Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Lent is on the way!

Arriving at it does on 20 April, Easter is not early this year. Nonetheless, if you can believe it, Ash Wednesday is a week from today!

I was fortunate yesterday to have time to prepare and plan for Lent. As I was planning, it occurred to me that my plans for observing either Advent or Lent usually don't survive contact with the demands of life during a particular season. Despite this realization, I felt it was still important to approach Lent this year in an intentional way.

To be fair to myself, over the years my plans for Lent have gotten much simpler. I try to maintain focus on the three fundamental disciplines of Christian life: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. In the end, even if I only do what the Church bids me do (fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and refrain from eating the meat of warm-blooded animals on Lenten Fridays) and perhaps make it to confession once or twice, I have observed Lent and prepared for the renewal of my baptismal promises at the great Easter Vigil.

Please, please don't ask me what I am giving up for Lent! If I choose to give up anything, it isn't anyone else's business. Equally as important as what one gives up for Lent is what one takes up, what one resolves to do or do more.

This year, my dedicated spiritual reading for Lent will consist of reading the late John O'Donohue's Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom and, beginning on 25 March, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, reading David Wilborne's A Virgin's Diary (reading snippets from this diary will take me to Christmas). Overall, I plan to spend more time in silence. I want to focus on fostering in my own life the spiritual the discipline of solitude.

As far as fasting, I plan to do it with some frequency. Even outside of Lent, I try to practice this neglected spiritual discipline regularly. In my experience, fasting is the discipline that integrates prayer with alms-giving. Just as with my decision not to drink alcohol (see "I am not giving up alcohol for Lent"), I attempt to tread lightly with others in my advocacy for fasting.

Since I am a deacon, I have many opportunities to serve in a variety of ways. And so, my alms-giving is usually about sacrificing something I like that I pay for and diverting that money to the Catholic Relief Services Lenten Rice Bowl collection. On the days I fast I also try to give what it would've cost me to eat that day. I also look for ways to serve that are not part of my routine. In other words, I look for ways to serve others that are inconvenient for me.

Every year for many years, the onset of Lent brings to mind a passage from an Ash Wednesday homily delivered many years ago now by the English Passionist, the late Fr Harry Williams. This passage is handed on by someone who is a long-time mentor, teacher, and friend:
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
Anticipating Lent, I needed to be reminded that through Christ, God loves me as I am. God will love me no less if I choose to do nothing special for Lent. Jesus's death and resurrection are all the proof I need to convince me that God loves me.

God loves me in my weakness, my blindness, my deafness, my selfishness, my doubtfulness, my depression, my anxiety, my fears, my anger. Far from indulging me, God's unfailing love creates the possibility for me to love as I am loved, that is, it gives me hope that I can change. God's love convinces me I can be converted. If Lent can be said to be about something in particular it is about being changed, conformed more to Christ's image. This conformity is God's work of grace in me. I can only endeavor to cooperate with grace, which is why I have learned that my plans must be provisional and revisable, not absolute. Letting my plans become absolute turns them into an idol and may well, in a manner of speaking, lead me away from God. However, this is not to say that I shouldn't seek to muster the discipline to carry them out.

Lent is the time slay your idols, As Fr Williams indicated in his homily of many years ago, for Christians, the first idol that needs to be slain is the "pseudo-Lord," the inner Pharisee to whom many of us are often tempted to sacrilegiously bow. The god who despises you is named Satan. In Hebrew, שָּׂטָן (sâtan), means "accuser" or "adversary." Satan is the one who accuses you before God "day and night" (Rev 12:10; also see Job 1:6-12).

Lent is the time to understand for the first time or realize more deeply that eternal life is knowing "the only true God, and the one whom [he] sent, Jesus Christ" (John 17:3). It is only by knowing the only true God and the One he sent that you can fully live in the "glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21).

Sunday, February 24, 2019

"The Lord is kind and merciful" and so should you be

Readings: 1 Sam 26:2.7-9.12-13.22-23; Ps 103:1-; 1 Cor 15:45-49; Luke 6:27-38

I had an ambitious plan to write about the readings for this Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. But the time I needed to execute that plan was given to editing the first two chapters of my doctoral work. The good news is, I only have two more chapters to edit before proceeding to write the fifth. The bad news is, my plan for today's reading will only be partially carried out.

Given last week's Vatican Summit on Child Sexual Abuse, it seems like a monstrous thing to preach on or write about forgiveness. What a provocation! I want to start by observing that a perpetrator cannot, in justice, demand forgiveness from the person he has harmed. He may express sorrow, he may ask, even beg, for forgiveness, but the power to forgive rests solely with the one who has been harmed. This is right and just.

