Friday, April 29, 2016

"Like a bird without a song"

April has not been a bumper month here at Καθολικός διάκονος, but that's okay. When it comes to writing, at least for me, sometimes you have to let things lay fallow for a bit. I can't bring myself to write about the campaign for president. I just don't have the heart to do it. How did we become so heartless and soulless?

So far 2016 is has been a strange year. There's been a lot to absorb, to synthesize, to assimilate or reject. I don't mind saying that I'm still a bit blown away by Prince's passing. Just today, during my Friday morning music round-up, I ran across Chris Cornell, who was with Soundgarden and Audioslave, covering Prince's song, which was made a hit by Sinéad O'Connor, "Nothing Compares 2 U." That makes it our Friday traditio.

Given the kind of blog this is, it bears noting that Cornell is a convert to Orthodox Christianity. On that note, I pray all my Orthodox friends and readers a blessed Good Friday today. Maybe that's the reason for striking a somber note.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Writing and living this way: a Saturday miscellanea

My writing ebbs and flows these days. During April it has mostly ebbed. There is no lack of things about which to write. Several years ago I gave up trying to write about everything I found relevant and timely. I don't have regrets about doing that for a time, however. Ultimately, it was just too time-consuming and exhausting. Without trying to sound too weighty, these days I mostly try write about things that truly matter, at least to me. I make no claim to do that in anything more than a yeoman's manner. I am well aware that I have much to be humble about and my writing is not the least of these things.

When I first began blogging in earnest nearly ten years ago, I struggled with the question, Why do this at all? It's a question I wrestled with for several years. Hopefully, I don't sound too selfish when I divulge that I ultimately concluded that keeping a weblog is first and foremost a vehicle of personal growth for me. While I would be lying if I said I wouldn't be disappointed if nobody read what I wrote, I can say I have never been driven by numbers or metrics. On a few occasions I have considered "monetizing" my blog. I have also entertained a few offers to move my blog over to Catholic cyberspaces where I could no doubt attract more readers and make a little money for myself and even more money for the enterprise running the page. I must admit it has been a temptation. But I have either resisted or, as in the one instance I was seriously considering making a move, it fell through, much to my relief.

In the early years of my blog, along with the Friday traditio, I would often compose a "Saturday miscellanea" post. I would do this by just creating and new post and seeing what my fingers typed. Since I mentioned Bob Dylan yesterday, here's an example: "YouTube Orthodoxy and Saturday miscellania." It even features a video on Dylan by then-Father Barron. This was before his Word on Fire started and before he became the sensation he is now. This post is in that vein, or, more likely, simply in vain.

A dear friend of long standing posted something on-line yesterday that caused me to think, that provoked me in a positive way. This is the heart of what she wrote: "Only one thing allowed Christianity to conquer whomever it reached: the Beauty of Christ and the Beauty of those simple lives, overturned by joy." She noted that political activism and fighting culture wars is no way to deliver the Good News. I agree. I think Christians must resist the impulse to reduce Christianity to a desperate rearguard action. However tempting the Benedict Option, or whatever, might seem, I firmly believe most Christians are not called to live in that way, but to live precisely in and for the world.

One thing that should keep Christians from getting too bogged down in culture wars and the like is the realization that Christendom is dead. Hence, the best way ahead does not lie in trying to resurrect it. Whatever good it wrought or bad for which it is responsible, it's dead and gone. I think part of what vexes many Catholics about Pope Francis is that he grasps this and is intent on leading us forward, not backward. "Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). Late last night I began reading T.S. Eliot's essay "The Idea of a Christian Society." Eliot's views seem to cohere with this observation, especially when, in the first chapter, he discusses the Church's delicate and difficult task of moving ahead while keeping the Church's mission and end in clearly in mind.

"Impression, Sunrise," by Claude Monet, 1872

Pope Francis has issued a call to joy. I am usually the last person to feel giddy about anything. But giddiness is not joy and feelings don't constitute happiness. Christ is my joy. He is not a means to an end, He is the end, "the thing in itself," as it were. If I am His then I have everything and nobody can take Him from me and He will not let me go. I know this through experience, which is the only way to know it.

