Friday, March 31, 2017

"By Friday life has killed me"

Writing the other day in Great Britain's Catholic Herald newspaper, John Waters, as is his forte, focuses on what matters at a time when the focus by many in the Church is on what doesn't, what I call majoring in the minors. While hew writes specifically about Ireland, much of what he writes is transferable to other "advanced" Western countries, especially the U.S. and, I imagine, the Catholic Church in England, given how foundational the Irish were to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in both of these countries.

I think this, for example, finds some resonance in the U.S.:
The brand of Christianity purveyed by the Irish Church since the famines of the 1840s was rich in piety but poor in reason, which meant that in the end people regarded their priests more as a moral police force than the custodians of mystery in the world. Christ, at once the Chief of Police and yet manifestly incompatible with this moralism, became externalised and suffused in an aura of sentimentality
This not-so-old-school, but rather new and untenable form of Catholicism, mistaken by many as "that old-time religion," held sway among the largely Irish Catholics of England too. Morrissey wrote about how deeply about how distressfully off-putting this ultimately toxic form of religion, in the worst sense of the word, was for him in his Autobiography. His song "I Have Forgiven Jesus" is sort of about this. It's infantile, which is why it is easily outgrown and rejected.

I think permanent deacons, who have been described as clerics who largely live lay lives, can help overcome this. In fact, it would be ridiculous to argue that narrowing the breach between the Church and society in Western countries was one of the major reasons for restoring the renewed diaconate. I can't help but think Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin had this in mind when he established the diaconate in his diocese, and because he was the first bishop to so do, established it in Ireland. The Irish bishops sought and obtained permission from the Holy See to establish the diaconate as a permanent order on Emerald Isle in 2001, but Archbishop Martin ordained the first 8 deacons only in 2012.

The other day there was an article making the rounds on social media that posed the rhetorical question about whether reading Pater Tom (Merton) was dangerous for one's faith. The pre-determined conclusion was "Yes" and that reading him should either be avoided or done with great caution. One commentator even opined that Merton died when he did because God took him out- the Puritan god goes Catholic hunting? I would agree that reading Merton is dangerous, but not in the way the author of this puerile piece supposed. In my view, reading Merton poses just the kind of danger to which faith needs to be exposed.

In any case, perhaps with boring predictability, our Friday traditio is Morrissey singing "I Have Forgiven Jesus" from his brilliant 2005 "Who Put the 'M' in Manchester" concert. I have used this song before. Please forgive my repetition, which I don't see as being mindless.

Why did you give me
So much desire?
When there is nowhere I can go
To offload this desire

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"I was blind and now I see"

Despite the persistent efforts of many to by-pass, overlook, and/or ignore this fact, Christianity is a religion of paradox. For example, according to Christ, it is only those who forfeit their lives for the sake of the Gospel, that is, for love's sake, whose lives will be saved. Those who seek to save their own skin will lose their lives. In other words, the central paradox of the Christian faith can be stated as, the only way to live is by dying. The only way to witness to the Gospel is by selflessly laying down your life for love of God and neighbor. Not being ends in themselves, but means to ends, this is what practicing the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving more intensley during this holy season is aimed at accomplishing. This is why to give witness is to be a martyr.

The only way beyond the Cross is through the Cross. You can't go over, around, or under it. This is why Jesus describes what it means to be his disciple thus: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me" (Matt 16:24). Living a paradox requires a person to live a sort of tension. Another way to describe living a paradox is living a mystery.

Cutting to the chase, in today's Gospel it is the blind man who sees. He does not regain his sight after he washed off the saliva-infused clay in the waters of Siloam. He does not come to really see, or see things as they really are, until after he is tried, not once, but twice, and then thrown out. It was not until after he was tried, found wanting, and cast aside that Jesus "found" him"- "When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out," St. John tells us, "he found him and said, 'Do you believe in the Son of Man?' He answered and said, 'Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?' Jesus said to him, 'You have seen him, the one speaking with you is he.' He said, 'I do believe, Lord,' and he worshiped him" (John 9:35-38). When he says, "I do believe, Lord," is a sure sign he now sees.

After this, those who tried and cast out the man who was born blind also see Jesus; they behold him with their own eyes. Unlike the formerly blind man, who now truly sees because he "sees" who Jesus is, not only do they not believe, but they think Jesus is someone opposed to God because he breaks the Law by healing on the Sabbath. Jesus says to them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin" (John 9:41a). In other words, if they had had no clues as to who Jesus is- their clue, as the formerly blind man had, in fact, taught them (something they rebuked him for trying to do), was his healing- they would have no culpability. They would have no culpability because it was not intuitively obvious to the casual observer who merely saw Jesus in passing that he was the Messiah, God's only begotten Son in the flesh, the Savior of world. Nonetheless, they insist that they can see and see things clearly, see things how they really are. It is their insistence that they could see despite being blind that caused their sin to remain. How do you heal a sick person who thinks he's well? How do you save someone who thinks she's saved?

In order to really see, we need to apprehend reality according to all the factors that together constitute it. God-made-man-for-us in the Incarnation of the Son of God is not just a factor that contributes to the make-up of reality, but, as Pope St. John Paul II insisted in the very first sentence of his fist encyclical, Redemptor hominis ("Redeemer of man"): "The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history." This is what it means to see.

One might say, in order to see you need to be blinded by the Light of Christ. Saul of Tarsus was blinded on the road to Damascus. It was not until after he arrived in Damascus and that faithful disciple, Ananias, laid hands on him that he regained his eyesight (Acts 9:17). In a reversal of what is presented in St. John's Gospel, it was only after Saul could see that he was washed- died, was buried, and rose with Christ- in and through the waters of baptism (Acts 9:18). It is only by amazing grace that you can live the Mystery of Christ. And the mystery of life in Christ is that Christ can live in you by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Annunciation of the Incarnation, the Mystery of mysteries

I feel a twinge, but just a twinge, of guilt for not posting anything this year in honor of the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Today is the second solemnity that falls during Lent: the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. For those who like to do liturgical arithmetic, nine months from today the Church will celebrate the Lords' Nativity. For some reason, there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the nature of the Immaculate Conception, which Roman Catholics celebrate on 8 December, mistaking it for the Annunciation.

The Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, who is also Mater Ecclesiae (i.e., Mother of the Church), means that, in addition to being "consubstantial," homoousios, one in being with the Father, Jesus, in his humanity, is also consubstantial with his mother and so with us. We call the Church's attempt to convey the mystery of Christ's full divinity and full humanity the hypostatic union. Of course, words, even poetry, which comes closest, always fall short of the mystery, which, by its nature eludes our secure grasp.

Yesterday I wrote about Heidegger's assertion that "historicity," that is, temporality, determines "the ground of [Da-sein's] being." Da-sein, again, is being capable of thinking about being. In his philosophy, Heidegger distinguishes between Sein (Being) and sein (being). Hence, Sein and sein refer to different aspects. Sein is Mystery that Da-sein can't help but ponder, whereas sein refers simply to the existence of some entity. One might say that in the Incarnation Sein and sein collided, creating a sort of metaphysical Big Bang. This collision has been described as "so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma” on the world (Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology 7). After the trauma inflicted by the Incarnation, Da-sein can never be the same.

