Sunday, March 31, 2019

Year C Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: Josh 5:9a.10-12; Ps 34:1-7; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3.11-32

Our first reading, taken from the Book of Joshua, has heavy Eucharistic overtones. Reading it I was put in mind of the prayer the priest says, usually silently, but sometimes audibly, when he first takes our offering of bread and lifts it up to God:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
for through your goodness we have received
the bread we offer you:
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
it will become for us the bread of life (The Roman Missal, "The Order of Mass," sec. 23)
The response to this prayer is: “Blessed be God for ever” (Ibid).

When Jesus was on earth, both during the Last Supper and for forty days after his resurrection, the Eucharist was a strange duality- the one who becomes present in and through the Eucharist is already actually present. Nowhere is this duality better explained than in Luke’s narrative telling of the disciples who encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13-35). Walking the seven miles home from Jerusalem to Emmaus (seven being the biblical number of completion), they did not recognize the stranger who joined them along the way. Arriving home at dusk, they invited the stranger to dine with them. It was not until the stranger blessed, broke, and gave them bread that they recognized Jesus, at which point he vanished.

After Jesus’s ascension and since the descent of Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the primary way Christ remains present among us, in us, and through us until he returns is by means of the Eucharist. Something very similar is in play in our first reading.

Once the Israelites enter the land of Canaan, within which is contained the land God promised to Abraham and his descendants, God stopped providing them with manna from heaven. They were now to begin settling and cultivating the land. From this point on, this is how they would taste and see God’s goodness, not in the miracle of fresh manna every morning.

Like the ancient Israelites, who, as a result of our rebirth through baptism, are our ancestors in faith, we are to be cultivated so we can bear fruit like the land of Canaan and the fig tree in last Sunday’s Gospel. If the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are our spiritual fertilizer, so to speak, then practicing the three fundamental disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving is how we are cultivated to bear fruit for God’s kingdom These spiritual disciplines are means to the end of loving God with your entire being and loving your neighbor as you love yourself.

Today’s Gospel is one of most well-known Bible stories. I think we are often too quick, however, to identify with the prodigal. To some extent, we certainly can. But, as church-goers, as faithful members of Christ’s church, who take our obligations seriously, I think it’s good for us to take a moment to consider the older brother in the parable.

Up front, it is important to point out that in no way is the older brother portrayed as evil or bad. On the contrary, the inspired author of Luke never lets his reader lose sight of the fact that the older brother remained faithful and steadfast in his filial duties while his younger brother, having taken his inheritance early, was off living it up. If you don’t find the older brother’s reaction to his father throwing his n’er do well brother a great big party, then you’re not hearing the story in a human way. You just might perhaps be giving yourself a little too much credit.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt, 1663-1669

How wonderful, we sometimes think, that God forgives my sins! Yet, upon hearing news of some horrible thing one person did to another, or one group of people did to another group of people, we are often quick to condemn, not just the terrible act, but the person who committed it. We call for the perpetrator(s) to be retributively punished to the fullest extent. By doing this we betray our faith. One significant proof of this is that, at least in the United States, nearly two-thirds of people still support the death penalty.

The Catechism notes that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 2267- online version not updated to reflect the change made by Pope Francis last summer- see "State your peace tonight"). In fact, the church teaches that punishment for crimes serves three purposes: the preservation and protection of the common good of society, the restoration of public order, and the restoration or conversion of the offender (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 2266).

Encountering evil provokes us by giving us the opportunity to overcome our tendency to render shallow the unfathomably deep love of God given us in Christ. Passiontide, which refers to the last two weeks of Lent, is the time each year when should see God's love in the sacrificial suffering and emptying out of his Son for our sakes and for the sake of the whole world.

Like the older brother’s reaction to the party, we are often quick to condemn and slow to forgive. This tendency is natural enough. But we are given the Holy Spirit so that we can respond in a supernatural way. This what Paul means when he writes about our being entrusted by Christ with the ministry of reconciliation. God’s response to evil in the world is not punishment. Like the father in the parable, God’s response to sin is mercy.

In the Prayer for the Eleventh Station of the Cross, written for the Stations he commissioned for the 1993 renovation of The Cathedral of the Madeleine, Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, wrote:
Lord Jesus Christ, forgiving the repentant thief, look with love on every man and woman who is despised, rejected and counted as unworthy in human
eyes. Forgive the sins of the world and the weaknesses of Adam’s children.
Bring to life everlasting all who have made the world a place of
misery. Let the power of your love be stronger than human failure and let
no one be without redemption
(emboldening and italicized emphasis mine)
In order to relax and enjoy the party celebrating his brother’s return, the older son needed to become aware of his natural reaction and then push back against it, if not for the sake of his brother, then for the sake of his kind and merciful father. After hearing his oldest son’s complaint, the father told him: “everything I have is yours.” I like to imagine that after being reassured by his father, the older brother stopped brooding and joined the feast. Likewise, our loving God, whom we can call “our Father” only because of Jesus Christ, reassures us and beckons us to join the feast.

Friday, March 29, 2019

"You made me forget myself"

In his Confessions, St. Augustine grasped the inescapability of time in a very advanced way. Commenting recently on Augustine's take on time in the Confessions, Rowan Williams observed: "'The problem isn’t that God’s not here. The problem is that I’m not here.' I’m everywhere but here in this moment, in this particular prosaic, ordinary, physical environment." After posting this observation on another social media platform, a well-read friend noted: "the key insight of Augustine on time is that the present is so fleeting as to never really be. It is always not yet or already past, with the instant always fleeting." I don't see any particular difficulties in reconciling these two statements.

The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali, 1931

At least on my reading, in his Confessions Augustine deals with the fleetingness of the present moment in terms of the nagging thought that persists throughout a time of contentment; the realization that this contentment won't last because time shoves me inexorably forward. From a Christian perspective, time presents a bit of a difficulty, one that is usually dealt with by making an appeal to God's eternity, which is often described as an "eternal now," a never-passing present. It seems to me that for Williams God's presence is what makes it possible for me to be present in the present. My presence is the gift of attention, which requires me to make the effort not to be distracted by the fleetingness of the present moment. The problem is, the more of an effort I make, the more I fail.

It is interesting to examine what is meant by "Being present to/in the present moment." In short, for people who are existentially aware of their finitude being present in the present is much harder than it sounds. It's not necessarily the case that no sooner do I become present than the moment slips away. Rather, as I become conscious of my contentment, I realize it won't last forever. Or, to deal with the relativity of time, a few seconds or minutes of discontentment seem to last forever. No sooner do I think to myself "this is wonderful," than my next thought is, "this will end soon." This is the genesis of saying something like, "I wish this moment could last forever." Frankly, it's a little like facing death.

