Saturday, July 27, 2019

God is the fullness of mercy

Readings: Gen 18:20-32; Ps 138:1-3.6-8; Col 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

Since I am not preaching this week, my reflection doesn't have to be as structured. This is good because I am currently finding the discipline of writing very difficult. So, I am just going to go with my impressions. These impressions, it is important to point out, are derived from my practice of lectio divina with the Sunday readings. I work with the first reading Monday, the second Tuesday, and the Gospel on Wednesday. Some weeks I attempt a synthesis. I guess that's what I am doing for this week's reflection.

I have to admit that it was not until recently that I realized how fundamental the story of Sodom's destruction was to the Gospel According to Luke. It is a strand woven throughout Jesus's entire ministry and mentioned or implicitly referred to fairly often in Luke's account of his preaching. I suppose in light of the late Eugene LaVerdiere's brilliant book Dining in the Kingdom of God: The Origins of the Eucharist in the Gospel of Luke, the counter-example of Sodom should not be surprising given the centrality of table fellowship in the third Gospel and the hospitality such fellowship demands.

What brings about God's wrath more than anything is the oppression of the weak by the strong. This is what led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to assert: "It is not the sins of weakness, but the sins of strength that matter." Yes, this ought to bring our minds and hearts back around to what is happening along our southern border, to what is happening in the Middle East to the Palestinians as well as to our fellow Christians across the Levant and into the Maghreb.

Our first reading is the episode that finds Abraham pleading with God to spare Sodom from divine wrath. Abraham famously bargains God down to 10 righteous people. I have always wondered if Abraham stopped too soon. Well, in reading Robert Alter's commentary on verse 32 in his The Five Books of Moses, I found a reason as to why Abraham stops there. According to Alter, Abraham did not go lower because 10 is "the minimal administrative unit for communal organization in later Israelite life" (60). Later Israelite life is important because the text does not date to Abraham's time but much later.

Despite Alter's reason for Abraham stopping at 10, I still think it may well be a case of a human being selling God's mercy short. As James and John discovered in our Gospel reading four Sundays ago, you'll always get farther with God appealing to his mercy than you will calling down his wrath. Don't we often try to reduce God to our own measure?

Our reading from Colossians is one of those beautiful passages on baptism we find in Paul's writings. The apostle's point in this passage is that when we died, were buried, and rose with Christ to new life in baptism we entered life eternal. Post-baptismal life should be markedly different from your previous life. Unless, unlike me, you were baptized as an infant. I'll be really honest, these days I am not sure how well-disposed I am towards infant baptism. Somewhere in the book Who Is a Christian?, von Balthasar, too, questions the wisdom of infant baptism in the present age. This is not a full-out rejection of so-called pedo-baptism. It is certainly not an Anabaptist argument. Sweeping away those two strawmen, it is an interesting question.

I suppose how the Church ultimately answers it will have to wait for the time, which is rapidly approaching, when few parents will present their children for baptism. At that point, I suppose, the Church would not need to change this practice. Way back in 2011, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin preached on how parents lacking faith should not, according to their own consciences, present their children for baptism, etc (see "Archbishop urges lapsed Catholics to leave the faith").

Archbishop Martin said: "It requires maturity on those people who want their children to become members of the church community and maturity on those people who say 'I don't believe in God and I really shouldn't be hanging on to the vestiges of faith when I don't really believe in it.'" Lacking faith, it should be said, is not the same thing as having faith and being critical of the Church. Lacking faith does not equate to being free from doubts. Someone who professes unbelief and who absents himself from the community, except possibly for rites of passage, which he views in a reductive anthropological way, a way that lacks a theological grasp of the what the sacraments symbolize and mediate, are the ones to whose consciences Martin is appealing. In short, Christianity is not tribal. One is not Catholic because one is Irish, or Italian, or Mexican, Argentinian, etc. God has no grandchildren, only children. Later in Luke's Gospel, Jesus asks, "when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8).

To the point of selling God's mercy short, our Gospel is wonderful exposition of God's mercy. God is patient and kind. We should not hesitate to turn to God, to ask, to knock, to seek. If we desire to give our children good things, how much more does the Father long to give us eternal life? He wants us to enjoy eternal life so much that he gave us his only begotten Son. What we need most of all is stated very eloquently in a quote I used in my last post by Dom Erik Varden, OCSO: "before God, merit is as nothing... what matters is to know one's need for mercy and to receive it thankfully." Mercy is nothing but faith put into practice.

Because we are his children through rebirth in baptism, we can petition God for anything. Persistence is required, I am convinced, not in order to persuade God, but to persuade ourselves. In other words, is what you're asking for what you really want?

It has been observed and often repeated that one does not pray to change God; one prays to change herself. What we pray for and how we pray are good indicators of spiritual maturity. The conversion for which we pray is spelled out in Luke's simplified version of the Lord's Prayer, which consists of 4 petitions: 1- God's kingdom come; 2- Give us our daily bread; 3- forgive us our sins because "we" (i.e., Jesus's disciples) "forgive everyone in debt to us"; 4- do not subject us to the final test. Why not subject us to the final test? Because we'd fail, each one of us, which is precisely why we need to be forgiven. Because we're forgiven, we must forgive. Mercy is not merely the hallmark of that kingdom, for the coming of which we pray, it is how this kingdom will be realized.

Friday, July 26, 2019

"I see myself in a wounded heart"

On Wednesday morning, I read Erik Varden's treatment of the story of the meetings between St. Mary of Egypt and Fr. Zossima. Zossima was a monk who lived a very ascetic, nigh-unto-prefect, monastic life. As a result, he doubted if there was anyone who could teach him anything about ascetic living, its practice or purpose. On Varden's telling, in the second chapter of his book The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance, despite his exceptional manner of life, Zossima realized there was more. He realized that his means had not achieved his desired end.

