Sunday, February 28, 2016

A few things as I see them, literally

I make no claim whatsoever to be a photographer. However, I do enjoy snapping pictures when I am outside having fun, walking, or hiking. Below, as a Leap Year bonus, I offer a few of my pictures.

This first one is of a trail at a park near where I live. I took this picture last August:

Scott Dodge- 2015

The next picture is the same trail 6 weeks later:

Scott Dodge- 2015

The picture below I took today:

Scott Dodge- 2016

Last Sunday, which was another nice day, we hiked a trail for a mile or two with our three youngest children. As we were coming off the trail we saw what is captured in the photo below on the back of a sign:

Scott Dodge- 2016

On our way home today we stopped by the park where we sled in the wintertime to see if the snow had melted. It was pretty much all gone. As I stepped out of the car, the view was stunning. Below is what I saw:

Scott Dodge- 2016

Hopefully, that's a nice break from a lot of words. Hey, do something cool for Leap Year tomorrow.

It's Lent, time to repent

Readings: Exo 3:1-8a.13-15; Ps 103:1-4.6-8.11; 1 Cor 10:1-6.10-12; Luke 13:1-9

It's beyond incomprehensible to me that so many people actively avoid or outright deny the connection between repentance and forsaking sin. The avoidance or denial of this connection strikes me as a peculiarly Catholic or mainstream Protestant stance. In our passage from St. Luke's Gospel, our Lord himself makes this connection quite clearly. Beyond that, it's a connection that is repeatedly made by St. Paul as well as in the Johannine corpus.

In our passage this Sunday from St. Luke's Gospel Jesus comments on two contemporary events: Pontius Pilate's presumably vindictive, or even unjust, killing of an unspecified number of Galileans and eighteen people who were killed in Jerusalem when a tower collapsed. Jesus is eager to point out that those killed in these events were not killed as a punishment from God due to their sins. In making his point the Lord asks his hearers if those killed were "greater sinners" or "more guilty" than other Galileans or Jerusalemites. Lest there be any doubt, his questions are rhetorical and the answer to both is an emphatic "No".

Jesus is quite clear in what he says and then repeats - "But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!" I think it would be stretch to say "as they did" refers to being killed by a cruel occupier or an unforeseen accident. The Lord here is speaking about matters more ultimate, one might even say eternal. After all, whether you're killed in an accident or die comfortably in your own bed, you'll die.

In this context, taking our cue from Jesus' parable concerning the fruitless fig tree, we might see repenting of our sins as cultivating and fertilizing the soil in order that we might bear fruit. Stated simply, we repent in order to bear fruit and in order to believe. Fruit-bearing discipleship is the hallmark, the sure sign, of repentance. Elsewhere in the New Testament, responding to concerns about the delay of Christ's return, the inspired author of 2 Peter noted, "The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard 'delay,' but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (3:9). Nonetheless, the same inspired author insisted that "the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out" (3:10). In other words, despite the Lord's patience, the time to repent is short and is always now. Or, as St. Paul, in the passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians that is our epistle reading, wrote, "whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall" (10:12).

As Moses experienced on Mount Horeb, God is holy and we are not. In response to the message of today's readings, which are about the necessity of repenting, we must not engage in superficial abstractions to avoid our need to repent. What do I mean by superficial abstractions? Something like avoiding the matter by endlessly theorizing about, oh say, the man in the middle of China who has never heard the Gospel, or other such evasions. If you're reading this, chances are you're not him, but someone who has heard the Good News. Above all, anyone who has ever read the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, especially St. Paul's Letters to the Romans and Galatians, should not lazily stake his life on his own righteousness. Such a move is usually limited to its negative expression: I haven't committed adultery, at least not literally. I haven't committed grand larceny. I haven't killed anyone, etc. God's mercy must never be conflated with our presumption. I can't imagine the smugness of someone standing before the judgment seat, unrepentant, and saying, "Well, aren't you merciful?"

It's possible we've all become far too comfortable with sin, especially our own and/or far too presumptuous about God's mercy. Any genuine experience of God's love expressed as mercy prompts humble gratitude. Speaking from my own experience, I am never more humble, grateful, or certain of God's love for me than when I walk out of the confessional, the door to which is every Church's perpetual door of mercy. In his Inferno, Dante places this inscription over the gate to hell: Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate (Canto III, line 9). It means something like, "Abandon hope all who enter." There should be a sign above the door to the confessional, Ricevere speranza tutti coloro che entrano qui, meaning, "Receive hope all who enter here."

Each year we observe this season of repentance that we call Lent, which, at root, means something like Springtime. I don't want to make it sound too trivial, but aren't we all due a spring cleaning each year? It is only by repenting that Lent becomes holy because it is by repenting that we put this season to its intended use. But even repentance is not our own work, it is simply our response to God's grace. Given what is at stake we must take care not to make Lent the time each year during which we remain content to annoy ourselves in frivolous ways. It is the time to examine our lives, to dig deep into our consciences, to make an accounting of ourselves before God, to experience for ourselves God's mercy, and then to bear fruit by loving God. The ripe fruit of loving God is selflessly serving others.

Friday, February 26, 2016

"The whirlwind is in the thorn tree"

Eighty-four years ago today, in an Arkansas town called Kingsland, Johnny Cash was born. What is little mentioned these days, nearly 13 years after his passing, is the Man in Black's deep faith in Jesus Christ, about which he pulled few punches. In his 2003 book, The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash, author Dave Urbanski wrote about the time Cash was being grilled by a reporter about being a Christian, specifically what kind of Christian he was. Finally, Cash told him, "I — as a believer that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, the Christ of the Greeks, was the Anointed One of God (born of the seed of David, upon faith as Abraham has faith, and it was accounted to him for righteousness) — am grafted onto the true vine, and am one of the heirs of God's covenant with Israel." Puzzled, the reporter responded with, "What?" Clarifying, Cash answered with, "'I'm a Christian. . . Don't put me in another box.'"

Speaking of his faith in a 2000 Rolling Stone interview, Johnny was typically sincere and self-deprecating. When it came to his faith in Christ, he impressively employed defeasible reasoning: "I believe what I say, but that don't necessarily make me right." Speaking more about his faith in Christ, he said, "There's nothing hypocritical about it. There is a spiritual side to me that goes real deep, but I confess right up front that I'm the biggest sinner of them all." I was blessed to grow up listening to and loving the music of Johnny Cash. I even have vague memories of watching The Johnny Cash Show when I was 5 or 6.