Our traditio for this Third Friday of Lent is Lou Reed's "Perfect Day." Initially, I was going to post the scene from the movie Trainspotting that features this song. Punks used to wear jackets with many buttons stuck on them. One button I remember featured the words- "Reality is for people who can't handle drugs." When I think I about time in an existential, as opposed to an abstract, vein, I think that mildly humorous observation might contain more truth than I care to admit.

Rather than the scene from Trainspotting, I decided to post Reed singing "Perfect Day" with Luciano Pavarotti.

The fourth verse of "Perfect Day" contains a clue for resolving the dissonance wrought by becoming present to the present moment. Describing why the day in the song was perfect: "You made me forget myself." Like Pater Tom taught his Trappist novices about contemplation, the key is not to become aware that your are contemplating, meaning it is important not to "step outside" yourself and "look" at yourself in the act of contemplation. In Anam Cara, John O'Donohue addresses this well: "If you are outside yourself, always reaching beyond yourself, you avoid the call of your own mystery" (pg 101).

Monday, March 25, 2019

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

Today the church celebrates the second solemnity that usually falls during Lent: the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. The first solemnity, of course, is that of St. Joseph, which we observed last Tuesday. Given the confusion that sometimes surrounds the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, it is important to point out that 25 March falls exactly nine months before 25 December. In like manner, the Nativity of the Virgin Mary is observed on 8 September, exactly nine months after the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, which we observe on 8 December.

The scriptural reading for Morning Prayer today is taken from the second chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. It comes from the portion of that chapter known as the Kenotic Hymn. In fact, today’s Morning Prayer reading is made-up of the two verses that constitute the heart of this hymn. These verses note that Jesus, "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance" (Phil 2:6-7).

Annunciation, by Jerry Coulter

This passage is called the Kenotic Hymn because of the use of the word kenosis. Kenosis is the Greek word meaning to empty one's self. It refers to Jesus’s letting go of what we, as human beings, see as divinity. What the incarnation shows us is that it is the very nature of God to be self-emptying, not some kind of master manipulator or cosmic tyrant.

With her fiat Mary emptied herself of self in order to be filled with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, while today is a solemnity, meaning it is a day, like a Sunday, when you can relax your Lenten discipline should you chose, I can’t think of a better description of what Lent is supposed to be about.

As a treat for myself, I prayed the Joyful Mysteries today! The first of which is the Annunciation, of which the fruit is humility. This is expressed beautifully in the Angelus:

The angel of Lord declared unto Mary
And she conceived of the Holy Spirit
Behold the handmaid of the Lord:
Be it done unto me according to Thy word.
And the Word was made Flesh: And dwelt among us.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Lent: the divine gift of time

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

One thing we learn from our Gospel reading for this Third Sunday of Lent is bad things happen to good people. In other words, when something bad befalls someone, it is not an indication that God is punishing them. It isn't even the case that because he is upset with them, God, withdrawing divine protection, permits bad things to happen those who might have reason to believe they displeased God. Isn't it sometimes the case that we inflict God's punishments on ourselves?

Here's something that may not go down well, at least not initially: there are times when you should have a guilty conscience. In this context, it bears noting that we often link guilt with shame so as to dismiss it. Genuine guilt, however, results from the recognition I have done something wrong or perhaps failed to do something good. But guilt is good if it helps me to repent.

Jesus's message in today's Gospel is straightforward: Repent! Someday you, too, will die just like the Galileans killed by Pilate, just like those crushed by the tower. He follows questions prompted by contemporary events by telling the parable of a fruitless fig tree. The fig tree in the parable has produced no fruit for three years. Rather than cut the tree down, the gardener convinces the owner of the orchard to cultivate and fertilize it, thus giving the tree one more year to produce fruit.

In a recent Renovaré podcast, Trent Hudson discusses Lent with host Nathan Foster. Relevant to Jesus's message in our Gospel reading, Hudson calls the season of Lent a "time-gift." It seems that the additional year given to the fruitless fig tree is also a time-gift.

How are we fertilized and cultivated? I think we can consider the sacraments, especially penance and the Eucharist, as fertilizer and the fundamental spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting as the means of cultivation. Alms-giving, then, is the fruit we are to bear.

The Vinedresser and the Fig Tree, by James Tissot, c. 1895

The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love correlate nicely with the three fundamental spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Prayer aligns with faith, fasting with hope, and alms-giving with love (i.e. agape or caritas). Hope is the flower of faith and charity is its fruit.

If the sacraments of penance and Eucharist are spiritual fertilizer, then baptism, as St. Paul indicates in our reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians, is the flowing stream beside which we are planted. This stream of living water not only sustains us but, along with the nutrients, allows us to grow. You need to be continually nourished or you'll perish: "whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall."

Since this reflection on the readings is already rife with metaphor and allegory, one more won't hurt. The gardener in Jesus's parable is the Lord himself. This makes the orchard owner the Father. Each one of us, then, serve as the allegory for the fig tree. As our responsorial Psalm powerfully asserts
Merciful and gracious is the LORD,
slow to anger and abounding in kindness.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him
Rather than complacency and presumption, God's lovingkindness, his mercy, his hesed, should increase our faith by giving us hope and inspiring us to perform acts of lovingkindness, or hesed, especially for those who are in need, according to their need. Such acts are the deliciously ripe fruit the Lord expects his disciples to bear.

In her extensive commentary on the chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict concerning the reception of new members by the monastery, Esther de Waal, noting that faith is a journey that a monk paradoxically commits to undertake by remaining in one place, thus indicating that it is an interior pilgrimage, asks the question you should ask yourself this Lent: "Do I turn to Christ?" De Waal points out that when asked sincerely, this question, while straightforward, is "also quite terrifying."

Nonetheless, she continues, "Do I turn to Christ?" is "a question that I am asked at intervals throughout life." If at no other time, she observes, I am asked this question each year at the Easter Vigil when, along with my sisters and brothers, I renew the promises I made at my baptism. It is only in "the context of the paschal mystery that I can fully appreciate what is implied in my own obedience" to God.

Christ was obedient to the Father to the point of death. Jesus's passion leaves us no doubt about what Bonhoeffer called "the cost of discipleship." Lent is a time-gift the church gives us each year. This gift is given to prepare you to answer this most important question. I urge you not to squander God's gift of time. Don't fret about what is passed. If you need to, start today. If today you hear God's voice, harden not your heart (see Hebrews 3:15).

