Friday, May 30, 2014

"Another year and then you'd be happy"

As a very busy Easter season winds down I hope I will have some time to think, reflect, and to post more. I am happy that I've at least remained faithful to the Friday traditio. This week is no different.

Precisely because I haven't been writing very much, I have been trying to offer a little, admittedly elliptical, commentary on, or make some connections between, the chosen traditio piece and what thoughts prompted me to post it. So, this week's Καθολικός διάκονος traditio is Gerry Rafferty's song "Baker Street." I listened to it this afternoon. Released in 1978, I remember driving with my Dad and listening to it. I found it a bit haunting. But it occurred to me today that, like so many contemporary songs, it is about longing for fulfillment, at least for the characters in the song. It seems to me that for the songwriter/narrator, because longing is perceived exclusively as a this-world endeavor, we often long for things that aren't ever going to happen. In other words, the song certainly features notes of despair.

He's got this dream about buying some land
He's gonna give up the booze and the one-night stands
And then he'll settle down
In some quiet little town
And forget about everything

As we approach the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (or maybe it's passed for because you observed it on the correct day), I am always struck by the words of the angels, speaking to the apostles, as they watched in amazement as Jesus ascended before their very eyes: "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven" (Acts 1:11). I have grown perhaps a little too fond of describing this by saying, the angels "leveled the apostles' gaze."

Eternal life, life eternal, the life that never ends... "Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life"- St Paul.

"Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present"- Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Year A Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8:5-8. 14-17; Ps 66:1-7.16.20; 1 Pet 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

Last Sunday, in our first reading from Acts, we heard about the apostles, who, after a period of discernment on their part and that of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem, laid hands on seven men who, ever since, the Church has celebrated as the first deacons. In our first reading today we hear about Philip, one of those men. It seems that Philip, sometime after being set apart, left Jerusalem and set out for the city of Samaria, which was in the province of the same name. Once in Samaria, Philip began to proclaim Christ to the inhabitants. Additionally, he performed healings, both physical and spiritual. Just as on the day of Pentecost, people responded to the Gospel by being baptized. In order that those who came to believe might also be baptized with the Holy Spirit, the apostles Peter and John came from Jerusalem “that they [the new Samaritan believers] might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:15b-17).

Even prior to the arrival of Peter and John, the author of Acts noted, “There was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). Indeed, my brothers and sisters in Christ, the Gospel, the Good News, brings great joy. Being here together on this glorious Sunday of Easter should make us joyful, should cause us to rejoice. Think of the words we sang just a few moments ago:
Let all the earth cry out to God with joy. Let all on earth worship and sing praise to you, sing praise to your name! Come and see the works of God, his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam (Ps 66)
One of the unique features of joy is that it is contagious. Authentic joy cannot be contained. True joy comes from God, through Christ, and is, as St. Paul noted in his Letter to the Galatians, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22). Like Philip the fired up deacon, we are exhorted in our second reading from 1 Peter to “Sanctify Christ as Lord in [our] hearts” (1 Pet 3:15). An entire class, a week-long retreat could be given on what it means for each one of us to “sanctify Christ as Lord in [our] hearts.”

I don’t want to get too academic, but I think it is worth noting that the Greek word translated here as “sanctify” is hagiazo, which, in this context, means to separate from profane things and dedicate to one’s self entirely to Christ, to living His teachings.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential philosophers of the past century, at the beginning of a rather surprising passage on what it means to have faith in Christ’s resurrection, wrote about what it means to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.” He began by citing 1 Corinthians 12:3, where St Paul wrote, “And no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the holy Spirit.” After noting the truthfulness of these words, Wittgenstein went on to say of himself, “I cannot call him Lord… I could call him ‘the paragon,’ ‘God’ even – or rather, I can understand it when he called thus; but I cannot utter the word ‘Lord’ with meaning.” The reason he gave for not being able to utter the word “Lord” in reference to Jesus with meaning was because he did not believe that Jesus, as we recite in the Apostles Creed, is going to return to “judge the living and the dead.” He insisted that particular belief “says nothing to me.” He ended this part of his reflection on a curious, but telling, note: “And it could say something to me, only if I lived completely differently” (Culture and Value, 33e).