This reminds me of a woman from a Jewish background who went through RCIA a number of years ago. After the Rite of Election, I met with the Elect separately from the Catechumens. At our first meeting of the Elect, after sharing what I was doing or not doing for Lent, I asked everyone in the group to share their Lenten plans if they wanted to. Everyone was quite eager. Three weeks later, I began the meeting by asking the people in the group how Lent was going vis-à-vis their plans. I emailed everyone a few days prior to let them know this how we would start our meeting. For the most part, it was the usual story about good intentions and some failures. Everyone seemed to grasp that growth occurs through the struggle. When it came to this person, she basically said that she was able to do everything she had planned to do for Lent and then some. She had not set the bar low. But she then shared that as she realized her "success" it occurred to her that success of that kind was not why she was doing or not doing these things. I think Zossima, at least on Varden's telling, felt something similar.

Especially as Varden conveys it, the story of Zossima and Mary is a story with a deeply late modern flavor. Varden keeps the focus off the prurient curiosity that often arises from Mary's recounting of her promiscuous behavior. Not only does he refuse to dwell on it, he is clearly not shocked by it, nor should he be. Rather, he focuses on the conversion of the Zossima, the monk who was in danger of becoming self-righteous, which is far worse than having sex with a lot of people. In other words, Varden refuses to engage in anything close to retrospective, ecclesial slut-shaming. It seems pretty clear from the story that Mary liked sex. For seventeen years after her conversion, she at times pined away for a good shag. Hey, a lot of people do. It's okay, relax. Certainly, the rush sex provides can become inordinate, even addictive.

Color version of the picture Varden uses in his text, from a fifteenth century manuscript

According to Varden, what Zossima gleans from his encounters with Mary, who went into the desert to live an ascetic life after her profound conversion experience in Jerusalem, is "that, before God, merit is as nothing, that what matters is to know one's need for mercy and to receive it thankfully." Sure, this story handed down smacks more than a little of legend. But it is a truth conveyed very forcefully. Another thing I like about the story of Mary of Egypt is the emphasis it puts on the power of baptism and the way it privileges that over Zossima's ordination.

The fruit of the lectio with Sunday's Gospel on that same morning cemented this insight for me: "you being wicked" (Luke 11:13).

Watching Good Omens, I am struck not only by how easy humanity makes Crowley's (the demon) job, but by how shocked Crowley himself is by human wickedness. I have to wade through a lot of self to get to the devil.

With all this in mind, I guess I should not be quite so disappointed in the trajectory the second series of Fleabag took in the penultimate episode. C'est moi, always hoping for better but not expecting it.

Anyway, our traditio this week is a song by Phil Keaggy, "World of Mine." It is from his Crimson and Blue, which came out in the early '90s. I owned the album, as I did so many others, on cassette tape. I recently discovered that the entire album is available for listening on YouTube. I laugh at people who are quick to dismiss all Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), just as I scoff at anyone who dismisses any entire genre of music. Truth be told, there has been a lot of very good, quite original CCM artists, songs, and albums.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Saint Mary Magdalene: proclaimer of the living Christ

For the first eleven-and-a-half years of my diaconate, I served at The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. Prior to that I served at the Cathedral for over 8 years in a variety of capacities. Working full-time at the Cathedral, I first served as the Director of Religious Education and Formation. After I was ordained, I would later serve in this same position on a part-time basis for two additional years. During all my years at the Cathedral, I was heavily involved in RCIA, adult formation, and liturgy. Prior to being ordained and for a few years afterwards, I was the Cathedral's primary master of ceremonies for major liturgies involving the bishop. All-in-all, I served at The Cathedral of the Madeleine just shy of 20 years.

The Cathedral of Madeleine is the only cathedral church in the United States dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. Hence, this woman from Jesus cast out seven demons (see Luke 8:2), is the Patroness of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Being at the Cathedral all those years, I am used to observing today's Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene as a solemnity. I was very gratified when, in 2016, at the behest of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, 22 July became a Universal Feast and not merely a liturgical Memorial. As a result, it is obligatory (as opposed to optional) to celebrate it in the Church's liturgies (i.e., Mass and the Liturgy of Hours).

Yesterday I read a short article by Fr. Alvin Amadi, who currently serves in the Diocese of Green Bay. He argues for the Church to elevate the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene to a Solemnity (see "How can the church honor women? Elevate Mary Magdalene’s feast to a solemnity"). I could not agree more. I especially like the argument Fr. Amadi sets forth at the beginning of his piece, referring to the Gospel According to St. John 20:11-18:
Nothing in the Gospel occurs by mere chance. It is highly significant that in a society where men wielded power in almost every aspect of life, Christ chose a woman to be the first to see him after his resurrection and to announce the news to his apostles.
Frieze of St Mary Magdalene proclaiming the Gospel

One of the things on which the four canonical Gospels are unanimous is that Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection. She is the original witness of this earth-shattering event. As a result, she is an apostle. An apostle is one who is sent forth. It is the Risen Lord himself who sent Mary forth to tell the rest of his disciples that he is risen. This is why none other than St. Thomas Aquinas himself dubbed her apostula apostulorum, that is, apostle to the apostles (Super Ioannem, 2519). Over the years here on Καθολικός διάκονος I have written a lot about Saint Mary Magdalene, about the traditions handed on about her both East and West. She is a fascinating figure to be sure. It was of her that the Angelic Doctor, in his work Super Ioannem (2519), wrote this lovely sentence: “just as it was a woman who was the first to announce the words of death, so it was a woman who would be the first to announce the words of life.” So, in addition elevating her day to a Solemnity, instead of using the Common of Holy Women for the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church should use the Common of Apostles for this day.

