Friday, August 30, 2013

A thought and a question

As a result of posting a link to "God's Kingdom, a place of unimaginable hospitality" on Facebook, a bit of a friendly dialogue ensued. The fruit of this exchange for me was realizing, yet again, that a fairly large number of those Christians who are accusatory towards people who engage in homosexual activity themselves engage in unnatural sex, which is what employing contraception as well as engaging in certain other activities basically amount to. This sounds harsh, but let's speak the truth in love among ourselves before we set about correcting everyone else, especially when it involves attempting to apply a double standard, to live an outright contradiction, which is the antithesis of truth and so in nowise loving; something about splinters and beams comes to mind (see Matt 7:3-5).

I am not among those who insist, like the disgraced disciple of creation spiritualist Matthew Fox, the former leader of Sheffield's Nine o' Clock Service, the de-frocked Church of England vicar, Chris Brain, who, though married, was having relations with some 40 women from his congregation (shades of Smith, Koresh, et al), that we must discover "a postmodern definition of sexuality in the church" (I use this example not to be obscure, but because it's something I have been reading about this past week). One of the beautiful dimensions of so-called post-modernism is that everything old is new again. I have no problem suggesting that Christians might benefit tremendously from re-discovering the pre-scholastic understanding of our humanity, familiarizing ourselves with pre-Thomistic theological anthropology, which extends to matters of human sexuality (reaching back before scholasticism is one reason for my on-going interest in St. Bernard and Luther).

I am always struck by this passage from Archbishop Rowan Williams' 1989 essay The Body's Grace (which essay I critiqued here several years back): "in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures."

Painting by Pelagio Palagi (1775-1860)

While I stand by my 2010 critique, I think Williams' insight bears keeping in mind, at least as a check on our propensity to be exclusively ideological, that is, fearful about such matters. As many commentators who are better informed than I am have observed, the unraveling of conjugal marriage began a long time ago, certainly before 2013, with Christians being quite complicit in the unraveling.

To make all of this a bit less abstract, When is the last time you heard of a married teacher or administrator being fired from a Catholic school for using contraception (let's not even discuss married clergy in this regard), or being divorced and remarried without first having their previous marriage declared null? I wonder, does this constitute a double standard, one that violates what the Catechism teaches, namely that "Every sign of unjust discrimination" towards people who are homosexual "should be avoided"? (par. 2358)

God's kingdom, a place of unimaginable hospitality

Since the topic of judging the wounded came up in the lyrics of Casting Crowns' "Jesus Friend of Sinners," I read something yesterday that is worth passing along and perhaps commenting on a bit. It is a blog post by Dr. Mike Wittmer, who teaches theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, entitled "compelling conversion." The subject of his post is Rosaria Butterfield's memoir of her improbable conversion, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.

As Dr. Wittmer notes, "For those who may not know, Butterfield was a tenured professor in the English and Women’s Studies department at Syracuse University, and an influential lesbian." His post is not a review of her book, but consists of several take-aways, not about "evangelism," or anything like that, but just about being disciples of Jesus and what that means for how we relate to people.

I don't want to paraphrase, or simply re-post Wittmer's piece, which I urge you to read in toto, and so I'll simply grab what he wrote that struck me because it resonates so much with my own experience, both personal and pastoral, with friends, even family, as well as those who have sought my prayer and counsel, namely the second of the three things he greatly appreciated about Rosaria's story:
The homosexual community often excels at hospitality in a way that puts some churches to shame. The gays and lesbians in her world supported each other and supplied a safe environment for each other. Reading her story reminded me that homosexuals are real, and often kind people, who want many of the same things that I want out of life. We disagree about the most important thing in life—who is Jesus?—but we will make more progress in reaching them, and be enriched ourselves, if we start with the values and concerns that we share in common
While I don't believe that it is true that all people who are homosexual, even ones who are actively so, see Jesus differently than I do, I would agree and even go further by saying their hospitality puts almost every church to shame.

There's one other point, which comes towards the end of Dr. Wittmer's third take-away, that bears repeating: "A subtext of the book was how even the ardent homosexuals in her world realized they were 'queer.' The attraction for many, the reason they remained gay, was because that was the one community that loved them. There is a lesson here for us. I know that after reading this book, I am convicted to lead, maintain, and end all of my relationships with love."

This banner beckons me as much, probably more, than those not like me

I also want to draw attention to a speech given by Justin Welby, who has the unenviable task of following Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, to his fellow Evangelicals in England recently (let's not forget that Archbishop Welby bravely opposed the recently passed Same-sex Marriage Act, giving an eloquent defense of the bedrock importance of marriage to society and the overall welfare of individual people in Great Britain's House of Lords back in June). In his speech to the Evangelical Alliance, Archbishop Welby insisted quite strongly that Christians need to repent for the way we have treated people who are homosexual, for, to turn back to Casting Crowns, not only judging, but throwing rocks at them. I can't imagine how frightening it must be for men and women who are homosexual to decide to approach a church, almost any church.

Please put away your Jump to Conclusions mat and don't misconstrue what I am trying to articulate here. This not a case of trying to turn wrong into right, it is precisely the opposite: acknowledging our own sin and not excusing our own wrong-doing by saying we are acting in the service of truth. Just speaking the rock bottom truth does not in and of itself satisfy the exacting, selfless demands of love. In fact, sometimes even our well-intentioned efforts eviscerate love. This is articulated well in "Jesus Friend of Sinners"- "the world is on its way to you, but it's tripping over me."

It seems to me that the question we have to ask ourselves is, Do we trust that God is at work in peoples' lives, in our lives, in the Church, and in the world, or do we see society held together as the result of our own strenuous efforts? In other words, are we scared to embrace people who are homosexual because we see each and everyone one of them, not as a person beloved of God, for whom Christ died, but as an existential threat to our way of life? I would just encourage us not to mistake what is provisional for what is ultimate and to remind everyone that, at least according to the teaching of Jesus, the Kingdom of God, at least when judged by worldly standards, is a wild and zany place, one might even say a bit upside down. Because I am weak, forgetful, as well as full of pride, I never tire of reminding myself that following Jesus is not an ideological commitment.

As Jesus taught and, moreover, demonstrated, "No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18).

"You love every lost cause"

I really can't think of a better traditio for this final Friday in August than Casting Crowns' "Jesus Friend of Sinners." Of course, the first Psalm of the Church's Morning Prayer on Friday mornings is the Miserere mei, or, Psalm 51, which begins:

Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;
in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions.

Thoroughly wash away my guilt;
and from my sin cleanse me.

For I know my transgressions;
my sin is always before me.

Against you, you alone have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your eyes
So that you are just in your word,
and without reproach in your judgment...

Let the memory of Your mercy bring Your people to their knees/Nobody knows what we're for only what we're against when we judge the wounded/What if we put down our signs crossed over the lines and loved like You did

As Jesus taught and, moreover, demonstrated, "No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18).

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Morality, moralism, and missing the mark

I tire of those who think theology, especially their theology, or their preferred theology, trumps Sacred Scripture. Any "theology" that is clearly at odds with Sacred Scripture is not a theology.

Take this, for example: "For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries" (Heb. 10:26-27- ESV). The words "sinning" and "sins" in these verses are translations the Greek word hamartia, which means "to miss the mark." After coming to faith in Christ, we can't go on missing the mark!