Having tipped my hand on Ash Wednesday when I posted about receiving a smear of ashes on one's forehead, I don't mind explicitly admitting that I am something of a crypto-Lutheran, especially when it comes to sin and being what Luther called simul iustus et peccator (i.e., simultaneously justified and sinner). To me that describes the simple reality of being a Christian, which is why I don't mind stating publicly that I can't grasp for life of me how Donald Trump can continue to claim to be a Christian after publicly stating that he has never asked God to forgive his sins. Since that is not a political observation, let me add that I sincerely pray that one day he washes his robes in the blood of the Lamb.

It seems appropriate that the Man in Black singing "The Man Comes Around" is our Friday traditio. It's perfect to listen to right after the Stations of the Cross:

Happy birthday, Johnny. I'm glad you passed through.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Lent: How's it going?

Ash Wednesday, it seems to me, is a lot like New Year's in that many of us tend to make quite a few challenging resolutions. One contrast is that New Year's resolutions seem to be more about taking things up, rearranging one's priorities, while Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, tends to be more about giving things up. Of course, New Year's has no inherently religious significance. This observation is in no way intended as a slight to marking a new year by making positive resolutions. On the contrary, I like making New Year's resolutions. I also think it's important to observe Lent both by penitentially giving things up and doing positive things for others. One way our Lenten resolutions differ from our New Year's resolutions is serving others, particularly those in need, which, in addition to giving money, is what constitutes alms-giving.

Today we embark on the second full week of Lent. If we're doing it right, this is about the time when Lent starts to take a bit of a toll on us, to become real, as it were. In all likelihood most of us have already failed to scrupulously keep all of our Lenten resolves. Whether it's praying everyday, going to Mass once or twice during the week, caving in and eating a chocolate bar, watching an episode of your favorite t.v. show, not praying the Rosary every day, not seeking out a way to serve, etc., chances are you've failed at least once. While, I suppose, this is not ideal, it isn't as a big a deal as you might think.

Several years ago, meeting with those in the parish who were the Elect (i.e., those who would be baptized at the Paschal Vigil), I invited the group of about 10 people to share how they were doing with their Lenten resolutions as they prepared for their Christian initiation. As we took turns sharing, most of us shared our failures and frustrations. It was a great group who encouraged each other as we shared. But one woman, who is Jewish (she didn't stop being Jewish when she became Catholic), a person who did not set the bar low for herself, like I tend to do (I am weak, there's no doubt), shared that she had been able to meticulously adhere to everything she set out to do and give up during Lent. She then shared that when she realized her "success" she began to feel proud of herself. Feeling proud of herself, she said, made her realize almost instantly that such "success" isn't really the point of Lenten observance. So what if she'd kept all of her self-appointed rules, what did that mean in of itself? I'm not going to venture an answer, but just pose those questions.

Cartoonist Kevin Frank's "Heaven's Love Thrift Shop" strip for 31 January 2016

Of course, we don't set about to do, or not do, in order fail, doing that would be pretty damned silly. Answering the question posed above, while keeping in mind that we don't endeavor in order to fail, I think helps us to better discern how best to approach Lent. As James Kushiner observed quite a few years ago in an article about observing Lent: "A discipline won’t bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace."

Another important aspect of Lent, it seems to me, is often overlooked these days - not being public with what you do, or about what you're giving up. What makes this so odd is that being public about our prayer, fasting, and alms-giving is something we're warned about in our reading from St. Matthew's Gospel on Ash Wednesday (Matt 6:1-6.16-18). But in this age of the selfie and easy access to so many social media platforms (i.e., Blogger, Wordpress, Instagram, G+, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.) it is a constant temptation to break our metaphorical arm patting ourselves on the back for all the world to see. While I think it's a bit more complex than simply being prideful, it is still something we should assiduously try to avoid.

In any case, we still have about a month of Lent left to go. For those of you who, like me, have failed, don't be discouraged, especially if how you decided to observe Lent was prayerfully discerned. Renew your commitment and trust God to bring about what he set to bring about in and through these things. If what you're doing, or not doing for Lent, was arbitrary, or last minute, that is, not prayerfully discerned, think about giving yourself a reprieve and do a re-boot. Continue abstaining on Fridays, fast on Good Friday, seek to maximize your Rice Bowl contribution, spend 10-15 minutes in silence each day, and participate in Stations of the Cross at your parish the remaining Fridays of Lent. If you've been "successful," ask yourself, "What fruit are my Lenten disciplines bearing in my own life and the lives of others?"

Year C Second Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen 15:5-12.17-18; Ps 21:1.7-9.13-14; Phil 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28b-36

Jesus appearing along with Moses and Elijah in today’s Gospel shows us that he is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Christ’s Transfiguration takes its cue from the conclusion of the book of the prophet Malachi:
Remember the law of Moses my servant, whom I charged at Horeb with statutes and ordinances for all Israel. Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day. He will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with utter destruction (Mal 3:22-24)
What did the Lord converse with Moses and Elijah about? The “exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). God is merciful because, rather than “strike the land,” he sent his only begotten Son to liberate us from sin and death. That it is Jesus and him alone who liberates us is indicated by the sacred author when he describes the cloud, the voice telling the three disciples, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him” (Luke 9:35), and, upon the dissipation of the cloud, their finding Jesus “alone.”

The author of St. Luke’s Gospel tells us that after witnessing Christ’s Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John “fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen” (Luke 9:36). Why didn’t the three tell anyone what they had seen until later? Likely because they did not understand what they had seen until after Jesus’ rose from the dead. Christ’s resurrection illuminates everything, including the mystery of our own existence.

In addition to being linked with Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness, Lent is linked with the Israelites' 40 year sojourn through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Hence, Lent is the time for you to consider what it is that enslaves you and prevents you from experiencing Christ’s liberation. The paradox of life in Christ is stated beautifully in the Prayer of St. Francis: “For it is in giving that we receive.” It would be worse than futile to seek to liberate yourself through strenuous effort. If you can liberate yourself and deliver yourself to the Promised Land, then you don't need a Liberator or Deliverer. Lent, therefore, is the time to re-affirm your trust in Jesus Christ, to “listen to him” (Luke 9:35).

You re-affirm your trust in Christ by engaging in acts of penance, by confessing and receiving his mercy in the Sacrament of Penance, and by practicing the three disciplines that make one a Christian: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, in a more intense and intentional way. So central are these disciplines to being a disciple of Jesus that it's fair to wonder if someone who does not practice them might merely be his fan rather than his disciple.

Transfiguration, by Raphael, 1516-20

I would submit that what many of us need to be liberated from is our selfishness, our self-absorption, our incessant worrying about and looking after our own well-being, our ceaseless striving to get ahead, measuring success by money, possessions, or worldly prestige. This is precisely what St. Paul is getting at in our second reading from his Letter to the Philippians. We must not conduct ourselves, the apostle insists, “as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil 3:18). An enemy of the cross of Christ, as described by Paul, is someone whose “end is destruction” (Phil 3:19). What he goes on to describe is not God pouring out wrath on the enemies of Christ’s cross, but their self-destruction: “Their God is their stomach; their glory is their ‘shame.’ Their minds are occupied with earthly things” (Phil 3:20).