Our Lord and St. Paul after him taught me this crazy notion: nobody can kill me because I've died and risen with Christ in baptism. This is liberation! "I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more" (Luke 12:4).

While there are things happening in the U.S. and other Western nations with regard to religious liberty that ought to concern us, the question, it seems to me, as it is in every age and milieu, is, How best to face these things? How do we live this way (i.e., as a disciple of Jesus Christ)? We need to stop seeing the other as a threat and resist the temptations to fight the world the on its own terms as well as the urge to simply run away. It seems to me that the Church in this country cannot do this until we develop what is truly faith, which is so much more than mere belief, or even the application of principles to life. Belief is a choice. Faith, which is faith in Christ, is a divine gift. Faith liberates us so that we are free to love without fear.

Love that is truly love presupposes no agreement. By his life, death, and resurrection Christ taught us and showed us what it means to love our enemies:
For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit [is] that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back" (Luke 6:32-35a)
We must not avoid these hard teachings lest we fail to love and become unrecognizable as Christians.

When I consider the three transcendentals- truth, beauty, and goodness- I put beauty in the middle. I do so because I think beauty integrates truth and goodness in much the same way I believe fasting integrates prayer and alms-giving and hope integrates faith and love. While this is probably stating the matter too strongly, beauty can turn truth into goodness. I state this because beauty impacts us through our senses. It is an experience born of an encounter. I refuse to say, "This is why we must engage the culture, must be engaged in cultural and artistic pursuits." The reason for my hesitation is that an attitude like that robs beauty and so impoverishes culture by turning art, be it painting, music, literature, photography, film-making, theater, sculpting, dancing, etc., into yet another form of activism, a way to push ideology. I am hard-pressed to think of anything more detrimental to art over the past 50 or so years, maybe even longer, than putting it at the service of ideology.

In another book I began reading this week, The Papist's Guide to America (for a limited time you can download it for free for your Kindle, or Kindle-enabled computer or device), the author, Daniel Schwindt, noted this about ideology: "You cannot press reality, with all of its mystery and contradiction, into a comfortably comprehensible set of generalities to be understood and applied with ease" (Kindle Locations 552-553). Faith is never a reduction of reality. Those who attempt to so reduce faith seek to turn it into an ideology.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Prince: requiscat in pace

If you're finding out that Prince died yesterday by reading this post, then I am sorry be the bearer of bad news. I can't exaggerate and say that his music impacted me as much that of David Bowie's. But I've listened to Prince for more than 30 years (hard to believe!). It bears noting that he and Bowie were very similar in many ways. When anyone thinks of either, they think of class and style that being your own, weird self is to be the best you can be, which is not an individualistic assertion at all. Society needs creativity because culture matters.

Life in the late modern West has a way of cutting you down, cutting you off, and making you conform. As wrong as many of Marx's prescriptions may have been, his diagnosis was for the most part accurate. Certainly what he called "alienation" afflicts us all. Consumerist society is really quite totalitarian in its way. We need people, cultural leaders, great artists, who refuse to let themselves be reduced and their art become merely a commodity, "product," "content," or whatever the money-grubbers call it.

Like a lot of people my age (50), my first real exposure to Prince was when his movie Purple Rain was released. At the time I was in Marine Corps Infantry Training School at Camp Pendleton, California. It was late summer 1984. I went with a buddy up to Los Angeles on a weekend pass (Greyhound bus) and stayed with his grandparents. Also living with his grandparents was his sister. His sister had a friend in whom my pal was interested. On Saturday night we went to the drive-in to see to Purple Rain. I did the gentlemanly thing and escorted his sister. She and I sat in the front-seat and watched the entire movie and enjoyed it. I think, like a lot of people there,we may have danced a little. Shortly after that I bought the movie soundtrack. I have listened to Prince ever since.