Yes, this verse has a context, as does every other verse in the Bible. The specific sin being referred to by the sacred author, who is a Jewish Christian writing to other Jewish Christians, is that of apostasy, specifically turning from Christ back to observing the Law as a means of salvation. In other words, not just missing the mark, but aiming at another target and still hoping to score a bullseye!

Can't this be applied to other situations and circumstances as well, to us today? If not, then what use is Scripture, why read it, let alone study it? If it only applies directly to those to whom it was originally addressed, then what makes Scripture different from other writings, in what way are they "God-breathed," as we read in 2 Timothy 3:16?

A blow-up from Luco Signorelli's fresco, Deeds of the Antichrist, ca. 1501

How we live and why we live the way we do matters. Why is that so difficult for so many to grasp? Why do people imagine that a "gospel" that seeks to reduce the significance of our lives, to rob us of our humanity, holds any appeal? Without presuming to know who, or how many, might ultimately be saved or condemned (only God knows), I have to ask, Why does the temptation to the heresy of universalism remain so prevalent? What, or who, will move us from being fleshly people to spiritual people, or does it even matter whether we continue living fleshly lives after we have come to faith in Christ? Is sanctification a myth, or, is what Chesterton asserted in What's Wrong with the World accurate, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried?" Have we completely lost sight of the old and honorable seeking to cooperate with what God, by means of His grace, is doing by our lives?

Beyond that, is every moral exhortation an exercise in being "moralistic?" If so, then we find moralism in Scripture, even falling from the lips of Jesus Himself. Can it be that there should be no shoulds, no "thou shalts" and no "thou shan'ts?" Of course, our reason for obeying is a response of faith, one that flows forth out of love and gratitude.

How about the good old Catholic both/and? What we do matters and why we do what we do matters. Is it possible to live this way, in the manner of a Christian, which, among other things, means to live humbly acknowledging our sins and failings and experiencing God's goodness and mercy while trying to act justly and mercifully towards others, not as a way to gain God's favor, or earn our salvation, but in gratitude for what God has done, and keeps doing for us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit?

The fearful prospect of judgment disappears through repentance. Repentance, derived as it is from the Greek word metanoia, works brilliantly in this context, as it means to turn around.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

God as good Father

In today's readings we are faced with Jesus saying yet more difficult things. Foremost among these is Jesus' insistence that not everyone who claims to believe in Him will enter the Kingdom. He says that some who strive to enter the narrow gate will not be strong enough to do so. What does He mean? What can He mean? Are we expected to enter into God's Kingdom by our own strength, our own effort? If so, we can't be left with much confidence because we know ourselves. We know our own hearts.

I think our reading from Hebrews provides us with a key to unlock what Jesus is telling us. If we do not "disdain the discipline of the Lord," but see what comes our way in life, the stuff of life, experience, as the means we use to achieve the end of accomplishing what we are (presumably) hoping for, namely everlasting life in the God's Kingdom, then we become strong in the way the Lord indicates, strong enough to enter through the narrow gate. One way of stating this is that we conquer through submission.

When discussing these things I believe it is important to bring up the issue of causality. In the normal ebb and flow of life, God is not the immediate cause of what happens to us. In other words, when bad things happen it is not God testing us, or chastising us for some wrong we've done. Seeing things that way, at least to my mind, is the hallmark of an immature faith and can easily lead the person who holds such a view to take a superstitious approach in her/his relationship with God, constantly trying to appease God, who loves you more than you can imagine, which love is made manifest in the sacrifice of His only begotten Son, whose sacrifice appeased whatever wrath we had coming our way (see John 3:16-18 and Romans 5:1-8).

I think a more accurate way of viewing this is to understand that the all-powerful God of the universe, while not actively causing bad things to happen to us, certainly allows such things to happen. Yes, God could intervene and stop anything, to change the course of any and all events in the world. I believe sometimes, according to His will and purpose (I avoided the word "pleasure" on purpose because in this context it makes God sound arbitrary), He does. I believe in miracles because I've witnessed a few things that I believe were miracles.

I like that the sacred author of the Letter to the Hebrews makes the analogy between God and a human father. I would be a terrible father if, especially as my children grew older, I constantly intervened to shield them from the consequences of their actions, or even from those things in life that happen to them unexpectedly and not as a consequence of a decision they made. But I would also be a bad father if I abandoned them completely in such circumstances. Hence, our trials, our struggles, our failures, our disappointments are opportunities, not only for us to see clearly our great need, but to acknowledge our need and to experience for ourselves how near the Lord is to us, how compassionate He is, how He meets our need. Let's not forget that, at root, the word "compassion" means to suffer with another.

In our Gospel reading from several weeks back, teaching about our need to be persistent in prayer, Jesus said, "If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?" (Luke 11:13). Let's not forget, the Holy Spirit is the mode of Jesus' resurrection presence in us and among us. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the way the Lord is present to us now.

It's Sunday, let's eat the bread for our journey, keeping in mind that the word "companion" is derived from a the compound Latin word com + panis= "with bread." So, the source of our companionship is our partaking the Eucharist together.

Friday, August 23, 2013

"There's a city in my mind"

Our traditio for this Friday is Jars of Clay covering the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere":

And it's very far away/But it's growing day by day

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Memorial of Saint Bernard, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

Today the Church celebrates the liturgical memorial of the great Doctor of the Church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The abbot Bernard was the first Cistercian to be canonized. Being just about finished with Franz Posset's book about Bernard's influence on Martin Luther, the Church's observance of St. Bernard's memorial this year means quite a lot to me. He was born in 1090 and died in 1153 and raised to the altar in 1174, a little over 20 years after his death, by Pope Alexander III.

Bernard lived most of his life in the twelfth century. Because it is easy in the internet age to find biographical information on St. Bernard, I will just note that what Martin Luther admired about him was his non-scholastic theology, which was rooted in biblical exposition. Most of all Luther admired Bernard unabashed preaching that salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Almost four hundred years before Luther's heyday, the so-called Mellifluous (i.e., "Honey-tongued) Doctor was preaching and teaching a form of sola gratia/sola fidei.

The question arises that if we are saved by grace alone through faith alone and if faith, along with hope and love, being a theological virtue, is a free gift that God bestows on whomever He chooses, then what part, if any, do we play? The first thing to note about this, which distinguished Catholics and probably most Lutherans from Calvinists, is that God does not force His grace on anyone. While it is important not to reduce faith to mere belief, the free decision to believe, to initially respond to God's grace is certainly the beginning of faith. St. Paul's conversion, as recorded in Acts 9, gives us good insight into how faith is a response to God's initiative, which we call grace.

Christ embracing St. Bernard, by Francisco Ribalta

After seeing the flash of a bright light, which caused him to fall on the ground, and hearing the voice of Jesus asking Saul why he was persecuting Him by persecuting His Body, the Church, the Risen Lord immediately tells Saul, "Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do" (Acts 9:6). As Saul and those who accompanied him understood it, "the city" is Damascus, where he was headed to continue his zealous persecution of Jewish Christians. We learn that those who were traveling with Saul heard the voice, but did not see anyone. Heeding the voice, they took Saul "by the hand" and "brought him to Damascus" (Acts 9:7-8). What we take away from this is that Saul, as well as those with him, heard the voice of the Lord and obeyed. Were they not all, including Saul, free to return to Jerusalem? I think this is a great beginning to understanding faith as our response to God's initiative towards us, even though we are forced to acknowledge that God, in His wisdom, most often uses subtler means.