By virtue of our baptism, confirmation, and participation in this Eucharist, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20), in the true Promised Land to which we are led, if we're willing to follow Christ. The price of entry is not a heifer, a she-goat, a ram, a turtle dove, and a pigeon. It is steeper - we must offer our selves whole and entire. This is precisely what St. Paul wrote to the Christians in ancient Rome: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:1-2).

We have witnesses of Christ’s liberation in our very midst: those preparing to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the great Paschal Vigil. As of yesterday, most of our Catechumens are now numbered among the Elect. RCIA is not merely a class, as is commonly supposed. It is a process of conversion, an apprenticeship in following Christ. It is the way we integrate people who respond to the Holy Spirit’s call into the life of our parish. We all have a role to play in this. RCIA presents us with an opportunity to be what Pope Francis calls us to be – missionary disciples, witnesses of the Good News that is Christ Jesus.

Lent can be described in one hyphenated word: self-denial. One way Christ summons us to deny ourselves is by selflessly serving others like he did. Practically, this means serving others at some inconvenience. Do not bury your talents, but invest them wisely in the work of God's kingdom. Opportunities to serve abound in our parish: volunteering to help prepare parents for the baptism of their infants and small children, teaching in our Children's Religious Education Program, singing in a choir, chairing DDD, etc. Following the Easter Vigil we will be making a concerted effort to form a RCIA team. I urge you to consider joining it.

My dear sisters and brothers, it is not a question whether the Lord is calling you to serve others. The relevant question is how he is calling you to do so. So, I urge you to make this a point of discernment over Lent. By doing this you enter the true spirit of Lent by opening yourself to being transfigured, that is, being conformed more to the image of Christ, or, in a word, liberated.

Friday, February 19, 2016

"I'm not sure what this could mean..."

This week for our Friday traditio I am handing on New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle." Of course, New Order is the continuation of Joy Division after Ian Curtis committed suicide. While Joy Division was discordant and a bit atonal at times, New Order has a groove, as this song demonstrates. It's a tune you can dance to. It's a tune many people my age did dance to, likely many times. It is rightly considered by many to be one of the best songs of the 1980s, despite not making the Top 40 either in the U.S. or U.K.

"Bizarre Love Triangle" appeared on New Order's 1986 album Brotherhood. While our minds automatically go to a highly problematic romantic entanglement involving three people, isn't there a sense in which we could describe the Most Holy Trinity as such? Maybe not. Perhaps it's too much of a stretch.

Whenever I get this way
I just don't know what to say
Why can't we be ourselves like we were yesterday
I'm not sure what this could mean
I don't think you're what you seem
I do admit to myself
That if I hurt someone else
Then I'll never see just what we're meant to be

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Four for Thursday

Both of my readers can rest easy because I seriously doubt that I will make this a regular feature, but below are four things I read today that I think are worth passing along. I know, "Three for Thursday" has a better ring to it, as does "Four for Friday," but then I seem to always be a little out-of-tune:

1- WenatcheeTheHatchet is doing a insightful analysis of the Mars Hill phenomenon in light of Jacques Ellul's work on propaganda. There is more than one post, but here's a link to the most recent: "Mark Driscoll as propagandist: excerpts from a Mark Driscoll presentation from Jan 23, 2013 on content dynamics cross-referenced with observations from Jacques Ellul on propaganda"

In my view this is worth passing along because this analysis is more broadly applicable than to Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill, even more widely applicable than to U.S. Evangelicalism. Sadly, propaganda constitutes much of what passes for evangelization these days, even among Catholics. There is a lot of propaganda that claims to be done under that banner of the New Evangelization. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the largely self-licking ice cream cone of Catholic new media, to which this blog, I reluctantly confess, probably contributes, at least at times, is often guilty of this as well. With that being said, I think the last thing we need is a "New Evangelization re-boot." What we need in every age is simply evangelization. I think the term "New Evangelization" needs to be retired. Frankly, evangelization that is effective is almost always person-to-person and must never be conflated with apologetics. These days I meet way too many self-styled Catholic apologists. To whom they apologize or for what remains a mystery to me. I would submit that, even now, the best source we have for evangelization in the modern world is Bl Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi. do yourself a favor and read it.

I would also submit that virtually every parish has an evangelism outreach, it's called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Too often Catholic digital media undermines rather than enhances parish RCIA ministry, which remains only partially implemented in many dioceses and parishes. Most digital media touted as being useful for RCIA doesn't strike me as having much of a clue as to what RCIA, according to the Church, should be about. But then, not too many of my fellow clerics grasp RCIA that well either.

2- I read, not a refutation, or even a rebuttal of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato si', but a thoughtful reflection on what can fairly be called a weakness in the encyclical's analysis. The piece is by an economist and priest, Fr. Paul Anthony McGavin: "What's wrong with 'Laudato si'?" Cutting to the chase, Fr McGavin, after a lengthy analysis, concluded: "My estimation is that a very different, much briefer, more technically informed, and more theological accurate encyclical would have been more helpful, and would have provided a better platform 'to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.'"

3- Dr. Michael Brown hit the Trump candidacy nail-on-the-head with his article "Donald Trump's Oblivious Followers." Among the worthwhile insights passed along is Brown's treatment of the "alpha" vs "beta" male narrative that I witnessed even some of Trump's Christian followers employ:
When competing candidates rightly confront his vacillating positions, they're branded liars, corrupt politicians, and worse, all to the delight of his followers.

"We need an Alpha male," they exclaim. "Trump will get things done."

As to how, exactly, he will do it, no one seems to know.

But be assured that, despite four Trump bankruptcies (which surely affected many people, even if Trump was not personally affected) and the failures of Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, Trump Mortgage, Trump: The Game, The China Connection, Trump Casinos, Trump Steaks, Trump Magazine, and, Donald Trump will get the job done.

He always does.

He only wins - as in wins, wins, wins.

And when he doesn't win (as in Iowa)? Actually, second was really first, since, we're told, the winner cheated. And his followers cheer him on
In fairness, the rest of the GOP field doesn't give me any reason to be excited.

4- I am certainly no supporter of Trump. I will even admit to being unable to grasp why so many people support him, despite reading a number of articles trying to explain his support. But I admit that I was saddened that Pope Francis let himself get dragged into the mud by a reporter's question during his in-flight press conference on the plane flight back to Rome from Mexico. Of course, there were other things said that are causing the predictable and desired controversy. Maybe it's time to do away with the in-flight presser. Either that, or grow in the awareness that you are dealing with a press corps looking to score cheap points off ambiguous or incomplete answers in addition to asking a version of three or four of the same questions they ask over and over when given the chance. Why? Because it's the media, not the Church, who are obsessed with sex matters.