Prince was a prolific songwriter. In addition to the songs he recorded, he wrote quite a few songs that became hits for other artists. A quick sampling of some of these tunes are Chaka Khan's "I Really Feel You," "Manic Monday" sung by the Bangles, and Sinéad O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U." Truly great musicians are never limited by genre, they defy barriers and loathe being pigeon-holed.

Not one to be kept down by the man, Prince was an artist who kept control of his music and his artistic identity. Like Bowie, he saw, long before most people, where the music industry was headed, and beat most of the industry there. Another artist I admire to whom Prince bears resemblance is Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, Prince was usually apolitical, even before becoming a Jehovah's Witness around 2007 (he was raised a Seventh Day Adventist). Like Dylan, he could be quite frank when asked about things, unless he wasn't in the mood. In my view, he was usually content to speak nonsense to a media that is largely nonsensical and uncomprehending of anything that isn't now, especially to an entertainment media ready to crucify any artist for not swearing wholehearted allegiance to the spirit of the age. Proof of his sometime willingness to frankly speak his mind is a piece written by the Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein yesterday: "Raunchy Prince was actually a conservative Christian who reportedly opposed gay marriage." The headline, as headlines tend to be, is overly provocative and somewhat inaccurate. The content of the article is much less so and conveys a revealing moment.

Prince, as well as Dylan, was much too smart and cagey to push matters too far or let himself be reduced to his views on such matters. After all, it's as important to be as wise as a serpent as it is to be as gentle as a lamb. Even though he was reclusive, he loved people and had an artistic and musical vision that was, at its core, quite religious, if eccentric. What has rock n' roll, or R n' B, to do with religion? Not just a lot, but practically everything, at least in my view.

To say Prince was complex is only to note the obvious. His complexity was merely his humanity. He refused to let himself be reduced. But his music is the main thing. He was an amazing musical artist. One of those rare musical artists of which each generation has only a few.

Our Friday traditio is Prince's amazing guitar solo, played at George Harrison's memorial concert. As the story goes, Harrison's widow only wanted musicians who were friends of her recently deceased husband to play the set. But she was prevailed to include Prince. True to form, the Purple One more than delivered playing guitar on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps":

Prince, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne and others -- While My Guitar Gently Weeps from John Williams on Vimeo.

As Alicia Keys said at his induction into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame: "There are many kings. King Henry the Eighth, King Solomon, King Tut, King James, King Kong, and the Three Kings, but there is only one Prince. There is only one man who has defied restriction, who’s defied the obvious and all the rules to the game." Prince Rogers Nelson, rest in purple splendor.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Year C Fourth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 13:14.43-52; Ps 100:1-3.5; Rev 7:9.14b-17; John 10:27-30

Traditionally the Church designates that Fourth Sunday of Easter as Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd. We are his people, the flock he shepherds. In today’s Gospel we heard the Lord say of those who accept his gift of eternal life: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Being designated “sheep” by our Lord is, of course, a metaphor. A metaphor is the comparison of two unlike things.

In light of this an important question emerges: Do you follow Jesus, or do you only admire him from what you think is a safe distance? As our reading from Revelation discloses, those who belong to Christ and follow him into eternal life do so regardless of circumstances. For a true disciple, following Christ is not dependent on how life seems to be going at any particular moment. All who follow Christ into eternal life survive what our reading from Revelation calls “the time of great distress” (Rev 7:14).

When is the time of great distress? It stretches from today until the Lord returns in glory. All of the saints persevered through the time of great distress. This is true no matter in which era of the Church a particular saint lived. One of the great benefits we derive from studying the lives of the saints is to be encouraged in our struggles because they struggled too, often suffering greatly. The saints show us what it means to deny ourselves, take up our daily cross, and follow Christ come what may. Persevering to the end will be as true of any future saints as it is of those who are already canonized (Luke 9:23).

