a Facebook thread. It seems to me that this year being an election year here in the United States that people get out-of-sorts. Too many Christians, regardless of party affiliation or their particular brand of politics, look to government and politicians for salvation, to set the world right again. Thinking of this reminds me of Psalm 146: "Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save. Who breathing his last, returns to the earth; that day all his planning comes to nothing."

While I appreciate that people are being sincere, I would argue with anyone who posts anything political that tries to say, "This is what Jesus would do if he were president, governor, senator, member of Congress, local dog-catcher..." because it is an impossible hypothetical. First, the time and place the Son of God became Incarnate was not accidental or arbitrary. Secondly, to even imply that Jesus would ever seek such a position is to miss the whole point and purpose of His Incarnation. He could've made Himself Emperor of the World if He'd chosen to, but He deliberately chose a different way, the opposite way. Jesus wouldn't give a Bernie Sanders' speech to the Senate or a Paul Ryan stump speech.

What Jesus will ultimately do, this is an objective and dogmatic belief of the Church, is to utterly destroy all nations and initiate the reign of God, which is what the Church is to do even now, whether any given gov't facilitates or seeks to prevent that from happening is irrelevant. The Church does not accomplish this through violence, power, or through state coercion. It is no accident that the Church is stronger, which means it makes the kingdom of God more palpably present, than when it faces opposition, or, moveover, where the Church is actively persecuted.

Christ the King

The only reasonable answer to the question What Would Jesus Do?, is surprise, confound, challenge, and provoke you. To insist otherwise is to try and reduce Him to your measure.

Even on the personal level the question is not, What would Jesus do?, but What Would Jesus Have Me Do?, or, In light of my understanding of Jesus' teaching, which is conveyed by the Church, what should I do? Stated simply, in this set of circumstances how do I love God with my whole heart, might, mind and strength and love my neighbor as I love myself, realizing these two things are mutually reinforcing, (there is no love without truth) and never mutually exclusive?

Jesus loves us too much to ever let us be smug

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Year B Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Prvbs 9:1-6; Ps. 34:2-7; Eph. 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

What is wisdom? After hearing today’s readings, it might be more appropriate to ask, Who is wise, or, even more precisely, Who is Wisdom? In Sacred Scripture it is almost always the case that simplicity and wisdom go together. Simple is the opposite of complex. Very often, instead of simplifying the Gospel, seeking just to live it in humble obedience, to order our lives by it, we make it complicated and difficult, thus giving ourselves and others ample excuse not to change, not to live in imitation of Christ, but leave that to the professionals, to those who have studied philosophy, theology, and who seem to know the Scriptures front-to-back.

At the risk of violating my own injunction to cultivate simplicity and avoid unnecessary complexity, but in order that I might impart some wisdom, we must grasp that at the heart of the Gospel, which itself simply means “the good news,” is a paradox. Now a paradox is something that can easily be mistaken for a contradiction. George Santanyana gave a great example of a paradox, one that can be verified by looking no further than the Bible (I suggest comparing Proverbs to Ecclesiastes): “Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise to balance it.” This is so because truth is symphonic, not only leading us to what is good, but possessing a certain beauty.

The paradox at the heart of the Gospel can only come from the mouth of Jesus Christ. Looking at only one of several instances in the Gospels where He utters this paradox, we turn to the sixteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, where He says to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matt. 16:24-26a)

Like most people these days, I use social media, especially Facebook. Over and over again I see all these banners, pictures with sayings and ruminations about how happiness is realized by putting yourself first, single-mindedly and selfishly pursuing your own your wants and needs. What I find sad is that these are posted by the same people who time and again express how unhappy they are.

As the author of the Letter to the Ephesians notes, even way back then, the days are evil. Hence, we cannot afford to remain fools content to live foolishly, that is, seeking happiness and fulfillment in all the ways the world entices us, or seeking fulfillment by giving in to the timeless temptation, which constituted the original sin, to live only for yourself, to determine for yourself what is right and wrong, good and true, to gratify and satisfy your whimsical, often impulsive, and indulgent appetites.