Apart from being the first witness of Christ's resurrection, it seems clear that Mary of Magdala was very close to Jesus. She was very dear to him and he to her. Jesus seems to have a had a small circle of people to whom he was close: Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary as well as Mary Magdalene and other women who followed him from their native Galilee to Jerusalem. It was the women, who financed his ministry and provided for him and the Twelve, who stayed with Jesus throughout his Passion and up to his death. It was the women who went to his grave at sunrise to properly care for his body.

It seems wrong to suggest that at least some of these women would not become evangelists in their own right, telling other people about Jesus and testifying to his resurrection. When I saw the frieze I included in this post it made me very happy. A scholarly commentator on another post featuring this frieze pointed out that the St. Albans Psalter features a picture of Mary Magdalene preaching to the apostles. So, while the traditions concerning Mary Magdalene are really legends and irreconcilable ones at that, it seems hard to imagine that she did not feel impelled to share with others what she had experienced for whatever time remained to her after encountering the risen Lord.

Below is the Collect for today's Feast. May it truly be an instance of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi:
O God, whose Only Begotten Son
entrusted to Mary Magdalene before all others
with announcing the great joy of the Resurrection,
grant, we pray,
that through her intercession and example
we may proclaim the living Christ
and come to see him reigning in your glory.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
one God, for ever and ever.
Sancta Maria Magdalena, ora pro nobis.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Year C Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Gen 18:1-10a; Ps 1:2-5; Col 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

The main theme in this week’s Scripture readings is hospitality. The word “hospitality” is derived from the Latin word hospes. In turn, hospes, which means “guest” or “stranger,” is formed from the word hostis, which refers not only to a “stranger” but even to an “enemy.” So, in addition to being the root of “hospitality,” hostis is also the root of the word “hostile.”

Our first reading tells of the strange encounter Abraham and Sarah have with three mysterious visitors. Practically from the beginning, Christian commentators have seen these three mystery men as foreshadowing what would be fully revealed by Christ: the Most Holy Trinity. Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev, composed one of best-known icons depicting Abraham’s three guests at table. While icons are wordless, the symbolism in Rublev’s icon points to an understanding of the visitors as the three divine persons of the Most Holy Trinity.

That this episode conveys a rather mundane theophany is gleaned from its beginning. It starts with the narrator letting the reader in on a secret: it is God who approaches Abraham as he sits at the entrance of his tent in the shade of a terebinth tree on a hot desert afternoon.1 Not knowing it is God, all Abraham sees is “three men… standing before him.”2 Without a doubt, the three are strangers to Abraham.

Rublev icon

Walking out to meet his unexpected guests, Abraham bows before them and bids them to rest in the shade of the large tree under which he and Sarah have pitched their tent. He invites them to wash their feet and prevails on them to let him serve them “a morsel of bread.”3 The three accept the patriarch’s hospitality. However, rather than providing them with minimal hospitality, once his guests are resting comfortably, Abraham rouses his entire household and prepares an elaborate feast.

Contrast Abraham’s hospitality with the hostility shown the two visitors who went from Abraham’s tent to Lot’s house in Sodom. This visit and its aftermath constitute the following chapter of Genesis.4 The residents of Sodom not only refuse to welcome these strangers; they seek to commit unspeakable acts of violence against them. Their hostile attitude is further revealed by the disdain in which they held Lot. Despite living in their midst for a long time, the men of Sodom still did not consider Lot and his family as part of them, as belonging there. The price Sodom pays for its hostility is utter destruction. Welcoming the stranger, when looked at from a divine perspective, is serious business.

Like Abraham and Sarah, Martha and Mary, sisters of Jesus’s good friend Lazarus, also hospitably welcome the Lord into their home. In this instance, rather than remaining incognito, they host Jesus, whom they revere as Lord. Hence, their two responses: to sit at the Lord’s feet, relishing the opportunity to be with him and learn from him and working to provide him great service. On first glance, it might appear that our first reading and our Gospel for today are studies in contrast: Abraham’s three visitors accept hospitality, while Jesus seems to refuse it.

It is important to point out that Jesus does not refuse Martha’s hospitality. To use today’s Gospel to exalt contemplation at the expense of service is lazy and inaccurate. Jesus says nothing about what Martha is doing until she complains to him about Mary being lazy. At which point, he tells Martha, no doubt to her chagrin, that it is her sister, who, at least in this instance, “has chosen the better part.”5 To state the obvious: the Lord is not like any other guest but that is how Martha treats him.

An episode that occurs later in Luke’s Gospel holds the key to understanding both the harmony between our first reading and our Gospel as well as the crux of today’s readings. In this passage, Jesus asks his closest followers, who are arguing over which of them is the greatest, a rhetorical question: “who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves?”6 He then answers his own question with another question: “Is it not the one seated at table?”7 Only then does Jesus make his point: “I am among you as the one who serves.”8 The noun translated as “one who serves,” which literally means “one serving” (i.e., serving continuously) is diakonon. In English, a diakonon is a deacon. Jesus is the deacon, just as he is the priest, and the great high priest.

Jesus wants Martha let him dwell with her, not just in her house but in the depths of her being. In turn, she can serve others in the manner to which she is accustomed. Sitting at the feet of the master, like Mary, is the disposition of a disciple. When we discuss Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, we need to remember that he is present in and through the proclamation of the Scriptures just as “really” as he is present in and through the consecrated bread and wine. This is why we should not tune out during the Liturgy of the Word, thus missing the opportunity to sit and listen to Christ. The pattern of discipleship is listening in order to learn and learning in order to do. Worship that does not lead to serving those in need is not Christian worship.

In its original Greek, the verb translated as “serves” in today’s Gospel is diakoneō. Along with diakoneō, the verb used to describe Martha’s activity is diakonia. Just as there is a priesthood of all the baptized, there is a diaconate of all the baptized. To consider yourself a follower of Jesus, you must choose to selflessly serve others, especially those in need. The name for this Christian service is diakonia. Since Jesus is the deacon, our service flows from his. As to the office of deacon, it has been noted that “the deacon makes it clear that the liturgy must have concrete consequences in the world with all its needs...”9

What it means to keep God’s commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself, which is necessary for eternal life, is the main point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard last week. The person Jesus calls you to serve is not someone from your own family, nation, or tribe, but the stranger. Our Gospel readings for the past three weeks convey that following Jesus means not only welcoming the stranger but helping the person in distress, not even if but especially when it is someone towards whom you feel hostility, whether justified or not.