Annunciation, by Matthew Whitney

In light of this, I think it can rightly be said that the Incarnation of the Son of God is the Mystery of mysteries. In an uncharacteristic manner, St. Paul points this out in an understated way: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption" (Gal 4:4). If I am not mistaken, isn't this why we are to bow when, during our recitation of the Creed in the Eucharistic liturgy, we say the words, "and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man"?

In reading Guardini's reflection on the third Glorious Mystery of the Blessed Virgin's Most Holy Rosary- The Descent of the Holy Spirit- this morning, I was struck by these words:
The picture of Mary's later life serves as promise and security. It shows us that we must not take time too seriously, for if we have faith, eternity dwells in us (The Rosary of Our Lady 128)
Eternity can dwell in us because the mystery of life in Christ, only made possible by his Incarnation, is that Christ can dwell in you by the power of the Holy Spirit. As Michael Card, in his contemporary Christian song, "The Final Word," insightfully wrote: "And so the Light became alive and manna became Man/Eternity stepped into time so we could understand."

I think a fitting reflection for today's solemnity is one by Fr. Tomáš Halík from his book Patience with God:
The biosphere of Truth is mystery, inaccessible depths, and unreachable heights. Its homeland is the eschaton, the absolute future beyond the horizon of history - and its major role in the present is to be constantly in a state of opposition to our attempts to make absolutes out of some of our human attitudes, approaches, and opinions, which are limited by our own individual (not universal) experience

Friday, March 24, 2017

"Those who find themselves ridiculous"

Nearly every Friday across most of the years I have blogged, I have posted and will continue to post what I call a traditio. Traditio, to remind both my readers, is a Latin noun that refers to the content of what is handed on. Tradere, by contrast, is a Latin verb denoting the act of handing on.

During Lent I have been dipping back into Heidegger’s seminal work, Sein und Zeit, which translates into English quite easily as Being and Time. What is great about dipping into this work is being able to dwell on what strikes me whenever I take a dip. Today I read the sixth section of the second part of Heidegger’s Introduction to Being and Time. He gave this section the title “The Task of a Destructuring of the History of Ontology.” In reading it, I was struck by his treatment of “tradition” that occurs in the course of his discussion on the “historicity” of Da-sein. In German "da" means "there" and "sein" means "being." Da-sein, to give a brief description, is a subject capable of considering its own subjectivity, or a being capable of thinking about being. The “tradition” Heidegger refers to in this section and throughout his work, through which he sought to recover the question of Being, is the Western metaphysical tradition. Heidegger held that this tradition had forgotten the question of Being, which, in his earlier lectures on metaphysics, he set forth as “Why are there beings rather no beings; something instead of nothing?” This question is clarified even further at end of the section of the Introduction to Being and Time under consideration: "What does being mean?"

After noting that the “historicity,” which I take to mean the inherent temporality hinting at the finitude of Da-sein, “can remain concealed from it,” he notes that Da-sein can “discover, preserve, and explicitly pursue tradition.” For Heidegger, “The discovery of tradition and the disclosure of what it ‘transmits’ [hands-on with regard to Being], and how it does this, can [and should, according to Heidegger] be undertaken as a task in its own right.”

Heidegger posited that because Da-sein is being-in-time, it “is determined by historicity.” Because Da-sein is being-in-time, “historicity” determines “the ground of its being.” So then, it is of necessity that Da-sein has a history. But history, or, more precisely, Da-sein’s historical memory, tends to forget. Just as, on Heidegger’s account, it forgot the question of Being, it forgets many other things too.

It is no great insight to point out that history usually conceals as much as it reveals. This is not just true with regard to the Western metaphysical tradition that Heidegger boldly and with some success sought to “destructure” by retrieving the question of Being, but with history in general. History, as it is handed-on, often consists of what might generously be called ironed out narratives, or simplifications that leave a lot out. Often what is left out, it might be argued, is not included because it is deemed unimportant. It is frequently the case, however, that things are left out, not because they are unimportant, but because they are inconvenient to the ideology being handed-on. This is not always conscious, even when the omission, which frequently and over time gives way to convenient additions and glosses, begins.

Take a story as well-known as Martin Luther’s initial presentation of his ninety-five theses. The narrative handed-on tells us that he made his objections to the sale of indulgences known by nailing them to the door of the church of the Holy Spirit in Wittenberg, Germany on 31 October 1517. It is this date we are commemorating this year as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But as Catholic Luther scholar, Erwin Iserloh, insisted way back 1961: the story is most likely a legend.

Iserloh noted that it was Philipp Melanchthon who first wrote about Luther’s bold hammering of his theses to the church door. But Melanchthon was not an eyewitness because he did not arrive in Wittenberg as a professor until the following year, 1518. Further, the story of nailing his theses to the church door did not appear for the first time until after Luther’s death. During his lifetime, Luther, who was quite dramatic in his speaking and writing, never made mention of having done this.

Luther’s theses were contained in a letter he wrote to his superiors on 31 October 1517. The title of Luther’s document was Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum. In it, he denounced the sale of indulgences. A disputatio was an invitation to dispute, or debate, a given subject. It’s easy to forget that Luther did not set out to create a schism in the church, or to become a heretic, but to clear up the misunderstandings that led to the gross abuse of indulgences. In response to the Augustinian friar and professor of Scripture’s proposed disputatio, the Catholic Church did not acquit itself very well. It was not until quite awhile later that Luther renounced his belief in indulgences altogether. Another example of “history’s forgetting” is set forth well by Gary L. Macy in his book The Hidden History of Women's Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West.

Where am I going with this? According to Heidegger in the section under consideration,
Da-sein grows into a customary interpretation of itself and grows up in that interpretation. It understands itself in terms of this interpretation at first, and within a certain range, constantly. This understanding discloses the possibilities of its being and regulates them. Its own past- and that always means that of its ‘generation’- does not follow after Da-sein but rather always already goes ahead of it
It is the awareness of this dynamic that allows Da-sein to interrogate and investigate the “customary interpretation” in which it has grown up, whether this is the metaphysical inheritance of the Hellenic/Roman/Christian West or the specific content of what is handed on as Christian tradition, which often depends heavily, too heavily some argue, on Greek and Roman thought. While the past, in a manner speaking, always beats Da-sein to the future, Da-sein’s ability to “better remember” the past can shape and form the future.

What is our traditio for this Friday in the Third Week of Lent? It’s James singing “Sit Down.”

Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those who find they're touched by madness
Sit down next to me
Those who find themselves ridiculous
Sit down next to me

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A few notes on deacons

Over the past month or so, I have been over-preparing for a lecture I am giving at a local parish tomorrow evening. The title of my presentation is "Diakonia and the Diaconate: Past, Present, and Future." The lecture, as you might imagine, is divided into three major sections: "The diaconate past"; "The diaconate present"; "The diaconate future". What is found below comes from the end of "The diaconate past" and beginning of the "The diaconate present" sections. It provides a very top-level overview of the history of the diaconate in the United States and the history of the order to which I belong in my own local church, the Diocese of Salt Lake City, which received 15 new deacons last month:


On 2 May 1968, shortly after Paul VI’s motu proprio [Sacrum diaconatus ordinem] paved the way for the establishment of the renewed diaconate, the bishops of the United States requested permission from the Holy See to establish the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry in this country. The justifications provided by the bishops for establishing the renewed diaconate in the U.S. were:
1. To complete the hierarchy of sacred orders and to enrich and strengthen the many and various diaconal ministries at work in the United States with the sacramental grace of the diaconate
2. To enlist a new group of devout and competent men in the active ministry of the Church
3. To aid in extending needed liturgical and charitable services to the faithful in both large urban and small rural communities
4. To provide an official and sacramental presence of the church in many areas of secular life, as well as in communities within large cities and sparsely settled regions where few or no priests are available
5. To provide an impetus and source for creative adaptations of diaconal ministries to the rapidly changing needs of our society

Newest deacons for the Diocese of Salt Lake City- Photo Intermountain Catholic

A little more than a year later, on 30 August 1968, the Holy See’s apostolic delegate to the United States informed the bishops that Pope Paul VI had granted their request.

In the Diocese of Salt Lake City, it was Bishop Joseph Lennox Federal, our sixth bishop, who established the permanent diaconate. He did this on 28 September 1974. Then-Father (later Monsignor) John Hedderman was in charge of forming our first deacons. He went on to serve as one of the early presidents of the National Diaconate Directors Association. On 26 December 1976, the Feast of St. Stephen, one of the seven men set apart by the apostles to serve the Christian community, who was martyred for his preaching, Bishop Federal, who was present at all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council, ordained the first deacons for the Diocese of Salt Lake City. In 1977, Bishop Federal ordained seven more men to the permanent diaconate. So, for the past forty-plus years, the permanent diaconate has thrived in our local church.

Diaconate present:

As of October 2016, there were 44,566 permanent deacons throughout the world. As of May 2015, there were approximately 18,500 permanent deacons in the United States. Of these about 14,600 were engaged in active ministry. Ninety-three percent of active deacons are currently married, while 4% of active deacons are widowed, and 3% have never married. After the ordination of our 15 newest deacons, permanent deacons now outnumber priests in the Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Thirst, hope, a well, and life-giving water

I preached today, but I am not posting my homily. In thinking about the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, I am struck by thirst, hope, a well, and life-giving water.

Faith in Christ is your own deliverance from Egypt. This faith that St. Paul declares justifies, liberates you from sin and death. Sometimes, as with the Israelites of old, as you make your way through life's deserts, it is only natural to sometimes wonder, "Is the Lord with me or not?" What prompts this question are circumstances that suggest God may not be present, at least not in a way you expect or would like him to be.

In his book Patience with God, Fr. Tomáš Halík suggests that love happens when faith and hope have been obliterated. It's an interesting take and a fairly convincing one framed as it is in the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and rooted in St. Paul's discourse on the matter (1 Cor 13:1-13). While Halík provides a worthwhile discussion on the primacy of love, my own view remains a bit more synthetic. I agree that when a person learns to love perfectly s/he also knows perfectly and, therefore, faith and hope reach their destination as a person realizes her/his destiny.

I believe the question, "Is God with me or not?" ought to prompt two things. First, it ought to prompt one to call to mind what the Lord has already done for her, which includes how he did it. Second, it gives one the opportunity to become more mature in her faith. Maturity in faith enables us to use what is happening, even that which is unpleasant and causes suffering, for bringing about God's purposes in and through us. In light of today's readings, there seems to be an important sense in which the Dos Equis motto, "Stay thirsty," applies to faith.

Thirst, I think, easily relates to what St. Paul wrote to the Christians in ancient Rome in the passage that is our second reading. Hope is the aspiration for something not yet fully realized. What I believe distinguishes hope from wishing is trust. Trust can only be built through experience. This trust goes back to the fact that God did not free you in order to lead you into the desert to die. The experience of the ancient Israel is recapitulated in Jesus' forty days in the desert, where he was tempted. The apostle mentions the love of God being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. God's love is life-giving water. It was created, sustains, and is now redeeming all that is. If hope is the flower of faith, then love is its ripe fruit.

God is mystery. As such God is unfathomable depth, the bottom of which you can never reach. But, as Luigi Giussani succinctly stated, human beings are a direct relationship with the Mystery. This is why the question "Why?" constitutes our humanity. It is the concrete manifestation of the fact we are made in God's image.

In Jesus, God, who is Mystery, became one of us. The Christian answer to the question posed in a song made popular by singer by Joan Osborne more than 20 years ago, "What if God was one of us?", is: "For us men [in the original Greek anthropos- neuter term for human being- in Greek the neuter is distinct from both the masculine and feminine, unlike English, in which it is identical to the masculine] and for our salvation, he came down from heaven and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man."

The life-giving water Jesus gives us is himself. He doesn't just want us to drink it, but to be immersed in the water, which refers to baptism and is a metaphor for the very life of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For my money, the best definition of grace is God sharing divine life with us. Divine life is constituted by love. As Scripture conveys: "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16).

St. Teresa of Kolkata (a.k.a. Mother Teresa of Calcutta) took as her motto these words of Jesus: "I thirst." The Lord uttered these words as he hung on the cross (John 19:28). That Jesus thirsted for the Samaritan woman more than she thirsted for him is expressed well in the Preface for the Eucharistic Prayer for the Third Sunday in Lent:
When He asked the woman of Samaria for water to drink, Christ had already prepared for her the gift of faith. In His thirst to receive her faith He awakened in her heart the fire of Your love

Friday, March 17, 2017

"maybe they'd tell you what I would say"

Today is St. Patrick's Day. I always like to note that, in addition to being a deacon's son, Patrick was most likely a native Welsh speaker. As a young man he was captured and taken to Ireland as a slave. He escaped, became a priest, and went back to Ireland as a missionary. He is, without a doubt, a pan-Celtic saint. While St. Patrick's Day in the U.S. is a secular holiday largely consisting of the kind of excess that would make classic Celtic saints cringe, it is more of a religious observance in Ireland.

While I recognize it's probably a bit sanctimonious to say so, today I have been asking Venerable Matt Talbot to intercede for all who think and act as through the quintessence of being Irish, or any kind of Celt, is getting piss-pants drunk. If you drink, I have to say, no self-respecting Celt would drink something like Bud Light dyed green.

For what it's worth, today was a normal Lenten Friday for me, replete with abstinence, a good run, Stations of the Cross, the Sorrowful Mysteries of Our Lady's Rosary, soup and bread for supper with my parish. I did permit myself the indulgence of a Del Taco shrimp burrito for lunch. I also read Romano Guardini's short reflection on the first Sorrowful Mystery of the Blessed Virgin's Most Holy Rosary, which is Jesus' Prayer in the Garden. As I learned the Rosary, the spiritual fruit of this mystery is contrition for sin. It is a personal custom of some years now to pray the Act of Contrition after invoking each of the five Sorrowful Mysteries, just before the Our Father. What stuck with me from Guardini's reflection was this: "The hour of Gethsemane is inexhaustible. We must draw from it as much as our hearts can hold" (The Rosary of Our Lady 101).