What is saved, according to St. Bernard, is free choice: "Take away free choice and there is nothing to be saved. Take away grace and there is no means of saving.... God is the author of salvation, the free choice is merely capable of receiving it: None but God can give it, nothing but free choice receive it" (Liber de gratia et libero arbitrio "Book of grace and free will"). St. Bernard continued, "For to consent is to be saved. Where you have consent, there also is the will. But where the will is, there is freedom. And this is what I understand by the term 'free choice.'"

While there is certainly more to unpack here, especially within the context of Bernard's own theology, I find this convergence promising, a fertile field for the cultivation of Christian unity.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jesus came to liberate you: faith and works revisited

Our second reading for this Sunday is taken from the Letter to the Hebrews. As in the Pauline corpus, the sacred author of this letter also goes to great pains to convince his readers(/hearers) that they are saved by Christ, not by our adherence to the law, that is, not on the basis of our own merits. As we read today-
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1-2)
St. Bernard of Clairvaux

This is something that easy for us, as Catholics, to forget, or, worse yet, never to know, which is a recipe for a lifetime of shame, guilt, and doubt.

Even today my insistence on this strikes many as "not quite right." One wrinkle, which I have noted before in broaching this issue, is that we do not believe that faith can be reduced to mere belief, to subjective assent, but that faith that is truly faith does not require, but elicits from the one who has it, which is a gift from God, good works. So, what we do matters, but why we do what we do matters just as much. Among the many reading endeavors I am engaged in right now, along with reading Balthasar, Wright, and a work of the late historian Dale Morgan, is finishing up Fran Posset's book on Martin Luther's indebtedness to that great monastic (read pre-Scholastic) expositor of Sacred Scripture, that Doctor of the Church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux: Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Of the three great solas of the Reformation (i.e., sola fidei, sola gratia, sola scriptura), the only one I definitively repudiate is sola scriptura. Why? Because, oddly, it is the only one that is not scriptural in the least. It's like the Vienna Circle of logical positivists who insisted on what they called the principle of verification. The principle of verification requires that in order for something to count as knowledge it must be empirically verifiable. Wittgenstein quickly dispatched this nonsense by pointing out that the principle of verification itself is not, even in theory, empirically verifiable.

It is not enough to point out that nowhere is it written in Scripture that Scripture is the sole rule of faith. It is necessary to note that it "is the church of the living God" that is established as "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). In 2 Peter, basing his argument on his experience of witnessing Jesus' Transfiguration firsthand, the sacred author asserts that the witnesses "possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God" (1:19-21).

This is not to dismiss Scripture lightly. Far from it! Scripture is the written repository of God's revelation to man. Everything must not only cohere with Sacred Scripture, but be, even if implicitly, taught in Scripture. Hence, Scripture is normative for doctrine and life. As we read in Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, "Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit" (par. 9).

Martin Luther

St. Bernard taught sola fidei some 400 years before Martin Luther. As Posset does a good of demonstrating, it is to Bernard that Luther owes this insight, a debt that Luther himself was not shy about admitting. In his 22nd sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard preached, "He came down to you in your prison, not to torture you but to liberate you from the power of darkness... [ellipsis in original] By the 'righteousness that comes of faith' (Rom 9:30), he looses the bonds of sin, justifying sinners by his free gift (cf. Rom 3:24)... Therefore the man who through sorrow for sin hungers and thirsts for justice, let him trust in the One who changes the sinner into a just man, and judged righteous in terms of faith alone, he will have peace with God (Rom 5:1)... Who would presume that his wisdom, or righteousness or holiness suffices for his salvation?." Referring to Simon the Pharisee, in whose house Jesus had His feet washed with the tears and dried by the hair of a prostitute, St. Bernard says that "He did not realize that righteousness or holiness is a gift of God, not the fruit of man's effort..."

In his first sermon on the Annunciation, as Posset relates it, in addition to clarifying "the central importance of God's mercy and his non-imputation of sins," the Mellifluous Doctor re-emphasized "the significance of good works," teaching that "with regard to good works, it is absolutely certain that no one can perform them of himself." In his 51st sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard preached that "there is neither fruit without flower nor good work without faith."

Understandably the response to such a bold assertion is incredulity. But I ask you to consider two things: Something that Pope Francis said in the homily that created a stir about everyone being redeemed: "We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace." I also ask you consider something Katherine Hepburn said in an interview that was published in the October 1991 edition of Ladies Home Journal: "I'm an atheist, and that's it. I believe there's nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for each other," which evinces a kind of faith, perhaps more than Ms. Hepburn realized, and certainly grasps the imperative of walking the path of peace.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Is who you are made by what or by who?

As The Who memorably asked, "Who are you? Who? Who? Who? Who? I really want to know." Given that the times in which we lived are frequently described by means of the contradiction "post-modern," it is little wonder that so many people are left wondering who they are. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that we are told and even encouraged to invent and then continually re-invent ourselves, to try on identities like we try on shoes to see which one(s) fit and how they look on us. In my view, at the root of such a view of ourselves and the constantly re-shaped world we inhabit is self-deception. The main problem lies in too many people seeking to make themselves someone who is a walk-on character in the story of their lives, a person who is discontinuous with who they have always been, which, let's face it, restricts our possibilities to a certain degree. This often has the effect of making a person's life a work of fiction and usually not a very good, or compelling work of fiction.

An example of what I am trying to explain, despite the peculiarities of the story (every story has its unique features, which is what makes it this story and not another), is ABC News editor Don Ennis, who had a sex change to become a woman before deciding to "return" to being a man. I guess being a news(wo)man with amnesia, who believes (s/)he is living fourteen years in the past, which seems impossible on first glance, is the best proof of Qoheleth's milennia-old observation- "Nothing is new under the sun!"

I find it interesting and highly significant that one of the first and still very influential purveyors of this view, who said, "In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," perhaps the inventor of self-reinvention, Andy Warhol, seemed to know who he was and never really drifted from being the son of Slovakian immigrants from Pittsburgh with a creative flair. Many are still surprised to learn that Warhol attended Mass almost daily at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in New York City, though it does not appear he was a communicant. According to the remembrance of the parish priest, Warhol sat or knelt towards the back of the Church, keeping a low profile. Warhol stated his reason for so doing was that, as an Eastern Catholic attending a Roman Rite liturgy, he didn't want to been crossing himself right-to-left in the Eastern Christian manner... but I digress.

I believe this whole phenomena of self-invention and re-invention is an attempt to reduce, or over-simplify one's self, to reduce what is irreducible. As human beings we are complex creatures. Very soon after I first posted this, my dear friend Fred, who is always more insightful than I am, quipped- "the quickest way to becoming annoying is by fixating on one's self-concept, e.g. identity politics including the hideous phenomenon of Catholic identity." It would be easy to cite many passages of Scripture to support this, especially from the Psalms, like this from Psalm 8:

When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars that you set in place—
What is man that you are mindful of him,
and a son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god,
crowned him with glory and honor.