I am pretty sure everyone has heard the jokey saying, "To err is human, to forgive is out of the question." Of course, this saying plays off a more sincere, if hopelessly platitudinous one: "To err is human, to forgive is divine." In light of Christ's teaching and David's example, I would submit that to err is human and to forgive also human. While the refusal to forgive is a huge problem, the inability to forgive, despite one's desire to do so, is simply a weakness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out: "It is not the sins of weakness, but the sins of strength that matter." I take this to mean it is "the sins of strength" we need to repent of, that is, forsake. It is a grace simply to want to forgive. Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is choice, an act of one's will. When badly injured and aggrieved, one may need to choose forgiveness over and again. Not only can forgiveness be a process, it can often be an excruciating ordeal. I was tempted to extend the title of this blog post using an elliptical statement: "The Lord is kind and merciful" and so should you be... but damn it's hard!

What you would not know by reading today's first reading is that Saul and his sleeping band of warriors are actively hunting David in an effort to kill him. Saul wanted to kill David because his kingship was threatened by this upstart. This makes David's refusal to pin Saul to the ground with his own spear by driving it through him much more admirable than his refusal to harm the Lord's anointed. But Saul was anointed as Israel's first king. David clearly respected Saul's chosen-ness. David's refusal to kill Saul as he helplessly slept was an act of faith, hope, and love. While Saul, who made himself David's enemy, ultimately met a violent death, he was not killed by David's hand.

Refusing to forgive, it has been said, is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die. So, in addition to loving one's neighbor, forgiveness demonstrates a just love for self.

David Refuses to Kill Sleeping Saul, by Count Feodor Tolstoy, 1806

Jesus's teachings as set forth by the sacred authors of Matthew and Luke respectively in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on Plain were derived from a common source (usually called "Q" for the German word Quelle, meaning "source"). What Matthew renders "So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48), appears in Luke as "Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). In light of this, a passage from my doctoral project, which is a systematic theological approach to diaconal spirituality seems fitting:

"Traditionally, the metaphysical origin of the Christian doctrine of God holds that since God is Being Itself, God enjoys absolute perfection of being. God’s perfection of being 'entails God’s inability to suffer (ἀπάθεια),' God’s apatheia (Walter Kasper, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, 11). According to this traditional view, 'suffering must be understood as a deficiency' (Ibid). It is on this basis that Walter Kasper asserts that 'dogmatic theology has difficulty speaking of a compassionate God'(Ibid). Kasper goes on to point out that excluding the possibility of God suffering is pastorally catastrophic. A God who is 'so abstractly conceived… appears to most people very distant from their personal situation'(Ibid) 'Such a God,' Kasper continues,
appears to most people to have little or nothing to do with the situation of the world in which almost daily horrible news reports come, one after the other, and many people are deeply troubled by anxieties about the future
"In Kasper’s view, the divergence between human experience and the proclamation of the Gospel 'has catastrophic consequences' (Ibid). Proclaiming a God who is not attuned to suffering plays a big role in why God is considered irrelevant to an increasing number of people."

Justice is merciful when it is restorative. Restorative justice, as opposed to retributive justice, is the Christian way. It is justice tempered by mercy aimed at repentance. Jesus bids us to even go beyond merely forgiving by his insistence that we do good, pray for, and even love our enemies. Who are our enemies? The ones who do bad things to us, say bad things about us, and seek to make our lives miserable. This is challenging for those "who hear" what Jesus says in today's Gospel passage.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Church & sexuality: our "rough ride" has begun

Even though I gave up on trying to keep abreast of "Church news" on this blog years ago, as a committed Catholic Christian who is, by the grace of God and the indulgence of my sisters and brothers, a cleric, I still follow important developments in the Church quite closely. Since the explosions of late last summer that added more chapters to the never-ending story of the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy, the first of which was the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the only thing worth posting about was the disclosure of all the names of clerics, living or dead, against whom there are credible or proven charges of sexually abusing minors. This reporting was done by many dioceses and religious orders.

In my post "Updated reporting on clerical sexual abuse," I carefully reviewed the disclosures made by my own diocese. The only other development since then that bears mentioning- something about which I did not post- is Peter Steinfels's analysis of the Pennsylvania grand jury report (see "The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems It’s Inaccurate, Unfair & Misleading"). Steinfels does not so much debunk the grand jury report as he show the ways in which it is what he maintains in the subtitle of his report.

In the lead up to the Vatican summit involving the Holy Father and the heads of all national and regional episcopal conferences on how to deal with the evil scourge of the sexual abuse of minors throughout the universal Church, Theodore McCarrick was definitively laicized. He was not laicized by "the Holy See" generically (i.e., by a canonical court), but specifically by Pope Francis. As a result of this papal ruling, McCarrick's laicization is definitive and cannot be (further) appealed. The reason the Pope ruled on this directly is because McCarrick appealed the initial decision handed down by the canonical tribunal to the Pontiff.

One of the healthiest signs of the current climate is how many of the laity are chafed at McCarrick's laicization - "Reduced to the lay state?" Such a phrase pretty blatantly implies that the clerical state is a higher state. While, distinct from the lay state, the clerical state is not a higher state. If anything, it is a lower state. Those of us who are ordained are ordained to serve, not to lord over, our sisters and brothers. Jesus could not have been clearer about this (see Luke 22:25-26). Why else is everyone who is ordained first ordained a deacon, that is, a servant? I find it disheartening that the comprehensive reform called for by the Second Vatican Council is likely going to occur in response to this pain-filled demonstration as to why such a reforms have to happen. Nonetheless, I bow to God's providence and to Christ's care for his unfaithful bride, his beloved casta meretrix.