Just as Christ “was brought to life in the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18) through what He suffered, by our dying and rising with Him in Baptism and by receiving the fullness of the Spirit in Confirmation, the effect of which, as our reading from Acts today shows, “is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost" (CCC 1302), we too are to live Spirit-filled lives.

In our Gospel for this Sixth Sunday of Easter, which is taken from Jesus’ Last Supper discourse in St. John’s Gospel, after enjoining His disciples to keep His commandments, which can summarized as, love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34-35), He promised not to abandon them, but to send the Holy Spirit. Cutting to the chase, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we have come to know Christ. Knowing Jesus Christ, sanctifying Him as Lord in your heart, is how you know the Spirit is “in” you. Because we have the Holy Spirit we are the ones who make Jesus visible now. Knowing Jesus is Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit is the singular source of our joy because knowing Him is what infuses life with purpose and meaning. At the end of a somewhat similar passage in the very next chapter of St John’s Gospel, after, once again exhorting His disciples to keep His commandments, Jesus said, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).

In his wonderful book The Lion’s World: A Journey Into The Heart of Narnia, Dr. Rowan Williams noted that the purpose of our lives is joy, to be joyful, joy-filled, and not only eventually in the eternal bye-and-bye, but even now amidst life's trials and strains. Writing of this joy, Williams pointed out:
If joy is thought of first as the gratification of the will, we are hardly likely to grasp the idea that it is only 'solid' and 'lasting' (in the words of a familiar hymn) if it is the fruit of participation in what is not the will or ego - if it is what comes from the contact with something radically other, whether finite or infinite in its otherness. Lewis wants to persuade us that we are to find our fulfilment in receiving rather than in demanding (69)
When we were confirmed, while being called by name, as we were in Baptism, while at the same time being anointed with Sacred Chrism, then these words were spoken: “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” My friends, this was your invitation to joy. In a few moments we will together receive, not take, but receive, the Eucharist. In our receiving, may we, once again sanctify Jesus Christ as Lord in our hearts so that we may be re-filled with that joy, that fruit of the Holy Spirit, which we just can’t keep to ourselves, that joy we simply must share and that causes us to live in a completely different way, the way of God’s love, the Way that is Jesus Christ.

In light of what Fr Martin preached on few weeks ago, namely our need to be both sacerdotal and presbyteral here in our parish, we can’t simply park it there. Hand-in-hand with that goes being more diaconal, that is, serving others. This past week I came across the question, “What difference does it make that my parish exists in my community?” Of course, our being here should make all the difference in the world. I do think this parish makes a huge difference here in the downtown community. In light of that, it seems to me that the question for each of us is, What difference does my being a member of this parish make? Stated differently, How do I, or how can I, be of service? It is in giving that we receive. What we receive from giving is joy. Joy is the realization that I don’t exist for myself, but for God by selflessly serving others.

Friday, May 23, 2014

"To see my love wed to another"

In the great Christian spiritual classic by Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, we find this passage:
In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.

But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: "It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'

These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved
Then, of course, it was St. Paul who wrote: "We know that all things work for good for those who love God,* who are called according to his purpose" (Rom 8:28)

I think the lesson here is provided by a quote I have seen here and there: "Everything will be alright in the end. So, if it's not alright, it isn't the end." As a Christian, I think if you don't believe that you have no idea how much you are loved.

It's Spring. It's still Easter. So, not forgetting that the end will be a wedding banquet, when the Bridegroom will return for His Bride, Emmylou Harris with The Chieftains singing "Lambs on the green hills" is our Friday traditio:

The bride and bride's party to church they did go
The bride she rode foremost, she bears the best show
But I followed after with my heart full of woe
To see my love wed to another

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Lion, Lucy and the necessity of growing in faith

Even as Catholics we affirm that we are "saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ." However, we reject the view that salvation is a one-off event, thus acknowledging our on-going need for ever fresh infusions of grace. The way I find it helpful to schematize salvation is that it has three constituent pieces: redemption, justification, and sanctification. But before getting to those, I tend to think of grace as God's initiative towards us (in the larger picture, I believe the best definition of grace is "God sharing divine life with us") and faith as our response to God's initiative.