So, we come to our Gospel for this Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the fourth of the five Sundays we read from John chapter six during Year B of the three year Sunday lectionary cycle, which is about as simple and straightforward as words can be. Jesus teaches that He himself is “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51a). He then says clearly that “whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:51b). Notably avoiding both parable and paradox, metaphor and hyperbole, speaking so clearly that it causes those who hear Him to complain that He is telling them to eat human flesh, He says, “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51c). To those who are appalled at what He teaches, He reiterates, in even clearer terms: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:53-55).

Each time we come forward to receive Christ in the bread and wine, to eat and to drink Him, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, we act wisely. The proof of our wisdom is that it confuses, confounds, and baffles so many, especially many who consider themselves wise. We act wisely because we act in accord with what is real, with what lasts, with what is both true and good only because it is so beautiful. In the Eucharist Jesus proves that true happiness is achieved only by giving ourselves away entirely. He proves that God is so big, so complete, so secure in His own Triune Being that He does not hold back from becoming so small that you can hold Him in your hands.

So, to those who believe, who have been baptized and reconciled to God through the sacrament of mercy, come forward and acknowledge your hunger and thirst for holiness, for life eternal, the life that only can be yours because Jesus gave Himself up for you. Express your deep desire, which burns likes a flame at the core of your being, to receive a down payment on your destiny, or, in the words of our second reading, “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). Stated simply in the words of Proverbs, commit yourself anew this day, as you did in baptism and again when you were confirmed and received a new and fuller outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to “[f]orsake foolishness that you may live” and to “advance in the way of understanding” (Prvbs (9:6). Wisdom “has spread her table” for you (Prvbs 9:2). “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Ps 34:9).

Friday, August 17, 2012

"Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity"

Tim Challies concludes his blog post, God’s Mercy and God’s Wrath Meet At the Cross, by telling the uncomfortable truth, which, at least from a Christian perspective, amounts to inescapable logic:
"If there is no hell, there is no need for a cross. The cross shows us the depth of our sin and the height of God’s holiness, the purity of God’s wrath and the greatness of God’s mercy. The cross assures us that hell exists. The cross demands that we look to the one hanging there and put all our faith, all our hope, all our trust in him."

It reminds me of the New Yorker-looking cartoon that features two women looking at a crucifix (i.e., a cross that has Jesus hanging on it) up on a wall. Contemplating it, one woman says to the other, "If I'm okay and you're okay, then what's he doing up there?"

The only other alternative is to disbelieve, taking Patti Smith's famous opening words from her song "Gloria": "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine."

We all need the grace that flows from Jesus’ cross, on which He hung for love of us and our lack of love for the Father and our neighbor. Coming to this realization and trying to figure out how it shapes our lives is what observing Friday as a day of penance is all about. To facilitate that here’s a song by Jars of Clay, "Amazing Grace," an original Jars song, not the old Gospel standard, with Ashley Cleveland on backing vocals:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The challenge of solitude reveals our need for it

Probably next to fasting, the most challenging of the spiritual disciplines is that of solitude. Henri Nouwen captured the challenge of this discipline by showing us how its challenge reveals our need to practice it.
"As soon as we are alone,...inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important."

Even Heidegger noted how we effectively employ distractions to avoid the only question that really matters, the question of our being, the discovery of our I, the discovery of our authentic selves, which is necessary in order to live authentically.

John O'Donohue wrote, "Solitude gradually clarifies the heart until a true tranquility is reached. The irony is that at the heart of that aloneness you feel intimately connected with the world."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever."

Let us praise the Theotokos, ascended to heaven, where she intercedes on behalf of her beloved children.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

And be concise...

I wrote this awhile back and posted it on another blog with which I was affiliated. Okay, in 230 words or less explain the history of ancient Israel from the beginning or the monarchicial period (ca. 1030 BC) to the Roman conquest of Palestine (63 BC)-

The monarchical period begins with Saul’s anointing by the prophet Samuel against the wishes of God, who wanted Israel to have no king but God. After the disastrous end of Saul’s reign, David ascended the throne of Israel, moving its capital to Jerusalem. During his reign Israel reached the peak of its glory. This was maintained and expanded under the rule of David’s son, Solomon, who oversaw the building of the first temple. After Solomon’s death Israel broke apart, splitting into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south.