Sexuality is perhaps the most pervasive of post-modern pseudo-identities. By using "pseudo" I do not mean to suggest that our sexuality is not a constituent part of our human personalities and identity, it certainly is, but it alone does not constitute, or, as many would have it, dictate, who we are in toto. What and who we desire sexually does not tell another person everything about us they need to know. Our sexual desires and proclivities are not even the most interesting thing about us, let alone what completely defines us.

I ran across something just this morning by Brendan O'Neill, who is an atheist himself, written a few days ago for The Telegraph, about how atheism has become one of these invented identities: "How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet." By posting this I am not blind to the fact that Christians are often very annoying and, at times, quite smug. In fact, also this week, I heard and then read about the arrest and subsequent acquittal of two pastors in California who were reading the Bible out loud to people who were lined up outside the California DMV office in Hemet, California. As a U.S. citizen, I readily concede that this seems to be well within their constitutional right speak freely. However, as a Christian, I find such ham-fisted approaches to sharing my faith (I refuse to call it evangelism) probably more frustrating and annoying than most non-Christians, many of whom are probably all too happy to have a certain stereotype and caricature confirmed.

What struck me in O'Neill's piece was his diagnosis of what has "gone wrong with atheism." I think he is quite right to assert up-front that atheism itself is not the problem, correctly noting that when you cut-to-the-chase atheism is simply "non-belief," it is "a lack of something." What turns simple non-belief into what he describes as "today's monumentally annoying atheism... is the transformation of this nothing into an identity, into the basis of one’s outlook on life." Those he describes as "today’s campaigning atheists" seek to make their "lack of belief in God... the be-all and end-all of their personality." As he notes, while it is possible, it doesn't make much sense to base one's view of the world, of life, of one's self on a negative. He contrasts the so-called "new" atheists with the atheism of non-believers of previous generations, whom, he insists, viewed their lack of belief in God "as a pretty minor part of their personality, or at most as the starting point of their broader identity as socialists or humanists or whatever..." Now, whether this is a wholly accurate assertion of past atheism I do not possess enough expertise to tell, but he contrasts this with "today’s ostentatiously Godless folk constantly declare 'I am an atheist!' as if that tells you everything you need to know about a person, when it doesn’t."

The inverse does not hold true, however. Being Christian is the basis of my identity. It is constitutes who I am. Based on Jesus' exchange with Nicodemus in the third chapter of St. John's Gospel, Christians believe that in baptism a person is re-born as a child of God. As Archbishop Migliore once said in a homily I heard him preach in Jersey City, "You're not really born until you are baptized." Being God's daughter or son is an identity and ought to shape how we live, which is according to the very challenging teachings of Jesus. This is something positive, not negative; not a lack, but a life-giving abundance for anyone who cares to heed the Lord's invitation- "Come, and you will see" (John 1:39).

It's quite unintentionally been a week focused on metaphysical questions here at Καθολικός διάκονος. There is no topic that is of more interest in this field than that of personal identity.

"Where's your guts and will to survive"

For some reason I awoke wanting to listen to The Ramones. Hence, their song (not one of their huge hits) "We Want the Airwaves" is our Friday traditio because a paean to rock n' roll seems fitting to me at the end of summer even at this point in my life. The other song I considered was "I Don't Want to Grow Up."

Not too much else to write about this, except that it is pretty normal for me to want to bring it down a notch after participating in and serving at the altar during a magnificent liturgy, such as the amazing 6:00 PM Mass for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary we celebrated last evening in The Cathedral of the Madeleine.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by Mateo Cerezo

By ancient and venerable tradition Christians both East and West today observe the great solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.I could not consider myself a respectable Catholic blogger if I let this day, which I spent with my family swimming and then at the Utah Olympic Park, slip by without posting something. Additionally, it would be a personal expression of ingratitude to my Mother, who has been so good to me. I already feel bad enough not posting anything yesterday on St. Maximilian Kolbe's memorial.

For us Roman Catholics, it is fitting to remember that on 1 November 1950, Bl. Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Blessed Virgin's bodily assumption into heaven as a dogma of the faith. His proclamation was the first and, to date, only infallible dogmatic proclamation made by a Supreme Pontiff since the formal definition of papal infallibility was made during the First Vatican Council in 1870.

The proclamation was made via the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissmus Deus.
And so we may hope that those who meditate upon the glorious example Mary offers us may be more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father's will and to bringing good to others. Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective (par. 42)
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Clearly this is no ordinary question"

Despite my meager results, blogging is difficult work for me, a work of fusion, synthesis, and hopefully, at least from time-to-time, some value-added insight by this intensely curious, but not very bright deacon. In looking again the section from Von Balthasar's Seeing the Form on "The Spirit and the Senses," there is a bit from the tail end of his excursion into Romano Guardini's 1950 book, The Senses and Religious Knowledge, in which Balthasar pulls in the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth, citing his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, to support his positing of a great reversal that occurred in Western civilization, while not attempting, at least not here, to describe how it came about.

I believe it is necessary to understand this reversal so that we can open the door to some possibility of recovery which, it must be noted, can only come through what has transpired and not in spite of it, let alone ignoring that it ever happened. In short, while a recovery, it cannot mean going back.

While it would be too much to lay the entire burden on the shoulders of Descartes, his cogitio certainly marked the moment when this reversal reached its peak, thus propelling Western culture and thought downhill ever since; reducing being human to a being who thinks. With the so-called Cartesian revolution, the clarion call of which is cogito ergo sum (i.e., "I think, therefore I am"), human consciousness was set on its head by locating all cognition in our heads. One attempt at a philosophical recovery was made by Wittgenstein, who was convinced it was a mistake to locate everything in our heads and who, in his Philosophical Investigations (693), insisted that "nothing is more wrong-headed than calling meaning a mental activity!"

Von Balthasar observed-
Karl Barth had expressly pointed to the primitives' image of the world, in which 'nothing is represented as totally material and nothing as purely spiritual' and which 'maintains or anticipates the vision' which 'was unfortunately lost by the so-called "higher" religious world-views with their various abstractions'. Guardini repeats this allusion to 'primitive peoples, for whom all empirical affirmations are integrated with religious affirmations... [ellipsis in original] Only later is the ominous reversal achieved whereby cultural acts such as knowing, acting, and creating detach themselves from this context and the religious act becomes an act in itself... [ellipsis in original] What formerly had been the first datum now becomes a conclusion (Seeing the Form 390)
I think citing this concludes a coherent thought about humans as spiritual beings, which implies we are religious beings. It is because you are a human being that you cannot be spiritual and non-religious. Any genuine human spirituality needs to be enacted, embodied, which is precisely what religion is. Being spiritual is not, as we now popularly suppose, the opposite, the antithesis of being embodied, that is, material. Such a thought is yet another result of the dramatic reversal not described, but invoked and alluded to by Balthasar here. I am tempted to label this popular bifurcation "Platonic," but it really amounts to rank dualism of the crudest sort.