It was in anticipation of this long overdue lay uprising that in heat of last summer I composed "Make abusive and gravely errant clerics penitents." In his Letter to the People of God, also written last August, Pope Francis identified clericalism as the rot that has spread in the Church. He calls on us all, lay and clergy alike, to overcome this diabolical phenomenon that has taken root among us. Clericalism is not only something fostered by status-seeking clerics, but arises from the laity. I take the kinds of protests that have come in the wake of Ted McCarrick's laicization as a healthy indicator. Accountability to one another is not merely important, or even just necessary, it is vital for the health of Christ's Body.

The other big event in the lead up the Vatican summit on how to combat the sexual abuse of minors, one that has dominated the news this week, was the publication of Frédéric Martel’s explosive book, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy. I have not yet read this book but I have read several in-depth takes on it. I first read the initial offerings of an on-line Symposium, which features contributions by theological, sociologial/psychological, and pastoral experts. It is a good place to start analyzing Martel's sensational book because, while taking the book seriously and receiving what it divulges as the truth, the respondents themselves are not sensationalistic.

Just this morning, I ran across Andrew Sullivan's take on Martel's book: "The Corruption of the Vatican’s Gay Elite Has Been Exposed." Sullivan is always worth reading no matter what issue he addresses. No, I don't always agree with him. What all of this demonstrates to me is how utterly correct James Alison is in his years, even decades-long, analysis of these corrosive dynamics.

Looking back at what Alison wrote in last August's heat, "We're in for a rough ride," which appeared in two installments in Great Britain's Catholic weekly The Tablet, it seems quite apparent that Alison was aware of Martel's research and his book well before it was published. The tip-off is the heads up he gave about a notoriously homophobic and sexual distorter, the late Alfonse Cardinal López-Trujillo, who was notoriously brutal to the male prostitutes he employed. Writing about López-Trujillo in his August piece, Alison noted:
Would it shock you to know that the leading force behind the term "gender ideology" and the campaign against it, was a gay cardinal? Or that a gay priest wrote the official 2005 explanation as to why gay men could not be priests? I learned of the (now dead) Latin American Cardinal’s reputation for violence towards the rentboys he frequented from a social worker in his home town, and later discovered that this and other outrages were open secrets in both his homeland and Rome
As far as the now-disgraced Msgr Tony Anatrella, the "gay priest" to whom Alison refers, was called to answer for his misdeeds shortly after these articles were published.

Like Sullivan, who is and remains Catholic, and Alison, who is and remains not only a priest but one in good-standing, albeit not currently incardinated in either a religious order (he left the Dominicans) or a diocese, I am a person of hope. Being a person of hope does not mean that I am terribly optimistic. Because hope lies beyond optimism, to be optimistic in this case amounts to being in denial. Christ lives. Christ redeems. The Church remains the people of God. Let's keep acting like it.

If you're looking for some hope in this mess I highly recommend acquiring and reading a copy of Alison's book Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay. Wouldn't it be utterly cool if some brave bishop brought Alison in the from the cold by incardinating him?

Friday, February 22, 2019

"Thick heart of stone/My sins my own"

Trolling through past episodes of Alec Baldwin's Here's the Thing podcast, I ran across a 2016 interview he did with Patti Smith: "Patti Smith Never Wanted to be Famous."

While I loved their discussion, there was something she said in response to a question from an art teacher that really struck me: "Because if you can't sacrifice with joy, then it's meaningless." It's one of those quotes that transcends the context without losing meaning.

I think the world of Patti. Our Friday traditio this week is a video of her 1976 appearance on SNL singing "Gloria. "Gloria" is the famous first track off her 1975 album Horses, which remains a seminal album. It isn't for nothing that Smith is known is as "the high priestess of punk." She is so self-effacing, but in the most authentic way, that I am pretty certain she would guffaw at this exalted title.

The opening verse of "Gloria" contains both a moral theology and an atonement theory, or at least a compelling rejection of penal substitutionary atonement theory, a theological view that has caused so much damage to individuals, the Church, and to Western society. How much more striking can a song be than one that opens with the words- "Jesus died for someone's sins but not mine"?

Monday, February 18, 2019

The humanity inherent in Christian monasticism

These days, in addition to praying Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours and reciting the Rosary during my morning walk, I start my day by reading a chapter of The Rule of St. Benedict. I use a beautifully cloth-bound edition of an English translation of the Rule by the late Patrick Barry, OSB: Saint Benedict's Rule: A New Translation for Today. This book, which was given to me by one of my theological and pastoral mentors, was published by Ampleforth Abbey Press. Barry, who passed away at age 98 in 2016, was a monk of Ampleforth Abbey in England. For 15 years he served as abbot of Ampleforth Abbey.