The theme of welcoming the stranger hospitably constitutes a very deep stream that runs through the whole of Scripture, from the Old Testament straight through the New. We find this exhortation at the beginning of the final chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect hospitality to strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”10 This is exactly what Abraham, Sarah, and Lot do and what the residents of Sodom spit in the face of doing. The Rule of Saint Benedict stipulates: “Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself, because he promised that on the last day he will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”11

Is it not Christ who invites and welcomes you to each and every Eucharist? By sharing the one bread, he makes us, who would otherwise be strangers and perhaps at odds, companions traveling the pilgrim path together. What is “the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past” in our second reading?12 According to St. Paul, this mystery “is Christ in you, the hope for glory.”13

In the Eucharist, Christ does not only make his presence in you through your reception of holy communion. He also dwells in you when you listen to his word. Allow me to refer, again, to St. Benedict’s Rule. The opening words of the Rule are, “Listen carefully, my child, to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.”14 The mystery that life in Christ means Christ can live in you was not revealed to Abraham and was only made known to Martha after she complained about her sister, who was participating in this mystery by sitting at the Lord’s feet. It goes without saying that what is revealed must be put into practice. Contra the Gnostics, you are not saved by mere knowledge.

To borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, our current situation calls on us to summon “the better angels of our nature.”15 My friends in Christ, from the perspective of divine revelation, how you treat the stranger, whether you welcome her as a guest or revile her as a threat and an enemy, is a serious choice. As Christians we should work to ensure the humane treatment of immigrants and refugees being detained crossing our border, most of whom are seeking asylum as refugees. This is not an argument for open borders. It is a plea for open hearts in obedience to the word of God.

1 Genesis 18:1, from The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, 56.
2 Genesis 18:2, Ibid.
3 Genesis 18:5, Ibid.
4 Genesis 19:1-29.
5 Luke 10:42.
6 Luke 22:27.
7 Luke 22:27.
8 Luke 22:27.
9 Herbert Vorgrimler, Sacramental Theology, trans. Linda M. Maloney, 270.
10 Hebrews 13:2, from The New Testament: A Translation, David Bentley Hart, 453.
11 Saint Benedict's Rule: A New Translation for Today, Chap. 53, trans. Patrick Barry, OSB, 62.
12 Colossians 1:26.
13 Colossians 1:27.
14 Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue, trans. Leonard J. Doyle OblSB
15 Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address.

Friday, July 19, 2019

"And if the darkness is to keep us apart"

Coincidences are interesting. This past week, in conjunction with my reading of Primo Levi’s collected short stories, I started reading Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses, which I have owned since it was first published in 2004, I believe. Yesterday evening, in addition to reading Alter’s translation of this Sunday’s first reading (Genesis 18:1-10a), I read his translation of the first chapter of Genesis. Alter’s book is not only a translation, it is also a deeply insightful and very useful commentary.

Alter’s first comment in his commentary on Genesis is made with reference to Genesis 1:2. He translates the Hebrew phrase, transliterated tohu wavohu, as “welter and waste.” In his first comment, he notes that this phrase is used only two more times in the entire corpus of the Hebrew Bible. He also points out that in both of those instances a clear allusion is being made to this passage. His translating the phrase thus is the result of his trying to maintain the phonetic rhythm of the original. Personally, I like it.

The first section of his essay "Introduction to the Hebrew Bible" with which he begins The Five Books of Moses is entitled "The Bible in English and the Heresy of Explanation." His main point in this section is that most English translations seek to explain rather to translate. Explanations require both assumptions and, too often, presumptions. In short, it is not a good approach to complex and often highly nuanced ancient texts. Most valuably, Alter provides a number of examples that demonstrates his main point and subpoints very well.

In addition to Morning Prayer and practicing lectio divina with the readings for the upcoming Sunday Monday-Wednesday, I very slowly read a spiritual book. Yesterday, I (finally) finished John O’Donohue’s brilliant Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. I found this book sublime and quite practical. I did not like the final two sections of the final chapter in which he writes about death. His take is far too disembodied ethereal for me. Stated forthrightly, O'Donohue comes up a bit short on resurrection.

This morning I began Dom Erik Varden’s The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance. I was so excited about this book by the Cistercian Abbot of Mount Saint Bernard, located near Coalville, in Leicestershire, England, that I pre-ordered it and awaited its publication. Varden, a native Norwegian, who prior to becoming a Cistercian monk was a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, is a deeply insightful commentator and spiritual guide. Besides, while far from identical, his conversion story bears enough resemblance to mine to resonate with me.

On the fifth page of his "Introduction" to Shattering of Loneliness, Varden makes reference to “the tohu wavohu.” He gives the translation of this phrase as “formlessness and void,” which is a fairly standard English rendering. To make yet another inexplicable yet highly relevant connection, the general context in which Varden makes reference to this Hebrew phrase comes toward the end his writing about his youthful interest in the lives and writings of those people who survived and bore witness to the Nazi’s attempt to eradicate all Jews in Europe during Hitler’s 11-year reign of terror. Among those whose lives and writings he studied and who made a lasting impact on his life he lists Primo Levi. More specifically, he employs tohu wavohu when discussing the fifth movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, popularly known as the “Resurrection Symphony.”