Since I invoked Heidegger, who, along with Edith Stein, studied under Edmund Husserl, in my last post it seems fitting here to bring up his famous lectures on metaphysics, delivered at the University of Freiburg in the summer of 1935, which began with the question of being, the question Heidegger sought to pull back into the center of the philosophical inquiry (something he believed he had to destroy all metaphysics since the pre-Socratics to achieve, but I digress). In Ralph Manheim's translation, the first lecture begins- "Why are there essents [i.e., existents, things, etc.] rather than nothing? Clearly this is no ordinary question." Somehow I think a term paper that answered this question by concluding, "Just 'cuz," would not have passed muster.

Who will liberate me from myself?

Yesterday in recommending N.T. Wright's book Simply Jesus, I mentioned that Wright was correct to point out that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for most people living in technologically advanced Western societies today "to imagine what it's like to live within a long story" in the way the Jews of Jesus' day did. Wright also noted that perhaps the only thing analogous in our day is the widespread and dubious belief in "progress." Artur, writing on Cosmos the in Lost over the weekend, in his response to Rachel Held Evans' piece "Why millennials are leaving the church," noted another factor, which is really just an effect of the cause, namely that "recent studies suggest millennials remember much less than senior citizens."

As I make very slow progress re-reading the first volume of Von Balthasar's theological aesthetics (a mix between savoring and being plain lazy), in a section on "The Spirit and the Senses," which comprises part of the larger section on the subjective experience of faith, he draws attention to Romano's Guardini's The Senses and Religious Knowledge, published in 1950. The point of Guardini's that Balthasar seeks to get across is the former's insistence "that the capacity of spiritual knowledge has 'largely been lost' to man in the course of cultural history." This has happened, according Balthasar's reading of Guardini, because we no longer truly see. He offers as evidence for this the poetry of Rilke, described by Guardini as an "activity without image."

Guardini's point, at least as grasped by Balthasar, is that human life is no longer shaped "in accordance with nature's great images" which are rendered "alien and insubstantial" to us "because of technology." Quoting Guardini, Balthasar notes- "We no longer exist in images. Concepts have taken the place of images that can be contemplated." Lest someone is tempted to argue that the "virtual world," which happens in "cyber space," is image-driven, consider this, which is also part of Guardini's more than sixty year-old insight: "Machines have taken the place of embodied images, and segments of time the place of living rhythms" (Seeing the Form 389-390), which does more than an adequate job of explaining the displacement of the natural world from the center of human consciousness aided and abetted by virtual reality.

As for progress, Von Balthasar observes, "There is talk of progress" and, turning again to Guardini, notes, "but whoever looks beneath the surface knows what nonsense that is. Truly, if he follows this road man can only become sick because his interior being can...[ellipsis in original] live only on images," real images of what is substantial, what exists in the actual world, what is created by God. Guardini also noted, "This dislocation into abstract conceptuality and sensualistic corporeality must be overcome so that the living human reality can again emerge" (390). Here, I believe, Guardini is pointing us to our need to recover the analogia entis (i.e., "the analogy of being"), which constitutes the heart of traditional Catholic epistemology, arising as it does from our worship, which itself has been grossly denuded, thus contributing to our spiritual stupidity (the good news about stupidity, as one of my better professors once informed a class of his I was in, is that it is remediable) and blindness.

Anna Karina as Marianne in Godard's Pierrot le fou

Thirty-three years after the publication of The Senses and Religious Knowledge, Walker Percy's book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book was published. It can accurately be noted that Percy re-verified Guardini's insight. Writing about that strange modern discovery: the atomic "self," specifically about its tendency to become bored (a concept on which Heidegger notably expounded), Percy, commenting on his observation as to "Why the Self is the only Object in the Cosmos which Gets Bored," asks,
Is it because there is a special sense in which for the past two or three hundred years the self has perceived itself as a leftover which cannot be accounted for by its own objective view of the world and that in spite of an ever heightened self-consciousness, increased leisure, ever more access to cultural and recreational facilities, ever more instruction on self-help, self-growth, self-enrichment, the self feels ever more imprisoned in itself - no, worse than imprisoned because a prisoner at least knows he is imprisoned and sets store by the freedom awaiting him and the world to be open, when in fact the self is not and it is not - a state of affairs which has to be called something besides imprisonment - e.g., boredom. Boredom is the self being stuffed with itself
I read Percy's chapter on boredom Sunday night and this morning read this passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah in Wright's book, which, in turn, takes it from the fourth chapter of St. Luke's Gospel, which is Jesus revealing His Messiahship:

"The spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has appointed me
To tell the poor the good news
He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners
And sight to the blind
To set the wounded victims free
To announce the year of God's special favor... Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your own hearing."

In pointing you to what you can read about Jesus that is useful because it is credible, I would be remiss if I didn't also recommend Benedict XVI's Jesus trilogy, to which Wright's book can serve as prolegomena: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives; Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration; Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection. Since we are in Year C of the three-year Sunday lectionary cycle, which focuses on the Gospel According to St. Luke, I also recommend reading this Gospel. If you're looking for a good companion volume to St. Luke's Gospel, I recommend the late Fr. Gene LaVerdiere's Dining in the Kingdom of God: The Origins of Eucharist according to Luke.

Read Walker Percy, whose work, apart from The Moviegoer, which I read years ago, I have only discovered this year, at any time. He is good for what ails the so-called post-modern, that is, the bored, alienated, spiritually stupid self. Our point of reflection is, How much does being spiritually stupid contribute to boredom and alienation?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Want to read about Jesus? Read 'Simply Jesus'

In his book Simply Jesus (written as a follow-up to his magnificent Simply Christian- a book I highly recommend giving to young people, being something of a twenty-first century Mere Christianity), N.T. Wright, in one chapter, refutes Reza Aslan's thesis about Jesus being a Zealot, a member of "the Jewish nationalist revolutionary party," dedicated to armed revolt against the Romans and the re-establishment of the united Davidic kingdom.

In the first part of the book, Wright uses the metaphor of a "perfect storm" to frame Jesus' time: the western gale being the imperial power of Rome, the high pressure system being the Judaism of the time with its national aspirations, and finally the hurricane, perhaps reduced to the power of a tropical storm, of the coming of God's rule in and through Jesus of Nazareth, who defied all expectations.

The chapter of Simply Jesus in which Wright, a renowned Bible and Early Church scholar, refutes Aslan, the religious sociologist and creative writing professor, even before the latter put fingers to keyboard, is the fourth chapter, entitled "The Making of a First-Century Storm."

After briefly describing the history of imperial Rome, which began with Julius Caesar famously crossing the Rubicon river in BC 49 with his army from Gaul, he composed a section he called "The Jewish Storm." In this section Wright chronicles the history of Israel, seeking to show how this history, especially the perception among Jesus' fellow Jews that they were playing a part in God's plan, shaped and formed Jesus' time. I think Wright is correct to assert that it is very difficult for us today "to imagine what it's like to live within a long story" in the way the Jews of Jesus' day did. I find him to be very insightful when he writes that perhaps the closest we can come "is the widespread assumption that ever since the rise of the modern Western world we are acting out a story of 'progress.'" He also proceeds with a fairly good explanation about how this is really a fictitious narrative, one refuted by actual events.