Friday, March 22, 2019

"sisters and brothers of the one clay"

At times, the late John O'Donhohue noted, "you will find sorrow moving through you." While I am writing in this sad key, I want to note that I found something Rowan Williams admitted to in an interview years ago most helpful. Williams spoke of sometimes being covered by what he called "Celtic gloom." According to O'Donohue, this sorrow moves through you "like a dark mist over a landscape." For many people, myself included, this gloom, to borrow O'Donohue's words, "is dark enough to paralyze you." Nonetheless, he insisted that it "is a mistake to interfere with this movement of feeling."

Sometimes this metaphorical "mist" comes and no sooner does it leave than, out of nowhere, it settles in again. At other times, the mist settles in the valley of my soul for an extended stay. Then I can go for awhile and not experience it all. When this happens, I start to look for it for some odd reason, not that I miss it or anything, I am just aware that, in all likelihood, it will appear again. But it always comes unexpectedly. Mine is not seasonally determined. "It is more appropriate," O'Donohue insisted, "to recognize that this emotion belongs more to clay than your mind." Therefore, it "is wise to let this weather of feeling pass; it is on its way elsewhere." O'Donohue is not here positing a mind/body dualism. To the contrary, this comes in the midst of him setting forth a wonderfully holistic anthropology, which begins with noting that we are made of the stuff of earth: clay.

Being made of earth, O'Donohue insists that your body belongs to the landscape. "We so easily forget," he wrote, "that our clay has a memory that preceded our minds, a life of its own before it took its present form." No matter how "modern" we think we are, "we still remain ancient, sisters and brothers of the one clay."

It is important to note here that I speak only of my own experience! I am not judging others. I would say that if you need help, get help and never be apologetic for seeking help. As for myself, I am grateful for wise spiritual counselors who help me do what O'Donohue here describes - not interfere with this movement, but let the mist settle, even when, especially when, it does not seem likely to me that the sun will burn it away or the wind will sweep it past. This is an act of hope on my part. It's a bit like facing the inevitability of death with the hope that death is not the end.

Saturday I listened to a song that helps me understand: "In Big Country." I find this verse particularly helpful:
So take that look out of here it doesn't fit you/
Because it's happened doesn't mean you've been discarded/
Pull up your head off the floor, come up screaming/
Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted/
I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered/
But you can't stay here with every single hope you had shattered
I find that the words, "Because it's happened doesn't mean you've been discarded," especially resonant.

I also hold in mind that Stuart Adamson, who wrote this song, no doubt in an effort to wrestle with these issues, later took his own life. May he rest in the peace he found so elusive.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Solemnity of St. Joseph

Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Hence, it’s a day in Lent, apart from Sunday, to relax and enjoy yourself. I don’t know about you, but I plan to indulge in a cannoli!

Back in 2013 the newly elected Pope Francis chose the Solemnity of St. Joseph, who is the Patron of the Church Universal, as the day he was installed as Pontifex Maximus. Heaven knows the Church needs St. Joseph’s intercession desperately during these days. We should invoke it often on behalf of the Holy Father. St. Joseph is also known as “terror of demons” and the one to whom you pray on behalf of someone who is dying.

In Scripture, Joseph is a pretty quiet figure. He disappears after the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke end. Joseph, the righteous, that is, just man is with Jesus during the quiet years. These years between Jesus’s childhood and the beginning of his public ministry constitute the bulk of the Lord’s mortal life. While I admit this is speculative, it seems safe to surmise that Joseph hugely influenced Jesus's humanity, helping to shape and form the person he became, preparing him for his ministry, which culminated with his passion, death, and resurrection.

In terms of mercy, which is the essence of the God who is love, Joseph’s determination to put his betrothed, the young woman Mary, away quietly rather than expose her to the risk of being stoned to death when she turned pregnant unexpectedly, shows us his justness and righteousness. The Hebrew word that is used most often for God’s mercy is hesed. Hesed is perhaps best translated as “lovingkindnness.” Joseph seems to be suffused with hesed

Without a doubt, Jesus’s quiet years were defined by the warp and woof of everyday life. This morning I read the fifty-eighth chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict. This chapter is about the admission of new members into the monastery community. According to Benedict, during their novitiate, aspiring monks are to be exposed to every aspect of monastic life, even those parts that might seem unattractive. This is important in order for novices to root their discernment in reality. This can only be done through experience.

St Joseph and Christ child, by El Greco

Commenting on this chapter, Esther de Waal notes Benedict’s use of the word opprobia. She points out that this word is usually translated as “humiliations.” But in the context of this chapter of the Rule, she insists opprobia refers to those circumstances of daily life that are “negative, dreary, unattractive, or inglorious.” Throughout the Rule, Benedict is concerned that everything, even the most menial and repetitive tasks, be done with intention and the appropriate level of intensity.

Life in the monastery and, by extension, at home or work is not to be dreary and lifeless. Here is where de Waal’s commentary on this chapter really shines:
But [Benedict], as well as I do, [knows] that life is inevitably, for much of the time, far from ideal and that we have to live with that reality: a less than wonderful marriage, a house that is far from spacious and beautiful, a job that is not really rewarding or fulfilling
How does one deal with these realities?

The drudgery of the daily grind, de Waal asserts, “can be the most deadening of experiences.” This can easily lead “to resentment and bitterness.” It is the “ability to maintain patience and contentment under this sort of deadening pressure” that is the essence of living a life that is truly life.

In pairing de Waal’s commentary with today’s solemnity, I was powerfully struck by how much it applies to both the what and the how of what Joseph likely imparted to Jesus during those quiet years in Nazareth. For example, in thinking about marriage, as a Roman Catholic, I affirm that Joseph and Mary had a sexless marriage. I use “sexless” in a descriptively objective sense, as opposed to a pejorative sense. In other words, I am convinced that their relationship did not lack intimacy. As a Catholic, I also affirm that Mary was immaculately conceived. I believe that the Blessed Virgin is the only human being conceived in the natural way who was not tainted by original sin. Of course, this means Joseph enjoyed no such special grace.

So, while the sexlessness of their marriage may not have presented any difficulties for the Blessed Virgin, I can easily imagine that Joseph may have found this difficult and maybe even discouraging at times. I am not suggesting that sex in marriage is sinful. Quite to the contrary! I am merely suggesting that Mary was able to embrace her wholly unique vocation in an unwavering manner, whereas perhaps Joseph experienced some difficulties. One could just as easily point to Joseph's work as a tekton, which probably forced him to take work in other places, thus taking him away from home for periods of time.