There are many commentaries on Benedict's Rule. The commentary I am currently using is A Life-Giving Way: A Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict by Esther de Waal. In my current reading of the Rule I am in the middle-thirties chapters. As a deacon, I have to say that the thirty-fifth and the thirty-sixth chapters are very diaconal. This morning my reading of the Rule consisted of chapter thirty-seven of the Rule, entitled "Care for the elderly and the young."
Human nature itself is drawn to tender concern for those in the two extremes of age and youth, but the authority of the Rule should reinforce this natural instinct. Their frailty should always be given consideration so that they should not be strictly bound to the provisions of the Rule in matters of diet. They should receive loving consideration and be allowed to anticipate the regular hours laid down for food and drink (Barry, 45)
Commenting on this chapter of the Rule, de Waal provides this insight: "When society seems increasingly to say that productivity and usefulness are the qualities by which we judge the worth of the individual, here Benedict is telling us that respect should be shown to those who apparently contribute little or nothing to the community in these terms"(A Life-Giving Way, 107).

What is also worth noting, in light of de Waal's observation, is something that one finds throughout the Rule, namely that the Rule is not absolute! To paraphrase Jesus's take on the Law, which he never denigrates but always reveres: the Rule is made for people and not people for the Rule. Rather than diminish the importance of the order the Rule seeks to establish, making it human only serves to enhance both its importance and authority for those who seek to live by it. It is hardly surprising that perhaps the least fanatical form of Roman Catholic Christianity is monasticism.

St. Benedict, by R.M. Placid Dempsey

Note how easily Benedict concedes that rather than go against the grain of the natural human instinct to be charitably disposed towards the very young and the elderly, the Rule should reinforce it! In Benedict's insistence that the Rule reinforces what is naturally good in our humanity is contained an entire and entirely healthy theological anthropology. What I mean by stating that Benedict's theological anthropology is healthy is that it is whole, as in holistic. Like any good theologian, Benedict rejects any fundamental fissure between the orders of nature and grace, or, translated to the human person, between soul and body.

Christ did not come reinvent humanity but to show us what it means to be truly human. The Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, is explicit about this: "Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (sec. 22). Jesus Christ,
Who is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), is Himself the perfect man... Since human nature as He assumed it was not annulled, by that very fact it has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect too. For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every [person]. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin (Ibid)
Today, this line of thought brought to my mind Pater Tom's last presentation, which he made at a conference in Thailand just before his untimely death, which happened fifty years ago last December: Marxism and Monastic Perspectives. Given the societal conditions under which Benedict composed his Rule, it is striking that the order he established is so authentically Christian, which is to say human. It was a structure established at a time when Europe was in utter political/societal chaos. What struck me re-reading Merton's short conference was this:
We can no longer rely on being supported by structures that may be destroyed at any moment by a political power or a political force. You cannot rely on structures. The time for relying on structures has disappeared. They are good and they should help us,and we should do the best we can with them. But they may be taken away, and if everything is taken away, what do you do next?

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Year C Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jer 17:8; Ps 1:1-4.6; 1 Cor 15:12.16-20; Luke 6:17.20-26

In our first reading taken from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, we are given a stark contrast: to be like a “barren bush in the desert” or “a tree planted beside the waters.” What is the difference, according to the prophet? The difference is whether you put your trust in the Lord instead of in people and things that can never satisfy. The theological virtue of hope is more akin to trust than it is to wishing. In our response for today’s Psalm, the first Psalm, we stated this more succinctly: “Blessed are they who in hope in the Lord.”

Hope is the flower of faith and charity- caritas in Latin, agape in Greek- is the fruit of hope. This relationship is demonstrated very well in today’s readings. Our hope is in Christ Jesus and him alone. He is the One through whom what we desire, life eternal, is not merely a wish

St. Paul, in our reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians, makes this very clear. Belief in Christ’s resurrection and the hope of our own resurrection are the cornerstone and foundation of Christian faith, respectively. Indeed, if Christ has not been raised from the dead there is no purpose for us to be here today. If Christ is not alive and we are not awaiting his return then the Eucharist we celebrate is not only an empty ritual but a bit of a fraud.

Christ is risen from the dead! This, my dear friends, is the Good News. In the Eucharistic Prayer, after the institution narrative and consecration, at the invitation of the presider we sing together the Memorial Acclamation, one of which is: “When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again” (Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer III, sec. 112). This brief acclamation tells us exactly what Holy Communion is all about.

To be in communion with Christ is to be in communion with other members of his Body. Together, as members of Christ’s Body we constitute the Church. It is the mission of the Church always and everywhere to proclaim Christ’s salvific death, his glorious resurrection, and his return in glory when God becomes “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

Today’s Psalm is a precursor to today’s Gospel reading. Along with Jesus’s teaching in the Gospel, the first Psalm gives us insight into what it means to live in hope, to be a person of hope belonging to a people of hope. The People of God is nothing if not a communion of hope, rooted in faith, committed to loving God by loving our neighbor.