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles we learn that Paul and Barnabas suffered for preaching the Good News in Pisidian Antioch. The more fruit their Spirit-filled preaching bore, the more they suffered. But they did not stop proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord when their Spirit-led and Spirit-filled proclamation became difficult. In the wake of being forcibly expelled from the city, Paul and Barnabas left behind a group of joy-filled and Spirit-filled disciples to carry on their work (Acts 13:52).

In this regard, I think it relevant to note that the fruit of the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary- our Lord’s Crucifixion- is perseverance. We pray that we will persevere to the end because we will only be able to do so by the grace of God. It is because we need God’s grace, which is nothing other than God- who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- sharing divine life with us, that we need to avail ourselves of all the means of grace Christ, through the Holy Spirit, graciously places at our disposal.

Foremost among the means the Lord uses to imbue us with his grace are the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. But he gives us other means as well. We have the fundamental spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Alms-giving can also be described as selfless service to others. As most of us are aware, this year we are celebrating an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Even if we were not in the midst of such an observance it would bear noting that practicing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, which, as the Holy Father noted, cannot be separated, are also powerful means of grace Christ places at our disposal.

Paul and Barnabas in Lytsra, by Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem, 1650

Rather than think of the fundamental spiritual disciplines and the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy as lists of rules to follow in order to earn God’s favor, a state-of-mind that is very easy to fall into, we should think of these as concrete ways of following Christ, of being his disciples, people who grasp that eternal life is not life that begins after mortal death, but begins in baptism and continues by our endeavoring to make God’s reign a present reality.

Because today is Good Shepherd Sunday, it is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. It should be our constant prayer not only that Christ will call men to become priests who will shepherd his flock, but that those called will respond. This is why before each Sunday Mass we pray together the prayer for vocations. We should never pray this prayer half-heartedly or ever make it a matter of going through the motions. It should be a heartfelt plea to God from his people.

It’s equally important to note that there is only one God-given vocation: Follow Christ. You received this call in baptism. For those of us who are ordained, our basic vestment, the white garment we wear over our street clothes, is called an alb. In Latin, the word albus means white. The alb signifies our baptism. So the alb is like the ceremonial white garment with which a person is presented when s/he is baptized, which, in turn, symbolizes the robes of the great multitude “from every nation, race, people, and tongue" who worship around the Lamb’s throne (Rev 7:9). Upon being presented with her baptismal garment, the newly baptized person is exhorted to see in the garment an outward sign of her Christian dignity, which she is to bring unstained into the kingdom of heaven. Baptism, not ordination, is the fundamental sacrament of the Christian life.

Being a priest or a deacon are only two ways Christians respond to their baptismal call. Other ways of responding are consecrated and/or religious life and marriage. Like holy orders, Christian matrimony is a sacrament. It’s important for Catholic parents to encourage their sons and daughters to consider vocations to priesthood and religious life and to support the young men and women, who, like Jesus’ first followers, desire to leave everything in order to follow Christ more closely by living the evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Being single, too, is a Christian vocation when the person is committed to living his singleness as a way of following Christ more closely.

Living as we do between the already and the not yet, our reading from Revelation provides us with an inspired and vivid image of the eschatological reality in which we already participate whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. In light of our readings, it seems fitting to end with this prayer:
O God, may the Good Shepherd who willingly laid down his life for his sheep and who is now risen, lift us up, fed by this heavenly food, to be better sheep and better disciples of the one Shepherd

Friday, April 15, 2016

"And the world comes tumblin' down"

It's mid-April. It seems utterly strange to me that Holy Week, Easter Sunday, and the Octave of Easter are all over. Here along the Wasatch Front we've been having a genuine Spring. I awoke his morning to one-quarter inch of snow on the ground. This turned into a beautiful, sunny, afternoon in the low 60s.

It just seemed fitting that "April Skies" by Jesus and Mary Chain is our Friday traditio this week:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Do you love Jesus?

Readings: Acts 5:27-32.40b-41; Ps 30:2.4-6.11-3; Rev 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

In today's readings we move from the glorious acclamation of all created beings crying out, "To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever" (Rev 5:12), to a somewhat vexing conversation between the resurrected Lord and St. Peter that took place on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where the two met for the first time at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. In other words, from one reading to the other we move from the transcendent to the immanent, from the eternal to the existential, we might even say, in a sense, we move from from the abstract to the concrete.

