Friday, May 31, 2019

Quiet revolutions bring lasting change

I have been reading a brilliant book this past week: Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. Like many people, I had previously only known about Lax via the writings of Thomas Merton. Lax was probably Merton's best friend from their days together at Columbia University until Merton entered Gethsemani. They corresponded regularly until Pater Tom's untimely death, the fiftieth anniversary of which was last December (a mea culpa for not writing about it then). Lax, who was Jewish, became Catholic a few years after Merton.

Bob Lax

Throughout the last two chapters I read, the figure of the eighteenth century saint Joseph Benedict Labre looms large. What I really admire about Robert Lax is the beautiful simplicity with which he lived his the latter portion of his life. He struggled for a long time to discern and then live out his vocation. Ironic as it may sound, in many ways his life was more monastic than was Pater Tom's. Ultimately, Lax very intentionally dedicated himself to peace and love, that is, to following Christ. He did so quietly and without a lot of "Look at me" piety that is so prevalent in this day of monetized faith.

I know, I know, how tiring to write he dedicated himself to peace and love. What a dismissive way to write about someone I am claiming to admire! But he really did this. Predictably, the results of his peaceful, loving life were not widespread. He certainly influenced those in his orbit in a powerful, yet quiet way. He lived for many years on the isle of Patmos in a small fishing village.

Since I've already used the phrase "peace and love," I might as well go the distance and say that Bob Lax was a prophet. By prophet I do not mean someone who was able to predict the future. At least in Biblical terms, this was never the role of the prophet. The role of the prophet is to call us back to fidelity to the God who is love, whose hesed (i.e., lovingkindness) is never-ending. The collected correspondence between Lax and Merton was given the title When Prophecy Still Had a Voice.

Rather than issue lofty proclamations and predictions of doom, to be a prophet in this age means to live prophetically. Living prophetically means to live like the reign of God is even now fully established, which means taking the actual, as opposed to the imagined and unjustly imputed, teaching of Jesus seriously, just as Lax did. To paraphrase Pope Paul VI as he expressed himself in the final major document promulgated during his pontificate, Evanglii Nuntiandi, his Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, of which Pope Francis's Evangelii Gaudium serves as something of an update, to be a prophet today is to be a witness. Both Joseph Benedict Labre, whose prophetic calling strikes me as very post-modern, and Robert Lax are witnesses.

Quiet revolutions are usually the ones that have a lasting and positive effect. When I think about positive changes in my own life, the ones that have lasted are the ones I have made in the quietness of contemplation and just set about making without really broadcasting them. The ones I proclaim and vocally insist on seem to be the ones that fall by the wayside sooner rather than later.

I am not going to include any long extract from Pure Act. But I encourage you to check out this link.

So maybe there's a change you've been thinking about making. Perhaps you've been wondering how to go about making that change. I would encourage you, after properly discerning the need to make the change, to make a quiet resolution, something between you and God, and then begin making the change, resisting the temptation to tell everyone or maybe even to tell anyone about it. At the end of each day, as part of your daily Examen, reflect on how it went. Be gentle with yourself, especially if living the change didn't go well on a particular day. Ask for the grace to do better on the morrow and then resolve to do better. You can't make a meaningful change effortlessly, despite what hucksters tell you.

Instead of a song for this Sixth Friday of Easter, the day after Ascension Day in most parts of the world (throughout most of the Western U.S., where I live, we observe Ascension this Sunday), our traditio is one of Lax's poems: A Problem in Design. I think what this poem sets forth is nothing less than the esthetic of Lax's poetry. If Lax was a prophet, his oracles are his poems. He wrote in vertical style, which used a lot of space.

what if
you like
to draw
big flowers,

but what
if some
sage has
told you
that
there is
nothing
more
beautiful


nothing
more
beautiful


than a
straight
line
?

what should
you draw:
big flowers?
straight lines?

i think you should draw

big flowers
big flowers

big flowers
big flowers

big flowers
big flowers

big flowers
big flowers

until
they become
a straight
line.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Building the city of God

Readings: Acts 15:1-2.22-29; Ps. 67:2-3.5-6.8; Rev 21:10-14.22-23; John 14:23-19

Our second reading this week is again taken from the twenty-first chapter of Revelation. Once again, Revelation informs us in dramatic but certain terms that heaven will be on earth. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. In fact, how we live our lives and how we proclaim the Gospel hinge on understanding this very fundamental aspect of Christian faith. If we conceive of "heaven" as up in the sky then chances we think of ourselves living eternally as disembodied spirits. Too many Christians think of their beloved dead as angels. Human beings do not become angels because to become an angel would mean taking a step backward, not forward. Because Jesus was resurrected, we will be resurrected. As a result, we are destined to live forever embodied, which is not only how God made us but why God became human. "What is man that you are mindful of him," the psalmist asks God.1 "Yet you have made him little less than a god," the psalmist continues, "crowned him with glory and honor."2