Hope lies beyond optimism. This what the Scriptures teach us. There is a striking passage in the book of one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk, that helps us to see this quite clearly, The passage is found in the third chapter of Habakkuk under the heading “Hymn About God’s Reign”:
For though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit appears on the vine, Though the yield of the olive fails and the terraces produce no nourishment, Though the flocks disappear from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, Yet I will rejoice in the LORD and exult in my saving God (3:17-18)

Like its parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel, today’s Gospel tells us it means to live in hope. Being a person of hope translates into being a person of love. Being a person of love is just a longer way of saying “Being a Christian.” Being a Christian means being Jesus’s disciple. Being a disciple of Jesus is not a passive endeavor, but something that requires your entire being: all your strength and all your mind (Luke 10:27). Along with the Sermon on the Mount, we can be confident that Luke’s Sermon on the Plain provides us with the core of Jesus’s teaching.

In his Sermon on the Plain, Luke gives us a version of the Beatitudes along with their opposites. Jesus teaches that we should “Rejoice and leap for joy” on the day we find ourselves poor, hungry, grieving and cast off. What could be more opposite to worldly wisdom than this seeming foolishness? The Lord tells us that what we typically think of as blessings are often the biggest the obstacles we face in becoming true disciples of Christ. Conversely, our woes are the means of sanctification.

If practicing the Beatitudes brings about the fullness of life, making the one who practices them like “a tree planted beside the waters,” then practicing their opposites ultimately result in emptiness and even death, making the one who places his hope in worldly things like Jeremiah’s “barren bush in the desert.”

Those who seek their reward in the here-and-now set their sights far too low. Earlier in First Corinthians, Paul, quoting Isaiah insists: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein always took religious questions with the utmost seriousness. Responding to St. Paul’s insistence that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3), he admitted, “I cannot call [Jesus] Lord; because that says nothing to me” (Culture and Value, 33). He went on to say that he could call Jesus “the paragon,” or even call him “God” but he could not say he is Lord because he felt he could not “utter the word ‘Lord’ with meaning” (Ibid).

Wittgenstein insisted he could not say “Jesus is Lord” with meaning because he did not believe Jesus would judge him (Ibid). What I find most meaningful about Wittgenstein’s relentless honesty in this instance is that he comes clean about something that we Christians tend to not be very honest about, namely confessing Jesus as Lord and then living lives not rooted in the Beatitudes. Interestingly, he concluded this thought by saying, “it could say something to me, only if I lived completely differently” (Ibid).

While Wittgenstein did not go on to discuss what he meant by living “completely differently,” we who confess Jesus as Lord and profess to believe “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” ought to live differently. Living differently is the proof as to whether or not saying “Jesus is Lord” amounts to just uttering words or is a Spirit-led confession. How differently are we to live? As differently as Jesus teaches us to live in today’s Gospel.

Later in the same chapter from which today’s Gospel reading is taken, Jesus says to his followers: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I command?” (Luke 6:46). He then goes on to explain how those who listen to his words and “act on them” are like the one who builds her house on a solid foundation (Luke 6:48). Such a house withstands the flood. But the one who hears Jesus’s teaching and “does not act” is like the person who builds his house on the ground, laying no foundation (Luke 6:49). When rain falls and the river rises, this house collapses and is destroyed.

Jesus’s teaching in today’s Gospel is a provocation. “Provocation” is a compound word derived from Latin: pro, meaning “for” and vocation meaning “calling.” In last Sunday’s readings we heard about the call of a prophet and four apostles. Today’s Gospel is about our vocation to live as people of hope in light of Jesus’s resurrection.

Jesus’s challenging teaching is about living out the call you received at your Baptism, in which you died, were buried, and rose with Christ to new life. You were more fully empowered to live this out in Confirmation. You are strengthened for your vocation in each and every Eucharist. As a Christian, your vocation is to live your life by what Jesus taught, even his difficult teachings. A friend of mine recently opined: “Everybody loves Jesus until it’s time to do what Jesus said.” My sisters and brothers, Jesus is Savior only because he is Lord.

Friday, February 15, 2019

"We close our eyes..."

I don't know about where you live, but here along the Wasatch Front of Northern Utah we're still in the dead of winter. When you live somewhere that has a "dead of winter" you know what that phrase means experientially: the skies are medium to dark grey, all the trees are dead and leafless, the snow looks worn-out and dirty, due to the moisture in the cloud cover, it's more humid than normal and so colder. It's a bit like Narnia under the spell of the White Witch, who decreed it should be always winter but never Christmas, except the whiteness has turned a brownish hue. I spent three days this week in Northern Alabama. Even there it was cloudy, windy, rainy, and cold. After experiencing a fairly long sequence of such days, it's easy to believe that spring will never arrive.