Jesus asking Peter three times if he (Peter) loved him (the Lord) is meant to automatically refer us back to the three times Peter denied knowing Jesus as Christ's passion started to grow intense. Without a doubt, the Lord offered Peter the chance to repent by expressing his contrition for his three-fold denial. While Peter does not let the opportunity pass him by (we know he is sorry for his denials), if we pay close attention to this part of their dialogue, we see that Peter did not yet fully repent, his life was not yet completely turned around and oriented towards the reign of God.

In St. John's narrative the first two times the Lord asked Peter if he loved him he used the Greek word agapas, which is a form of the word agápe. While Peter responded affirmatively to both queries, it seems he was holding something back, which holding back is indicated by his use of the word philéo each of the three times he responded. It is the properly conjugated form of the Greek verb philía. On this basis one might argue that the love Peter expressed fell short of the love for which Jesus asked.

Philía is the love of friendship, or brotherly love. Because it begins with the root philía, Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love. It is a strong love, far stronger than the English word "like." Agápe, which, of the four Koine Greek words for love, each describing a different dimension of love (it is after all a many splendored thing), was rarely used in antiquity, that is, at the time the New Testament was being written. It was because it was a word without a lot of baggae that Christian writers adopted it to describe "love grounded in and shaped by faith" (Deus caritas est par 7). So, the contrast between philía and agápe in our Gospel reading for today is perhaps best understood as the difference between an all-too-human love with all of its limitations and conditions, which still puts self first, and divine love, which is boundless, condition-less and selfless, even unto death.

The third time Jesus asked Peter the only question that really matters, he switched to the word phileis, which is the correct form of the verb philía, the word with which Peter responded the first two times. I believe this shows how tenderly Christ looked on Peter. His response to Peter was patient, kind, and gentle. Because he is perfect, the Lord did not seek to coerce Peter into professing a love he did not yet feel, or possess, and perhaps didn't yet fully grasp. Even if Christ succeeded in convincing Peter to utter the word he longed to hear, it would've been just that- a word, one that did not correspond to the apostle's heart.

The Crucifixion of St Peter, by Caravaggio, 1601

Our reading from Acts provides us with a concrete display, not of defiance of worldly power, but of agápe, of love that is fearless: "This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). The fearlessness with which, as Christians, we are to love is not borne from our ability to inflict damage, or physically defend ourselves, or even to always win the argument. We are to be fearless because Christ conquered death and, through the waters of baptism, has delivered us into the promised land. This is why our Psalm-response today is: "I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me." Note that we did not sing- "you will rescue me." Christ's rescue mission is accomplished. Living in the light of that fact is how we love the Lord the way we should.

What I think our Gospel reading clearly seeks to communicate is that even after encountering our resurrected Lord for the third time, Peter's love for Christ was not yet perfect. Like the Lord himself (Heb 2:10), Peter's love needed to be perfected through suffering. Hence the words Christ spoke to Peter to end their conversation:
"Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me" (John 21:18-19)
More than anything else Peter had witnessed, including the resurrection, what perfected the Prince of Apostles in love was suffering. His ultimate witness, which in Greek is martyria, was his own crucifixion in Rome. I think we can take Peter's request to be crucified upside down, a request he made because he did not deem himself worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord, as his perfect response to Jesus' question "Do you love me?" where love is agápe.

My dear friends, to be holy means nothing other than to love perfectly. Experience, the circumstances in which you find yourself all day every day, is how the Lord seeks to perfect you in love. This is the pattern of Christian life, this is what Jesus meant when he said, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:23-24).

Friday, April 8, 2016

"About this road we've been running"

On Wednesday, 6 April, which marked his 79th birthday, country music great Merle Haggard passed away. His decision to pursue a career in music was inspired, at least in part, by none other than the Man in Black himself- Johnny Cash. The inspiration occurred when Cash played his famous concert at San Quentin prison, where the young Haggard was a 20 year-old inmate. He was incarcerated for attempted burglary.