Of Mahler’s Second Symphony, Varden writes: "Out of its peace, the fifth, final movement arises like a thunderstorm. It conjures up images of chaos, a world in the grips of the tohu wavohu, ‘formlessness and void’, of the first verse of Scripture.” Well, it’s actually the second verse but that is a minor detail. Referring to the chorus, Varden asks, “Could it be true? Before disbelief had time to configure, it was hushed by voices singing of a hope that must, in secret, have gestated in my depths…”

It might stand to reason that the fifth movement of Mahler’s Symphony number two would be our traditio for this penultimate Friday in July. However, it is not. The simple reason is that it is more than a half-hour long, at least the Zubin Mehta-conducted performance, featuring Silvia Greenburg as soloist, I had in mind is. Rather, in sticking with the theme of the irrepressibility of hope while continuing to maintain that hope transcends optimism, our traditio is a stripped-down cover of my favorite late-period U2 song, "Walk On":

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Christian discipleship is concrete

Readings: Deut 30:10-14; Ps 69:14.17.30-31.3334.36-37; Col 1:15-20; Luke 10:24-37

In today's first reading, which comes towards the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses preaches a most stirring and important sermon. Moses's insists that what is enjoined upon Israel is not incomprehensible metaphysical drivel. I believe what Moses descibes is transferable to Christians vis-à-vis the Gospel. In fact, the Incarnation of God's only begotten Son is the enfleshment of what Moses here asserts. Without ceasing to be transcendent, God becomes immanent in Jesus. This is what our epistle reading St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians sets out so poetically. Far from esotericizing Christianity, the Holy Spirit, being Christ's resurrection presence among us, in us, and through us, enables us to make the God who is love incarnate as well. What Jesus enjoins on those who would follow him is not some esoteric wisdom, contra the gnostics, who are probably more prevalent today in non-Christian forms than in Christian. As Pope Francis noted, however, gnosticism is still too prevalent among Christians (see Gaudete et Exsultate, secs. 36-46).

What Christ asks of you is nothing other than to follow the deepest yearnings of your heart, your very best instincts and impulses. This is why what he commands is to love God with your entire being and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Hence, "it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts" (Deut 30:14). This what Paul refers to when he writes about the law "written" in all human hearts (see Rom 2:13-16). Since I took a shot at non-Christians in my comment about gnosticism, taking a cue from Paul, I will say here that many non-Christians seem to grasp loving your neighbor as you love yourself much better than do many Christians.

This brings me very quickly to today's Gospel, the central feature of which is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus is asked by a scholar of the law what is required for eternal life, in true rabbinical fashion, he turns the question, putting it to the inquirer, who he knew was trying to trip him up. The scholar's reply, as one would expect, is straight out of law. Therefore, it is nothing new or surprising. The commandment to love God with your whole self is enjoined by the law (see Deut 6:5). Loving your neighbor as you love yourself is also found in the law. In fact, the commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself is found in the section of the Book of Leviticus known as the "Holiness Code" (chaps 17-26- see Lev 19:18).

One can start to see the revolutionary nature of Jesus's teaching in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Leviticus 19:18. The verse consists of three sentences. The second sentence is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" and the third is "I am the LORD." The first sentence is the one that provides the context for this commandment: "Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people." In other words, those who do not belong to "your own people" can be treated differently, with less deference, to state it diplomatically. But it's important to bound the scope of this by pointing out that the law has plenty to say about the treatment of foreigners, especially those who live in Israel's midst. So, while foreigners are to be treated in a just manner, they are understood to be second-class citizens in the domain of Israel.

While for those who are familiar with the New Testament this is very basic, it is important to point out that Jews and Samaritans mutually despised each other. This is why in our Gospel from two weeks ago it is notable that Jesus began his journey toward Jerusalem by traveling through Samaria (see Luke 9:51-62). It was not unusual for pious Jews in Jesus's day to avoid Samaria while traveling to Jerusalem. They did so by traveling east and heading south along the Jordan River until they reached Jericho. It was from Jericho that they made their way up the mountain to the holy city. In fact, Jesus seems to be using this very route in his parable. It was on the road to Jericho that the Samaritan finds the man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead, the very one who was left in his misery not merely by members of his own people, but by a priest and a Levite respectively. It was likely that they left him for dead due to concerns about their own ritual purity.

In our Gospel from two weeks ago it is easy to overlook that when Jesus sent some of his followers ahead to a Samaritan village to ask the Samaritan villagers if they would welcome him and his followers for a stay, meaning offer them hospitality (i.e., food, water, perhaps shelter, an opportunity to wash), the Samaritans effectively said, "Nope. We're not welcoming them." It is their refusal to welcome them that causes James and John to ask Jesus if they can call down heavenly fire to consume the village and its inhabitants. Jesus rebukes these disciples for asking him permission to destroy their perceived enemies. He simply journeyed to a more welcoming, presumably Samaritan, village.

The good Samaritan, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

After listening to the scholar's answer about what is necessary for inheriting eternal life, the scholar attempts to turn the table back around by asking Jesus "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29) According to the inspired author of Luke, the scholar asked this follow-up question because "he wished to justify himself" (10:29). In other words, he wanted to demonstrate both his own rightness and righteousness. To be blunt, Jesus never accedes to those who wish to demonstrate their own righteousness. This can be shown in a variety of ways, but suffice it to note that several chapters later in Luke, Jesus says "No one is good but God alone" (Luke 18:19).

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is as revolutionary now as it was back then. This is especially true at a time and in a place in which attempts are made to vilify not just the so-called "other," thus dividing people, but to treat those who enter the U.S. seeking refuge and asylum as threats instead of as people in distress. Neither should we be ignorant or blind to the fact that the U.S. has contributed heavily to the conditions these people are fleeing. I'm afraid that locking poor people in inhumane "detention centers" puts us at risk for being subject to what Jesus warned unwelcoming towns and and about when sending out his 72 disciples ahead of him as he went along his route to Jerusalem: "it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for [us]" (Luke 10:12). For those who remain sex-obsessed, there is reportedly sexual abuse occurring in these detention centers.