Add to the weather earthquakes. Shortly after 5:00 AM this morning, about two miles south of Bluffdale, Utah there was an earthquake measuring 3.2 on the Richter Scale and another one that pushed the needle to 3.7. They were far enough away that we did not feel them where I live (north and one valley away) but not so far away that they don't make me a bit anxious.

I am firmly convinced that in explaining to his closest disciples what signs will portend the end of the world, Jesus was being ironic, if not a bit sarcastic (Gasp!). When you consider the things he tells them to look for- wars, rumors of wars, natural and man-made disasters, catastrophes of various kinds, including earthquakes, he is describing life in the world. Can you think of an historical era in which such things weren't the stuff of human life? His point? God is on his way and these things are his chariot.

From Chimayo, New Mexico during Holy Week, Sister Death holds a placard toward St. Francis’s outstretched arms, which reads: "To die with the sacred joy of not having done harm to oneself nor to a single soul."

Due to having a million and one things going on, I neglected to put up a traditio last Friday. If I had, it would've been the one I am offering today: Oingo Boingo's "We Close Our Eyes." For me, this song is a hymn:
I looked Death in the face last night
I saw him in a mirror
And he simply smiled
He told me not to worry
He told me just to take my time
St. Francis called her "Sister Death." Today it is easy to memento mori, that is, to remember death.

Shortly after Christmas, I listened to an episode of the Jesuitical podcast that featured Pauline Sister Theresa Aletheia, who keeps a skull on her desk, as guest. Sr. Theresa Aletheia insists that rather than being morbid, reflection on death "is a healthy and often healing practice that helps us accept the inevitable with hope." To paraphrase something Eric Idle said in the lead up to the Monty Python troupe's final public performances a few years back: We're only here for, like, ten minutes. As my Dad lay dying on a cold winter day just a bit more than 8 years ago, he was recalling some childhood memories with his many cousins. He stopped and looked at me with his pale blue eyes and said, "It goes by fast."

There is some good news today. I see patches of blue sky this morning, which promises at least some sunshine. Hopefully enough to go for a walk and pray the Rosary. Even though it's Friday, which in my old-fashioned way, I observe as a day of penance, I am inclined to meditate on the Glorious Mysteries. As a friend wrote to me in a letter about this time last year: "Easter is coming. Easter is always on its way." I need some Easter today.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Liturgy and vocation

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

I have to admit, this week I did not look at the Sunday readings until Saturday. This is unusual for me. When I finally did read them, two things stood out: liturgy and vocation. Because vocations arise from within the community of the baptized, that is, the Church, liturgy and vocation are inextricably linked. The Lord has already called everyone who is baptized. To what s/he is called is what needs to be discerned. Vocational discernment is nourished by the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and communal Christian life. In other words, no Christian vocation is given or discerned in a vacuum.

The the vocational thread that runs through today's reading is easy enough to see once it is pointed out. Our first reading is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, more specifically from Proto- or First Isaiah. What do I mean by Proto-Isaiah? Isaiah is really three books rolled into one, belonging to what we might call the Isaiahian school of prophecy. It seems that the Book of Isaiah originated with a prophet named Isaiah in the eighth century BC in the southern kingdom of Judah, the territory in which Jerusalem was located. Deutero-Isaiah was written during Israel's Babylonian exile, which began in 605BC. Trito-Isaiah was composed after Israel's return from its Babylonian captivity. It is the prophetic calling of the prophet for whom the book is named that is described in today's reading. Our reading from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians tells of Paul's "out of time" calling to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. For Paul, his apostolic vocation was rooted in his personal encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. Finally, in today's Gospel, we read of St. Luke's account of Jesus's call to Peter, James, and John. It is notable that once they arrived back on shore, according to Luke, Peter and his business partners, the sons of Zebedee, James and John, immediately left everything, presumably including the large catch described, and followed Jesus.

Of course, the primary Christian vocation, given in Baptism, is to follow Christ, to live as a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. Discerning one's state-of-life is how a Christian lives out her/his baptismal vocation.

While this is to state things generically, states of life are married or celibate. Fleshing this out a bit more, celibate vocations are to consecrated life, which means joining a religious order and living according to the evangelical counsels. The evangelical counsels are poverty, chastity, and obedience. Making the vow of chastity is not just to promise to live celibately (i.e., without marrying) but committing to live in a sexually continent manner (i.e., not having sex or engaging in sexual activity). Among Roman Catholics, with some exceptions, priesthood is also a celibate vocation that normatively requires the one being ordained to make the vow of chastity. Diaconate is an ordained vocation to which can respond and be married. When it comes to marriage and Ordination, anyone seeking Ordination must be married prior to being ordained. Everyone who is ordained makes a vow of obedience to a superior. For regular clergy, also called secular, or diocesan, clergy, the vow of obedience is made to one's bishop. For those in religious orders, including priests and deacons, the vow of obedience to made to a superior of that particular order. If ordained before being married, the ordinand must make the vow of chastity. Like Ordination, Matrimony is a vocation that is a sacrament. Last but by no means least, there are Christians who are not called to religious life, Ordination or Matrimony. Yes, there are Christians who are called to live single lives for the sake of God's kingdom.