Thinking of heaven as "up there" somewhere and conceiving of yourself as a spirit trapped in a body is Gnostic, not Christian. It's difficult to think of an outlook more alien to authentic Christianity than Gnosticism. Christianity, which takes the Incarnation of God's only begotten Son as its starting point, has contended with Gnosticism, which is something of a spiritual parasite, from the start.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis noted the danger of this Gnostic tendency. "Thanks be to God," the Holy Father writes, that throughout her history, the Church "has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity."3 Those who tend toward Gnosticism "do not understand this," he continues, "because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines."4 In separating the intellect from the body, these Gnostics render themselves "incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopaedia of abstractions."5

It bears noting a second time in as many weeks that such a Gnostic view disconnects those who hold it from reality, causing them to constantly look beyond, distracting them from their own lives and the lives of others, especially those in need. It leads to an attitude captured well in the Letter of James. When confronted with someone who is clothed in rags and/or hungry, a person with this disconnected view responds by saying, in effect: "'Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,' but [does] not give them the necessities of the body..."6

Rather than a garden, heaven-on-earth is a city. The city of God marks the completion of God's creation. It is only then that God will rest as will those who enter into the sabbath rest by inhabiting the city of God.7

Heavenly Jerusalem


Everyone is invited to live in the city of God. This is made clear by our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. This reading tells about the somewhat anachronistically named "Council of Jerusalem." This council was convened to ascertain the status of Gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) converts to Christianity. Without a doubt, even prior to Paul's missionary activity among the Gentiles there were Gentile Christians. It's a pretty safe bet that this early on these Gentiles became Christian via Judaism. At this point, there was no hard-and-fast split between the church and the synagogue. This early on, Christians probably gathered in their own synagogues.

The difference between Gentiles who became Christians via Judaism and those who converted in response to Paul's evangelization efforts was that Paul forbade the latter from becoming Jews prior to becoming Christians. For example, Gentile men who converted were not circumcised. Paul emphatically insisted that a one becomes a Christian through baptism. Both men and women are baptized. In his Letter to the Galatians, which is Paul's strongest extant repudiation of the idea that Gentiles needed to become Jews into order to be Christians, wrote: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."8

Understandably, Paul's radical activity quickly became a matter of concern due to the fact that it caused many great scandal. As a result, Paul was called to Jerusalem to answer for himself. It seems that Paul acquitted himself well, at least well enough for the council to reach an accommodation for the Gentiles. This accommodation permitted the continuation evangelization throughout the world to everyone, irrespective of race or gender. This is how the citizenry of the city of God is gathered, shaped, and formed.

Our Gospel for this Sixth Sunday of Easter- the Sunday just before our celebration of Jesus's Ascension- breaks into three separate but related parts. Jesus tells those close to him that they are his disciples only if they keep his word. What is his word? It is the new commandment he gave them in last week's Gospel reading: love another as he (Jesus) has loved them.9 Second, Jesus promises them that even though he is leaving he will not abandon them. He promises to send the Spirit. The Spirit will remind them of everything Jesus taught them. Peace is what the Spirit brings in every situation, no matter how perilous. The Holy Spirit is the way Jesus remains present in, among, and through his disciples until he returns. Third, Jesus assures his troubled disciples that he will return. As his disciples, striving to love each other the way Jesus loves us is how we "await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ."10

"I'm hopeful," the late poet Robert Lax, a close friend of Thomas Merton's, told a young Mike McGrgeor in the mid-1980s, "that the world's societies are caught up in an evolutionary moment, one that will bring us into the ideal city, where music will play and all will move to it. If you decide to put on all blue clothes and do cartwheels across the square, that will be fine and in time with the music."11 When McGregor, noticing no such movement afoot in the world, asked Lax how this might be realized, the poet admitted he didn't know. Lax, who was Jewish and who, like Merton, became Catholic as a young adult, said, "the first step was to be positive and hopeful."12 He was convinced that we each need to do our part, not only as Christians but as human beings, by living our belief "that violence shouldn't be part of life."13 We do this by seeking to eliminate violence from our own lives. "In every moment," Lax observed, "we make decisions, both large and small. True life comes in understanding that these decisions are of ultimate importance."14

This brings us back to the beginning, to Jerusalem, the holy city coming down from heaven. The holy city will have no temple. God himself and the Lamb, Jesus Christ, will be the temple. Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, will be the lamp that gives light to the city. Jesus Christ, we are told at the very beginning of John's Gospel, is the "true light, which enlightens everyone."15

How fitting, then, is our Psalm response today- "God, let all the nations praise you"? This is just another way of saying the alternative Psalm response, which can be used every Sunday during Easter: "Alleluia!"


1 Psalm 8:5..
2 Psalm 8:6..
3 Pope Francis, Gaudete et exsultate [[On the Call to Holiness in Today's World], sec. 37.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid/.
6 James 2:15-16.
7 See Hebrews 4:8-13.
8 Galatians 3:28.
9 John 13:34-35.
10 The Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 125.
11 Michal N. McGregor, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, 23.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid., 24.
15 John 1:9.