Again, the sin of Sodom, when one analyzes Genesis 19 exclusively on its own terms, is their refusal not only to welcome Lot's mysterious visitors into their city but their despising of Lot and his family, who they viewed as outsiders, that is, "Not one of us," despite their long-term residency in Sodom. What makes our refusal perhaps even worse is that I have no doubt the vast majority the women, children, and men seeking entry into the U.S. are part of us. The vast majority are not only baptized Christians, but Catholics. In addition to being racist, the history of nativism is the United States is also rife with anti-Catholicism!

My response to anyone who thinks I am exaggerating or engaging in hyperbole is simple: if we can't apply Jesus's teaching to concrete situations, then the Gospel is a dead letter, worse than useless, just another way to self-indulgently make us feel better about ourselves or a self-help program of some mundane variety. Let's face it, we want to rail on and on about sexual morality, about which Jesus had very little to say, and other less important matters. But when push comes to shove, we are quick to excuse ourselves from the really difficult demands of the Gospel. This gives lie to the claim that the United States is a Christian nation. If we were judged on the basis of this alone, we'd be judged an anti-Christian country.

What Jesus's Parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates is the necessity not only of recognizing that your enemy is your neighbor but that you love your neighbor (which category includes your enemies) by acting mercifully towards them. While it should flow from or result in an inward disposition, acting mercifully toward your neighbor requires just that... action. This is why we have the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Did the Samaritan not clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and not only visit but see to it the sick/injured person was housed and cared for? Given the mutual animosity between Samaritans and Jews, did the Samaritan not bear wrongs patiently, forgive injuries in the face of a Jewish person in need, and comfort the sorrowful? If the answer to these questions is "Yes," then only one conclusion can be drawn: "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).

Friday, July 12, 2019

"You're dirty and sweet" - impure for life

My big news this week is that I started my fourth Whole30. I completed one earlier this year, which proved to be transformative for me in every area of my life. I started one at the end of April and stuck with it a little more than half-way before I made a trip on which it proved very difficult to stick with it. So, I abandoned it. In addition to Whole30, this time I am intermittently fasting. This means that I only eat during an 8 hour window each day and do not eat for 16 hours a day. It's not as dramatic as it sounds.

As both of my long-time readers know, I have long been an advocate for fasting. Along with prayer and alms-giving (another word for alms-giving is diakonia- selflessly serving others), fasting is one of the fundamental spiritual disciplines. These disciplines are shared not only by adherents of the so-called "Abrahamic" faiths (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, Islam), they are also disciplines in which adherents to Eastern religions engage. It seems that, at least in prosperous countries, fasting has become the nearly forgotten discipline.

In my view and from a Christian perspective, prayer, fasting, and alms-giving can be correlated to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Prayer corresponds to faith and alms-giving to love. But prayer can become turned in and not result in loving action. Serving others can become disconnected from prayer. So, fasting, which corresponds, to hope connects prayer to alms-giving. The hunger we experience while fasting should remind us of what it is that we really hunger for, what English translations of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount usually translate as "righteousness." In the original Greek, the word is δικαιοσύνην, which transliterates as dikaiosunèn. This word is probably better translated as "justice." Fasting serves justice through hope and is an act of solidarity. I don't mind be repetitive: hope has little-to-nothing to do with optimism.

Fasting is a way to be solidarity with those who do not have enough and with those who are suffering injustice. Both things are true of people, women, children, and men who are being held in detention centers here the U.S., many of which are run by for profit companies.

Fasting enables me to pray with more focus and to serve with more fervor. Fasting 16 hours a day may seem daunting but it really isn't. It amounts to about 3 hours after work and 5 hours in the morning. The remaining 8 hours I am asleep. Just like fasting on nothing but water and perhaps a little coffee for 24 hours or more, I find intermittent fasting energizing, not energy sapping. What saps my energy is overeating and eating poorly. Fasting is proof-positive of the body/soul connection. Fasting feeds my desire.

Wow! That was a lot more than I intended to write about what I am doing. Yesterday was the Memorial of Saint Benedict, founder of cenobitic (i.e., communal, as opposed to hermetical) monasticism. So, this discussion of spiritual disciplines seems somewhat fitting.

I am also reading a biography of Primo Levi that I purchased years ago: Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist, by Myriam Anissimov. Levi is a person and a writer whose voice should never be forgotten. Here's a gem from Levi's book The Periodic Table, which is something of an autobiography of his years before being interred in Auschwitz:
the praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life. I discarded the first [praise of purity], disgustingly moralistic, and I lingered on the second [praise of impurity], which I found more congenial. In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities in the soil too, as is known, if it is to be fertile
This quote brought to mind of something Philip Roth wrote in Sabbath's Theater, a book I read last January. Like Levi, Roth was Jewish. Roth once visited Levi in Turin for an extended period, during which time he interviewed him. But the quote from Sabbath's Theater Levi's words brought to mind are placed on the lips of Mickey Sabbath, who is an anti-hero if there ever was one: "Whoever imagines himself to be pure is wicked!"

While I hesitate to draw neat or cheap little moral lessons from reality, or even from the Scriptures, which is attempted far too often, I would note that it is because optimism is a poor substitute for hope that it easily and often turns into tragedy. Hope lies beyond your aspirations while optimism is hangs it hat on them.

To bring it around, fasting does not make me pure, or even purer. Neither does fasting kill my desire for food or anything else. It is desire that generates both optimism and hope. The main reason I could never be a Buddhist, or a Stoic for that matter, is that not only do I think desire constitutes my humanity, I am convinced that happiness, contentment, satisfaction lies in the fulfillment of desire, not in its negation. For example, I often think I know what I desire, but usually I don't. This is why I am never more unfulfilled than right after I get what I want. Rather, the things I find satisfying are often things I don't initially want to do.