St. Joseph, along with all the saints, shows us how holiness is made from the raw material of daily life. So, even from the perspective faith, when life serves you lemons, by the grace of God, you can make lemonade. St. Joseph, pray for us.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Year C Second Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen 15:5-12.17-18; Ps 271.7-9.13-14; Phil 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28b-36

Hearing Luke’s account of Jesus’s transfiguration on this Second Sunday of Lent gives us a preview of Christ’s resurrection, provides us with a taste of Easter. According to St Luke, after seeing Jesus “transfigured” before their very eyes, his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John see and hear him conversing with Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the prophets. This demonstrates that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets.

Luke even provides us with a hint about what the transfigured Jesus discussed with Moses and Elijah: the “exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”1 Just as the Israelites left Egypt and crossed the desert to the promised land – the land God promises to Abram, whom God would later rename Abraham, in our first reading – Jesus crossed over from death to life. This makes Jesus our Passover. Hence, he is the one in whom we place our trust. The word for putting one’s trust in Jesus is “hope.”

Lent is your invitation to make your own exodus from death to life. Lent is the time to cease conducting yourself as what St Paul, in our second reading, dramatically calls an enemy of the cross Christ. The apostle writes about those whom, “with tears,” he calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” that their stomachs are their God.”2 By stating it in this emphatic manner, the apostle is highlights the importance of the spiritual discipline of fasting.

He also says that those who make themselves enemies of the cross of Christ occupy “their minds with earthly things.”3 Here the apostle points to the importance of practicing the spiritual discipline of prayer, which includes silence and solitude.

By writing that the enemies of Christ’s cross glory in their shame, that is, in their wrong-doing and selfishness, Paul is pointing to the necessity of alms-giving. Alms-giving does not merely refer to donating money – though it does include generous financial giving – it also refers to serving those in need. Serving others in various ways, according to their needs, constitutes those works referred to in the Letter of James that are necessary for salvation.4 After all, God did not reveal the promise to him until Abram sacrificed.

Practicing the three spiritual disciplines taught to us by Jesus himself (i.e., prayer, fasting, and alms-giving) is called “asceticism.” Practicing the three spiritual disciplines taught to us by Jesus himself (i.e., prayer, fasting and alms-giving) is called “asceticism.” Asceticism refers to those exercises, the practice of which, train you for something worth attaining.5 In the passage from the third chapter of his Letter to the Galatians that immediately precedes today’s second reading, St Paul not only writes about what he hopes to attain, he alludes to how it is attained: “to know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”6

The Transfiguration, by Gerard David, 1520

Endeavoring to practice the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, even if it sometimes consists of your poor attempts, is what makes you a disciple of Christ. Paul is convinced that living ascetically is how you cooperate with God’s grace in bringing about your own transfiguration. The apostle describes this transfiguration as Christ changing your “lowly body to conform with his glorified body.”7 The transfiguration to which Paul points is not only for yourself, it is for the transfiguration of the world. It is wrought by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, the power that enables the Lord “to bring all things into subjection to himself.”8 This is nothing other than the power of love. Lent is not merely, or even mainly, about what you give up. It primarily about what you take up.

In the first instance, asceticism is not about self-denial. Like all spiritual disciplines, denying yourself is but a means to the end of loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbor as you love yourself. You deny yourself in order to free-up more time, resources, and energy with which to serve others the name of Christ and on behalf of his church. Growth in love of God and neighbor is not only the point and purpose of Lent, for Christians, it is the goal of life!

What asceticism requires me to do is to take “responsibility for those aspects of my life that are unbalanced.” Those aspects of my life that remain unbalanced are those parts I have not yet submitted to Jesus’s Lordship. Let’s face it, we are often creatures of excess who are primarily focused on ourselves. We revere Lent as a holy season because through it the church bids us to lovingly confront ourselves. We call this self-confrontation “penance.” Deriving as it does from the word “repentance,” penance amounts to having a change of heart and mind that leads you to live more intentionally as a Christian.

Repentance does not mean being harsh with yourself. It certainly doesn’t mean being harsh with others. To the contrary, God is merciful. So, your repentance cannot be complete until you experience God’s mercy for yourself. It is in and through the sacrament of penance that you experience God’s mercy given us in Christ first-hand. This is why confession is made more available during Lent.

Confession is not where you go to admit defeat. It is where you go to claim the victory over sin and death that Christ won for you. He desperately wants you to experience his victory for yourself and then to share your experience with others. What is evangelization if not telling others what Jesus has done for you, letting them know the difference knowing Jesus makes in your life?

It is only by experiencing God’s mercy that you can extend it to others. The works in which you, as someone gifted by God with faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, are to engage are nicely schematized by the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which are depicted in the stained-glass windows on the north side of our church.

Lent prepares you for the celebration of Christ’s passing from death to life at Easter. In baptism you died, were buried, and rose with Christ to new life. Lent is the time to prepare to renew your baptismal promises at the great Easter Vigil, the most important liturgy of the entire year. May this Lent accomplish your exodus, your passage from death to life in Christ our Passover!

1 Luke 9:31.
2 Philippians 3:18-19.
3 Philippians 3:19.
4 James 2:14- The last sentence of this verse poses a rhetorical question: Can faith without works save a believer?
5 R. Arbesman. “Asceticism,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, 772.
6 Philippians 3:10-11.
7 Philippians 3:21.
8 Philippians 3:21.
9 Owen F. Cummings, Lecture on the Rule of St. Benedict, date unknown..

Friday, March 15, 2019

Inclining the ear of my heart

Without much thought and really no deliberation, the importance of the three fundamental spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving have really re-asserted themselves to me during this Lent. Up to this point, I have written a lot about the discipline of fasting. Central to my view of fasting is that it is properly practiced by eating and drinking less, or even not all for a specified period of time, but only if one is able to do so without harming one's health. Don't worry! This is not another post about fasting.

On this First Friday of Lent, I want to briefly address the spiritual discipline of prayer. Specifically, the need for silence when praying. Silence is often the fruit of prayer, how one brings a period dedicated to prayer to an end. Silence is also important when you are in the thick of prayer. It is often observed that God's first language in silence. If we take this observation with the seriousness it deserves, then prayer becomes the venue and the method for learning the divine language. You need to be quiet so you can hear. You need to hear in order to listen.

The Rule of St. Benedict famously begins with these words: Obsculta, o fili, praecepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui, et admonitionem pii patris libenter excipe et efficaciter comple... The late Boniface Verheyen translates this: "Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father..." A good rule for prayer is that you should spend at least as much time in silence as you do speaking, even you're not speaking out loud. Stated another way, as in any balanced conversation, you should listen at least as much as you speak, if not more.