Friday, May 24, 2019

(Dis)Satisfaction

The weather here along the Wasatch Front is rainy and cold. It's still snowing in the mountains. As more or less a lifelong resident of this place, I have to say that I have never experienced anything like this here. I remember one time it snowed in June. Once in awhile we have a summer during which the temperature does not rise to normal levels. The Spring and Summer of 2010 come to mind as fairly cold and somewhat rainy. Prior to that I'd have to go all the way back to 1995. I only mention this at length because it's so unusual. I have to say, I like the weather. I enjoy the rain and coolness.

Weber River

July and August are my least favorite months of the year here. On an unrelated note, I have once again been thinking about contentment and satisfaction. At least for me, this means thinking about how elusive satisfaction is. How often do you feel satisfied? How long does that feeling of satisfaction last? When you are tempted to feel satisfied, or actually feel satisfied, do you catch yourself thinking something like "This will be over in a few hours?" Living in the moment is not as easy as it sounds.

I suppose our longing for satisfaction is what makes us posit something a heaven, a nirvana, or other afterlife. In heaven all our longings are fulfilled, we are satisfied. Nirvana, which consists of the annihilation of one's self, one's self-consciousness, all desire is overcome. This is one of the main reasons I could never be a Buddhist. I happen to think my longing, my desire is what makes me.

I am pretty sure that learning to live in the moment is training for what lies beyond. It makes no sense for the two to be disconnected. One of the reasons I am not an optimist is because I experience moments of satisfaction so rarely. Another reason is that moments of satisfaction usually happen spontaneously. It seems that whenever I have high expectations about some event, the event does not rise to my expectations. I have to say, these days my expectations are usually pretty low. Having low (i.e., realistic) expectations is a key to living in a balanced way.

After that what other choice do I have but to post "Satisfaction" as our Friday traditio. Instead of the Stones, a group I like just fine, I am going with my favorite version of this classic rock song. My favorite version is Devo's.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Year C Fifth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 14:21-27; Ps 145:8-13; Rev 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a.34-35

In our second reading, taken from Revelation, we heard these words: “I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”1 Then we heard these words: “Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God.”2 These words convey a very important message. The message these words convey is so important that not to receive it is to compromise the mission of the Church, which, as our reading from Revelation also tells us, is the bride of Christ.

What is the message? The message is that heaven is not up in the sky. To conceive of it as such is to let your faith disconnect you from reality. Christ calls us to engage reality according to all the factors that constitute it. That heaven will be on earth is clearly attested to by Scripture and the Church fathers.

Just as our bodies will be resurrected, the earth will be renewed with eternal glory. Because we exist forever as embodied beings, we need a place to inhabit. Rather than a garden paradise, the kingdom of God is a city, a new Jerusalem, a holy city inhabited only by saints. As Christians, we revere Jesus as Emmanuel, or “God-with-us.” It has been pointed out that the “Event of God becoming human is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma” on the cosmos.3

Since our observances of the Ascension and Pentecost are rapidly approaching, it is important to note that Jesus did not abandon his disciples when he ascended. Rather, he sent his Holy Spirit, who is also the Spirit of the Father. It is by means of the Holy Spirit that the risen Lord remains present in us, among us, and through us. It is by the power of the Spirit that Christ is really present to us in this Eucharist in four distinct but inextricably related ways: in the gathering of the baptized, in the person of the priest, in the proclamation of Scripture, and in the consecrated bread and wine, our partaking of which makes together the body of Christ.4

None of these four ways in which Jesus is really present stands alone. On their own, each of these ways makes no sense whatsoever. Even so, as one of the men in white told the astonished apostles at Christ’s Ascension: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you… will return in the same way as you have seen him going [up].”5 This proclamation is preceded by the question, “why are you standing there looking at the sky?”6 And so, “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”7

This prompts the question, what shall we do in the meantime, in the time between the Lord’s Ascension and his glorious return, which will precede the arrival of the city of God? It’s quite simple: we are to usher in the reign of God, making the kingdom present in the form of a mustard seed until it is fully established.

Love One Another, by Ivan Guadrrama, 2018

What does living in this way look like? Our first reading from Acts gives us a clue. In the first instance, like Paul and Barnabas, we are to proclaim the good news. The good news is Jesus Christ crucified and risen. As Pope St. Paul VI noted: in our day people listen “more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if [they do] listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”8 Just as Jesus told anyone who would follow him they must be willing to take up their cross, Paul and Barnabas teach those who would be Christians, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”And so, “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”9

It is not easy being a professing Christian today. At least in the United States, this is not due to the fact that we are being persecuted. It stands to reason that as the number of professing and practicing Christians declines, the Church will continue to lose political clout, which, in light of the Gospel, is a good thing. What makes being a Catholic right now so difficult is the Church’s seeming counter-witness to the good news. To many, those of us who remain faithful members of the Church look willfully ignorant or even hypocritical. No amount of apologetics will resolve this state-of-affairs.