The history of Israel beyond this point had many ups and downs, which resulted in the end of the kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians and, later, the end of Judah, which was conquered by Babylon. The period preceding, including, and immediately following these exiles, is the period of the prophets. The story of the return and reestablishment under Nebuchadnezzar is chronicled in Ezra and Nehemiah. This is the period in which the narrative that is scripture in the form we possess it began to be compiled, edited and written. Israel never recovered from these conquests, being dominated by dynasties established by generals who served under Alexander the great, first from Egypt, then from Syria, except for a brief period of liberation during the rule of the Hasmoneans prior to being subdued by Rome.

Friday, August 10, 2012

St. Lawrence, glorious deacon

As if I needed one more reminder as to how quickly time flies by, it took receiving a wonderful email from a brother deacon to remind me that today is the feast of that great Roman deacon, St. Lawrence, who was blessed to experience martyrdom. Yes, blessed, not deprived in any way.

St. Lawrence being given the martyr's crown by the infant Jesus, by Claude de Jonge, 1634

Lawrence was martyred in 258 during the persecution of the Roman emperor Valerian. he served as one of Rome's seven deacons under Pope Sixtus II, who also perished in this persecution. I think every deacon should aspire to serve his bishop by serving God's people in the same manner as Lawrence, that is, with his whole self, in imitation of Christ.

"You're wasting your time"

Morrissey, who I am going to see in Portland on my birthday, is this week's Friday traditio. The song is "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get." Here's a thought, only a thought, what if you thought about this song not as an unhealthy obsession, but being sung to you by God? Kind of interesting, at least to me.

I am now/A central part/Of your mind's landscape/Whether you care/Or do not

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A fleeting thought

During His Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?" (Matt 5:43-46- ESV)

It seems to me that the present moment we are living provides us with a golden opportunity to lovingly obey our Lord, who never forces our hand, but always leaves it up to us. As Christians, loving those who revile, belittle, deliberately misunderstand, and who accuse us of hate for being faithful to Christ, many of whom are even Catholic, does not mean giving up what we believe, or calling evil good, or good evil. It does help us to see that the kingdom of God will not be ushered in through power and it certainly will not be imposed by violence, but only through love.

We need to live what we believe because we know it is the path to happiness and fulfillment. The only way to "know" this is by verifying it through experience. All the while we need to bless those who curse us, not in some moralistically spiteful way, like killing someone with kindness even as we grit our teeth, but truly from our hearts, hoping, but not expecting that they respond in like manner.

In a similar vein, St. Paul writes, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them... Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' To the contrary, 'if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom. 12:14.17-21 ESV)

A recent concrete example of what I am urging can be found in an interview with Fr. Victor Potapov, an Orthodox priest, which was posted on Mystagogy. In the interview he discusses the sacrilege committed in Moscow by the female punk band, Pussy Riot, as well as same-sex marriage. He shows simply and plainly what it means to speak the truth in love, urging us, "We must be merciful, and not to forget the teaching of Christ."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"the Living One who died..."

Whom have we, Lord, like you -

The Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,

The Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,

The King who abased himself to ensure honor for all.

Blessed is your honor!

my brother deacon from of old, St. Ephrem the Syrian

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Hell on earth

It seems to me that in this, the second decade, of the twenty-first century, hell has broken loose. I understand that this is probably just me projecting my perception, generalizing from the particular. Nonetheless, the portals of hell are all over the place, waiting to be uncovered. This is nothing new, but our collective fascination with finding them and exposing them, intermixed with our collective indifference to its short and long-term effects on people and cultures, strikes me as fairly unique.

I am not trying to play the prophet, just an interested, as opposed to disinterested, participant, as opposed to observer. There is probably no way hell has broken loose more perceptibly than through our eager willingness to use military force everywhere and anywhere, on the slightest pretext, or at least to provide "lethal aid" so others can reign hell in the name of various ideologies, even those that contradict our own. As with so many things, like the on-going and pervasive economic crisis, in the U.S., this eager willingness is not limited to one of our two major parties, but pervades both, even as our Congress freely relinquishes its constitutional powers to an ever more powerful executive.