In his book Anam Cara, the late John O'Donohue insightfully notes: "True listening brings us in touch even with that which is unsaid and unsayable." Indeed, silence is often more eloquent than any words could ever be. "Sometimes," O'Donohue continues, "the most important threshold of mystery are places of silence." More to the point I am trying to make, this priest/poet/mystic insists that if you want to "be genuinely spiritual" you must have "great respect for the possibilities and presence of silence." Just as compassion for others flows from listening to God, fasting helps in developing this respect.

In our day, silence is very difficult. We live in a noisy world, one that is full of distractions. Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are the keys to a holy and fruitful Lent. Silence is an essential ingredient.

Since St Patrick's Day falls on a Sunday this year, it takes a backseat. This is more than alright. Without the resurrection of Christ, which we celebrate every Sunday, even during Lent, which is why Sundays do not count against the forty days of this penitential season, there would be no St Patrick and so no feast day for this Pan-Celtic saint. Flogging Molly singing "A Prayer for Me in Silence is our Friday traditio:

"Beware the Ides of March!"

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Freedom is following Christ

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

Our first reading for this First Sunday of Lent, taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, is about liberation, or true freedom. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, one of the great Christian spiritual masters of the twentieth century, observed that "neither rebellion nor flight makes us free, because freedom is first of all an inner situation with regard to God, to self and to the surrounding world."

Our Gospel reading is Luke's account of Jesus's forty days and nights in the desert. While in the desert, the Lord fasted, prayed and was tempted by the devil. It bears noting the obvious, which is that Jesus's forty days in the desert marked his recapitulation of Israel's forty year desert sojourn, which ended when they crossed the river Jordan. Their crossing of the Jordan was for the ancient Israelites a sort of baptism. It is also worth pointing out that Jesus underwent baptism in the waters of the Jordan prior to his retreat into the desert, thus reversing an important aspect of Israel's journey to the Promised Land. This is significant. Among the things his leaving the Promised Land through the Jordan might indicate is expansion of the Promised Land to include the whole world.

Jesus's time in the desert serves to illustrate Bloom's assertion that freedom is "an inner situation with regard to God, self and to the surrounding world." The Lord's desert retreat is also instructive as to how freedom is realized. One's inner situation changes, is converted, by sincerely practicing spiritual disciplines. The disciplines that change us are those taught by the Lord himself: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving.

I don't think it's stretching things too much to say that the three temptations to which Jesus was subjected correlate to these disciplines. The first temptation to which Jesus was subjected corresponds to the discipline of fasting. The devil urged the Lord to turn stones into bread in order to prove that he is the Son of God. Refusing, the Lord replies: "It is written, One does not live on bread alone." Where is that written? In the same book from which our first reading today is taken, specifically Deuteronomy 8:3.

Prayer is the discipline to which the next temptation corresponds. Showing Jesus all the world's kingdoms, the devil tells him he will make him ruler over them all if Jesus would but bow down and worship him. Noting that it is also written that one should worship only God and God alone, the Lord resists this temptation. In this case, too, Jesus quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:13).

Get Behind Me, Satan!, by Ilya Respin, 1895

Finally, the devil takes Jesus up to the parapet of the temple and once again encourages him to prove something by throwing himself off it so that angels will intercept his fall, thus sparing him death and proving his identity by an exercise of extraordinary power. With this temptation, the devil himself cites Scripture. Quoting the Psalm that serves as today's Responsorial- Psalm 91:11-12, the devil says: "for it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you' and: ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'" Turning once again to Deuteronomy, which is the last book of Torah, Jesus resists by telling the devil, "It also says, 'You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test'" (Deut 6:16).

This temptation corresponds to the spiritual discipline of alms-giving. How? Well, rather than being all about himself, feeling the need to demonstrate his power, Jesus steadfastly remains a person for others. If he is not a person for others, we cannotnrightly call Jesus "Savior." Ultimately, Jesus did submit himself to death and, in so doing, commended himself to the Father. The Father did not rescue Jesus from the cross in some dramatic fashion. In his account of Jesus's crucifixion, Luke gives an echo of this temptation. The inspired author places the temptation in the mouths of unnamed "rulers," who say, as Christ is dying on the cross: "He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God" (Luke 23:35). But Jesus really died. His resurrection assures us that power is made perfect through weakness, not self-assertion.

Why is it so difficult for so many Christians to believe that sincere practice of the spiritual disciplines is what leads us to freedom? This is a verifiable claim. You can test it. For the best results, you should do this with the benefit of a teacher.

The refusal to believe that practicing the spiritual disciplines is what leads to freedom, which amounts to a lack of faith, is the Achilles heel of much of what passes for contemporary Christian "spirituality." This "spirituality" amounts to self-directed self-improvement. Hence, it all about will-power and achieving one's own goals. In the long term, this usually leads to disappointment and disillusionment.

In his book Monastic Practices, Fr Charles Cummings, OSCO, makes the point I am trying to make very well:
The more I try to make Christ the center of my life and thoughts and actions, the more I feel every pull and tug that draws me back from the radical, loving surrender of myself. I am not totally free to run toward the one I love. Instead, I feel enchained, entangled by a thousand little threads that together form a strong rope binding me to myself. Detaching myself from these bonds is largely a matter of self-discipline and asceticism. Paradoxically, self-discipline sets me free for God. Self-discipline is a training in freedom. I am free to take something comfortable and pleasurable, or to eat and drink more, or to sleep longer, but I am also free to refrain from these things and not let myself be held bound by them
The time from Ash Wednesday through the Saturday that follows serves as something of a warm-up for Lent. So, this season of sanctification begins in earnest today. And so, today the Lord calls you to begin living in the glorious freedom of the children of God.

Friday, March 8, 2019

I don't want to be dismissive of people

A Facebook friend, who happens to be a religious sister, writing about her experience of morning Mass yesterday, the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, noted that the sleep-deprived priest who celebrated Mass said: "I know this is going to make me VERY unpopular, but if you couldn’t receive ashes... you did NOT commit a sin. So please don’t go to the rectories at 2am knocking on doors to get ashes (true story...every year). Getting ashes is not as important as going to Mass and confession." The priest continued, "I AM NOT SAYING THAT GETTING ASHES IS BAD. I am saying that people are very desperate to get them and might give this sacramental more importance than going to Mass. I see it every year." As noted with regard to fasting, sometimes when we're in a state of deprivation things become clearer, simpler.