Our tradito for this St. Patrick's Day is U2's "Bad" off their truly unforgettable album The Unforgettable Fire. Either this or a "A Sort of Homecoming" is my favorite song off this album. The Unforgettable Fire is my favorite U2 album, followed by All That You Can't Leave Behind. I picked a live version of "Bad" from their 1985 "Wide Awake in America" tour.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Praying thoughtfully, from my heart

It's easy to pray thoughtlessly, especially when praying set or fixed prayers. For those of us who pray the daily offices of the Liturgy of the Hours, it can easily become a matter of fulfilling an obligation. As part of ordination, clerics promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Secular clerics, such as myself, also known as diocesan or regular, clergy, are understood to be obligated to pray what are called the "hinge" hours (because it is on them the other 5 offices swing, as it were). One priest said to me recently after I told him the difficulty I sometimes encounter praying Evening Prayer (Vespers in the old idiom): "The office is like a difficult wife- nobody wants to put up with her." While this made me chuckle a bit and gave me some comfort in knowing that my struggle to pray Evening Prayer was widely shared, this does not describe my relationship with office.

My experience with praying the Liturgy of the Hours, especially Evening Prayer, to extend the metaphor, is more like a good, undemanding wife, who, rather than cherish, I sometimes (not always) ignore. I remember reading a kind of guilty reflection by Pater Tom (Merton) about praying the office out of obligation while he was away from the monastery. At the end of the day, like any other commitment, praying in general and praying Evening Prayer in particular is a matter of priority, of setting aside the time and, as with my wife, faithfully keeping the commitment. In other words, cultivating my spiritual life isn't that different from the rest of my life- there are no tricks or shortcuts.

What prompted these thoughts about thoughtless prayer this morning? Lent, which, like Advent, by the grace of God, never goes according to my well-laid-out plan. Because prayer is a dialogue, not a monologue, it doesn't only depend on the one praying, but also on the One to whom we pray. Therefore, sometimes it is enough simply to maintain the discipline of prayer in watchful waiting. Reading about the fifth Joyful Mystery, "The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple," from Romano Guardini's dense little book The Rosary of Our Lady, I ran across this, concerning the Blessed Virgin's maternal worry upon realizing, three days later, that he Son was not with the group traveling back to Galilee:
All of this repeats itself spiritually in the life of every believer. At first, Christ is the center; our faith in Him is firm and loving. But then He disappears for awhile, often suddenly and apparently without the slightest reason

A remoteness has been created. A void is formed. We feel forsaken. Faith seems folly. "Against all hope," we must maintain hope. Everything becomes heavy, wearisome, and senseless. We must walk alone and seek

I read this this morning just after finishing Morning Prayer (the office in Latin called Lauds). It wasn't this passage that started me thinking about how rote praying the office can become. It was the powerful Intercessions for Wednesday, Second Week of Lent, not just one of the petitions, but all of them:
Help us to receive good from your bounty with a deep sense of gratitude,
-   and to accept with patience the evil that comes to us.
Teach us to be loving not only in the great and exceptional moments,
-   but above all in the ordinary events of daily life.
May we abstain from what we do not really need,
-   and help our brothers and sisters in distress.
May we bear the wounds of your Son,
-   for through his body he gave us life
So, today, Jesus showed back up, not so much to comfort and console me, but to challenge and provoke me. In all honesty, he showed up yesterday during my silent time in a similar manner. I think these petitions go to the heart of the meaning of Lent.

To paraphrase Tolstoy: "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." Among Catholics it might be said: Everyone thinks of changing the Church, seeking to move it forward or backward, but only a few think of changing themselves. It is these few who, during their time on earth, allow themselves to be sanctified, that is, made holy, made like Christ. We call them saints. One way they allow themselves to be converted is not only by persevering in prayer, but by persevering in prayer with the Church, which can be quite difficult at times.

Friday, March 10, 2017

"The wind is low the birds will sing"

I am currently reading Ian Rankin's Tartan Noir crime novel Knots and Crosses. This is the first in his series of crime novels featuring Edinburgh detective John Rebus. In addition to being a former Special Air Service (SAS) solider in the British army, an experience that left him quite traumatized, Rebus is a believing, if intermittently practicing and guilt-ridden, Christian. To his credit, Rankin conceives of Rebus' faith as something quite central to his character's personality. In other words, while not what one would call a mature faith, or a faith that is particularly well-formed, Rankin does not make Rebus' faith a caricature or a straw man.

In one chapter, Rebus, who is recently divorced, spends the early afternoon of a Sunday with his 11 year-old daughter, who lives with her mom. As he is with his daughter Rebus thinks something to which I can wholly relate: "He wondered whether his reason for believing in another reality behind [I would say beyond] this one might not be because the everyday was so frightening and so very sad. If this were all there was, then life was the sorriest invention of all time."

It easy to see in such an understandable thought, which one need not be a Christian to have, how easy it is for a Christian believer to forget something Fergus Kerr reminded me of towards the end of his book Theology After Wittgenstein. What Kerr reminded me of comes by way of his fellow Dominican, Edward Schillebeeckx, namely "that believing in God, far from being an explanation of the world's existence, is a rather a repudiation of metaphysical dualism" (184). "Given the distress anyone must feel at the suffering, evil and injustice in the world, it is natural to think that God cannot have willed the world to be as it is" (184).

The world as it is, or at least as I often experience it, the world as Rankin expresses it in the mind of his literary character in the passage above, seems like it can in nowise be considered normal. Stated simply, the world does seem like what it was intended to be, again, assuming the world exists intentionally. In other words, it is quite understandable to see the world as highly defective. It is from this that many Christians come to believe that "salvation" can only be accomplished either by bringing back a lost paradise or by an utterly new creation coming down from above, built, as Kerr writes, "upon the ruins of this world" (184). In short, we come to understand salvation as "being freed from our mortal humanity and our creaturliness" (184). Of course, this is a semi-gnostic understanding of salvation. As such, Christians must reject it.

It is against such an understanding of salvation, arising as it does from metaphysical dualism, which posits a hard-and-fast disjunction between God and creation, between the natural and the supernatural, that Schillebeeckx insisted in his work God Among Us that the narrative of the fall is directed. According to Schillebeeckx, the original sin was the refusal to accept human finitude. Kerr cites Schillebeeckx from the same work to this effect:
The basic mistake of many conceptions about creation lies in the fact that finitude is felt to be a flaw, a hurt which as such should not really have been one of the features of this world...finitude is thought to be improper, an ailment, even sinfulness or apostasy, a flaw in the existence of mankind and the world. There is a feeling that ...mortality, failure, mistakes and ignorance should not be part of the normal condition of our humanity
This desire to transcend our finitude, which will not happen even after we are resurrected and experience beatitude, according to Schillebeeckx, is the disease from which we need to be cured: "To want to transcend finitude is megalomania or arrogance which alienates people from themselves, from the world and from nature" (185). We must, therefore, resist the temptation to believe "that the self is out of place in this world" (185). Salvation is accomplished precisely in and through the world as it is and not something that comes crashing in from without or the result of a successful effort to turn back the clock. It seems to me that Lent is the ideal season to work on realizing this inescapable reality: that reality is inescapable- that faith is a full-on embrace of reality, of the world as it is and not as we wish it were, rather than an attempt to escape from it. "Remember you are dust..."