Monday, February 15, 2016

God, religion, freedom n' stuff

Last summer, I let myself become overwhelmed and weighed down by everything happening in the world. In response, I wrote what I called an "on-the-fly" post: "Being overwhelmed and stultified." My post was about the necessity of living my own life because I don't have another one available to me- as vexing as the purveyors of fantasy might find such an observation. More importantly, I wrote about true freedom, focusing on how important it is to experience it for yourself. If you don't, paraphrasing Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi," then there is no freedom for you.

Yesterday between Masses I spent time reading Lapsed Agnostic, John Waters' account of how he (re-)discovered faith as an adult. In the final chapter of the book, entitled "After Don't," Waters observed: "Religions generally teach us to think in terms of our duties towards God." Hence, for many people, especially in the West, our experience of religion, of church, is simply about adhering to a set of proscriptions (don'ts) and prescriptions (dos). Even though, apart from approximately 2 years in my early 20s, I have been a religious person virtually all my life, this is my experience too, both as a layman and now as a cleric.

Taking his cue from Msgr Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion & Liberation, Waters went on to point out that in conceiving of religion as a set of rules, or reducing "being religious" to adherence to such rules, we forget "that what defines our relationship with [God] is the knowledge of what He can do for us that we cannot do for ourselves." It is only this realization, which comes through experience, that religion ceases to be either fire insurance against the day of wrath, or a depressingly pragmatic existential move. I must note that Waters, wisely in my view, endorses faith as a pragmatic move at least in the beginning, advising his readers "fake it until you make it." C.S. Lewis advised much the same thing when it came the difficulties involved with loving one's neighbor.

Waters went on to insist that God's "most vital role" in our lives is to relieve us "of the responsibility" of taking His role upon ourselves. As a result, one can reach the liberating conclusion that what truly matters is not whether "I am sufficiently devout," let alone whether "God is pleased with my piety, but my awareness of the fact that I myself am not God." More than adherence to moral injunctions "or anxiety concerning the afterlife," the most persuasive argument for God, according to Waters, is "if God does not exist, I have an urgent need, in my own interest, to substitute for Him."

While Waters' observation may sound like a variation of Feuerbach's theme that if God did not exist we would need to invent him, it isn't really. I think Waters takes the temperature of the contemporary Western person more accurately. In my view, the difference is a matter of experience. Either I take the heavy burden of existence upon my shoulders, or I recognize the impossibility of so doing, even if only by being crushed under its weight. The experience of being crushed forces a question upon me. To be experienced, as it were, at least in the sense that Giussani meant it, requires me to attune myself more to reality as it presents itself to me and engaging it according to all the factors that together make it up. Stated in a simpler way, reality reaches out to me and so I must cultivate my awareness of it by paying attention, even if this reaching out sometimes consists of a slap to my face.

Giussani insisted that, when functioning properly, religion "proposes to man a question regarding everything he does, and thus becomes a much broader view than any other." The problem with people like the everything-old-is-new-again-atheists and those of a reductively empiricist bent of mind is that their view of reality is badly constrained, it's way too narrow, it simply ignores obvious aspects of reality.

Reading Lapsed Agnostic yesterday reminded me of a book, which contrasts with Waters as much as it coheres with him. The book is Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford, which I read about a year ago. The part of the book of which I was reminded is the second chapter, entitled "The Crack in Everything." One of the major points Spufford made in this chapter was, unlike it's parent and sibling (i.e., Judaism and Islam respectively), which bear more resemblance to each other than to being Christian, Christianity "isn't interested in coming up with a set of sustainable rules for living by." According to Spufford, Christianity "makes frankly impossible demands." Rather than insisting on specific repeatable actions, Christianity, he continued, "offers general but lunatic principles." Among other things, this is why there is a three volume set of conferences Luigi Giusanni delivered to aspiring members of Memores Domini entitled Is It Possible to Live This Way? Nonetheless, Christianity is taught and, therefore, understood by many Catholics and other Christians, as well as semi-Christian sectarians, as living by a set of sustainable, repeatable rules by which one gains merits, or de-merits, with the Almighty. It seems to me that it's a short trip from there to the nonsense of Joel Osteen or The Secret.

Having been raised LDS and still residing in Utah, I have met Catholics with a Mormon background who want to live Catholicism in what I can only describe as a Mormon manner, which is highly rule-bound. In one of the three books, apart from the Bible, Mormons revere as scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, which consists largely of revelations Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr. claimed to receive directly from God, one can read - "There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated— And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (130:20-21- emboldening and italicizing emphasis mine). The next verse states that God the Father "has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s" (130:22), which lends credence to the so-called "Lorenzo Snow couplet" (i.e., "As man is, God once was, as God is, man may become" - see "Becoming 'like' God, or becoming Gods?").

According to this irrevocably decreed law, God only blesses us when we're obedient. So, while "God helps those who help themselves" is not in the Bible, it's certainly in the Doctrine and Covenants. So, Mormonism, like unbelief, insists that we must take on the role of God because, on a Mormon view, God is only a god. This constitutes but one reason why I am so happy that the only LDS convert to the Catholic faith being considered for sainthood, at least of whom I am aware, the Servant of God Cora Louise Evans, was a mystic. Since I am mining this vein, it bears noting that Giussani's sainthood cause is also under way.

In her forward to Giussani's book The Religious Sense, which I am re-reading as the result of reading Lapsed Agnostic, the late University of Chicago political philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain, wrote: "How sad it is that our quest for self-mastery and a widespread sense of emptiness and loss-of-meaning go hand-in-hand, yet we often fail to see the connection." More relevant to the point I am trying to make here, she noted, "Giusanni helps us to fit the broken pieces together by refusing seductive schemes and manipulations, including a quest for perfection that can only end in ashes and misery" (italicized and emboldening emphasis mine).

I come by my tendency towards rule-bound perfectionism quite honestly, but reality has a way of steering me back around. I am very glad that Pope Francis, on whom Giussani made an impact (see "Pope Francis moved by Msgr Giussani") has made a practice of calling out Catholics who want to live faith in such a constraining way. Many don't much like it and sometimes the many includes me. As a result, some don't much like him. Apparently it's easier to say the Pope is in error and keep on keepin' on. When it comes to living it's not so much the "what," but the method, the "how" to so live that leaves much to be desired. As Bl. Pope Paul VI noted, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses" (Evangelii nuntiandi, par. 41).