Rather than a bad thing, exposing sin is a step in the right direction. We need to be reminded that Christians are not hypocrites because we’re sinners, or even because, in our shame, we seek to hide our sins in the same way Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after eating from the forbidden tree.10 Such behavior is indicative of our deformed humanity. But it is never pleasant to experience the dissolution of our often carefully-crafted façade. Doing away with what The Who, in one of their hit songs, referred to as an “Eminence Front” is a good thing because the “eminence front” is always “a put-on.”

Acknowledging that behind the whitewash is a sepulcher is necessary for true repentance. I don’t know about you, but it’s because I am a sinner that I am a Christian. In Jesus, I have met someone who, through the grace of God, helps me to see that I am greater than the sum of my failures. Because of Christ, my identity is not reducible to the worst thing I have ever done, far from it! It is Jesus who takes away my guilt and shame, thus restoring me to my dignity and conforming me more while more to his image.

Because as Christians we have experienced the mercy of God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit first-hand, we must bring this good news to each other in concrete ways. Because God has forgiven us in Christ, it is imperative that we forgive one another, bear with each other in our weaknesses and through our failures. This is easy to say and hard to do. As the first Christians in Ephesus were exhorted: “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”11

This is exactly what Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel by giving his disciples (you and me) “a new commandment” – “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”12 The obverse of this is failing to love one another in a Christ-like way. If we fail to do this we are not a community of Jesus’s disciples. Taking our cue from Tertullian, one of the earliest Church fathers, when people look at St. Olaf parish their response should be “See… how they love one another.”13

This, my friends, is how we live God’s kingdom as a present reality. This is how we live and bear witness to the good news. It is by living this way that we allow Christ to make his dwelling among us, acknowledging him as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Living this way is the only convincing proof that God is with us. This is how we build the city of God, a new Jerusalem, a holy city. We cannot do this if we remain standing around looking up at the sky.


1 Revelation 21:2.
2 Revelation 21:3.
3 John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, Creston Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology, 7.
4 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium], sec. 7.
5 Acts 1:11.
6 Acts 1:11.
7 The Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 125.
8 Pope Paul VI. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, sec. 41.
9 Acts 14:22.
10 See Genesis 3:6-12.
11 Ephesians 4:32.
12 John 13:34-35.
13 Tertullian, Apology, 39.

Friday, May 17, 2019

I still don't want to be the hollow man

Here we are at the end of the Fourth Week of Easter. Before we know it we'll be observing the Ascension and then Pentecost! I have to say, the commencement exercises at Mount Angel Abbey & Seminary last weekend were wonderful. It was a privilege to participate. It seems to strange to have an earned doctoral degree. It's been a dream of mine for decades, one that I really did not think I would ever realize. At 53, all I can say is, "Better late than never."

I've been thinking a lot about the Friday traditio this week. After much thought, I decided to reuse REM's song "Hollow Man" off their penultimate album Accelerate. Accelerate is a tremendous album. I rank it right up there with my favorite REM albums: Life's Rich Pageant and Document.

I posted "Hollow Man" before as a Friday traditio back in May 2008 about a month after Acclerate was released. As I was thinking about this song, I recalled a conflict that kicked up nearly six months after I initially posted it. Back in the early years of my blog, I had a persistent antagonist. Like most internet trolls, this person posted anonymously. I am pretty confident I know who this person is. But thinking about this yesterday reminded me of how easily I can let myself be lured into idiotic online conflicts.



Over time, I grew wise to trolling tactics and stopped publishing critical comments posted anonymously. Guess what? Pretty quickly such comments stopped. I slowly learned to stop being lured by this kind of bait. I still invite my readers to hold me accountable. If I am in error, please correct me. If you disagree with me, I don't mind you commenting about what it is you disagree with me about and why you disagree. I do, however, insist that you do so in a charitable way and own your criticism by identifying yourself. These days I don't address the broad range of topics I used to mainly due to the fact that I don't post nearly as often as I did back when blogging was relatively new to me. Of course, this helps keep things calmer in this small patch of cyberspace.

As I mention from time-to-time with regard blogging for as long as I have, I do it primarily because it is a readily accessible means of growth. Hence, I don't worry too much about how many people read what I write. Over the years, the popularity of Καθολικός διάκονος has ebbed and flowed. Nonetheless, from what I can I tell, I have a solid core of readers. Blogging has helped me with my on-going human, spiritual, and pastoral formation. When I look back on my blogging career, it is easy for me to see that it took me five years to really hit anything that can be called a stride. Or, to employ a cliché about writing, it took me five years or so to "find my voice."

I don't claim to be a very good writer. I don't think I am a particularly perceptive, insightful, clever, or creative person. By working at it over time as I journey through life, I can confidently assert that I am better than I was. Maybe this is simply a movement from terrible to bad and from bad to mediocre. Despite earning a doctorate, the older I get the less I know, especially about ultimate things.