According to Dwight Yoakam, who remembered Haggard in a piece he wrote for Rolling Stone, it was Cash who later told Haggard, who was understandably ashamed of having been in prison, during an appearance on Cash's television show, "Merle, I think you owe it to yourself and the public to talk about your life."

Merle Haggard

Whether you live 20 years or 90 years, we're only here for a brief time. It goes by fast, sometimes too fast and other times not fast enough, but truck along it does and at its own clip. All one needs to do to grasp Einstein's theory of relativity as it applies to time is experience how fleeting are the good times and how seemingly endless are the bad times. As Einstein himself explained through his secretary: "An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour." Those are words that could easily be turned into lyrics for a country song, could they not?

In any case, Haggard's 2015 duet with Willie Nelson, deemed by Rolling Stone to be Hag's number one "essential" song, "Live This Long," written by Shawn Camp and Marv Green, is our Friday traditio.

"Live This Long" strikes me as a kind of a "My Way" song, only not as defiant. What makes "Live This Long" markedly less defiant than "My Way," it seems to me, is that at the heart of the song lies a contradiction of sorts:

Wouldn't change much of nothing
About this road we've been running
For of wild times, wild women, and a song
But we would've taking much better care of ourselves

The words "taking much better care of ourselves" repeat no less than three times in the song. It seems to me that the regret of not taking better care of one's self belies the expression, "Wouldn't change much of nothing," especially when you consider that taking better care of yourself entails a lot of things, perhaps extending beyond the physical to encompass both the psychological and even spiritual dimensions of one's being. But even if the phrase is taken as only referring to taking better care of the body, especially when one considers the exploits the song extols, it would mean changing quite a lot. But then part of being human, at least as I experience it, is to be somewhat self-contradictory in this regard. St. Paul expressed this well:
For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? (Rom 7:19-24)
I think Martin Luther stated it more succinctly with his simul iustus et peccator, which phrase refers to the Christian as someone who is simultaneously righteous and a sinner. Maybe it's just that tension that makes the song worth posting and listening to.

I can only speak for myself, but I'd say a life without regrets isn't really a life, at least not a human one. To insist I live without regrets is either to see myself as perfect, something I'm sure neither Merle nor Willie can be accused of, or simply not to caring enough about others and caring far too much about myself.

Another thing worth noting is that Merle Haggard is most probably the only country music great for whom The Sex Pistols opened. It happened on 10 January 1978.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A fountain of Divine Mercy Sunday posts

Here's a compilation of Divine Mercy Sunday posts from over the past several years here on Καθολικός διάκονος :

2015- Divine Mercy: from competition to complementarity

2015- Divine Mercy Sunday: Jesus, I trust in You

2015- Divine Mercy in Marriage

2014- Year A Second Sunday of Easter

2013- Divine Mercy Sunday

2013- Saints are theologians par excellence

2011- Year A Second Sunday of Easter/Divine Mercy Sunday

Divine Mercy Sunday

As the dictionary defines it, mercy is "compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm." Forgiveness, one might say, is the outward and concrete sign of mercy. It goes without saying that it is certainly within God's power to punish us for our transgressions. I do not believe that God has much of a stomach for punishment. Perhaps this is so because God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is love. As Christians we know that the mercy of God has a face and a name: Jesus Christ.

The definition of mercy also mentions compassion. To have compassion on another is to suffer with them. In Christ Jesus, then, mercy reaches its epitome in his suffering not only with us, but for us.

The very first gift our resurrected Lord gave to his beloved bride, the Church, is the sacrament of mercy, that is, the sacrament of penance, known also as confession. It is by means of what we might call this sacramentum misericordia (everything sounds better in Latin, right?) that through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit we are reconciled to the Father. It is a beautiful thing, is it not?