Our traditio for this Friday of the First Week of Lent is Siouxsie Sioux beautifully covering the Beatles song "Dear Prudence":

The wind is low the birds will sing
that you are part of everything
Dear Prudence won't you open up your eyes?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

St Patrick's Day hullabaloo

This year St Patrick's Day, which falls during Lent every year, is on a Friday. Of course, on Fridays during the holy season of Lent, Roman Catholics are obliged to abstain from eating the meat of warm-blooded animals (there is no obligation to eat fish). Technically, this means that eating meat on a Friday of Lent is a sin, a confessable offense. At least in the United States, it is customary for many bishops, by no means all, to dispense their local churches from the obligation to abstain from eating meat and any other Lenten discipline one may be trying to observe, when St Patrick's Day falls on a Friday. Predictably, these dispensations do not sit well with some self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy.

But let's be Catholic: if you want to eat meat on St Patrick's Day when it falls on a Lenten Friday and your bishop dispenses you from the obligation to abstain from meat, then it's fine to eat meat. Do it and savor every bite. Contrary to the expressed views of some Catholics, to think yourself more Catholic than your bishop, or even someone else's bishop, is to fail to understand the essence of catholicity. To be Catholic does not mean adhering to a rigid set of static rules externally imposed and rigidly enforced.

It is this inadequate understanding of what it means to be Catholic that Pope Francis is challenging head-on and meeting with no little resistance. As Catholic author Daniel Schwindt recently noted on Facebook:
Note to interested Catholics: Since there's a bit of talk going around about Pope Francis and the possibility of schism, the following reminder might be timely. Canon 751 defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him."

Thus, one is not "in schism" due to a departure from Tradition or from doctrine. One is in schism only with reference to the pope. So, while it IS possible for a pope to cause a schism, it IS NOT possible for him to actually be "in schism" or to commit the crime of schism, since he cannot refuse submission to himself.

The possibility of a "heretic pope" is another matter, but one which, according to experts in canon law, is so remote a possibility that history presents no examples
Of course, if you live in a diocese where the bishop has granted a St Patrick's Day dispensation, you are by no means obligated to eat meat. You may choose to abstain. This point is key: your decision not to eat meat in no wise makes you more righteous, more holy, and certainly not more Catholic, than those who eat corned beef, a cheeseburger, a steak, some bacon, or, heaven forbid, a bacon cheeseburger with corned beef on top.

For anyone struggling with this, may I suggest meditating on Romans 14:13-23, which includes this passage: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom 14:17). As you reflect, don't play amateur exegete, which usually results in a not too masterful eisegesis (a reading into). In this passage, St Paul addresses abstaining from food and drink (likely meat sacrificed to idols) that someone new to the faith, or who has an immature faith, believes it is sinful to consume. He urges those who are more mature in their faith to refrain from consuming these in the presence of one whose faith is less mature so as not to give scandal and potentially endanger your brother's or sister's immature, but hopefully growing, faith.

I think this passage is directly applicable to the St Patrick's Day dispensation controversy that pops up every year St Patrick's liturgical memorial occurs on a Friday. The principles Paul sets forth in this passage apply even though the apostle is urging abstaining and not consuming. I suppose if I were with someone on a St Patrick's Day that fell on a Friday of Lent, one for which we both had been granted a dispensation from Friday abstinence, who thought it sinful for me to indulge, I would refrain so as not to scandalize my friend in Christ who is not mature and maybe not too secure in his faith. It would be, on the whole, a small sacrifice. After all, I love fish n' chips.

Conversely, I think, according to the principle the apostle lays down, it works the other way too. If someone's bishop grants him a dispensation from Friday abstinence during Lent, it is very wrong, sinful in fact, for a person of mature faith to guilt him for making use of it. "For the sake of food, do not destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to become a stumbling block by eating" (Rom 14:20), or, by extension, not eating. While St Paul was certainly not enthusiastic about Christians participating in pagan rituals, he saw nothing inherently wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols, albeit with the provisio that one should not eat such meat if it caused a brother to stumble. Hence, making use of a properly granted dispensation should cause nobody scandal. If someone chooses, for his/her own reasons, not to make use of the dispensation and so not indulge, that is fine too. Hopefully, the decision not to make use isn't one made for self-righteous reasons, or done as the result of mistaking means for ends.

During Lent, as well as outside of this holy season, majoring in the minors is antithetical to being a Christian disciple. It seems to me that those who style themselves "Trads" like to recklessly throw the word "heresy" about. Many who call themselves "Progs" (i.e., "Progressives") like to toss about the term "Pharisaical." It can in no wise be considered heretical for a bishop to dispense his local church from Friday abstinence during Lent to celebrate the festival of a saint. It seems to me that at root Jesus' main problem with the Pharisees who disputed with him was mistaking the prescriptions and proscriptions (i.e., the rules) of the Law for ends in themselves, as opposed to means to the end of becoming holy, which is to become like Christ, which is to love perfectly.

There are two solemnities that typically occur during Lent: St Joseph's Solemnity on 19 March, which, like St Patrick's Day, always falls during Lent, and the Solemnity of the Annunciation on 25 March (nine months before Christmas). When these solemnities fall on a Lenten Fridays, no dispensation is needed to eat meat. You may do so because a solemnity trumps, as it were, a Friday of Lent.

In light of all the above, The Smith's asking the question, "What Difference Does It Make?" strikes me as a very congruent, not to mention, very early, Friday traditio.

The devil will find work for idle hands to do
I stole and I lied, and why?
Because you asked me to!
But now you make me feel so ashamed
Because I've only got two hands
Well, I'm still fond of you

Speaking of bishops, later today I will be attending the installation Mass for our new bishop, the Most Reverend Oscar Solis, who will become the tenth bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Maybe I'll invite him for corned beef and cabbage a week from this Friday.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Our Lady's Rosary, updating Guardini III

The First
Luminous Mystery

The Baptism

"... Who was Baptized for us."
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?" Jesus said to him in reply, "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed him. After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt 3:13-17)
The Father declares His pleasure with His Son before Jesus begins His public ministry. Jesus is not accepted by the Father after He has done what the Father finds pleasing. The Father is eternally "well pleased" with His Son. The Father is pleased with the Son because the Son is. This is true paternity. Divine love is the pattern for all paternity.

In all four Gospel accounts of Jesus' encounter with John the Baptist, the Baptist recognizes Jesus as the One whose forerunner he is. In John's Gospel, the Baptist sees Jesus on two consecutive days. Upon seeing Him, John, the seal of the prophets, proclaims: "Behold, the Lamb of God" (John 1:29.36).