As I noted way back when, being able to deal gently with my faults, foibles, and failures is a victory hard-won. I have a penchant for being tremendously hard on myself. But as the suicide of a friend several ago taught me, it is important to be gentle with myself as well as with others. I am tempted to write that you must learn to be gentle with yourself before you can be gentle with others. My experience, however, indicates the opposite: it is by feeling and acting gently towards others than I have learned to be gentler with myself.

It was the same Nietzsche who asserted that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger who also believed thought that during life one must die many times. This implies rising from all those graves.



Oh yeah, did I mention that T.S. Eliot composed a poem entitled The Hollow Men?

Remember us - if at all - not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Te deum laudamus- Doctor of Ministry commencement

Since I am heading to Mount Angel Abbey & Seminary tomorrow to participate in commencement exercises this weekend upon completion of my Doctor of Ministry degree, I won't post a Friday traditio or a reflection on this Sunday's readings. I am, however, posting a Wednesday traditio in honor of the first Doctor of Ministry (DMin) class to ever to graduate from Mount Angel Seminary. Founded in 1889, Mount Angel is oldest seminary in the Western United States. The DMin program was established by the seminary at the request of several bishops who send seminarians there to be formed for ministry.

Abbey Church of Mount Angel Abbey, Oregon


Six of us make-up the first DMin class of Mt Angel. We started with 7 but one of our number, a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland, was named to his first pastorate prior to the beginning of second year and so needed immerse himself in his assignment. The director of Mt. Angel's DMin program is Dr. Owen Cummings, who is also a deacon of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Dr. Cummings also suffers the humiliation of serving as my dissertation director. The title of my work is Diaconal Spirituality: A Systematic Exploration.

My classmates are:

Ms Nancy Holt, Mount Angel Seminary
Deacon Scott Pearhill, Diocese of Boise
Father Thomas Koller, Order of Discalced Carmelites
Father Peter Arteaga, Missionaries of the Holy Spirit
Msgr Joseph Betschart, Archdiocese of Portland and Rector of Mount Angel Seminary
Last and most certainly least is yours truly

It's been a laborious and fast-paced three years. As a DMin program is supposed to do, it has benefited me pastorally in many practical ways. It is no small thing to undertake such an endeavor in late middle age. Frankly, I found it more refreshing than I did tiring. Nonetheless, I will not lie. It feels good to be nearly done.

In light of this festive occasion, our traditio for this Third Week of Easter is Franz Joseph Haydn's Te Deum n. 2 in C.



I give thanks, too, that my little cyber effort - Καθολικός διάκονος - survived throughout this time. It very nearly did not. Also, I didn't bore you senseless by posting large extracts of my academic writing as a substitute for blogging.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Friendship with Jesus

Readings: Acts 5:27-32.40b-41; Ps 30:2.4-.11-13; Rev 5:11-14; John 21:1-9

Our readings for this Third Sunday of Easter are very rich. Among a number of other things, our Gospel features Jesus effectively forgiving Peter for the three times Peter betrayed him at the start of his Passion. Our reading from Revelation tells about the triumph of those who, by following Jesus, won by losing. Our first reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, ends with the apostles praising God, not for getting off lightly, which they did, but for the privilege of experiencing some indignity for Jesus's sake.

All of that sounds glorious or at least not too demanding. It is precisely because it sounds so non-threatening that I am hesitant to link it the church bombings that rocked Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. Why? Because that is gruesome and horrific, not to mention very difficult. My sisters and brothers who arose to celebrate Christ's resurrection that morning had no idea that they would be killed and injured while doing so precisely for doing so. Where was God? Well, the body of God's only begotten Son was the target of the bombs. Therefore, I have to say that he was in the bloody middle of the blasts.

The whole idea of adding by subtraction and winning by losing is not attractive when you stop to consider what this really means. Rhetorically, it can be dressed up and used to indoctrinate people. Either way, the paradoxical nature of following Jesus, which requires you to make God's reign present wherever you are, thus making the kingdom present in a mustard seed-like manner, is a dangerous idea. When not dangerous, endeavoring to live the Gospel is often inconvenient. In short, being Jesus's disciple is not as glamorous as it sometimes sounds. For most of us, it consists of what the recently departed Eugene Peterson called "long obedience in the same direction."

As Jesus's disciple, you don't do good in order to feel good. You live life as if God's reign is already established. By doing this, you quickly come to the realization of how far away God's kingdom is, especially these days. The more good you do, the more you realize the overwhelming scope of what needs to be done and how little impact, in the aggregate, your own paltry efforts make. Nonetheless, your efforts make a world of difference to those who need your help.

Far from being cathartic, I imagine how painful it must've been for Peter each time the resurrected Jesus asked him "Do you love me?" It is easy to sense Peter's frustration when answering the question for the third time, he replied: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." I can almost hear him mutter, "Geez, knock it off. Leave me be."