I have a couple of stock phrases I use when preaching and teaching about the sacrament of penance. The first is, "You don't go to confession to admit your failure. It's where you go to claim the victory Christ won for you." Secondly, "You don't go to confession to find out whether or not God will forgive you. You're always already forgiven in Christ. You go to confession to make forgiveness real, to experience it." It is so we can experience God's mercy firsthand that the sacrament of penance is a liturgical rite, liturgy being something we do and not just something that clutters up our head-space.

Experiencing God's mercy for ourselves is vitally important because we need to learn to trust God. How do you come trust someone? In order to trust another that person must prove himself trustworthy. God wants to show us that we can trust Him. What better way to build trust than to be merciful to us? Think about how many times in life you've screwed up and realized you screwed up. You were sorry for what you did and had a firm intention of not doing it again, but you still had to face the wrath, the punishment, you had coming. This can be disheartening and perhaps leave you feeling bitter and defiant, less contrite than you were before. Even when you recognize the punishment is just, it can be difficult to take. Contrast that with a time when you messed up and were treated with mercy and understanding by the one who was in a position to punish you. God is like the latter, not the former.

While God's mercy doesn't spare us the natural consequences of our sins or even necessarily the temporal punishments due them, for the sake of Christ's sorrowful passion, the eternal punishment due our sins is completely wiped out. I believe, too, based on my own experience, which, as a sinner, is quite extensive, that God gives the true penitent the grace s/he needs to deal with consequences of her/his sinful behavior.

St. Faustina began a passage of her journal by paraphrasing 1 John 4:18:
Love casts out fear. Since I came to love God with my whole being and with all the strength of my heart, fear has left me. Even if I were to hear the most terrifying things about God's justice, I would not fear Him at all, because I have come to know Him well. God is love, and His Spirit is peace. I see now that my deeds which have flowed from love are more perfect than those which I have done out of fear. I have placed my trust in God and fear nothing. I have given myself over to His holy will; let Him do with me as He wishes, and I will still love Him (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska #589)
God doesn't just command us to love him with all our heart, might, mind and strength, he wants us to experience his love for us and then respond in love. God sent his Son because he loves us. Jesus subjected himself to his passion and death for love of us. It was the power of love that raised Christ from the dead on the first Easter morning. The power of the Holy Spirit is nothing other than God's love active in the world, the Holy Spirit being nobody apart from the personification of the love between the Father and the Son. Our risen Lord breathed on his disciples, thus infusing them with the power of the Spirit to be agents of God's mercy (John 20:21-23).

"Those who sincerely say, 'Jesus, I trust in You' will find comfort in all their anxieties and fears" (Pope St. John Paul II, who passed into eternity 11 years ago yesterday).

Saturday, April 2, 2016

More on sex by a believing deacon

There are few subjects that draw more interest than sex. In light of a comment made on my previous post about sex I offer a few more thoughts.

Over the years here on Καθολικός διάκονος I have written a lot about various aspects of sex as it pertains to Church teaching and Christian living. In particular, I have written a great deal about Humanae Vitae. Again, before anyone uncorks and begins to offer me remediation on Church teaching regarding human sexuality, let me assure both of my readers that I personally try to adhere to the Church’s teaching and encourage others to do so because I believe it is the way for human beings to flourish.

My friend with whom I’ve been corresponding and who I mentioned in my last post on sex heard the homily, in which a robust denunciation of homosexuality and quite possibly people who are homosexual was offered, at a vulnerable point in his journey back to the Church, which journey began last summer.

While sex and procreation, according to nature and revelation, go together – though this link grows ever more tenuous, even among Catholics, including clergy - Humanae Vitae posits a “unitive” purpose for sex. This unitive aspect of sex is a progressive, one might even argue a revolutionary, element of Humanae Vitae, causing even some of a traditionalist bent to reject it. According to the unitive purpose, sex unifies a couple through physical intimacy. In this context, “physical intimacy” is something of a euphemism for sexual pleasure. I like that one of the most popular Christian books on marital sex bears the title Intended for Pleasure.