From a Catholic standpoint, a sacramental does not trump a sacrament (i.e., receiving ashes pales in comparison to going to confession and Mass, as the priest noted). Being a sacramental, the palm ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday are symbolic. What the ashes symbolize is my determination to repent. Repenting is a three-fold movement. First, I examine my conscience in order to bring my sins of omission and commission to light. Second, I express sorrow for my sins. Third, I resolve not to live that old life anymore, to turn over a new leaf, to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I responded, "Yes, it gets a bit worrisome at times, this obsession with the ashes." Being the insightful person she is, my friend kindly provoked me by asking - "why do you think that is? Death? Tribalism? Knowing you are Catholic and going thru great lengths that one day a year to show that somewhere, deep down, you believe?" Appreciating the opportunity her questions gave me to reflect more deeply and with a more kindly countenance, I stated:
I don't know. I mean, there is something moving about the desire for sure. In response to your thoughtful questions, I would say, all of the above. I don't want to be dismissive of people.

I am not sure why people want to have ashes imposed and not at least come to Mass. I am even okay if someone comes, stays through the Liturgy of the Word, and then departs after receiving ashes. Working in good faith, I see their showing up at all as an act of faith, if not yet a commitment to discipleship. In some ways, I suppose, this may be a more honest approach
Such a disposition does not strike me as an empty show!

Sr. Rose's thoughtful questions prompted me to do something I need to do more often - draw from my own experience:
After returning from bringing ashes and Communion to Catholic residents of a local care facility, I was in the church alone. I took the opportunity to pray, to spend time with the Lord. As I did so, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone moving into the church from the narthex. As I had unlocked the church doors and left them unlocked, this was fine, even good. Then a young Hispanic mother with 2 small children, aged maybe 4 to 7 years old, approached me and asked about ashes. Kindly, I told her that Mass started at 7:00 PM (it was then about 6:20 PM). She meekly thanked me and then left.

There were too many people at Mass for me to see if she came back with her children, I was looking for her, hopeful that she came back. I certainly hope she did. Later that night I wondered if I should've just imparted ashes to them when they came
Upon reflection, these things always wind up quite ambiguously for me.

Yesterday I read that the retired Anglican Archbishop of York, John Habgood, died. In a short article on him ("John Habgood, former Archbishop of York, dies aged 91"), BBC News recalled an incident from Habgood's life when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once upbraided him for not "providing moral certainty." To which Habgood, who possessed a most cogent intellect and apparently a dry wit, replied, "But have you thought that moral certainty might be a sin?"

As you can see, Lent for me is off to a promising start. For that I am grateful.

We fast to "fill the emptiness of our hearts"

Over the years I have written a lot about the three fundamental disciplines that must be the foundation of any spirituality that flies under the banner "Christian," namely prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. In these ways, Christian life, like monastic life, according to St. Benedict in his Rule, "should always have a Lenten character about it" (Chap. 49). Of course, meaning "springtime," Lent is a season of hope, a threshold, if you will, over which one passes from the darkness of mortality to the perpetual light of Easter. And so, by insisting that our lives as Christians must have something of a Lenten character, I do not mean that we should walk around gloomily, decrying all that is enjoyable and refusing to ever have a good time. On the contrary, since we have experienced the light, we are full of joy.

In her commentary on the forty-ninth chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict, which chapter lays out "How Lent should be observed in the monastery," Esther de Waal points out: "The paradox is that the joy of Lent is necessarily connected with sorrow, that is a joy that flows from sorrow." She goes on to explain that just "as Lent and Easter are inseparable, so also are sorrow and joy." This is exactly how, as noted in my post for Ash Wednesday, at root, being Christian is about becoming fully human. In a word, Christian holiness is holistic.

The Lenten character of Christian life, which consists of proclaiming the Lord's death and professing his resurrection until he comes again, is made manifest by our practice of the three disciplines taught to us by the Lord himself, as is evidenced in our Gospel reading from Matthew 6 on Ash Wednesday. It is our practice of these disciplines that make us Jesus's disciples. It is by ceaselessly praying, fasting, and giving alms, the latter of which not only consists of giving money - though it certainly includes that - but consists in equal measure of serving others, that we proclaim Christ's death and profess his resurrection as we await his return.

It is fasting that makes prayer and alms-giving holistic. Fasting integrates prayer, which, especially in our atomistic/individualistic culture, often becomes subjective to the point of being solipsistic, with alms-giving, which can be done with no reference to the transcendence of those we serve, thus making it a duty instead of a privilege.

Unless you are hypoglycemic, diabetic, or suffering from some other disease or health condition that makes it dangerous for you, or you are pregnant or nursing, in which cases you absolutely should not fast, fasting means either going without food and /or drinking and eating significantly less than is your norm. Yes, it's difficult. Yes, you grow hungry and maybe get a little hangry. As those who fast with some regularity can tell you, all those other things that are proposed as "fasting" options (i.e., speaking less, being kind, doing less of this or that indulgent activity, etc.) are the fruits of fasting.

Food and water are fundamental for us, we need both in order to sustain life. This is why fasting that is truly fasting affects you at a fundamental level that abstaining from other behaviors and activities simply don't. Fasting shows you how indulgent you tend to be and how much less you "need" to live. Fasting provides you with more time for prayer and service. Fasting provides you with the means to contribute to the welfare of those in need. Fasting brings you to a point at which you tire of your own b.s. Oh yeah, as recent literature amply demonstrates, fasting has many health benefits, even beyond weight-loss. But for those who regularly fast as a spiritual discipline, health benefits are a by-product.

Discussing the spiritual discipline of fasting in his Lenten message for this year, Pope Francis writes to us: "Fasting, that is, learning to change our attitude towards others and all of creation, turning away from the temptation to 'devour' everything to satisfy our voracity and being ready to suffer for love, which can fill the emptiness of our hearts."

Speaking of Christian life always featuring a Lenten character, our traditio for this Friday after Ash Wednesday - next Friday is the First Friday of Lent, Ash Wednesday to the First Sunday of Lent serves as warm-up for Lent - is the Choir of New College, Oxford singing Psalm 51, known as the Miserere Deus mihi. Regularly, Psalm 51 is the first Psalm of Morning Prayer each Friday throughout the year. Just as Sundays, which do not count as days of Lent, are always a celebration of Easter, Fridays for Christians are to take on something of the character of Good Friday. Fridays, unless a solemnity falls on it, are days of penance:

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday: repentance, not empty show

For his Lenten message this year, which was released last October on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis took a verse from the eighth chapter of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans as his focal point: "For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God" (Rom 8:19). Indeed, we were born again as God's children through the waters of baptism. It was through baptism that we were newly created, restored to that state of original grace, the state of communion in which creation began and the state that will mark the completion of God's creation.