In querying Simon Peter for the third time, Jesus used a different word than he did the first two times. The first and second time Jesus asked Peter he used the word: agapas. Querying him for the third time, the risen Lord used the word phileis. What is odd about this is that phileis is a weaker word than agapas. Phileis means something like being fond of, or liking. Being derived from agapé, agapas means something like loving another in a self-sacrificing way.

In this exchange, Peter never says he loves Jesus using agapé. Each time he responds, Peter uses philos. This can mean a lot of things. Perhaps it means that you never love Jesus as much he loves you. Proof of this is that, like Peter, you can callously deny Jesus and he still loves you in an utterly selfless way. Maybe Peter grasped his own limitation and, being chastened by his lying about whether he knew Jesus, now feels compelled to be completely honest. Hence, he cannot bring himself in good conscience to say what he knows to be untrue. In response, Jesus meets him where he's at.

Isn't that the gist of it? It is never a question of whether or not Jesus loves you. It always a question of whether you love him and how much. You love Jesus by loving others as you love yourself, especially those who are on the margins.

Statue of Jesus flecked with blood in the church of St. Sebastian, Negombo, Sri Lanka- St. Sebastian, the patron of this church was himself a martyr


Today, I don't feel like I can tie this up into a neat little package. But then our tendency to tie scriptural readings up into neat little packages constitutes a good part of what ails us. I do know that in St. John's Last Supper discourse Jesus calls his disciples, not servants, but friends. The Greek word for "friends" in John 15:15 is philous. So, it seems that Jesus seeks to re-establish his friendship with Peter, a friendship Peter no doubt felt broken by his betrayals. In John's Gospel, the section that follows Jesus inviting his disciples to be his friends, the Lord tells them what this friendship might cost them (see John 15:18-27).

But you don't need to leap all the back to the Last Supper. All you need to do is keep reading to see what lay in store for Peter. In essence, Jesus bids Peter to follow him to the cross. Tradition tells us Peter did just that.

What would you not do for a true friend? What would a true friend not for you? Novelist E.M. Forster once quipped- "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

Jesus doesn't just want you to be his disciple, which is something of a formal relationship, one of a master to an apprentice. He wants to be your friend. In turn, he wants you to be his friend. Then you, like the apostles after they were drug before the Sanhedrin, can rejoice when you suffer a little indignity for his name.

One of the hallmarks of those friends of Jesus who wind up enduring more than a little indignity, who suffer imprisonment, torture, and sometimes even death, is to forgive and ask God to forgive those who inflict these things on them. They do this because Jesus forgives them and restores them as his friends whenever they betrayed him by ignoring or denigrating the downtrodden, failing to stand up for someone who is being run-down, refusing or neglecting to assist someone in need, wittingly participating in the exploitation of others, etc. It's true, we usually sin more by omission than commission. This realization is what prompted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was indisputably a friend of Jesus, to observe: "It is not the sins of weakness, but the sins of strength that matter."

There is a story attributed to St. Teresa of Ávila that expresse well what I am trying articulate. Someone who investigated the authenticity of this story, which is sometimes held to be apocryphal, found that it appeared in a 1912 English translation of a book entitled The Life of St. Teresa. The original seems to have been written in French by a Carmelite nun (see "St. Teresa of Ávila: 'If this is how You treat your friends…'").
Teresa describes the journey thus: “We had to run many dangers. At no part of the road were the risks greater than within a few leagues of Burgos, at a place called Los Pontes. The rivers were so high that the water in places covered everything, neither road nor the smallest footpath could be seen, only water everywhere, and two abysses on each side. It seemed foolhardiness to advance, especially in a carriage, for if one strayed ever so little off the road (then invisible), one must have perished.” The saint is silent on her share of the adventure, but her companions relate that, seeing their alarm, she turned to them and encouraged them, saying that “as they were engaged in doing God’s work, how could they die in a better cause?” She then led the way on foot. The current was so strong that she lost her footing, and was on the point of being carried away when our Lord sustained her. “Oh, my Lord!” she exclaimed, with her usual loving familiarity, “when wilt Thou cease from scattering obstacles in our path?” “Do not complain, daughter,” the Divine Master answered, “for it is ever thus that I treat My friends.” “Ah, Lord, it is also on that account that Thou hast so few!” was her reply
What a friend we have in Jesus! I don't mean that (too) sarcastically. Being Jesus's friend means trusting him completely, no matter what circumstances you face. Jesus trusted the Father in this exact way when he surrendered himself to his Passion and he when commended his spirit to the Father as he expired on the cross (see Luke 23:46). Failing to do this renders "Jesus, I trust in You," which resounded so loudly last week, just another empty slogan.

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Grace of Creation is the Grace of Redemption

It's difficult to believe we're nearing the end of the Second Week of Easter. One concrete proof for the theory of time's relativity is that as I grow older time seems to pass more quickly, despite moving at the same pace it has since its beginning.