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Jesus rejected worldly power

Readings: Deut 26:4-10; Ps 91:1-2.10-15; Rom 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Forty days of Lent, 40 years in the wilderness, 40 days in the desert. Add to these the wanderings of father Abraham, to which Moses refers in our reading from Deuteronomy. In all these we can see how integrated is the holy season of Lent into salvation history.

It always bears noting when considering Jesus' three temptations that he truly had free will. If he did not, then his whole life was nothing more than a divine puppet show. Not believing he had free will easily leads to a form of docetism. Docetism, from the Greek verb meaning "to seem," is a heresy that understands Jesus as only seeming to be fully human. While there is much more that can and probably should be stated theologically concerning this, noting that he had free will in this context simply allows us to grasp that the three temptations were really tempting to him.

The second temptation Jesus rejected during his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness was the temptation to worldly power. I am in no position to say which, if any, of the three temptations was the most difficult for our Lord to resist. But I do know the temptation to worldly power is one the Church has a had a hard time resisting throughout her history. This temptation seems especially strong today given the waning influence the Church exercises in temporal affairs in Western countries, including the United States.

Whether on an international, national, local, or personal level it often seems easier to seek to impose the Gospel rather than live it fully and joyfully. This temptation, which is easy to see here in the United States during this presidential election year, makes Christians vulnerable to the siren songs of those who promise to restore "Christian values" to a nation they insist is badly in need of such a restoration. While it's not only possible, but necessary, to legislate morality, at least to some extent (are you going to foster a society that rejects the injunction not to murder, steal, lie and cheat?), what the Church can and ought to seek is the freedom to live our faith fully, which certainly includes the freedom to speak freely and prophetically on matters pertaining to our freedom as well as to the common good. But if our speaking is to be even credible, let alone prophetic, we must be faithful to the truth. If nothing else, this is exactly why the unjust HHS mandate has been an occasion for the Church to repent.

In my view, one of the best arguments against "religion" is that it is simply a means of social control. Such a view, one that arises from reality, in light of the reign of God as taught by Jesus, simply must be rejected. Why? Because the reign of God that Jesus came to usher in is not radical insofar as it does not return us to the roots of any known system of human governance, let alone put itself at the disposal of worldly rulers in order to consolidate power. In many very important ways, the reign of God subverts all known forms of human governance! Hence, Christians, to some degree, are failing if we're not seen as a danger to the state, or at least as a threat to the status quo. There's a reason "no prophet is accepted in his own native place" (Luke 4:24).

Bl. Oscar Romero, in a homily delivered in 1977, preached about the revolutionary nature of Christianity:
The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work
Another name for the "violence of love" is non-violence. As the witness of Archbishop Romero and many others demonstrates, non-violence is not passive. A person practicing non-violence confronts and resists evil courageously and with love. In light of the persistent temptation to worldly power, it seems impossible to emphasize too much that Jesus, throughout his life and ministry, eschewed worldly power. The basis for this comes right at the beginning of his ministry with his rejection of it in the desert.

Like the Israelites of old, who, when presenting their gift to the priest, in light of Jesus' time in he desert and his subsequent itinerant earthly ministry, which ended when the powers, recognizing the threat God's reign posed to them, crucified him, Christians, too, proclaim "My father was a wandering Aramean" (Deut 26:5). As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote to those Jewish Christians of old who were struggling because the opprobrium in which they were held because of their faith in Christ: "Therefore, Jesus also suffered outside the gate, to consecrate the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the reproach that he bore. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come" (Heb 13:12-14). Far from making what happens in the here and now irrelevant, understanding reality according to everything that constitutes it makes it matter all the more.

In his Letter to the Colossians, St. Paul insisted that by his Cross, Christ despoiled "the principalities and the powers," making "a public spectacle of them" and "leading them away in triumph by it" (Col 2:15). This is the vindication Christians seek, which, as Paul elsewhere observed, "is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18). In our second reading for this First Sunday of Lent, we hear what St. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome, a Church that if it had not already experienced fierce persecution, would experience it soon enough: "For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. For the Scripture says, No one who believes in him will be put to shame" (Rom 10:9-10).

Friday, February 12, 2016

"When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse . . ."

Here along the Wasatch Front it is cold, gray and a bit foggy. It's one of those days that it seems like it's 7:30 AM all day. It's weather that befits a Friday after Ash Wednesday. I'll be honest, it's a day that's a bit difficult for me to take, but I accept it with gratitude. If nothing else, it's a day that helps me be honest. It's only in being honest that I experience hope. My Lenten theme, shamelessly lifted from the title of Terry Eagleton's latest book, is "Hope without Optimism." It sounds much drearier than it actually is.

In my experience, not just my abstract view, hope lies beyond optimism. That sounds like a simple realization, but, at least for me, it is not. Just the other night, as I continued to read a book that in many ways resonates deeply, John Waters' Lapsed Agnostic, I was reminded of the need I have to surrender myself to reality, to the every day realities of my own life and not live so much as a prisoner in my own skull. This means letting go of my preconceptions, my fears, my insecurities, etc. I'll be honest, it's hard work. It's the acesis Don Giussani insists we must undertake.

While I am pretty sure I've featured it before, today's Friday traditio is David Gilmour and David Bowie singing Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." Indeed, when I was child of nine I stared at myself in the mirror for probably what only amounted to perhaps a minute - I did this after thinking a lot about death due to the news coverage of Jack Benny's passing (26 December 1974) - I caught a fleeting glimpse. It was when I realized - though I didn't have words to express it - that I am a relationship with the Mystery. This experience has very much shaped my life ever since. It was also between Christmas Day and New Year's Day that year that I arrived at the knowledge that death is not the end. And so, I believe it was on a winter day during Christmas in 1974 that I had what Giussani might call an "elementary experience."

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Once a month or so I have the privilege of assisting my pastor at the weekly Mass for our parish school. On those occasions, Fr. René extends me the privilege of preaching to our wonderful St. Olaf's school community and our assembled parishioners. And so, on this Friday after Ash Wednesday, I preached. Below is my homily. As with all things I post here, it is offered with a prayer that, through the intercession of the patron of Καθολικός διάκονος, St. Stephen, it will be of some spiritual benefit to someone.

Readings: Isa 58:1-9a; Ps 51:3-6a; Matt 9:14-15

Throughout the history of the Church Friday has been observed as a day of penance. Just as every Sunday is a “little” Easter, so every Friday is a “little” Good Friday. Traditionally, the way Roman Catholics observe Friday as a day of penance is by not eating so-called “flesh-meat,” that is, the meat of warm-blooded animals. While not eating flesh-meat is a recommended way of observing all Fridays as days of penance, during the holy season of Lent not eating flesh-meat is obligatory, meaning it’s something our Mother, the Church, tells us we must do. It is certainly important to know and endeavor to live by the discipline of the Church, but not eating meat once a week will do little if anything in and of itself to conform you more to the image of Christ, to make you holy.