Sometimes I get in what I call I "a jag." Right now, I am on a bit of an early post-punk, outlaw country jag. So, at the expense of being repetitive, our traditio for this hot summer Friday is Blondie, a vastly underrated band, covering the T-Rex's "Bang a Gong." This is a live performance, great for its raw energy and, yes, its impurities.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Proclaiming God's kingdom wherever you are

Readings: Isa. 66:10-14c; Ps. 66:1-7.16.20; Gal. 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12.17-20

Reading the Gospel text for this Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time made me chuckle. It made me chuckle because, thinking of my last post, in today's Gospel Jesus mentions Sodom. He mentions it in the context of sending out seventy-two of his disciples as advance parties as he makes his way to holy city, Jerusalem.

Specifically, Jesus exhorts those whom who he sends to shake the dust off their feet in the street of any town that refuses to receive them. By bearing public witness against them in this way, the Lord says it will be more tolerable for Sodom when God's kingdom is fully established than for any town his disciples witness against. In light of last week's reading, this exhortation can be a bit confusing.

It may be confusing because the Lord's instruction to the seventy-two seems to contradict his angry reaction to the suggestion an unwelcoming village should be destroyed in last week's Gospel (see Luke 9:54-56). If you remember, in last week's Gospel, after Jesus determined to set his face toward Jerusalem, he and his followers journeyed through Samaria. As they approached an unnamed village, the Lord sent a party ahead to arrange for the village to receive them. Rather than welcome this band of Jews from Galilee, the village refused them because their destination was Jerusalem. In other words, the Samaritans, whom the Jews viewed no more favorably than they viewed the Jews, refused them because they were Jewish. In response to this refusal, James and John asked Jesus if they should call upon God to destroy the village. Not only did Jesus tell them not to do it, he rebuked them for asking. You see, Jesus comes to save, not to destroy.

In contrast to what we heard last week, in today's Gospel Jesus appears to give almost the opposite instruction to the seventy-two. He sends thirty-six pairs of his followers ahead of him to the towns and villages through which he intends to pass on his way to Jerusalem. Telling about this singular journey comprises 406 of 1,151 verses that make up the Gospel According to Saint Luke. This amounts to slightly more than 35% of the Gospel if one calculates its length by verses and not by chapters or words (I didn't do that arithmetic for this reflection). It is safe to say that Jesus's journey to Jerusalem is the heart of Luke's account of Christ.

It's important to point out that in and of itself shaking the dust off one's feet is a harmless act. It falls far short of the kind of destruction James and John wanted to inflict on the unsuspecting Samaritans, whose response to Jesus's emissaries was as understandable as it was predictable. It is certainly not the carnage we read about in Genesis 19:1-14 that befell Sodom. It's important that Jesus mentions Sodom and the potential fate of unwelcoming towns in the context of his mission, which is to begin the establishment of the kingdom of God.

Maria Lactans, Lajos Kubanyi 1855-1912, unable to find year(s) of painting

To wit: rejection of God's kingdom is it's own punishment. It amounts to saying to God, "No thanks. This fallen, violent, greedy, selfish, uncaring, divided world is good enough for me. Take your utopian nonsense elsewhere. What do you think we are, naifs?" In fact, given their violent disposition to strangers among them, both toward Lot and his family as well as his mysterious visitors, this is basically what the inhabitants of Sodom did. In summary, God's kingdom is not realized by violence. In fact, it can only realized by those who, like Jesus, renounce violence.

Jesus sent his followers to cure the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God. When the seventy-two returned and gave their report to Jesus it was all positive. They were astounded that the demons were subject to them on account of Jesus. I think it's important to point out that not one pair reported that they had shaken the dust from their feet as a testimony against any town or village! Doesn't this bear out the Lord's assertion that the "harvest is abundant"? At least in the experience of the 72, didn't the lambs triumph over the wolves?

As he often does, Jesus cools the zealous enthusiasm of his followers, who seem rather taken with the power made manifest through them. He tells them they should not rejoice because they have power over demons but that they themselves have not only welcomed but proclaimed the kingdom of God. This is the point St. Paul makes in our reading from his Letter to the Galatians. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matter to him any longer. I think we can take this as shorthand for pointless religious squabbles are beside the point. What matters to the apostle is "a new creation." What matters to him is the kingdom of God, which, as he asserted in last week's second reading, is ushered in by loving your neighbor as you love yourself (Gal. 5:14).

Speaking of pointless religious squabbles, not only did Jesus forbid the destruction of an unwelcoming Samaritan village, later in the same chapter from which today's Gospel reading is taken, he teaches the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He gives this parable in answer to the question posed by a scholar of the law, "And who is my neighbor?" (see Luke 10:25-37). Up to the point in this encounter when he taught this parable, Jesus's answer to the scholar's initial question- "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"- was nothing an observant Jew would find shocking, novel, or the least bit eccentric (i.e., love God with your entire being [Deut. 6:5] and love your neighbor as you love yourself [Lev. 19:18]). The Parable of the Good Samaritan marks a revolutionary change in understanding who is one's neighbor. According to Jesus, your neighbor is not just the person who is truly "Other," that is, not of your own people or tribe, but the one whom you are inclined to despise.

Our first reading, from Trito-Isaiah, which expresses the longing of the returned exiles for the holy city to not only be restored to its former glory but to when Jerusalem will exceed its former grandeur. When read through the lens of the dominant theme of our Gospel reading (i.e., the kingdom of God), which the New Testament often bills as "the New Jerusalem," this passage is an ode to God's kingdom. The central image it sets forth is at once lovely and primal: the baby nursing at her mothers' fully gorged, "abundant" breasts:
Oh, that you may suck fully
of the milk of her comfort,
that you may nurse with delight
at her abundant breasts! (Isa 66:11)
It's difficult to think of a more nurturing, more life-giving, less violent image. Like the seventy-two disciples, having been empowered by Jesus through the Eucharist, you are sent forth to proclaim God's kingdom wherever you are sent. God's kingdom is one of peace and joy.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Sodom is not a homophobic revenge fantasy, plus a song

Yesterday in that odd time between having everything ready and actually starting our holiday celebration, I was perusing social media. While doing so, I ran across this on Twitter from someone who is prominent among a certain group of Catholics in the U.S.:
“Pride Month” has come to an end. And for the first two days of July, the first readings at Mass told the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. I’d call that a coincidence—if I believed in coincidences
While he's correct that readings for Monday and Tuesday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year I of the weekday Lectionary do center around the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah, this ready-made interpretation of what prompted the biblical destruction of these cities hits wide of the mark.