Redemption is a done deal, which is best summarized as "Christ died for all." It was the Holy Father's insistence last May that everyone is redeemed that caused such a stir. I addressed that in my post "All Who Do Evil Are Redeemed- Christians Included." Justification is simply accepting the redemption offered by the Father through His Son. What theologians call the actus fidei (i.e., the act of faith), faith being a theological virtue, is effected by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is the life-long process of conversion, of growing into "the full stature of Christ" (Eph 4:13), of becoming perfect, "just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48). It is the work of God in us. I think justification, too, is repeatable. After all, we sin post-baptismally, do we not? This is why, when we consider the sacramental economy of grace, that is, the way that the sacraments relate, overlap, and work together to accomplish God's purpose in us and through us, we understand the Sacrament of Penance as an extension of Baptism.

Sanctification requires us to make use of the all the means of grace that God puts at our disposal and to otherwise cooperate with God as He sets about accomplishing His purpose for us and through us. First and foremost among these are the sacraments, most especially the Eucharist. However, we must not forget the Sacrament of Penance.

Faith is not just a gift given that requires no growth or development. Faith requires not only nurturing, but trial by ordeal. The ordeal is life, what we call experience, which, as the title of Communion and Liberation International Assembly of Responsibles back 2009 stated it: "Experience: The Instrument for a Human Journey." Faith is not shallow and it is certainly neither smug nor self-satisfied. Neither does faith require being easily satisfied. Faith does not mean settling for less. On the contrary, faith means precisely not settling for anything less than what my heart desires!

In his book The Lion's World: A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia, Rowan Williams, commenting on C.S. Lewis' view of faith, asserted something quite important in his exposition of a passage from Prince Caspian (the book that features a literary hero of mine, that noble mouse Reepicheep), an exchange between Lucy and Aslan:
"Aslan," said Lucy, "you're bigger."
"That is because you are older, little one," answered he.
"Not because you are?"
"I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger"
As a side note, the methodology of the so-called New Atheists, in my view, suffers from being quite statically adolescent. It is certainly philosophically sophomoric, which is not simply to call names. Just consider this silly assertion: Nothing subjective can be counted as evidence for the existence of God. Well, speaking epistemologically, without a knowing, understanding, comprehending subject there is no knowledge of anything. In other words, knowledge necessarily has both an objective and as well as a subjective component. I mean, just consider your first experience in algebra class when, after working hard and repetitively at mastering some alegbraic function, you finally got it.

Among other things, the New Atheists need a new epistemic starting-point instead of the quasi-Kantian one they currently employ. A great critique of their defective starting point can be found in Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, particularly the fifth chapter entitled "Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality Had to Fail." Overcoming the pernicious subject/object distinction is an important philosophical project. Its religious consequence, the divorce between faith and reason, which is not recognizably Catholic, but Protestant in its particularity, also must be rejected.

Dr. Williams stated,
The more we develop, the more there is to see and know of Aslan. Lewis is determined to turn on its head the common assumption that faith is one of those things that the intelligent human will simply grow out of: on the contrary, we shall be constantly growing into it without end (121-122)
Since I broached the subject of the theological virtues, it seems more than appropriate to make recourse to St. Paul's magisterial "take" on them as set forth in 1 Corinthians 13:
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known (verses 11-12)
In the end, faith entails our commitment to grow.

Friday, May 16, 2014

"I'm alive/I'm dead"

Yesterday, over at one of my favorite publications, The American Conservative, I read a book review by Ian Marcus Corbin entitled "Entranced by Reality." It was a review of a book by Robert Zaretsky that looks like one I will read: A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.

In any case, Corbin's review bears resemblance to what many of us have written about Camus. Hence, it is a good thing for those who may not be familiar with the general trajectory of Camus' thought as expressed in his writing. For example, Corbin observed,
It has often been observed that the 20th century was an age of ideologies, when abstract ideas ran roughshod over millions upon millions of real human bodies. In this context, Camus’s fidelity to fleshly reality was remarkable and heroic. If he was not a man for all seasons, he was without question a man for his season
It seems to me that ideology is, yet again, gaining the upper hand, which means that Camus remains relevant at for least now. Contra Corbin, I happen to believe that his early novel A Happy Death and The Stranger are truly great works of literature.