Lent is the time each year when we prepare to renew our baptismal promises at the great Easter Vigil. I think it is a good idea to remind ourselves at the outset of Lent what some of those promises are:
Do you renounce Satan?

And all his works?

And all his empty show?
To these three promises are added the three-fold profession of faith, which I might take up in another post as Easter draws closer.

According the Roman Missal there are two forms of the renunciation of sin. I used the first form because I think the final question cuts to the heart of the matter, gets to the essence of what Lent, what Ash Wednesday, is all about - Do you renounce all Satan's empty show?

I hate to be the one to point this out, but it seems to me that Ash Wednesday is very often an exercise in empty show. It always surprises people to learn that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. For serious Catholics, this means the church does not require you to go to Mass today. You are required to fast if you are between the ages of 14 and 59, however. Fasting should not be an exercise in how much food you can eat and still be considered fasting in any meaningful sense of the word. In short, you are not ecclesially obligated to receive a black smudge of your forehead and conspicuously walk around sporting it all day.

For anyone who does go to Mass and who receives ashes, the incongruency between Jesus's exhortation in the Gospel reading not to be conspicuous in your piety, in your practice of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, and then receiving a big, black mark on your forehead should not be lost you. Hence, it is important to consider whether it is a genuine commitment to repent and believe in the Gospel that draws you forth to receive ashes.

Understood properly and worn in the correct spirit, what the ashy smudge on your forehead identifies you as is a sinner. It identifies you as a penitent, a person in need of God's mercy. In what does this penance consist? It consists of ceasing to indulge yourself while others lack what they need. It means going without your excess to provide for those who regularly and involuntarily lack what they need.

I'll be honest, I would prefer having dry ashes sprinkled on my head, which is the custom in many places, to the smudge and all the concomitant cultural distortion that comes with it.

In his lovely book, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, the late John O'Donohue wrote: "In the human face, the anonymity of the universe becomes intimate." For those who endeavor to engage in it, this season is one of repentance that lead to conversion, that brings about a change of heart. The change we seek is to become more fully human, to see our faces and the faces of others, especially the destitute, more clearly in light of the revelation of God in Christ Jesus.

In Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in in Modern World, the Second Vatican Council noted:
He Who is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15) is Himself the perfect man. To the sons of Adam He restores the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward. 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 (sec. 22)
So this birth that creation eagerly awaits, like natural birth, requires labor. No one is either conceived or born all by herself. Today Christ calls each of us and all of us together to repent, to change, to turn and follow him with our whole heart, even after Lent ends.

May you be blessed with a holy Lent, one that is not an empty show that begins with the black smudge and then goes nowhere. The smudge received on Ash Wednesday is washed clean at Easter by the water from the baptismal font. It is through the passage in between - what Joel referred to as the space between the porch of the Temple and its sanctuary - that the children of God begin to be revealed.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Approaching Lent, resolve to follow Jesus

Readings: Sir 27:4-7; Ps 92:2-3.13-16; 1 Cor 15:54-58; Luke 6:39-45

In our reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul notes that "the power of sin is the law" (1 Cor 15:56). In Paul's view, the law can't rescue you from your sins. The law can only reveal your sinfulness to you. It is through Jesus Christ that you are already victorious over sin. Rather than causing you to sin more, Christ's victory enables you to labor on behalf of God's kingdom, which labor consists of steadfastly loving God by loving your neighbor as you love yourself.

Our reading from the Book of Sirach notes something that is also set forth in the New Testament, both in Jesus's own teaching in today's Gospel reading, as well as in the Letter of James and in Paul's writings, namely that what how you speak and act reveals who you really are. Your words and actions lift the veil of subjectivity from your heart and "reveal" you to the world.

Now, this may not be absolutely true in every case for a number of reasons but what you say and do certainly makes an impression on others, shaping and forming their image of you. It has been noted that we inevitably have several "selves." There is who you perceive yourself to be, there is who those closest to you perceive you to be, and who you are to someone who doesn't know you well. Finally, there is who God knows you to be, which is your very best self- the person God created, redeemed, and is now sanctifying you to be. By your words and actions, hopefully, you are not at work in your relationships trying to prove God wrong!

In our first reading, Sirach points out something quite unpleasant. But it is no less true for being unpleasant: every day is judgment day. This what he means when he says that just as pottery can only be made fit for use by being baked in a kiln, so are you made fit for the Kingdom by passing through tribulation. The tribulation to which he refers, it seems to me, is that of everyday life. How often do your good intentions not survive contact with the outside world?! How often, for example, do you lose your patience at the slightest inconvenience concerning the most trivial matter? On my part, I must confess, this happens more frequently than I care to admit. To paraphrase a deep thought by Jack Handy: In a former life I must've been a great king because I like people to do what I say.

This brings us to our Gospel reading for this Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time. It seems to me that this Gospel reading, taken from the sixth chapter of St Luke's Gospel, is very fitting for the last Sunday prior to the start of Lent. In the first section, Jesus teaches about discipleship, about what it means to follow him.

Jesus begins by saying that a disciple who attempts to lead other disciples before she is fully formed is like a blind person trying to lead another blind person along a treacherous path, one with which she is not familiar, one that features a pit. Inevitably, the two will fall into the pit. Hence, they won't reach their desired destination, or their arrival will be delayed. To lead others, one must first be fully formed, which means becoming like Christ, our Teacher and Master.

Jesus's short teaching about the blind leading the blind has bearing on the seemingly never-ending sexual abuse crisis with which the church continues to grapple. Too many "leaders" in the church have either forsaken being Jesus's disciples or never have put themselves under his tutelage. This has nothing to do with academic formation. In fact, too much emphasis has been placed at times on academic achievement and too little placed on pastoral experience, which constitutes the daily tribulation of those who commit themselves full-time to ministry. One cannot be spiritually mature and emotionally immature. Emotional maturity is the foundation upon which spiritual maturity is built. This is just a quasi-clinical way of stating that you can't be a Christian leader, one who seeks to serve and not to be served, and not submit yourself to Jesus's teaching.

According to Jesus, the qualities by which I can judge whether or not I am his disciple are humility and mercy. Rather than judging the relatively minor faults of others, I need to attend daily to my own heart. After all, my heart and Jesus's Sacred Heart, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Most Chaste Heart of St Joseph, are the only hearts to which I have interior access. Jesus's Sacred Heart provides me with the criteria to judge my own heart, thus enabling me to remove the beam from my eye. At the end of the day, it is not my job to remove the splinter from my brother's eye.