Il Battesimo di Cristo by Giotto, ca. 1305

It is easy to miss that, in addition to being baptized, Jesus is also confirmed on the banks of the Jordan. What is confirmed, or made more certain? His identity as the only begotten Son of the Father. He is anointed directly by the Spirit. He does not need mediated signs and symbols, a prayer invoking the Spirit, or sacred chrism. He is the Anointed One, the Messiah. Hence, the theophany.

The Lord's Baptism makes explicit what, until now, is implicit. Even so, His identity as the Lamb of God, the only begotten Son of the Father, remains discernible only to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Grasping that Jesus is the Lamb of God, points to the understanding that He is bound to become a sacrifice. It is not intuitively obvious to casual observers that Jesus is "the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

Just as Mary received what could easily be taken as a rebuke by her Son after she reproved Jesus for staying behind in the Temple when he was twelve years old (Luke 2:48-49), no doubt His departing from Nazareth to do His Father's will, which led Him to the Cross, was painful for His Mother to accept.

In addition to being the eternally begotten Son of the Father, Jesus is also the time-begotten Son of Mary. Just as in His divinity He is one in being, or consubstantial, with the Father, so in His humanity He is consubstantial with His Blessed Mother and, through her, with us. It is the mystery of Jesus' full divinity and full humanity that enables us to become children of God and, by extension, children of Mary, through rebirth in Baptism. At the risk of turning apologetic, this is why an orthodox understanding of who Jesus is remains so important for giving Baptism its ontological, as opposed to merely canonical, validity. Like Jesus, our Baptism makes what is implicit explicit. God made us and redeemed us for Himself because Deus caritas est ("God is love").

While His Baptism makes Jesus known publicly, it is not until He emerges from the wilderness, where He is led to be tempted of the devil, that His public ministry begins in earnest.

While this is longer than Guardini's "interpretations" of the mysteries of the Rosary, I reach nowhere near his depth. I am not surprised. Four more to go and so, to be continued...

Our Lady's Rosary, updating Guardini II

After his first mention of the mysteries of the Rosary towards the end of the fourth chapter of Part 1 of The Rosary of Our Lady, the next place Romano Guardini mentioned the sets of mysteries that together make up the Rosary in its entirety is in his introduction to Part 2.

Fr Romano Guardini walking in the foreground

In the 1998 Sophia Institute Press' paperback edition of The Rosary of Our Lady, Part 2 is entitled, "A Short Interpretation of the Mysteries of the Rosary." It is in this section that Guardini next mentioned the cycles of mysteries that together compromise the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the edition I am using, it is the second paragraph of page 65. Below is my attempt to integrate the Luminous mysteries into the introduction to Part 2. Again, my words are in brackets. I think figuring out what words of von Schuecking's translation I have changed is easy enough:
There are [twenty] such mysteries, divided into [four] cycles named in accordance with their character: the Joyful, [the Luminous], the Sorrowful, and the Glorious Rosary. The first one contains the events of Jesus' childhood, the second those of His [earthly ministry], [the third] those of His Passion and death, [and the fourth] those of His glorification. In this way they span His whole life, and, united with His own, the life of Mary
Again, it surprises me that the lacuna between the Joyful and Sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary remained all the way until 2002, when Pope St John Paul II added the Luminous mysteries. In order, the mysteries of Light are: His Baptism by John in the Jordan, the Miracle at the Wedding Feast of Cana, His Proclamation of the Gospel after His 40 Days and Nights in the Desert, His Transfiguration, and His Institution of the Eucharist.

It seems pretty obvious that the three cycles did not, as Guardini suggested, span the whole of the Lord's life. There was a huge gap between the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph finding Jesus in the Temple, which is the last of the Joyful mysteries, and His Prayer in the Garden, which is the first of the Sorrowful mysteries. What happened during that "time"? That was the "time" of what is reckoned to be His approximately 3 years of ministry, which culminated, at least in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), with His going up to Jerusalem, where the events of His Passion, death, and Resurrection occurred.

Next comes the difficult part - providing "A Short Interpretation" of the 5 Luminous mysteries. I am doing this for no other reason than I want to as a devotional act during Lent. Yes, it's weird being me. I happen to like it.

To be continued...

Our Lady's Rosary, updating Guardini I

One of the books I am reading for Lent is the late Romano Guardini's little tome The Rosary of Our Lady. I read much of the book over Advent, but laid it aside for reading during this season due to other, more pressing, things. Since Guardini originally wrote the book in 1955 (he composed it in German with the title Rosenkranz unserer lieben Frau) and died in 1968, the book knows nothing of the Luminous Mysteries added to Our Lady's Rosary by Pope St John Paul II in 2002 in his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae. The Luminous Mysteries fill a lacuna in the mysteries of the Rosary by proposing mysteries of the Lord's earthly life and ministry for our contemplation along with the mysteries surrounding his birth, passion, and resurrection.

In addition to reading Guardini's little book over the first part of Lent (Guardini's depth makes up for any perceived lack of breadth, one of his short chapters gives me more than enough to reflect on), I wanted to attempt to integrate the Luminous mysteries into the book. This requires supplementing his text in some places as well as composing a whole new chapter on these light-filled mysteries.

The first place in the book where Guardini broke the Rosary into its constituent mysteries was in Part 1, Chapter 4, entitled simply "Mary". In the Sophia Institute Press paperback edition, first published in 1998 as an exact reprint of their 1994 hardbound edition, translated by H. von Schuecking, Guardini's mention of the mysteries of the Rosary begins at the bottom of page 38 and continues on page 39. It consists of one paragraph. Below is my attempt to integrate the fourth set of mysteries, named Luminous, into that text. My additions are in brackets. I think the changes to von Schuecking's translation are pretty obvious:

As a doctoral candidate in Germany in the 1980s, Pope Francis considered writing his dissertation on Guardini. Sadly, he did not complete his doctorate
The whole, as it is expressed in the chain of beads, includes five decades and thus forms a cycle of five mysteries. There are [four] such cycles. The first is the Joyful Rosary; its mysteries deal with the sweetly serene and yet overshadowed youth of Jesus. [Second, the Luminous Rosary, which begins with Jesus' Baptism by John in the river Jordan and concludes with His Institution of the Eucharist, is concerned with the mysteries of the Lord's earthly ministry. The third], the Sorrowful Rosary, comprises His death on the Cross. [The fourth], the Glorious Rosary, deals with the glory of His Resurrection and Ascension, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and Mary's fulfillment
The passage in Chapter 4 that struck me today was Guardini's answer to the question, "Who is Mary?" In reply, he wrote:
Let us say it as simply as it can possibly be said: she is the woman for whom Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our Redeemer, became the main purpose of life. This fact is as simple and at the same time as far beyond all human understanding as is the mystery of our Lord's Incarnation (pg 33)
Every Sunday before one of our parish's three Masses, which includes our vigil Mass on Saturday evening, we pray the Rosary together. Various groups in the parish send representatives to lead us in this prayer. Being the deacon of the parish, at least for now, I have the privilege of leading on my own. So, this morning, prior to the 9:00 AM Mass, I had the privilege of the leading my sisters and brothers in praying Our Lady's Rosary. We prayed the Luminous mysteries, which seemed wholly appropriate for this First Sunday of Lent.