This is to take the long route to our Friday traditio, which is by The Cure, "Killing an Arab." The song is based on Camus' novella The Stranger and his strange anti-hero Meursault, in whose mind Camus put this thought: “There is not love of life without despair about life.” In A Happy Death Camus observed, “On good days, if you trust life, life has to answer you.”

I can turn
And walk away
Or I can fire the gun
Staring at the sky
Staring at the sun
Whichever I chose
It amounts to the same
Absolutely nothing

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Aslan is not a tame lion

I originally intended to read Rowan Williams' book The Lion's World: A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia immediately following my year-long reading of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia throughout 2013. But it took several months after I finished to for me to get around to reading it. I wrote a few things during my year-long engagement with the Chronicles, which was the first time I read these books:

True education requires imagination

"Soon and very soon..."

Logic, Narnia, Lewis, Giussani, Plantinga

To Narnia and the north - journeying with a Presence

St. Hwin of Narnia, or Bree has an encounter

In his wonderful way, Archbishop Rowan does a masterful job penetrating Lewis' work, dealing with various criticisms that have been made, some of which have something to them, others being just plain silly, and none of them undermining Lewis' achievement. On my reading, the most penetrating chapters of Williams' book are chapters three and four, respectively entitled, "Not a tame Lion" and "No story but your own." In this post I will focus exclusively on the third chapter. I apologize at the outset for not setting forward a better synthesis of what +Rowan has to say, but it's no easy matter getting back to semi-serious writing.

One of Williams' first insights about the remarkable figure of Aslan is that, while he "may be the rightful king of Narnia... he makes his first appearance as a rebel against the established order" (50). Extrapolating from this, he observes, "The truth of God is found in rebellion against the oppressive cliché of the world" (51). Hence, "The orderliness of a world focused on the self is doomed to be disrupted by grace; and we can't appreciate what Aslan is about unless and until we see him in action against this kind of order" (52).

Commenting on Lewis' persistent insistence that physical enjoyment, perhaps culminating in sexual union (though not in Narnia, which are books for children, but in A Grief Observed and some his other works), is not to be eschewed, contra certain strands of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity. Williams writes "that what Lewis is trying to evoke is a world in which the profoundest physical enjoyment is one of the best and clearest images of what it is to meet God" (56). He does not do so without making the proper qualifications, especially that Lewis is not advocating for a "an erotic mysticism" (56). On Williams' view, for Lewis, our meeting God is analogical, which is
never a substitute for physical fulfilment, nor is physical fulfilment a means to encounter with God. It is simply that erotic satisfaction fully enjoyed is one of the most powerful glimpses we can have of what union with God is like - a point entirely consonant with a great deal in the tradition of Christian contemplation (56)
Remember, like Karol Wojtyła, Williams is heavily influenced by the Carmelite mystics, especially St John of the Cross.

Williams next addresses a point very dear to my own experience. If I died and ceased to exist, if all that I believe as a Christian turned out not to be true in the end, I will not regret for one moment (setting aside the fact that I will be forever "out of" moments) being a Christian. For me, being a Christian constitutes my own metaphysical rebellion (taking a note from my dear Camus) against the seeming absurdity, or at least utter strangeness, of human existence. In this context, Williams points to an episode from The Silver Chair featuring Puddlegum, in which the marsh-wiggle resists the onslaught of the evil witch-queen of Underland, who is trying to brainwash him by him convincing that there is no reality apart from that of Underland, and that there is certainly no Aslan. Puddlegum replies, "I'm on Aslan side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it" (61). Williams notes, "the most dedicated believer will be faced with the apparent emptiness of the claims that faith makes and will have to decide whether or not to cling to the hope of another kind of sense, not simply available for inspection by the casual observer" (62). It seems to me that this is right out of St. Paul: "For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance" (Rom 8:24-25).