Isaiah took at least the elites of ancient Israel to task for observing days of fasting, but making their servants and employees labor hard on those days. In our first reading, the prophet addressed those who thought their fasting alone gained them favor with God. Isaiah even taunted them a bit by imagining those he addressed complaining to God, as saying, “Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” (Isa 58:3)

Too often we make Lent about doing external things, like giving up chocolate, or soda pop, or ice cream. Giving up these things is fine, if done in the proper spirit. But what is the proper spirit? Our responsorial Psalm, taken from Psalm 51, known as the Miserere, which is Latin for “mercy,” and is the first Psalm for Morning Prayer in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours every Friday, tells us what is the proper spirit: “For you are not pleased with sacrifices; should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” (Ps 51:18-19).

In our Gospel today the disciples of John the Baptist complain to Jesus that, unlike them and the Pharisees, his disciples do not fast. Our Lord explained that there was no need for his disciples to fast as long as he, the Bridegroom, was with them. But, after the Bridegroom was taken away his disciples would fast. So it is fitting, not just during Lent, but at other times, to both fast and abstain. Our fasting and abstinence, however, should be accompanied by increased prayer and selfless service to others. If it is not, then our fasting and abstaining is really just a weird form of spiritual dieting.

Without a doubt, here in the United States, we live in a wasteful culture of excess. The amount of food we waste, when so many go hungry, should cause us all to repent. As a result of living in a culture of excess, fasting or abstaining often seem to us like major sacrifices. In reality, how difficult is it really not to meat one day a week, or get by on one or two meals a day for a month-and-a-half, or to not eat at all two days a year? As Pope Francis often reminds us, there are many people in the world who are grateful to eat in one or two days what we consume in one meal. As Christians, this should concern us. And so one way of faithfully observing Lent is to eat one helping of what is served, eat it all, and then be done. Then serve your family by helping clean the kitchen after your meal.

God tells Isaiah the acceptable way to fast is basically to practice the Corporal Works of Mercy. What are the Corporal Works of Mercy? Feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; giving shelter to the homeless; visiting the sick, and visiting those in prison. All of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are depicted on the north wall of our Church. Doing one, some, or all of these things at some sacrifice to yourself will make your Lenten observance fruitful. It will cause God to take notice and bless your efforts by blessing those you serve. You see, Lent is not about you. Lent is about disciples of Jesus serving those in need for his sake and for the sake of God’s kingdom.

So, if you have not already, take home a Rice Bowl, which you can find at the back of the Church. Make it your goal over Lent to eat less and fill the Rice Bowl to overflowing with what you save from eating less. Also, pray more. Pray the Rosary, or at least one decade of the Rosary, every day. Don’t pray the Rosary for yourself, pray it for others. By doing these things Jesus will draw you closer to his Sacred Heart.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday: Lent begins

Lent begins today. It's the time to remember not so much our faithlessness, as to be reminded of God's faithfulness. We don't enter into Lent as though Christ never existed. We enter into Lent fully aware that the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, was born of the Virgin Mary, lived, loved, taught, suffered and died, was buried, rose again, ascended, and sent his Spirit to be the mode of his presence in and among us until he returns in glory. In other words, Lent, even Ash Wednesday, isn't the time to reflect on our unlovableness, on our infidelity, but on God's love and mercy. God is merciful because God is love.

I appreciated very much Pope Francis' short message for Lent, which I am sure was released awhile back, but I waited until today to read it. As one might expect, given the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the Holy Father's message is about experiencing God's mercy and then, being filled with mercy, acting mercifully towards others: "God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn."

In this year's Lenten message, Pope Francis emphasized inner conversion by means of practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I was struck by the Pontiff's insistence that "The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated."

We all need both divine and human mercy. As followers of Jesus, who is Divine Mercy incarnate, we are to be agents of mercy. In his message, the Pontiff highlights the fact that the story of salvation is a love story. He even notes that it will culminate in the wedding of Christ, the Bridegroom, and his Bride, the Church. He points out, "This love story culminates in the incarnation of God’s Son. In Christ, the Father pours forth his boundless mercy even to making him 'mercy incarnate'" (Misericordiae Vultus, 8).

I am very ambivalent about Ash Wednesday. I like vexing people, just a bit, by pointing out that it is not even a holy day of obligation. Does that mean I think you shouldn't go to Mass that you shouldn't receive ashes? Heavens no! Go. Receive. Nonetheless, without being too extreme, one must admit that there is a disjunction, perhaps what we might call a dialectical tension, between the very visible smearing of a bold black ashen cross on one's forehead and what Jesus warns his disciples about in our Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matt 6:1-6.16-18). If nothing else, I hope recognizing this tension gives you something to ponder.

I readily admit that I don't like walking around all day with ashes on my forehead. Since, as a deacon, I have day job, I serve at evening liturgies on Ash Wednesday. My own preferences and oddities aside, I urge you to keep in mind that just as the empirical evidence that Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharistic species is meant to be the lives of those of us who partake, people will not know that we are Christians by the ashes we receive once year and then proudly display - especially when we might use it as an occasion to scoff at the stupidity of those who don't know what it is- but by our love. Without love there is no mercy and without mercy there is no love.

Monday, February 8, 2016

I am not giving up alcohol for Lent

At least for me, the most obnoxious question as Lent approaches is, "What are you giving up for Lent?" Even for Roman Catholics who care about and seek to adhere to the discipline of the Church it is not necessary forego anything at all for the whole of Lent. In fact, maybe what someone might need is to take something up, rather than give something up. According to the discipline of the Church, what is required for the observance of Lent is to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from so-called "flesh meat" (i.e., eating the meat of warm-blooded animals) on Fridays in Lent. It is customary to give up something you enjoy, not because it is bad necessarily, as an act of penance. Predictably, in the late modern, or post-modern, U.S. Lent has become a form of therapy or yet another opportunity to live your best life now. As a result, people seek to lose weight, get in shape, quit smoking, quit drinking, etc., during this holy season. But doing those things is not really the point of Lent.

For a number years, last year included, I gave up alcohol for Lent. I am not giving up drinking this year. The reason for this is because last July I gave up drinking alcohol, apart from wine at Communion, completely and for good. In truth, I discerned way back in 2000 that I should quit drinking. Nonetheless, I persisted for 15 more years with some fairly successful, even quite extended, periods of abstinence. Last year I also seriously curtailed drinking coffee, giving it up completely for five months and only re-introducing it around Christmas time. These days, I don't drink coffee first thing in the morning, or even everyday. On most days when I drink coffee, I have a cup of de-caf. Maybe once or twice a week, usually in the afternoon, I enjoy a single cup of coffee. At this point, even enjoying a second cup would be no big deal. Both choices, prayerfully-discerned, have been for the best.