To be continued...

Misery is the need for mercy

Readings: Gen 2:7-9.3:1-7; Ps 51:3-6.12-13.17; Rom 5:12.17-19: Matt 4:1-11

Lie/die; lying/dying. These may seem like random associations, but random they are not. Words that rhyme have at least that in common, which is a lot, especially when one thinks of that most effective means of human communication: poetry. In today's first reading we hear about what we have simply come to know as "the fall." We did we fall from? The succinct answer is grace. We fell from God's grace. You see, God made us to live in a state of grace, which is an old-fashioned and somewhat stilted way of pointing to the fact that we are made for communion: communion with God, communion with each other, and communion with the whole of creation.

Our deadly fall from grace was the result of believing a lie. When it comes to the account of the fall in Genesis, as well as to both creation accounts, taking it too literally drains the narrative of much of its revelatory meaning. What is easy to overlook is how true, how utterly brilliant, are these pre-historical narratives in telling us, not how things came to be, but why there is something rather than nothing. At the end of the day, as fascinating as discovery can be, how questions are not nearly as interesting as why questions. Investigating the how of things, which often fills the investigator with wonder and awe, seems almost always to lead to asking Why? The account of the fall in Genesis is an inspired way of telling us how the world, how our lives, came to be in the state they're in. Humanity's alienation from God because of sin is real, observable, and empirical.

Even if you don't believe in God it's likely you very often experience the world as a messed up place. In fact, the very real problem of evil, what philosophers and theologians call theodicy, is one of the main reasons many people lose faith in God. To see how messed up things are, however, you need to look no further than yourself, your own thoughts, words, and actions. Again, whether you believe in God or not, you are implicated in the messy state-of-the-world today. Hopefully, you are also implicated in efforts to overcome the world's messiness, as well as your own.

In the account of the fall, the serpent tells two lies. The woman recognizes and rejects the first lie, which is the question about God telling her she could not eat from any of the trees in the garden. The truth of matter is, she was free to eat from each and every tree in the garden, except "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" God put in the middle of garden. The second lie was that eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would make the woman (and the man) "like gods." Being like god, or being God, enables one decide for herself what is good and what is evil. It is a rejection of one's creaturliness, a denial of that fact she did not make herself. It was this second lie for which the woman fell and fell hard, as did the man subsequently, predictably falling for a far less subtle argument. Lest we be too hard her, it's the lie we fall for every time we sin too.

Sin is knowing that something is wrong, having some understanding as to why it is wrong, perhaps even believing that it is wrong in our more lucid moments, and yet choosing to do it anyway. This often takes the form of what we call rationalization, which simply means, in God-like fashion, granting yourself an exemption from the truth. In the words of St Paul from the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans- "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator" (Rom 1:25). The lie for which the woman fell in Genesis is the same lie we believe over and over. As a result, we sometimes seem stuck in the swamp of our own making.

Far from being God's punishment, the result is what naturally follows not only believing, but living a lie. This is why today we can sing our Psalm response with great fervor: "Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned." Our Psalm this morning is Psalm 51, sometimes known by its old Latin name the Miserere, which comes from the Psalm's first words: "Have mercy on me..." To be miserable is to be a person in need of mercy. During Lent, in place of the Gloria, after the Confiteor or penitential litany, we sing, or say, Kyrie eleison, Christi eleison, Kyrie eleison, which is Greek for "Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord have mercy."

In our New Testament reading from St Paul's Letter to the Romans we receive hope. Sin and death do not have the last word, at least not if you don't want them to have it. In this passage, the apostle assures his readers that God has heard their cries for mercy and has taken pity on their misery: "And the gift is not like the result of the one who sinned. For after one sin there was the judgment that brought condemnation; but the gift, after many transgressions, brought acquittal" (Rom 5:16). A gift is free but judgment is the price you pay for living a lie. In short, sin is costly. Last year, during the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote a book: The Name of God is Mercy. If the name of God is Mercy, then Mercy is but another name for Jesus Christ, who is Divine Mercy.

In our Gospel today, the Lord resists and overcomes all the temptations, all the lies, for which frequently fall. He does for us what are not able or not willing to do for ourselves. The inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews stated it thus:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help (Heb 4:14-16)
As we come forward to receive communion, we approach the throne of grace, as we go to confession, we approach the throne of grace, as we pray, fast, give alms, and selflessly serve others, we approach the throne of grace. Grace is nothing other than God- Father, Son, and Spirit- sharing their divine life with us. Hence, to receive grace is to receive nothing short of God's very self. Every human being is created in God's image, what we traditionally call the imago dei. While the imago dei is ineradicable, it cannot be lost, we lose our likeness to God through sin. How God sets about restoring the divine likeness, through Christ by the power of the Spirit, is grace.

Lent is a season of grace. It is the time for you to step back and take an account of your life. I think we can fruitfully conceive of Lent as a spiritual Spring cleaning. In Christ Jesus, God has been merciful to us because we have sinned. If we were to read just one verse more than what the Church has given us in our reading from the fifth chapter of St Paul's Letter to the Romans, we would encounter these words: "where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more" (Rom 5:20b).

Friday, March 3, 2017

"Hunger stays till it's fed"

Ah, the first Friday of Lent. The first obligatory meatless day of the year. A penitential Friday to be sure. Our traditio? Prefab Sprout's song "Appetite" seems like a perfect fit.

St. Olaf Parish Bountiful, Utah, by Deacon Scott Dodge, 25 February 2017

At least in some measure, Lent is about tempering our bodily appetites. I know that for me, this holy season includes efforts to squelch the signal to noise ratio between my appetites and what it is that I really desire. Another metaphor might be, attempting to create some space in order to give the Spirit room to work. In order to realize my deepest desire, I need to change, to be converted, that is, repent, so I can fully live the life I was reborn to live when I was baptized. Christian life is redeemed life. Letting myself be set aright is part of God's setting the world aright. As Tolstoy wrote in his pamphlet "Three Methods of Reform"-
There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man. How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself
Appetites are not bad in and of themselves. Where we would be without them? Without appetites, life could neither be sustained nor perpetuated. It certainly wouldn't be enjoyed. It does us good, however, not to always and immediately indulge them, not just during Lent, but all the time.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Let's not hide our lamp under a bushel

Right now I am reading the late John Macquarrie's Pathways in Spirituality and the late Bernard Häring's Christian Existentialist. To be frank, these works have more to do with living as a Christian in the world today than many of the contemporary books I've read on the subject over the past several years. Along these lines, I read two things today that go a great distance to expressing my point-of-view on contemporary matters. The first is an article ("Dutch Church leaders speak out against populist shift") that summarizes both an ecumenical letter issued by Catholic and Protestant leaders in the Netherlands and a pastoral letter issued by the Dutch bishops in advance of national elections later this month.