Especially in light of what he wrote in Simply Christian, I was surprised that Wright does not even mention that Christians are supposed to live this same story, the thread of which we seem to be in danger of losing. The result of this increasing loss is making Christianity yet another ahistorical religion, which opens the way for such schlock as making Christianity the way to "live your best life now" and other perversions, like the increasingly not-so-implicit universalism, according to which nothing has significance because, in the end, everyone goes to heaven, which belief the Church, even now, assiduously maintains is a heresy. If, as Flannery O'Connor noted, nothing matters, then we are deprived of our humanity. Working on such a faulty assumption leads to very slipshod pastoral care because one deliberately chooses to ignore the most pressing matter in each person's life- the deep desire to be happy, to be content, to be completely satisfied.

Although he passes over it quickly, Wright notes that the story in which the Jews of Jesus' time perceived themselves to be playing their part had been on-going for more than a thousand years. The story of Israel, Wright observes, as "far as we know," is "unique in the ancient world." The cornerstone of the uniqueness of the Jewish story was that the God of Israel "was the one true God of all the world. He wasn't simply one god among many. It was therefore impossible that his will for the world would be ultimately thwarted." So, their state-of-affairs (i.e., being conquered by and subject to the Romans), like the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, seemed to be an impediment to the accomplishment of God's purpose for Israel, something that had to be overcome. Of course, the Roman conquest would ultimately lead to the third Jewish exile, the dispersion, which was the result of the failed Bar Kokhba (a would-be Messiah) revolt of AD 132-136, which followed the earlier revolt that resulted in the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. It was at the conclusion of the Bar Kokhba revolt that the Romans decreed no Jew was allowed to live in the Roman province of Palestine.

Wright then reminisces about time he spent in Jerusalem in 1989, especially about his walks through the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim section of the ancient city. He notes that many of those who originally settled in Mea Shearim came from Eastern Europe to flee the Nazi slaughter. He recalls seeing a lot of posters that basically said it was important to now observe the Law because of Hitler and that "because of what Hitler did that God would now do a new thing," presumably send the Messiah. The point of this recollection is to note how the Messanic expectation among the Jews of Jesus' time was ramped up because of Caesar. Among both groups there is/was the expectation that God would have to send a deliverer in order to accomplish His purpose. This is one of many reasons why so many Jews today, just as in His own time, reject even the possibility of Jesus of Nazareth being the Messiah: He was not a zealot committed to waging war on the Romans!

Jesus, who, in Wright's metaphor of the perfect storm, represents the hurricane of God, defies all Jewish messianic expectations. This is shown time and again in the Gospels, especially His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19), which Christians commemorate on Palm Sunday. There is also the dialogue in John 18:33-38, in which Jesus tells the beleaguered Roman procurator, "My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here." It is also shown in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, when, just prior to His ascension, the Twelve ask Jesus if "now" He is going to restore Israel (Acts 1:6-8). Jesus makes it clear in each of these and a few other instances that He is not the Messiah of contemporary expectation. To reduce Jesus to a Zealot really makes no sense of the historical data.

Here is another rub that defeats Aslan's thesis, even more thoroughly than the theses of other "historical" Jesus fiction writers (i.e., Crossan, Borg, Pagels et al): apart from the canonical Gospels, which were written closer to the time of Jesus' earthly life than virtually any other chronicles from the ancient world telling of other historic persons and apart from the establishment and continuation of the Church, whose existence is well-chronicled from ancient times to now, there are really only two extra-biblical sources that pertain directly to Jesus' life- those by Tactitus and Suetonious. It refutes him because it poses the question, From what reliable historical sources does he draw his conclusion that Jesus was simply a Zealot? Beyond this, was it not St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome sometime between AD 55-58, who asserted the need for Christians to be subject to governmental authority (Rom. 13:1-7)? St. Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, written about a hundred years later and addressed to the Roman emperor, insisted that Christians are the best citizens.

In Book 15, Chapter 44 of his Annals, the Roman senator and historian Tacitus wrote:
Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
Below is Suetonius, in his The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, writing about the reign of Claudius:
He forbade men of foreign birth to use the Roman names so far as those of the clans were concerned. Those who usurped the privileges of Roman citizenship he executed in the Esquiline field. He restored to the senate the provinces of Achaia and Macedonia, which Tiberius had taken into his own charge. He deprived the Lycians of their independence because of deadly intestine feuds, and restored theirs to the Rhodians, since they had given up their former faults. He allowed the people of Ilium perpetual exemption from tribute, on the ground that they were the founders of the Roman race, reading an ancient letter of the senate and people of Rome written in Greek to king Seleucus, in which they promised him their friendship and alliance only on condition that he should keep their kinsfolk of Ilium free from every burden. Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome
If you want to read a well-written, well-researched, popular and accessible book on Jesus by a reputable scholar, it would be difficult to do better than reading N.T. Wright's Simply Jesus, which was published in 2011. This book does not merely succeed at being critical, but faithful, it is faithful because it is critical, respecting the fact set forth by St. Paul: "nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, 'Jesus be accursed.' And no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3).

No matter where one stands in reference to Jesus, it's time to overcome the relentless, and relentlessly ahistorical, reduction of Jesus of Nazareth. Simply dealing with Jesus, as Wright notes at the beginning of his book, requires a certain amount of complexity precisely because Jesus is real and not some two-dimensional figure from a bad historical novel.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

That's what faith must be

What is faith? This is the question our readings today seek to bring to the forefront of our minds.

Our readings, especially from The Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel, also demonstrate the inextricable way faith and hope are bound together. I'd even go so far as to assert that faith entails hope. Hope, it is often noted, is the flower of faith. In any case, faith and hope are both theological virtues. Among other things, this means that they can only be initially acquired as gifts from God. However, like the natural virtues, once received, these gifts need to be nurtured. It seems to me that we nurture the supernatural gifts of faith and hope through loving, self-sacrificing, service to others. This virtue, love, agapé, caritas is also one, like faith, and hope, that is supernaturally bestowed.

I have long been a proponent of what I can only describe as the three fundamental spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving (the last of these can also be called selfless service). There is no authentic Christian spirituality that does not incorporate all three. I don't believe it is too much of a stretch to see a correspondence between the so-called theological virtues (i.e., faith, hope, and love) and these disciplines, which are taught to us by our Lord Himself: prayer/faith; hope/fasting; love/alms-giving (selfless service to those in need). Another connection I have made is that prayer, at least personal prayer, is very inwardly oriented (rightly so), one could even say subjective, and giving alms, serving those in need, is outwardly directed. Hence, I believe fasting serves an integrating function between the inward and the outward, a way of expressing hope, bringing to the level of my awareness my hunger for what is ultimate, my hunger for God, for that Bread of Life I posted about on Friday. It is also what makes my alms-giving/service truly Christian service.

In his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict wrote about just this phenomenon:
Love of neighbor is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave (par. 18)

Since I am currently leading a parish Bible study on the Letter to the Hebrews, I am most interested in a reading from this book of Scripture appearing in the lectionary for today.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God. By faith he received power to generate, even though he was past the normal age—and Sarah herself was sterile—for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy (11:8-11)
So, we see that Abraham responded in faith to God's call out of hope, trusting that God was leading him to the heavenly city, or, more existentially, to where he wanted to be, the place of his deepest longing, which was not the land we call "Holy."