My relationship to coffee and caffeine, however, is very different from my relationship to alcohol. It's difficult for me to describe my relationship with drink, which is why I was so struck by John Waters' description of his own experience with drinking and then quitting drinking. In his book Lapsed Agnostic, in a chapter entitled "The Unquenchable Thirst," Waters wrote, "Just as the world of Harry Potter breaks down into wizards and Muggles, so it seems to me that the real world breaks down into those who by consent describe themselves as 'alcoholics' and people who can take a couple of drinks and leave it." Waters goes on to point out that the term "alcoholic" is misunderstood by most people most of the time. So misunderstood, in fact, that Waters, like myself, "would never publicly use the word to describe myself." Why? Because to most people, "an alcoholic is someone lying in the gutter clutching a bottle of wine wrapped in a newspaper." The adjective "alcoholic," Waters continues, in the minds of most people, equates to someone who has "thrown away everything he ever had because of his craving for this liquid poison." Here's where his writing began to hit home with me - "It was never like that for me." Indeed, it was never like that for me either.

I did not really make a bold announcement that I stopped drinking, at least not before now. As circumstances have given me occasion, I've let people with whom I socialize know. It's amazing how much adult socializing revolves around drinking. Most people are surprised that I've quit because they never perceived I had a problem because I never even came close to fitting the description of an alcoholic given above. While my reasons for drinking and occasions on which I would drink differ from his, like Waters,
My problem with alcohol related to the extent I was incapable of functioning without it. How much or how often I drank didn't matter. In fact, I could give up drink for weeks, or even months on end, but it took me many years to perceive these breaks, far from signalling an absence of dependency, were themselves entirely focused on the occasion of the next drink, projected weeks or months into the future - my birthday, St. Patrick's Day, the beginning of summer
It's a weird psychology that comes into play, but one with which I am all too familiar. I can remember years when all through Lent a big part of my focus was drinking the bottle of Beaujolais I usually had with my Easter lamb and my return to imbibing. So, I won't be giving up alcohol this Lent, or any Lent hereafter. And that is a good thing. As to the rest, what I am doing or not doing for Lent is between myself the Lord.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chosen, called, and sent

Readings: Isa 6:1-2a.3-8; Ps 138:1-5.7-8; 1 Cor 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

This week, the final Sunday before Lent begins, each of our three readings tells us about a calling issued and accepted. As Catholics we tend to use the word "vocation" instead of calling, but these words are synonymous, that is, they effectively mean the same thing. To my mind, one of the most important messages conveyed to us through hearing about the divine callings of Isaiah, Paul, and Peter is that our calling is in no way tied to our worthiness. The Lord will make a way for you to fulfill what he calls you to do if you have the courage to accept his call.

In our first reading Isaiah declared: "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isa 6:5). In our second reading, taken from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul pointed out to the Corinthian Christians - "For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (1 Cor 15:9). Finally, in our Gospel, St. Peter, the fisherman who, I think, somewhat skeptically and begrudgingly took fishing directions from a carpenter - who told him to set out in daylight and cast his nets into the water, after a night spent catching nothing (fishing was done at night)- after bringing in what sounds like an unprecedented haul, fell on his knees before Jesus and pleaded with him, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8).

To Isaiah, the man of unclean lips living amongst a people of unclean lips, God sent a seraph. A seraph is an angel who belongs to highest order of the nine-fold celestial hierarchy of angels. Seraphim, which is the plural of seraph, are associated with light, ardor, and purity. According to our reading, this seraph flew to Isaiah holding a burning ember "which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. 'See,' he said, 'now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.'" After this, Isaiah "heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?' 'Here I am,' I said; 'send me!'" (Isa 6:6-8).

Paul, after stating why he was not worthy to be an apostle, goes on to write, sounding perhaps a bit like Popeye the sailor man, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor 15:10a). What was Paul? He was an apostle, a first-hand witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, more importantly he was one who was sent to proclaim the evangel, the good news. This is why Paul wrote, "his grace to me has not been ineffective" (1 Cor 15:10a).

Our Lord's words to Peter after the fisherman's confession of unworthiness echo through the ages until the end-of-time: "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men" (Luke 5:10). With these words, Peter, too, is sent. It's important to ask what it was that Peter was not to fear. It doesn't strike me as very likely he feared fishing by the light of day, which was probably safer than fishing at night. I think what Peter was not to fear was his own unworthiness, his own limitations, his own lack of gifts and abilities, which were made all to obvious to him in light of Jesus' glory.

I remember years ago going on and on about my unworthiness to be a deacon with our then-Director of Diaconal Formation, who is a theologian and distinguished seminary professor. After listening to me for awhile, he said something like, "You're not worthy. Get over it. Nobody is." Those were helpful words, the very words I needed to hear and words I need to remind myself of from time -to-time, given my sometimes rigorist leanings.

Our readings this week reminded me of the first in-depth interview Pope Francis gave after being chosen to walk in the shoes of the Galilean fisherman. It was conducted by the Holy Father's fellow Jesuit, Fr. Anthony Spadaro and published in America magazine under the title "A Big Heart Open to God." The first question Fr. Spadaro posed to the Pontiff was, "Who is Jorgé Mario Bergoglio?" Pope Francis replied, "I do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner." I think this gives us a deep insight into why mercy is the centerpiece of Francis' papal ministry.

In baptism the Lord called you by name to serve him and sent you to usher in God's reign. Your call was confirmed in confirmation and is renewed each time you are sent forth from Mass. Lent is about preparing to celebrate the baptism of our Elect at the great Pascal Vigil and about renewing your own baptismal promises. The Sacrament of Penance is an extension of the Sacrament of Baptism. By receiving the mercy offered by the Father, through the Son, effected by the Spirit's power made available to us in this sacrament, you acknowledge your own unworthiness and place your trust in Christ, who bids you not to be afraid. Confession is where you learn firsthand that "perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18). It is also where you learn what was made known to Isaiah, Paul, and Peter, namely, "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Going to confession is an indispensable way to prepare for what happens at Easter.