In their ecumenical letter, Christian leaders noted, "The church isn’t a political party, nor is any political party a church. We have a separation between church and state – since if the two sit together on anyone’s lap, we get a political and religious dictatorship which serves, not God or the people, but only those in power," before going on warn those who would exploit Christian culture for political gain that "Christians are not voting cattle – their kingdom isn’t of this earth and their king isn’t from here." The leaders continued, "You can call this dreamy or dangerous, since Jesus had no message for Caesar. But we will always work for the promised kingdom to be given shape in the country we live in." In their pastoral letter, the Dutch bishops wrote:
The spirit of the times seems to have brought a stress on differences and divisions, rather than a search for connectedness and unity – but let us not indulge in anger, intolerance, indifference and polarization... When we stand in the voting booth, we must ask how, in the light of the Gospel, we can contribute to a society based on human dignity, solidarity, fundamental rights, social justice, subsidiarity, tolerance and peace between religions and cultures
The second piece, by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, is a review of Rod Dreher's new book The Benedict Option: "City of Rod: A Benedictine retreat from political life cannot be the answer for today’s Christians." Her critique, while not brutal, is pretty unsparing. Since I began reading about the Benedict option several years ago it has struck me as quite antithetical to living as a Christian in the modern milieu. I urge you to read Stoker Bruenig's review in its entirety.

There is always the temptation to go back to a better time. There are two replies to this. First, the "better" time, such as it was, probably wasn't any better and is not as good as it is portrayed. This includes the so-called Medieval "Age of Faith." Second, it is simply not possible to roll back the clock. Stated simply, calls to bring back a past time are neither desirable nor possible. It's important to engage reality as we experience it and not as we wish it to be.

I think calls to withdraw from politics, to vacate the public square, must be resisted. As Stoker Bruening observes: "Withdrawal may have been a permissible option when citizens had little to no say in the laws of their governments, but we do, and a pretense of powerlessness registers as a flimsy excuse not to exercise it." Of course, Christians should engage culturally, seek to build and form meaningful communities, and many things besides politics. She hits the nail-on-the-head when she writes:
There never will be another Medieval subject. All of us in the Anglophone world see with liberal eyes and hear with liberal ears, and to some degree think with liberal minds: Indeed, the lament that we’re no longer Medieval is a comically typical liberal refrain (think of the Romantics, with their Gothic revivalism, or the pre-Raphaelites, with their knights in shining armor). The will to be Medieval subjects again is the desire to return to an age of faith, but this is not an option
Such endeavors, in my view, would need a much firmer foundation that what I have seen proposed by proponents of the Benedict Option. For centuries there have been Christian communities that live apart, like the Amish and the Bruderhof, among others. I don't discount for one minute the witness of these Christians now or over the centuries they've existed. I also understand why the Benedict Option might appeal to some people. But I do not think the Church in toto is called to withdraw from the world. Rather, I believe we are called to engage along the lines suggested by the Christian leaders of the Netherlands.

Once again this year I will participate myself, at least for 3 weeks, in the original Benedict Option when I travel to Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary, Oregon, for the second of three academic residencies in pursuit of my doctorate in ministry. I look forward to it. By the third week of last year it was once again clear to me that living in this beautiful, ancient, and venerable manner is not my vocation.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday: Lent begins

In addition to being the Feast of St. David of Wales, Dewi Sant, today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. For Roman Catholics, Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting. While one can eat a fairly considerable amount, as long as you avoid the meat of warm-blooded animals, and still meet the canonical definition of fasting, the idea is to eat and drink as little as possible, even if that is nothing. It is interesting to note that St. David of Wales was called Dewi Ddyfrwr (i.e., "David the Water Drinker") because water was the only beverage he imbibed. Like many saints, he was given to much fasting and abstinence. Fasting and abstinence, doing good to others, or even hours dedicated to prayer, it must be noted, do not sanctify you, that is, make you holy. Only God can make you holy. But these are means the Lord himself gave his disciples to use towards the end of becoming holy, which is to be like him.

Lent is a 40 day liturgical season during which we prepare for Easter. Stated simply, Lent is a time of baptismal renewal. In baptism we died, were buried, and rose with Christ. If Easter is resurrection and Ash Wednesday is the day we face our mortality (a clean way of saying it is the day we remember that some day we are all going to die), then Lent can be fruitfully conceived as a time of burial, the time between dying and rising. When Roman Catholics receive ashes they hear either the traditional words- "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," or the words "Repent and believe the Gospel." In either case, the person receiving ashes is invited to prepare for what is ultimate, which means distinguishing what is ultimate from what is provisional, temporary, and fleeting. Understood in this way, Lent takes on an eschatological dimension. Our intensified practice of the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are an invitation to make God's reign a present reality as we await its final fulfillment.

While Lent has everything to do with penance, it has nothing to do with punishment. Penance starts inward and moves outward. Punishment comes from outside of us, causes fear and usually resentment. In an article on Lent written quite a few years ago, Owen Cummings cited an Ash Wednesday sermon delivered by Passionist Fr. Harry Williams that bluntly tells us what Lent is not about:

It is a pity that we think of Lent as a time when we try to make ourselves uncomfortable in some fiddling but irritating way. And it’s more than a pity, it’s a tragic disaster, that we also think of it as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we are
Far from despising you, God loves you. God's love for you is never in question. I think a fruitful Lenten question is, "How much do I love God?" This question is answered, at least in part, by how well I love my neighbor. To repent means to have a change of mind, a change of heart. Therefore, we must begin with the question, "In order love God and neighbor the way I want to, what in me must change?" I would suggest that for many of us, certainly myself, the biggest change is accepting the incomprehensible love the Father has given in his Son. Such acceptance is, of course, the work of their Spirit. Anyone who comes to know and accept God's love changes.

Ash Wednesday has to be right up there with Christmas when it comes to a day when a lot of people flock to Church. Based on my own experience, I'd go so far as to assert that, at least in many places, more people come to Church on Ash Wednesday than on Easter. This is not to castigate people. I am glad they are there on Ash Wednesday, but I'd also love for them to come on Easter. Why celebrate dying but not rising? I often surprise people by stating what is true: for Roman Catholics, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. We are obligated to fast, but not go to Mass let alone to receive ashes.

When it comes to receiving ashes, I think all the "Show your ash" Ash Wednesday promos are antithetical to observing Ash Wednesday. I suggest we file the "Hey, look at me and my ashes" phenomenon under misadventures in the New Evangelization. These things are well-intentioned but fall far short of the mark when it comes to entering the holy season of Lent with the proper disposition. The tension generated between the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading and receiving a clearly visible smudge of black palm ashes on my forehead always gives me pause, just as it gives me plenty to ponder concerning the meaning of the practice of receiving ashes as well as the meaning of the season of Lent.

What I have to share about Lent this year is perhaps best summarized by the final verse of my favorite Lenten hymn, "Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days", the words of which tend to vary while retaining essentially the same meaning -
Abide with us, that through this life
of doubts and hope and pain,
an Easter of unending joy
we may at last attain

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 ...