Once one has determined her/his state of life, it remains to be determined how a Christian lives day-to-day. Even for those who join religious orders, it must be discerned whether to join an active or contemplative order. All contemplative orders do not follow the same rule of life and so don't have the same rhythm of daily life. All active orders do not engage in the same apostolate, etc. For one who is married, in addition bearing and raising children, it remains to be determined how you make your living.

Waiting for the Word/

Recently on social media a free church pastor insisted that among Christians there should be no distinctions whatsoever. By "free church" I mean a Protestant, who, while typically belonging to a particular tradition (i.e., Baptist, Methodist, Anabaptist, etc.), believes the Church is only local and the whatever denominational or other structures that exist apart from the local congregation are of human, not divine, origin. The particular distinction that sparked her overly general and poorly thought-out pronouncement was the distinction between clergy and laity. This struck me as odd because she has been ordained, that is, set apart for service. It didn't matter to her that a healthy conception of what it means to be ordained a cleric is to be set apart for service to other members of Christ's Body, the Church. So steadfast was her insistence that there are to be no distinctions among Christians that she was unmoved by my insistence that to conceive of ordination in any way other than service to one's sisters and brothers is to be guilty of clericalism.

Of course there are distinctions within Christ's Body, the Church. While I could point to any number of New Testament passages in support my assertion - so many, in fact, that it should be obvious- I will limit myself to one. I chose this passage because our epistle readings right now in the Sunday lectionary are from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians
As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended (12:12-18)
If Paul, who in the immediately preceding passage insisted that each and every member of the Church is given some spiritual gift for the building up of Christ's Body, is not talking about distinctions among the baptized in this passage, then what is he writing about?

What about the liturgical thread? Well, in Isaiah we hear the words that are very close to what we sing or say at each and every Mass in the Sanctus: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory" (Isa 6:3). In our Pauline reading we hear what is perhaps the earliest Christian creed: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures..." (1 Cor 15:3-4). This is certainly the earliest Christian creed that the Church still possesses. What about the Gospel and the liturgy. Well, missio or "mission," the very word from which derive the word "Mass." The specific part of the liturgy to which our Gospel points is the the Dismissal. As a deacon, it is my great privilege to dismiss my sisters and brothers. Today, I used this Dismissal: "Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord."

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Baptism, death, burial: call and response

Readings: Jer 1:4-5.17-19; Ps 71:1-6.15-17; 1 Cor 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30

It is important to know and to keep in the mind that Lectionary during Ordinary Time seeks to harmonize the Church's reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament) with the Gospel reading. Hence, the reading from the New Testament letters may or not be harmonized at all. For those of us who preach, on any given week, it is possible to focus on either the first reading and the Gospel or to preach on the passage from the New Testament letter. It is sometimes possible, without engaging in scriptorture, possible to harmonize all the readings. I mention this because liturgical catechesis is so very important. Knowing the liturgy is what allows each one of us to participate fully.

The opening lines from our reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah is one that is frequently invoked in the pro-life cause: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you,a prophet to the nations I appointed you" (Jer 1:5). When used in this way, the assumption is that these words apply to each and every person. Such an insistence, of course, is perfectly consistent with something very fundamental to Christian theology, which has been co-opted by humanists, namely that every human being ineradicably bears the imago Dei, the image of God. In the context of this passage, however, it these words apply solely to the prophet. God gave Jeremiah a very difficult task, one that he carried out but not without a lot of complaining and lamenting. If you are familiar with what happened to this prophet as he did what God called him to do, you cannot blame him one bit. While Jeremiah remained faithful to his prophetic calling, despite himself, in strictly human terms, his mission was a failure.

When harmonized with our Gospel for this Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the meaning of the words, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you...," is applied specifically to Jesus. Our Gospel reading this week not only picks up where last week's left off, it overlaps with it to ensure continuity. Jesus had just declared himself to be the Messiah. The initial reaction of the Nazarene assembly, most of whom would've been blood relatives of Jesus, was to ask, "Isn’t this the son of Joseph?" (Luke 4:22). Meaning, "This guy from down the block, who grew up here among us, cannot possibly be the long-awaited Messiah."

What angered the assembly to the point of them attempting to kill Jesus was his insistence that they, as Israelites, God's chosen people, had failed in their divine calling, their vocation. Using the Gentile widow of Zarephath, to whom Elijah was sent during an extended drought, and Naaman, the Syrian general, who was also a non-Israelite, as examples of how Israel had failed repeatedly, he really pissed off his hometown. Nonetheless, he was successful because he heeded the Father by means of their Holy Spirit in taking this opportunity to begin his public ministry, at least according to Luke. Of course, they did succeed in killing Jesus- that would happen in due course. He did "go away" (Luke 4:30). According to Luke, as well as the other Synoptics (Matthew and Mark), once Jesus departed, he did not return, at least not before his resurrection.