Destroyed Syrian Church

Just as I am not a prophet, neither am I a social scientist. So, I am not drawing a statistically-derived correlation, but I can't help but wonder if violence doesn't beget violence to the point where so much officially-sanctioned violence blurs lines in the minds of many, making violence the primary way we deal with differences, be they differences of opinion, or racial and religious differences. I wonder this precisely because war seems no longer to merely be the extension of politics, or politics by other means, as Clauswitz famously observed, but it increasingly seems to me that politics and war are becoming one and the same.

I am content to let Tom Waits play the prophet, to sing the oracle and pronounce the lamentation. So, if you are interested, watch and listen to Hell Broke Luce- As with reading Jeremiah, before you listen to Tom I will give an EXTREME LANGUAGE WARNING!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Baptism is transfiguration, a glimpse of our destiny

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, which marks the event in Jesus' life when He took Peter, James, and John up on the mountain and there was transfigured before them, appearing radiant in dazzling white. There also appeared with Him Moses and Elijah, pointing to the fact that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. Elijah's appearance also fulfilled the prophecy, given by the prophet Malachi, which constitute the very last words of the Hebrew Scriptures as they appear in the Bible: "Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, Before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day. He will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the land with utter destruction" (3:23-24).

The Father bore witness that Jesus is His Beloved Son, as He did at Christ's baptism.

So, it is fitting that our youngest child, our beautiful son Evan Gabriel, by a great grace, was baptized a year ago today by our wonderful bishop, John Wester, in our lovely Madeleine. Baptism, too, is a transfiguration, because it is a sign and symbol of the great glory for which we are made and redeemed, the latter at great cost. To paraphrase Bishop Wester's remarks from that day, baptism makes explicit what is implicit in each one of us. Deo gratias!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

"We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful"

In the plaza around back and to the east of the Cathedral at which I serve as a deacon, there is a fountain. My two little boys, who are 3 and 6, love to watch the fountain, walk around the edge of it, feel the splash of the water as it spouts from the top, cascades down the different levels, generating a cooling spray. Last night after Mass was no different, no doubt they were encouraged even more by the fact that it was a very, very hot afternoon. So, as we exited the backdoor they instinctively ran towards the fountain, which lacks the grandeur of the fountains of Rome, but certainly enhances the beauty of our little piazza.

My wife and I stood by and enjoyed watching two of our children enjoy the fountain. As we watched and cautioned the boys about not falling into the fountain, a dear friend came up and watched along with us. Our friend, who travels a lot, to whom I just lent my copy of Gustaw Herling's Volcano and Miracle: A Selection from The Journal Written at Night two weeks ago, mentioned the fountains of Rome. On hearing that I told her that just Friday night I watched a movie set in Rome: Pasolini's Mama Roma, featuring the truly amazing Anna Magnani. She asked if the movie showed any of Rome's famous fountains. I told her that Pasolini's film does not show any of Rome's beautiful fountains, or any of the Eternal City's many beauties, because it is set in the suburbs of post-war Rome. The only glimpse of Rome's grandeur is that of the dome of a Roman basilica that is visible, though at a distance, from the desolate suburb, a view which constitutes the movie's famous last shot. In Pasolini's film, even the scenes at Mass (and there are several) are shot at what was then, in 1962, a new Church, one that is plain with white walls, no statues, paintings, tapestries, oriental carpets, or even any discernible stained glass windows, only a lovely marble baldacchino. It was spare and sparse, like the rest of the new suburb of which it is a part.

This Pasolini film belongs to the genre of Italian neo-realism, but, as with all things he did, there is something more artistic going on. One of the major components of neo-realism is using "real" people, that is, non-actors, either for all roles, as in the classic and seminal film The Bicycle Thief, or for most of the parts. In Mama Roma, apart from Magnani, the actors are all non-professionals. Writing about his use of non-professional actors, Naomi Greene, in he book Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy, asserts that his employment of such "actors" is no different than that of other neo-realists, like Roberto Rossellini, but his philosophy was unique, whereas the working philosophy of other neo-realists was that of using non-professional actors, in Greene's words, to "add to the realism to their films, Pasolini turned to nonprofessionals [precisely] because their acting did not seem 'real'."