In a book on church architecture, Theology in Stone, noting the importance of environment to Christian discipleship, Richard Kieckhefer notes something very important, something that is transferable to the context laid out by today's scriptural readings: "One does not first learn to feel reverent inwardly and then act reverently with genuflection or other gestures...reverence is an orientation of both disposition and behavior, both learned simultaneously." In other words, there should be no incongruity between my inward disposition and my outward behavior. I need to develop both at the same time.

In reality, it is very often the case that my speaking and acting shape and form my heart rather than the other way around. This is borne out by how St Mark, in his Gospel, gives words to Jesus's call to conversion: μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ. Translated literally, Jesus's call to conversion, according to Mark, goes something like this: "Be you repenting and be you believing in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). Note two things: Jesus's message is delivered in the continuously active sense, pointing to the fact that conversion is an on-going, life-long, process and repenting (i.e., changing your ways) comes before believing.

Currently, I am slowly reading through the Rule of St Benedict. Benedict, who is called the father of Western Christian monasticism, places great emphasis on the consistency between one's inward disposition and one's behavior. In fact, his Rule can rightly be said to be manual about achieving this kind of consistency. This is why it is useful for anyone who is serious about following Jesus.

In her commentary on the Rule of St Benedict, A Life-Giving Way, in a section on the Rule's "Prologue," Esther de Waal points out that Benedict's focus is on the struggle between good evil, which "is not to be found in the outside world, but within the individual soul." De Waal emphatically asserts that Benedict "has no time" for the theoretical, for affirming Christ with one's lips and giving intellectual assent to his teaching while making no attempt to daily put his teaching into practice. How we use our days, the time God mercifully gives us, she notes, is for Benedict "no less than a matter of life or death."

And so, as we approach the sanctifying season of conversion known as Lent, let's each of us examine our own heart. Let's each of us resolve to mend our ways and follow Christ, always bearing in mind that every day is judgment day, even as we daily experience God's patience and mercy, which we should actively extend to others. Rather than waiting for your inward resolve to precede your words and actions, keep in mind the words of your Teacher, Jesus:
A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good,but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45)

Friday, March 1, 2019

"It's that little souvenir of a terrible year"

Here we are friends, March the oneth! It's difficult to believe. I don't know about you, but 2019 already seems to me rather long. This is so for a variety of reasons about which I won't bother to go into in detail. Let me just say that a cozy middle age is not something I am settling into. While there are quite a few days I feel differently, for the most part, I am glad about this. While I am loathe to admit it, I like being challenged and challenging myself. The reason I am slow to admit this is because is I don't like to be challenged merely for the sake of being challenged. For me, challenges need to serve a purpose larger than my own personal "development" or "growth." These things are overrated. Pope Francis took aim at this kind of vanity among religious and clergy in his much-too-overlooked Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, "On the Call to Holiness in Today's World."

I have always found life, daily existence quite difficult. I remember during Spring term of my junior year in high school suddenly being horror-struck that one day I would have to earn a living and provide for myself. At that point, I felt I would never marry because I was quite certain I would be unable to support a family. As someone who really likes women and someone in whom was inculcated a very strict sexual morality, I can also remember worrying how I might meet my erotic needs if I did not marry. I was not raised Catholic and so I had no grasp of anything like sanctified celibacy and sexual continence. In other words, at that point, I would've asked- "Who would choose to live that way?" Okay, I was weird. But we already know that, right? I think these worries arose as a result of being from a working-class background- farming and construction on one side and doing whatever someone would pay you to do on the other- factory work, construction, roofing, road crew, etc.

I am pretty sure these concerns are what prompted me to enlist for military "service" two months before graduating high school. In turn, this is why I understand when people write about a poverty draft and call it things like military servitude. I did not enlist with the intent of forging a military career. I did it to give myself time and space to consider what I really wanted to do. Even after that, I kept kicking the can of decision down the road until my late 20s, when I met and married my wife. I didn't really begin to make a living until I was in my early 30s! The first several years of our marriage, my wife made more money than I did. Frankly, I kind of miss those days. Because I was raised in a very orderly house, I have never really minded domestic work. I would've made a great house-husband!

Anyway, I am not really sure what summoned all of that forth on this first morning of March. Oh yeah, that 2019 already seems like a long year to me. While I understand the importance of not clinging to the past, I will never get used to the losses that life inflicts on me. You know what? I am glad I will never get used to that!

I have always seen the outlook I briefly sketched above as kind of a weakness. Most days, I still do. In reality, it's just honesty about the brokenness and incompleteness of life in this world, something everyone who pays attention experiences and grapples with. As the late Rich Mullins sang: "We are not as strong as we think we are." I would amend this, at least in my case: "We are not as strong as we think we need to pretend to be." So, this brings me to the cornerstone of this line of reflection today, the reading for Morning Prayer, taken from Friday in Week III of the Psalter - 2 Corinthians 12:9b-10: "I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong."

At least to my mind, the greatest tragedy of sexual abuse in the Church is that instead of a loving community in which I can be vulnerable and support others in their vulnerability, for many people the Church is now seen as a place of potential exploitation of their vulnerability. This breaks my heart. It is a great loss. Of course, trust can be restored and must be restored. However, it is a slow, very slow, glacially slow process.

I believe that at the root of this scourge of exploitation is making the Catholic priesthood such a heroic pursuit. As a result, I think priests, who are broken, weak, and vulnerable like the rest of us, often feel they need to live up to that inhumanely heroic image. In some cases, this ridiculously superhuman façade is chosen, which is indicative of deep-seated insecurity and other tendencies that are problematic. In other cases, probably in most cases, it is imposed.

What I find most endearing about the apostle Paul was his ability to be himself, to write from his heart and from his experience. Unusual as it was for an ancient writer to be that forthcoming, to summon forth his subjectivity in such an immediate way, this is exactly what enables scholars to identify the seven letters he wrote, either by his own hand or by dictating to a scribe. To understate it, Paul was passionate. As followers of the One who for our sakes underwent his Passion, this strikes me as singing in the correct key.

Late in his life, while out to dinner with my Mom, my Dad, who was not prone to ask these kinds of questions, asked her, "Did your life turn out better or worse than you thought it would?" Being my Mom, she turned the question back on him without answering. He replied: "Oh, way better."

The perfect traditio for this first (Fri)day of March is The Sundays "Here's Where the Story Ends."

I would be utterly remiss not to point out that today is the traditional feast of St. David of Wales, or Dewi Sant. Dewi Sant stands as one of the great Celtic saints. Several years ago, I posted something for his feast: "Dewi Sant- St David of Wales."

On loving like Jesus loves

Readings: Acts 10:25-26.34-35.44-48; Ps 98:1-4; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17 In the first reading for today, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, t...