I had a discussion today with a friend about certain aspects of soteriology. What does Christ save us from? How does Christ save us? What sparked the discussion was my friend's understandably "visceral" reaction to the insistence of another friend of hers, who is an Evangelical Christian, not only to Penal Substitutionary Atonement but also to its companion doctrine: forensic justification.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement, for those who are curious, holds that instead of torturing and killing you for your sins, the Father allowed his Son to be tortured and killed on your behalf. According to this view, the torturing and killing of Jesus somehow satisfied the Father's bloodthirsty justice. Such a God makes Greek and Roman deities look positively benevolent and gives Moloch and Baal a run for their respective monies. In short, a visceral reaction is an appropriate response to such a monstrous theology, one that is wholly incompatible with God who "is love" (see 1 John 4:8.16).

Forensic justification, to use a metaphor employed by Martin Luther, holds that Christ's atonement "covers" your sins like a blanket of freshly fallen snow covers up a pile of crap. In other words, because of your sinfulness, without Christ's "covering" you look to God like a pile of crap. Here's some great news: nothing could be further from the truth!



A third faulty theological idea, one that underwrites Penal Substitutionary Atonement and forensic justification is Total Depravity. Total Depravity holds that, due to the fall, human beings are utterly depraved until they are regenerated by grace, which regeneration happens either when you say the sinner's prayer or when you're baptized, depending on which faulty perspective you take.

This troika of false dogma, which I am stating in a very forthright manner for the sake of clarity, also posits a real difference between the orders of nature and grace, treating them as separate and distinct, ignoring that creation finds its origin and completion in and through grace. Such a fundamental theology is not Catholic.

It's important to point out that God's plan was not thrown off-track by the Fall. Therefore, Jesus is not God's Plan B or Plan C. Jesus is not even Plan A. He is God's only plan from the beginning.

Even before discussing the above with my friend, I felt the need for a little redemption this morning. So, driving to work I put Jennifer Knapp's album Lay It Down in my CD-player (yes my vehicle is equipped with one). I wound up listening to the first track three times. What else is our traditio going to be if not "A Little More"?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

On reading the signs of the times

Since the events of last summer, beginning with the Pennsylvania grand jury report, I have sought to intelligently follow developments in the Church's on-going struggle with priestly sexual abuse here on Καθολικός διάκονος. A few weeks ago, I posted on Ratzinger's strange and reactionary letter about this seemingly never-ending saga (see "Confusion and division must not continue: Benedict's letter"). In addition to offering some critiques of his letter, I noted how, whether intentional or not, it serves to undermine Pope Francis's reform efforts, not least of which because his shallow diagnosis of the root causes diverges dramatically from that of Francis, especially as the latter articulated these in his "Letter to the People of God."

In his article for the Times of Malta, "Benedict XVI and the 1960s: An ill-judged essay placed blame in all the wrong places," published today, Martin Scicluna touches, albeit more forcefully, on several of the themes I took up in my post. Like most public opiners, I am gratified when my expressed views are validated.

Ratzinger's letter (I am retiring my use of "Pope Emeritus," a more untenable title could not be invented - it is the nature of the papacy to have one Pope at a time) deserves to be called out for several reasons, not least among which is that, as Scicluna observes: "inside the Vatican itself the more emotionally intelligent approach adopted by Pope Francis is resented, and being resisted, by conservative clerics and laity."

The long and short of it is that, when it comes to the events of 1968, which Ratzinger personally found and still finds so traumatic, events that prompted him to resign from Tübingen in order to go to a relative backwater - Regensburg - he is simply not a reliable or particularly insightful commentator. Rather, as his letter amply demonstrates, he remains a reactionary vis-à-vis events that happened more than 50 years ago. Solutions and reforms rooted in such reactions can only prove disastrous, as recent history shows.

The events of 1968 and their aftermath did not, as Scicluna points out, alter the landscape in quite the dramatic way Ratzinger insists it did. For example, "Sexual standards have indeed changed, sometimes in ways one might shudder at, but the thoughtless, anything-goes culture is far from universal. Faithful intimacy was – and still is – regarded as a treasure by the vast majority." At least in my personal and pastoral experience, sometimes this treasure is cherished more by non-religious people than by religious ones. But then Christianity is a religion for screw-ups or it is nothing.

How can anyone fail to see in Humanae vitae's "unitive" dimension of marital sexuality a trace of the sexual revolution? (see sec. 12). And is that not, indeed, a good thing? We need to learn, as Gaudium et spes bids us do, to read the signs of the times (sec. 4). Inherent in this reading is the realization we can't go back to the future.



Insisting that we can't move backward on time's linear continuum does not mean forsaking or eschewing history. At least for those who bother to study it, as opposed to mining it in order to construct an overly simplified ideological narrative, even Church history is rather complex and multi-faceted. Referring to those he insisted were "not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure," Pope St. John XXIII, himself a historian, in his speech opening the Second Vatican Council, noted that such people say our times, "in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, nonetheless, the teacher of life."

Historically-speaking, Church reform, at least what Yves Congar would call "true reform," moves the Church forward, not backward. To take just one example of true ecclesial reform, look at the revolutionary nature of the rise of the mendicant orders (i.e., Franciscans and Dominicans) in the thirteenth century. Now, some would say we need a reform "like" that now. Whether or not I agree with that assertion depends entirely on that to which "like" refers.