Excavated Synagogue of Nazareth, which is a chapel today

Vocation, from the Latin verb vocare, refers one's calling. In strictly Catholic terms, it refers to the call God places on one's life. At the end of the day, there is only one vocation: follow Christ. We received this call when we were baptized. We need to figure out just how the Lord is calling us to follow him, in what "state of life," to invoke another Catholic phrase, we are to live out our baptismal call: ordained, married, consecrated, single. Beyond determining which state of life the Lord calls us to, we need to drill down to how we live each day, giving concrete meaning to our call. This extends to our personal relationships, family life, communal life, parish life, our daily work, how we make a living, what we study, etc. Reaching back to our reading from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians from last week, each one of us is the recipient of some spiritual gift that we are to put at the service of the Body of Christ, that is, the Church, which, in practical terms, refers to serving your parish, or the particular Christian community to which belong.

As with both Jeremiah and Jesus, we can't judge our success in living our vocation in worldly ways. There are no metrics we can bring to bear as proof of our efficacy. For example, becoming rich, far from being a blessing from God, at least according to Jesus's teaching, puts you in greater peril than being poor. In God's Kingdom, the poor have an advantage, always! Receiving recognition, awards, and high praise for what we do often only serves to make us less effective in the things that really matter, etc.

In his book Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation, David L. Schindler, pointing to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, notes that "success is not a name of God" (135). Therefore, he continues, success "is not a Gospel category" (Ibid). In making these observations, Schindler had in mind a passage from Balthasar's work Moment of Christian Witness. In this passage, Balthasar notes that the person
who has died in baptism and has been resurrected by the power of God is the fruit of eternal life made manifest in temporal life. The early Church was well aware of this when she ascribed to her martyrs the power of a supernatural fertility for Christendom and the world at large. It is therefore by no means true that only a few very radically-minded Christians need to base their faith on the death of Christ, while the majority may remain content to let just a little of the transfiguring supernatural light illuminate their natural lives. That is a kind of dualism which could be better described by the use of such terms as "detachment from the world" and "openness to the world"... For Christians there is no question of such an attitude, for "all of us who have been baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death" and "we were buried therefore with him by baptism [34-35]
As Benedict XVI exclaimed in his first Easter Urbi et Orbi message after becoming Pontiff: Christus resurrexit quia Deus caritas est!

St. Paul exhorted the Christians in Corinth: "Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts." After enumerating a number of spiritual gifts he states there are three that remain after all the others pass away: faith, hope, and love. The apostle concludes by emphasizing that even among those charismata (i.e., "gifts") that endure, the greatest spiritual gift is love. While it is often difficult to perceive in this present darkness, it is only by love that we truly know others and are known by the God who is love. As Christ's resurrection shows us, contra the Song of Songs (8:6), love is not only as strong as death; love is stronger than death. It is only by looking through the eyes of love that we see reality.

Friday, February 1, 2019

My desire is not out there but inside me

Late last week as I was laboring away on my DMin diss and listening to the radio (103.1 The Wave), I heard a song I had not heard in far too long: "Grey Cells Green." It is a song that is explicitly about desire, about the desire that constitutes our very human being. Our desire is perhaps the best evidence that we are made in the imago Dei (i.e. God's image).

Last night and today I have been following a thread on Facebook. It began with a friend posting something about René Girard's concept of mimetic desire and culminated with a deeply insightful comment comparing desire according to Giussani with mimetic desire. Here is an excerpt from Maria Elena's insight:
So the first thing (which Giussani would agree with [Girard]) is to discern which desires are truly ours from the ones that we are conditioned to feel. Hard to argue with that: learning to distinguish one's true desires from what is imposed on us is the first step of self-knowledge, maturation and so on. But the genius of Giussani is to point out that even if we follow a desire that's not truly ours (or even -God forbid- a "disordered" desire), we are still going to reach the truth if we are honest. Which is the least moralistic thing ever
In the context of this observation, I agree that it is important to discern the desire that makes me- the imago Dei- from that which seeks to unmake me, or, according to Giussani, forces me to take the long road.

"Grey Cells Green" is by the underrated English band Ned's Atomic Dustbin. You know a band that takes its name from an episode of The Goon Show can't be all bad. What episode, "Ned's Atomic Dustbin" was the tenth episode of The Goon Show's ninth series. It originally aired on 5 January 1959.

For as long I can remember, I have been painfully aware that my desire is inside me. Finding what, or who, corresponds to the desire that makes me is life's pilgrimage. I need companions on my way. At this point, I don't think our first Friday traditio of February needs any further introduction.

When your desire has been found
You'll be running far away
You're telling me it's in the trees, in the trees
It's not, it's inside me

Ned's Atomic Dustbin did a great version of the Bay City Rollers's song "Saturday Night" for the soundtrack of one of my all-time favorite movies: So I Married an Axe Murderer. It was by listening to "Saturday Night" as a child in the mid-70s that I learned how to spell S-a-t-u-r-d-a-y.

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 ...