In our Gospel today, Jesus, as was His wont, gives us a very concrete example of the relationship between faith and hope. It easy to miss what He says that is startling. It certainly would have startled His ancient listeners: "Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them" (Luke 12:37). Along these same lines, the institution of the Eucharist in St. John's Gospel is Jesus washing the feet of His disciples.

As this pertains to you today, dear reader, in each and every Mass Jesus deigns to come down and not just wait on us, but becomes our feast. Our participation is an act of hope because it is an act of faith, trusting that Christ the Lord will bring to fulfillment to what we now only glimpse in passing, pressing ahead, like Abraham, our father in faith, towards the city "whose architect and maker is God," where, as we read from St. Paul last Sunday, "Christ is all in all." Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are how we "walk" make-our-way to, make present right now, the city of God.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Remembering the Venerable Pope Paul VI

At least for me blogging has many dimensions. I am very serious about what appears in my header, which states that Καθολικός διάκονος "is a public cyberspace in which I seek to foster Christian discipleship in the late modern milieu in the diakonia of koinonia and in the recognition that 'the Eucharist is the only place of resistance to annihilation of the human subject.'" Over the years I have tried to increasingly conform what appears here to that lofty aspiration. In other words, I view blogging as part of my diaconal ministry (when viewed literally, "diaconal ministry" is redundant). So, in addition to offering original and, what I hope are, useful posts on various subjects that pertain to our faith in Christ, especially that foster living out our faith, I also take great joy in passing along things that might otherwise be overlooked.

This last Tuesday, 6 August, we observed the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. In his most recent column for Il Sussidiario, "Paul VI/Albacete: His death on the day of the Transfiguration of Christ," Msgr Lorenzo Albacete (a fitting day to post something by a priest named "Lawrence" n'est ce pas?) also recalls that it was thirty-five years ago, on 6 August 1978, that Pope Paul VI died at Castel Gandolfo, thus inaugurating "the year of three popes." He also brings to mind that it was on 6 August 1945 that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. As a self-indulgent side-note, I also appreciate that Msgr. Albacete shares my view that CELAM's 2007 "Aparecida document" is the blueprint for Pope Francis' pastoral program.

I will let you read his article for yourself (it is very short), but especially in light of the fact we recently observed Natural Family Planning Awareness Week, I feel it is important not only to remember, but to celebrate, the faithful prophetic and even heroic witness given by Pope Paul VI, who is certainly the most reviled pope for Christ's sake in recent memory. Albacete does this wonderfully in his piece. Writing about Pope Paul and the other of St. Peter's successors, he points out that for the past 2000 they have "been forced to remind us that nature is good, that the human body is beautiful, that, totally against what it says in the cover article of Time Magazine this week, children are a grace, not a curse, all of this was taught in Humanae Vitae; one month before Paul VI came to Colombia where he was hailed as the author of the document that defended the poor from the pharmaceutical empire and the power of the rich nations whose citizens demand to be 'happy.'"

Along these lines, I came across something that is meaningful to me because it puts a lot of my own difficult-to-untangle experience as the father of six children into words, much better words than I could choose. It is something by comedian Jim Gaffigan, who is Catholic (he is not "a Catholic comedian," but a damn funny comedian who is also Catholic- an important distinction):
I watch the faces of single people in their twenties after I bring up that I ‘have children.’ I imagine them taking a small step backward as if to avoid contagion, with a look of ‘Sorry to hear that’ on their face. Like I naively volunteered to contract leprosy, forever quarantining myself from the world of having fun by having children. Well, why not? I guess the reasons against having more children always seem uninspiring and superficial. What exactly am I missing out on? Money? A few more hours of sleep? A more peaceful meal? More hair? These are nothing compared to what I get from these five monsters who rule my life. I believe each of my five children has made me a better man. So I figure I only need another thirty-four kids to be a pretty decent guy. Each one of them has been a pump of light into my shriveled black heart. I would trade money, sleep, or hair for a smile from one of my children in a heartbeat. Well, it depends on how much hair
In their On Faith section, the WaPo did a piece on Gaffigan not long ago: "Is comic Jim Gaffigan the Catholic Church's newest evangelizer?" My answer to this question is, "I hope so!".

The Venerable Pope Paul VI, stalwart pastor, gentle Vicar of Christ

Today the pope travelling is no big deal, but this era of popes visiting all over the world was initiated by Paul VI. Papa Montini took the papal name Paul in order to emphasize and renew the Church's mission, given to her by the Lord Himself, to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, thus bringing the Pauline dimension of the papacy into more observable relief.

As Msgr. Albacete indicates, Pope Paul was very much a friend of the poor. If you think some the things Pope Francis has said to date about caring for the poor are edgy, I challenge you to read Pope Paul VI's encyclical . Populorum progesso. As you do so, do not lose sight of the fact to which Albacete alludes, namely that Humanae vitae, too, was written to defend the poor from the rich, the weak from the powerful, the women of Africa, the sub-continent of India, Latin America, and elsewhere from the likes of people such as Melinda Gates with her well-funded and politically well-supported effort to put all the women of the developing world on chemical contraceptives.

It was also Paul VI who not only re-initiated the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council after being selected as pope, due to the fact that the Council was ended upon the death of his predecessor, Pope St. John XXIII. To Pope Paul fell the unenviable task of actually reforming the Church according to the blueprint laid down by the Council, efforts that caused him much personal anguish and likely contributed to the decline of his health, which was very noticeable the last few years of his life on earth.

Since I already invoked Gaffigan in my remembrance of Pope Paul VI, in order to give what I am trying to communicate about the importance of Papa Montini some cultural credibility, in order to give it even more, I also draw your attention to a piece written by my friend Artur, who, in addition to being one of the up-and-coming Catholic intellectuals in the U.S., blogs over at Cosmos the in lost- "Confession: How I Lost My Faith After Reading Rachel Held Evans."

Being someone who falls in the seam between the Baby Boom and Gen. X, I am certainly not a Millennial, but Artur's piece serves as an example of what I mean by fostering "Christian discipleship in the late modern milieu in the diakonia of koinonia," especially at a time when it is very apparent that so many are lost in the cosmos. This is currently being exacerbated by too many people, influential Catholic commentators among them, celebrating what they take to be a new era of absolute uncertainty, the ushering in of a relativistic utopia in the Church by Pope Francis (he is not!). Nothing harshed this buzz before more than Paul VI promulgating Humanae Vitae. But one must not be myopic and keep in mind that, along with Populorum progessio and Evangelii nuntiandi, Humanae Vitae forms part of a triptych that constitutes the very heart of Paul VI's papal magisterium.

Here is what I perceive to be the take-a-way from Artur's post: "If church leaders will not provide us with authoritative responses to what’s going on in our deranged and eviscerated public square, with the right (ortho-)spiritual exercises, with the most fruitful paths to follow, with a new Philokalia, or the old one, then it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there..." (cue Bob Dylan).

Papa Montini, pray for us.