Famous scene from Fellini's La Dolce Vita, filmed in Rome's La Trevi fountain

One of the things that is palpable in Mama Roma is the desolation that results from the lack of beauty, the deleterious effect it has on us, assaulting our humanity. This brings me back to beauty and our need for it. The late John O'Donohue, in his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, observed, "We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the need of our soul." He goes on to note that, culturally, we live an age of the ugly. This last observation caused him to turn to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, specifically to Von Balthasar's theological aesthetic:
Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man... Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance
O'Donohue, who only passed away in 2008, observed, "Much of the stress and emptiness that haunts us can be traced back to our lack of attention to beauty." Noting the importance of environment, both cultural and natural, he wrote, "The blindness of property development creates rooms, buildings and suburbs which lack grace and mystery."

In one of her nighttime street-walking scenes in Mama Roma, Magnani's character is talking about an old man, telling a story about how she was made to marry him when she was very young (in the context of the film, probably not something her character really did, but you can't be certain, nor are you intended to be) who became rich building Rome's suburbs. She waxed eloquent about how beautiful the buildings were. She mentions that he also built great toilets. After awhile he stopped building beautiful buildings and just made really great toilets!

Friday, August 3, 2012

"What made you want to live this kind of life?"

I don't know about you dear reader, but for me it's been a helluva a week on many fronts. Fittingly, it sort of culminated last night with me teaching our catechumens about St. Paul, which meant delving into his letters a bit, always a worthwhile to endeavor. Paul wrote many impassioned pleas, among which is the following:
Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death. For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit. For those who live according to the flesh are concerned with the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit with the things of the spirit. The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace. For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God; it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom. 8:1-8)

In light of that Cage the Elephant's "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" struck me as a good, if somewhat startling, Friday traditio for this week. Why? Because it deals with just the sort of hopelessness and restlessness that can all too easily be our existence. As Don Gius observed about Jesus' crucifixion, "He mounted the Cross to free us from the fascination with nothingness, to free us from the fascination with appearances, with the ephemeral." Stated a bit more plainly, as in the introduction to the Church's petitions for Morning Prayer today- "Through his cross the Lord Jesus brought salvation to the human race. We adore him and in faith we call out to him... Turn your gaze from our sinfulness, and cleanse us from our iniquities...Strengthen in our hearts the faith you have given us; let not temptation ever quench the fire that your love has kindled within us."

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Dormition Fast begins

For many Catholics of the various Eastern Rites, as well as for most Orthodox Christians, today marks the beginning of the fifteen day Dormition Fast. For those of us who are Roman Catholics, we refer to the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin as the Assumption. For all of us the ancient solemnity, which we observe as a holy day of obligation, on 15 August marks the Virgin Mary being taken bodily into heaven, either without dying, or after dying.

The fast consists of eating less in general as well as not eating certain kinds of foods (i.e., meat and diary- shellfish are permitted throughout and if one chooses to keep the fast only consumes alcohol and olive oil on days when it is permitted). I welcome these times because it is also important for me to pray more, read Scripture and other spiritual reading, as well to give alms and perform more conscious acts of charity for others. Frankly, without more prayer, spiritual reading, and alms-giving such fasts would be pretty meaningless. So, to all my brothers and sisters who join in, may God, through intercession of the Blessed Virgin, draw you closer to Himself, closer to others, and closure to creation as we endeavor more consciously to usher in God's reign.

It also seems notable that this year the Dormition Fast falls during Ramadan, meaning Christians and Muslims have the opportunity to fast, pray more intensely, and act more charitably together. May the God of Abraham, who is the Father of Jesus Christ, bless us during this chosen time.

Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hosea 2:16.17c.18.21-22; Ps 145:2-9; Matthew 9:18-26 Our Gospel today is Saint Matthew’s version of events first written about ...