The renewal of your vows at Easter can easily become an empty gesture, an exercise in mere ritualism, if there is no conversion of heart during Lent. Simply put, the renewal of baptismal promises should be more than words you speak. It should be you fearlessly saying yes to Christ once again. Stated succinctly, by virtue of your baptism, in which you died, were buried, and rose with Christ, you are called to selflessly serve others. During his Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy let make every effort to put into practice the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. By engaging in these out of love, not fear, or an oppressive sense of obligation, you will live out our baptismal calling.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Ideology, war, weed, and rock n' roll

From 0 to 60, that's how blogging usually works for me. I was beyond disappointed this week that Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky dropped out of the presidential race. Not that I think Sen. Paul was a perfect candidate, but, in my view, he was much better than any of the other candidates running for president in either party. My ideal candidate would be a fusion of Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders. The other issue that prompted the below rant, even more than Paul's dropping out of the race, is the current move to have young women register for the military draft. In the wake of these things, I quite spontaneously composed a rant this morning, which I initially posted on Facebook, not knowing how long it would be until I finished. In any case, file this post, too, under the tab, originated by Terry Eagleton, Hope without Optimism. I apologize up-front if what follows comes across as a bit incoherent.

Thinking about the logic in play in having women register for the draft, it seems to me one of those cases, not of "equality" (equality, rightly conceived, can account for differences), where a deceptive agenda was in play - those who pushed for women to voluntarily assume direct combat jobs kept saying it would never be mandatory and people foolishly bought it. By "deceptive agenda," I mean ideology. In terms of war, we've long since waded into Orwellian territory.

There are precious few in Congress in either party who aren't chicken hawks. Hence, there is virtually nobody who will speak out against the increasing militarization of our society. I am a 24 year veteran. I am a combat veteran. So, whether you agree or disagree with me, this is one issue on which I have earned the right to weigh in. With Rand Paul out of the running, there is not one Republican candidate who isn't hell-bent on increased military actions abroad. The legacy of the last 13 years, what we have wrought in many countries, ought to give any sane person pause. But no, we destroy countries, cultures, societies and then we balk at accepting people who want to flee the hell we've created as refugees, worried about what they might do to us. How's that for moral irony? Trump is the result of this noxious state-of-affairs, his campaign and rhetoric are manifestations of the monster we've created.

Clinton is really just a Republican who is honest (now, after dissembling and being dishonest for years) about her socially liberal views. She and Dick Cheney are cut out of the same cloth. Her big selling point now is that she is a pragmatist. The last thing we need right now is another amoral pragmatist, which really means she'll do whatever she has to do, say whatever she has to say, to stay in power. Let's face it, all of the Republicans believe the same things vis-à-vis marriage, abortion, etc., or are at least "pragmatic" about them. Of course, they appeal to their "base" by pretending to oppose these things, but intend to do nothing if elected, apart from making a few intentionally ineffective gestures.

Letting women voluntarily assume direct combat roles is the same as assisted suicide resulting in euthanasia, so-called same-sex marriage resulting in polygamy, or brothers, cousins, etc. "marrying" each other, and medical marijuana resulting in legalizing pot. I live in a "conservative" state that is rapidly buying into all these lies. They're morally enlightened (i.e., amoral) pragmatists to a person. My own state rep, who is Republican, LDS, doctor, is four-square for assisted suicide. Does he know my views? You bet your ass he does. I told him I don't want doctor who wants to kill people anywhere near me.

As Jimmy Carter observed decades ago, during the time he was lamenting what he perceived as a malaise into which people in the U.S. had fallen, that we will never have any better government that we deserve. Sounds plausible, but the fundamental assumption is faulty. But let someone with the stomach for it morally parse the hellish morass of pseudo-reality that is our presidential election system and the candidates it produces.

I'll end with an anthem that I tend to listen to quite a bit during presidential election years. This version of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" reflects the reality of our aging. For those who object to such things, Pete uses some foul language in his introduction to the song. I have to say, I still miss Keith Moon, who remains one of the greatest rock n' rollers of all time. At least today, I am far more interested in great rock n' rollers than I am in who will be the next POTUS.

Cultivating wonder, being attracted to reality

It occurred to me late last evening, as I realized I was not going to post a Friday traditio on Friday, that I had yet to post anything in February. Frankly, I posted more in January than I thought I would be able to do at the beginning of the year. Perhaps February, with Lent coming so early (Ash Wednesday is this week), will be a slower month. We'll see.

This week I began reading John Waters' 2007 book, Lapsed Agnostic. It is at one and the same time a deeply personal and very broad book. Waters, who is Irish, writes in a deeply insightful way about the Emerald Isle. While some of what he writes is specific to Ireland, especially the Catholic Church's role in and relationship to Irish society, which serves as case-in-point of the how the Church should not engage the state and society - though the two current archbishops Martin (Diarmuid and Eamon) are a wonderful breath of fresh air and remarkable pastors - most of it is transferable to the cultural, social, and political situation in the United States.

John Waters

Waters, who is a well-known rock journalist, while chronologically a baby-boomer, and well-aware of that fact in both its good and bad aspects, writes like a member of my generation, known as Gen X. Rock n' roll has no better apologist than Waters. Pointing to Paul Morely's 2003 book, Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City, he notes Morely's view that "Kraftwerk were sad." Here's his citation from Morley:
Sad about some things. Sad about other things. It was the sadness of life, the sadness that life goes, in ways that are beyond reason, very much more nowhere than somewhere. It was the sadness of knowing that you must try to head somewhere knowing that in reality we are nowhere. The sadness of doing something knowing it all comes to nothing. The sadness that the excitement of experience dissolves into an eternity beyond experience
While, in my view, Morley's is a well-written insight, Waters counters beautifully:
When I heard Kraftwerk I didn't think of them as sad. But I felt sad, just as, hearing other bands, I felt different things. The grown-up world tended then, as it does now, to regard youthful obsession with music as simply an expression of some yearning for identity - a noise with which to declare oneself. It isn't that hardly at all, but mainly a search for meaning, for affirmation, comfort and self-recognition. It is an intellectual, an imaginative and spiritual search, and it is directed at pop culture because the known, conventional world fails to echo the young person's proper sense of wonder and attraction
Of course, as I age the role music plays for me changes, I would say, even at 50, there is precious little "the conventional world" echoes to my sense of wonder and attraction.

Luigi Giussani

Cultivating, maintaining, wonder and attraction in middle age is no easy thing. But it's important work. It's also a great argument for have a lot of children. This goes to what drew Waters to the writings of Msgr Luigi Giussani, a person both of my readers will recognize as someone whose work has dramatically impacted me. What struck Waters, reading Don Gius as an adult, presumably for the first time, was this from his book The Religious Sense: "Picture yourself being born, coming out of your mother's womb at the age you are now at this very moment in terms of your development and consciousness. What would be the first, absolutely your initial reaction? If I were to open my eyes for the first time in this instant, emerging from my mother's womb, I would be overpowered by the wonder and awe of things as a 'presence.'"

Our very late Friday traditio is Kraftwerk's "The Man-Machine." Recorded in 1978 for the album of the same name (I resisted the temptation to use "eponymous" again), "Man-Machine" reflects the album's overarching concept, which dealt with the "robotization" of advanced civilizations.

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 ...