I am firmly convinced that it is no accident that sex feels so good. For my money sexual pleasure is the best pleasure to be had. Shocking, I know. I’ll take C.S. Lewis’ word for it that the pleasures of heaven are better than those of sex. Keep in mind, however, that Lewis wrote about the pleasures of marital sex in A Grief Observed in a very frank manner. It strikes me as silly to argue against extra-marital sex, no matter the variety, by insisting sex was not intended for pleasure. It's an argument with zero credibility that can easily be refuted by experience.

With the widespread acceptance of contraception as morally legitimate, again, even among Catholics, the matter becomes very confusing for many people because it renders Church teaching incoherent. Since I am a deacon who blogs as a deacon, it's interesting for me consider the witness of married permanent deacons when it comes to living according to Church teaching on matters of sex in marriage.

In his essay, “The Body’s Grace,” written years ago, Rowan Williams observed: “in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.”

While I would disagree with Williams about the ambiguity of all the biblical texts to which he alludes, while accepting the ambiguity of some, I certainly agree with his assertion about them being abstractly deployed by Christians who accept the moral legitimacy of contraception. I also agree with what he asserts about complementarity once procreation is severed from sexual intercourse. 

So, the confusion experienced by so many concerning Church teaching on homosexuality not only arises from “the world” but also arises from within the Church. Here's my view- until we’re ready to adequately prepare couples to live the sacrament of matrimony and to insist with the same intensity we bring to bear in railing against homosexuality (though I would hope for a more compassionate and pastoral approach than we often muster when addressing homosexuality) that married couples live the true meaning of marriage as taught by the Church, we ought to stop fearfully reacting to last summer’s SCOTUS ruling in Obergerfell and lay-off an incoherent approach that serves primarily to alienate people.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Book review published

I know it's not very professional to express excitement about certain things, but I've never claimed to be much of a professional, at least as regards those kinds of unspoken protocols. As both of my regular readers know, last summer I was invited by the University of Notre Dame's Center for Liturgy to lead a seminar on the diaconate. It was an experience I enjoyed immensely.

Last fall the Center invited me to read and review the The Heart of the Diaconate: Communion with the Servant Mysteries of Christ, by Deacon James Keating, Ph.D., for the Institute's on-line publication Church Life Journal. The reason for my excitement is that today the journal published my first book review. My previous publications amount to one article in the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament's publication Emmanuel entitled "Liturgy and Mission" (March/April 2008, Volume 114, Number 2) and an article for America magazine: "Looking Back and Ahead" (20 July 2009, Volume 201, Number 2).

Keating's book is quite good. It was a pleasure to read and review it. If you're interested in finding out my thoughts on this book, I invite you to read the review: "Review: 'The Heart of the Diaconate' by Deacon James Keating." Moreover, I invite you to check out the new on-line edition of Church Life Journal in its entirety, which is what I am doing.

In perusing the journal's new edition I came across another review that caught my eye- Andrew Geist's review of Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History, by John Bergsma. I've had a copy of Bergsma's book for awhile. I don't remember how I came to possess it and I have yet to read it. Based on Geist's review now I will.

I have to say, this is the most link-a-rific thing I've posted in a long time.

Christus resurgens ex morituis

Because we are still in the octave of Easter today, Friday, is not a day of penance marked by abstinence, but a day of rejoicing marked by feasting in celebration of the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Christ Risen, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1616

Accordingly, our traditio for Easter Friday - brought to my attention on the evening of Easter Sunday by a friend of mine who is a priest - is "Christus Resurgens" by the Irish choir Anúna. According to their website, the name Anúna "is derived from the Gaelic term An Uaithne, a collective description for the three ancient forms of Irish music - Goltraí (song of lament), Geantraí (song of joy) and Suantraí (the lullaby)."

Christus resurgens ex morituis (Christ rising from the dead)
Jam non moritur (will never die)
Mors illi ultra (Death no longer)
Non dominabitur (rules, that is, "does not dominate")

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...