Given the reality of Ecclesia semper reformanda, the Church always stands in need of being reformed until she realizes the full stature of Christ. So, if the insistence that we need a reform "like" the one wrought by the mendicants refers to this, then count me in. If you mean the mendicant-led reform needs to happen again, then you're dreaming. Don't exaggerate my answer. I grasp that true and lasting reform is brought about by Christians who give themselves wholly to Christ by living out his teachings. But this will look different in every era. Another pitfall, given the statist and corporatist nature of advanced Western society in our day, is being content to only seek institutional reforms. While our present moment certainly requires some institutional reforms, accountability of bishops being at the top of the list, settling only for these reforms comes at the expense of the kind of conversion called for by the Second Vatican Council.

Looking at the Protestant side of Church history, I have been re-reading Leslie Chamberlain's Nietzsche in Turin. While Chamberlain is noticeably more hostile to Christianity than was Nietzsche (as well as more ignorant of it), she insists, quite rightly I think, that German idealism and the intricate speculative metaphysical systems it spawned (think Hegel, Kant, Fichte, Leibniz, etc.), which Nietzsche so despised, are the product of the Reformation. On her view, for Nietzsche this made the Christian religion primarily a matter of the head and led in turn into a denial of life instead of an affirmation of it.

In perhaps not such an intuitive way, this is a result of Luther's insistence that theology should avoid contact with philosophy. It would've been useful for Chamberlain to contrast the bass line that Nietzsche's philosophy amounts to a rejection of the Reformation, which gives rhythm to the first third of her book, with her insistence that it is absurd to take seriously that the Shroud of Turin might be the burial cloth of Jesus in light of Nietzsche's philosophy (see "The Shroud of Turin: Short Take"). Relevant to my purposes, it is important to consider how these disembodied, idealistic (in the philosophical sense) metaphysical systems, among Catholics most particularly neo-Thomism, led to the kind of bizarre and inhumane sexual ethics to which Ratzinger wants to return (see "Humanae vitae at 50").

While the past must and inevitably does shape the future to some extent, the future does not now nor has it ever lain in the past.

St Joseph the Worker on May Day

Today is May Day. I am old enough to remember celebrating May Day with May Poles and a field day at school. In the two places I lived when I was young, nobody was rich and everyone worked. Having a college degree was practically unheard of. I had many friends who, once they were old enough to get a job, went to school, worked their job, and did nothing else. The transition from school to a life of work was pretty seamless for them.

I was considered to be a bit of an idler, even by my parents. I have always loved the quote from Ian Curtis, lead singer of the band Joy Division: "I used to work in a factory and I was really happy because I could daydream all day." Well, I suppose that is one way to overcome alienation. To this day I will stick with the Bible in insisting that work is a curse, not a blessing. I do know what it means to put in a day of hard, physical work, however.

Going back at least a few centuries, May Day is (was- past tense is probably more accurate these days) a big day for workers and unions. May Day was a huge festival in communist countries. Even if not much observed today, it was and remains the Day of International Solidarity Among Workers. The fading of May Day is a loss. Fearing communism, Pope Pius XII established the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955.

On the liturgical calendar, 1 May is an optional memorial and not a feast. This is truly sad. St. Joseph the Worker should be universal feast of the Church. Rather than eschew the Day of International Solidarity Among Workers in favor of the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker, I take the Catholic et/et approach.

Venerable Matt Talbot


If you accept the basic historicity of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, at least with regard to some of Jesus's earliest life, Joseph of Nazareth was a worker. He was a tekton, which likely refers to multi-skilled tradesman. On this basis it seems a safe assertion that Joseph taught Jesus his trade. Perhaps for a time they worked side-by-side, not only with each other but with their fellow laborers. Most of the work in the region of Galilee from whence they hailed at that time was probably to be found building the city of Sepphoris, which was a massive undertaking by the tetrarch Herod Antipas.

Another holy worker comes to my mind today: Venerable Matt Talbot. How I dearly desired that during his visit to Ireland Pope Francis would've pronounced Matty Blessed, thus moving this saint whose intercession has been so effective for so many people, including myself, one step closer to canonization. Matt worked in a lumber yard as a manual laborer until that Trinity Sunday in 1925 when he died making his way to Mass along Granby Lane in Dublin.

The Labor movement in the United States was aided and abetted by the Church. Many of the hard-won victories of the labor movement have been lost and most of those that remain are on unsteady ground. We need more than a day of international solidarity among workers. We need a new and energetic labor movement!

It seems fitting that the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker falls on the first day of the month dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is a parish in my diocese, located in what was and largely remains a working class part of Salt Valley dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker.



St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us

Year C Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Readings: Prov 8:22-31; Ps 8:4-9; Rom 5:1-5; John 16:12-15 Before there was anything there was only God. One insight we can glean from th...