Finally, in this chapter, +Rowan turns to the small matter of the nature of reality. He observes that, on Lewis' view, "Human rules are neither here nor there, and they are commonly used for unjust purposes; Lewis is enough of a Tory anarchist to be very sceptical of most schemes for human happiness" (67). Nonetheless, "the real world, which human convention normally obscures for us, is indeed law-governed" (67). In other words, "Things in this world have a real nature and their effects are according to that nature" (67). Therefore, "we must not confuse the anarchic grace that overcomes self-made bonds and human power games with an anarchy that simply denies what is there" (67).

Seemingly taking a page from my dear Don Gius, Williams observes,
Ultimately, the dense and tough structure of reality must be respected - whether it is the structure of the nature that things have or the structure of human acts and choices. What is devilish... is the illusion that we can somehow control this reality by denying it...

... The way to life or reconciliation or forgiveness or renewal is always a path through what is  there, including... what is there in our own past (68)
The purpose of our lives, Lewis insisted, even in A Grief Observed, is joy, to be joyful, joy-filled, and  not only eventually in the eternal bye-and-bye, but even now amidst life's trials and strains. Writing of this joy, Williams concludes,
If joy is thought of first as the gratification of the will, we are hardly likely to grasp the idea that it is only 'solid' and 'lasting' (in the words of a familiar hymn) if it is the fruit of participation in what is not the will or ego - if it is what comes from the contact with something radically other, whether finite or infinite in its otherness. Lewis wants to persuade us that we are to find our fulfilment in receiving rather than in demanding (69)

Friday, May 9, 2014

"Pin your ear to the wisdom post"

I am tempted to apologize for my lack of posting during this Easter season. My explanation is that I have been quite busy and on the road, traveling for work. I hope to end the drought soon (something else for which I will, no doubt, need to apologize). Our traditio is Tom Waits' song off one of my all-time favorite albums, Mule Variations. The song? "Get Behind the Mule"

Tom Waits a predictably underrated man. We've reduced knowledge to information and as a result we've reduced our humanity.

Well the rampaging sons of the widow James
Jack the cutter and the pock marked kid
Had to stand naked at the bottom
Of the cross
And tell the good lord what they did
Tell the good lord what they did

Saturday, May 3, 2014

"The heavenly bread ends all symbols"

Here is our really late Friday traditio. It's so late, in fact, that it is our Saturday traditio. For this week this is more than appropriate. It is "right and just" because it is my second oldest son's First Holy Communion today. As a result, our traditio is Friar Alessandro singing one of my all-time favorite hymns: "Panis Angelicus" (literally "bread of angels").

It is also fitting because yesterday, as I traveled home from a business trip, I (finally!) finished Diarmaid MacCulloch's Thomas Cranmer: A Life. There was no issue that more defined the English Reformation than the Eucharist, particularly just "how" and "for whom" Christ is present in the sacred species. Having read MacCulloch's definitive biography of this unfairly vilified man, who, if nothing else, contributed greatly to the depth and beauty of the English language (in my view, he did more than that) it seems to me that with the possible exception of his deep suspicion of transsubstantiation, which was not dogmatically defined until 1551, Cranmer's views on the Eucharist evolved over time. His views ran the gamut from a fairly orthodox Catholic view in the 1520s and 1530s, through a quite clearly Lutheran view in the late 1530s, ending up at what has been described as "symbolic parallelism" with regard to the Eucharist. Cranmer was very opposed to any devotion to, or adoration of the consecrated bread and wine.

Of course, I do not agree. Like a lot of converts, perhaps even most, the Eucharist, which is nothing other than Christ, played the decisive role in my conversion.

The angel's bread becomes the bread of men
The heavenly bread ends all symbols
Oh, miraculous thing!
The body of the Lord will nourish
The poor, poor, and humble servant
The poor, poor, and humble servant

I am very glad that this is my first post in the month of May, the month of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Make an effort to pray a complete set of mysteries (i.e., five decades) of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary each day this month.

Year B Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:13-15.17-19; Ps 4:2.4.7-9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:25-48 “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his incredulous...