Feast of St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr

St. Lawrence, in dalmatic, holding fast to the instrument of his glorification- the grill on which he was roasted

Today is the Feast of the glorious martyr, St Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome, who lived in the third century (ca. 225-258). Lawrence experienced martyrdom, along with his bishop, Pope Sixtus II, in Rome during persecution of the Church in the imperial city under the emperor Valerian. It is believed that Lawrence was born in Spain. He first met Sixtus while he was studying in the Spanish city of Zaragoza, where Sixtus, who was Greek, was one of his teachers. In time, both Sixtus and Lawrence wound up in Rome. When Sixtus became the Bishop of Rome, he ordained Lawrence, who was still very young, a deacon. Further, Sixtus appointed his former student as first among the seven deacons of Rome, making him effectively archdeacon of the city. In this capacity Lawrence was in charge of the Roman Church's treasury, meaning that he also oversaw the distribution of alms to the poor of the city.

In August 258 Valerian decreed that all bishops, priests, and deacons be put to death. Shortly afterwards, Pope Sixtus was captured while celebrating Mass and hastily executed. Upon the death of the Bishop of Rome the demand was made that Lawrence surrender all the Church's treasury to the imperial authorities. According to ancient accounts, the most ancient of which is that of St. Ambrose (ca. 340 – 4 April 397), Lawrence said it would take him three days to gather up the Church's treasury. Over the three days he vigorously set about disbursing all Church assets to the poor. After he finished his work, on day three, accompanied by the poor, the lame, and the blind, Lawrence turned himself in to the city's prefect, who immediately ordered him to turn over the riches. So, he presented the Roman prefect the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering who were with him, saying that these were the Church's true wealth. According to the narrative, this act is what led to his martyrdom.

The head of St. Lawrence in reliquary

Tradition hands on that Lawrence was roasted alive on an iron grill. Each year on his feast, the Holy See exhibits the reliquary containing St. Lawrence's burnt head for veneration by the faithful. While some may find the picture of St. Lawrence's burnt head gruesome, I think, if nothing else, that seeing it helps to keep us from being all sappy and sentimental by reminding us of the reality the Lord calls us to engage with our whole heart, might, mind, and strength, even to the laying down of our lives.

It is also worth noting that Pope Pius IX, having initially been buried in St. Peter's, was moved three and-a-half years after his death and re-interred in the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls. Basilica Papale di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, as it is known in Italian, is the shrine/tomb of St. Lawrence. Being assigned to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, it is one of the five Patriarchal Basilicas, along with St. Peter's, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, and St. Mary Major, as well as one of the seven Pilgrim Churches, which includes the Patriarchal Basilicas plus the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem and the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love.

Along with the great Feast of St. Stephen, which falls on 26 December, the day after the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, today's feast is an important one for deacons. I find it a bit odd that the among the many faculties granted to permanent deacons in the restored and renewed diaconate, such as being ordinary ministers of Baptism and being able to preach, governance and care of the Church's temporal goods is a ministry in which deacons no longer share.

S. Laurentii, ora pro nobis

Friday, August 9, 2013

Edith Stein: casting off the "existential burden"

It is important for me today to acknowledge the liturgical memorial of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her given name was Edith Stein. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was the name she took upon entering religious life as a Carmelite. She belonged to the same religious order as Sts. Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Reading St. Teresa's autobiography, which she read without stopping, staying up all night, seems to have been the immediate cause of Edith Stein's decision to convert. Edith was a Jew, a daughter of Israel, who became Catholic as an adult. Her conversion happened well after she completed her doctorate in Philosophy under the tutelage and, at least the initial, mentorship of Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology. Edith was a brilliant person, an brilliant philosopher who was not able to secure of professorship due to the fact that she was a woman.

For those who may not know, in the late 1930s (she entered religious life in 1933, while in her early 40s) she was moved from her Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany to one in the Netherlands because she was Jewish. She was moved along with her sister, Rosa, who had also converted and become a Carmelite. Nonetheless, due to the defiance of the Dutch bishops after Nazi Germany took over their country, Stein, along with every other Jew they could find, including her sister, was rounded up and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942. This is where she, along with Rosa and many, many of her fellow Jews, children of Israel, was murdered.

Edith Stein

In an a rather uneven essay that is in turn very insightful and, at least in spots, somewhat vindictively shallow and even a bit misleading, at least with regard to Stein being claimed by the Church as expressed by Pope St. John Paul II's raising her to the altar in 1998, "Edith Stein (Poland, 1942)" (from a very good book of essays, edited by Joyce Avrech Berkman, Contemplating Edith Stein), Patricia Hampl nonetheless does a good job of locating Stein in the communio sanctorum alongside Sts. Augustine and Teresa of Avila. Along with these two saints, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross forms what Hampl describes, pointing to the work of one of Stein's German biographers, Waltraud Herbstrith, as "a fascinating linked-chain of conversions, each in turn liberated from what Teresa [of Avila] calls in her autobiography 'the shadow of death,' which had left them utterly worn out with interior struggle." Hampl points to Herbstrith's unpacking of the "shadow" Edith Stein cast off, highlighting how hers was different from the other two saints (and how Augustine's differed from Teresa's), while noting that their "sense of liberation was the same":
for Augustine the snare was unbridled sensuality; for Teresa [of Avila], the surface pleasures of "society" and its tendency to skim over life lightly. For Edith Stein, it was the twentieth-century existential burden: a rationalist, materialist worldview that did not permit the freedom to offer oneself to God. From carnality, to society's distractions, to heady intellectualism: these three figures are cameos of Western civilization's history of spiritual dilemmas
Lest I come across as being too critical of Hampl, who, taking a note from Dorothy Day, the same Day who demurred that she did not want to be made a saint for fear of being dismissed too lightly, she is concerned that the depth of Stein's philosophical work be kept at the forefront and not disappear at the expense of her being hagiographically reduced to a sentimental figure. Insofar as this is Hampl's objective, I am with her, as I am sure was John Paul II, with whom she (Hampl) imagines herself to be at odds over this.

It bears noting that the subject Stein appears to have been most interested in was empathy. The English title of her doctoral dissertation is On the Problem of Empathy. Her philosophy is worthy of being taught alongside that of Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, and other leading phenomenologists.

To give you some idea of her take on empathy, here is something she wrote: "As for what concerns our relations with our fellow men, the anguish in our neighbor's soul must break all precept. All that we do is a means to an end, but love is an end in itself, because God is love."

Another of her significant works is The Science of the Cross. There is no greater act of empathy, nor could there ever be, than our Blessed Lord on the Cross. As the sacred author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who is a Jewish Christian writing to other Jewish Christians, so clearly noted about Jesus: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15). He can sympathize precisely because He can empathize!

Christ's Crucifixion, by Diego Velázquez, 1632

Praying Morning Prayer today (I stuck with Week II of Psalter and used the collect for St. Teresa Benedicta's memorial as the closing prayer), I was struck by something in the Old Testament canticle, which is taken from the third chapter of the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk, in particular verses 17-18: "For though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit appears on the vine, Though the yield of the olive fails and the terraces produce no nourishment, Though the flocks disappear from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, Yet I will rejoice in the LORD and exult in my saving God." I was struck because this seems to me a beautiful way to think about the witness, that is, the martyrdom of Edith Stein, whose unfinished autobiographical account of her up-bringing she entitled Life in a Jewish Family.

Here is today's Collect:

God of our Fathers,
who brought the Martyr Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
to know your crucified Son
and to imitate him even until death,
grant, through her intercession,
that the whole human race may acknowledge Christ as its Savior
and through him come to behold you for eternity.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever. Amen.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us.

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 ...