It is helpful to be reminded what the passage that underlies this smug assertion conveys (see Genesis 19:1-14). What's in this passage? Well, it tells of the angelic visitors who turn up at Lot's house in the city of Sodom. Lot invites them in and offers his guests extravagant hospitality. Learning of the presence of these mysterious visitors, a violent mob turns up at Lot's house. They demand that Lot turn his visitors over to them. The narrative makes clear the intent of the violent mob is to gang rape the visitors. Lot refuses to hand over his guests by bargaining with the mob. His bargain consists of offering the violent men his virgin daughters to do with as they pleased! Shocking stuff, I know.

Lot does not wind up turning his daughters over to be defiled and violently abused. Rather, after pulling him from the clutches of the angry mob and bringing him safely back inside the house, the visitors warn Lot to leave because the city is going to be destroyed. Heeding their advice, he leaves. As he leaves, the city is destroyed. According to the narrative, it was during this exodus that Lot's wife was turned into a pillar salt because she looked back at the destruction, something the fleeing family had been warned not to do.

It is important to note that, when considered sequentially, that is, in the order the narrative has been handed down, Abraham is interceding for Sodom with God in the previous chapter. If you remember, Abraham keeps lowering the number of righteous people God needed to find in the city in order not to destroy it (see Genesis 18:16-33). God accedes each time Abraham lowers the number. Inexplicably, Abraham stops at ten. You can't help but ask, Why didn't he humbly ask God to lower the number to one? Did Abraham, much like we are prone to do, short-sell God's mercy? My point is that the wickedness of Sodom was well-established prior to the incident in Genesis 19.

Note what the response was when Lot begged the violent mob not to violently gang rape his visitors and offered them his virgin daughters: "Stand back! This man [Lot]... came here as a resident alien, and now he dares to give orders! We will treat you worse than them!" (Gen 19:9). This, I believe, gives much insight into what is going on in the narrative- it also has bearing on the U.S.'s inhumane treatment of immigrants/refugees

The last section of Genesis 19 deals with Lot and his daughters. In short, the women see to it that their father is inebriated on successive nights and then each, in turn, have intercourse with him and are impregnated by him (Genesis 19:30-38).

In reply to the Tweet, I posted a six-part response. Before sharing those replies, it is important to note that in these chapters we are not dealing with strictly, or even mostly, historical material. While the saga of the patriarchs does not consist of myths, it is comprised of legends. These legends serve to make points, some are rather archaic. For example, is it really true that the Ammonites and Moabites were direct descendants of the sons incestuously conceived by Lot with his daughters? Below are my tweets:
1/6 To those who noted that the 1st reading for daily Mass 1-2 July- the days immediately after the end of Pride month- mentioned the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah (skipping Gen 19:1-14), last Sunday's Gospel [Luke 9:51-62] dispelled this kind of revenge fantasy for Christ's followers.

2/6 To the same people addressed in 1/6 with reference to Gen 19:1-14- isn't it important to differentiate between brutal gang rape and not only consensual but mutually affectionate relations, whether we're talking gay or straight?

3/6 To those who find some strange thrill, albeit by way of poor exegesis, that the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah is mentioned in the daily readings for Year I, again referencing Gen 19:1-14, did Lot act righteously in offering the sexually violent mob his daughters?

4/6 I am pretty sure if your exegesis includes both rank homophobia and horrific misogyny your method is flawed.

5/6 The lectionary deliberately leaves out a few passages that are too complex to briefly explain and that are subject to gross misinterpretations; one is Gen 19:1-14.

6/6 Another example of a difficult passage that is omitted is 1 Cor 11:27-32 about the Eucharist. Like the Sodom & Gomorrah episode, it has been the subject of very poor and misleading interpretations
Sections 76-77 of the Introduction to the Lectionary deal with Difficult Texts and The Omission of Certain Verses respectively. In the latter instance (sec. 77), some verses are omitted from passages to avoid the reading being "unduly long." However, "certain readings" are omitted because they are deemed to be "pastorally less useful" or involve "truly difficult questions." What is not meant is that "truly difficult questions" are to be avoided altogether. It's just that the homily is not the best medium for addressing some difficult questions. In the case of the former (sec. 76), "texts that present real difficulties are avoided for pastoral reasons." What are those reasons? Well, these reasons "may be objective, in that the texts themselves raise profound literary, critical, or exegetical problems; or the difficulties may lie, at least to a certain extent, in the ability of the faithful to understand the texts."

Now, before anyone gets huffy about the faithful being dissed, as it were, let's also factor in the inability and/or unwillingness of many preachers, who are members of the faithful, to engage in exegetical study and thus unable to clearly articulate the meaning of a difficult passage. "But there could be no justification," the Introduction continues, "for concealing from the faithful the spiritual riches of certain passages on the grounds of difficulty if the problem arises either from the inadequacy either of the religious education that every Christian should have or of the biblical formation that every pastor of souls should have" (sec. 77). This inadequacy is on full display by those who take Genesis 19:1-14 to be something of a Pat Robertson-esque homophobic revenge fantasy. Ironically, people who take this view, it seems to me, put themselves in the place of the angry, violent mob vis-à-vis homosexual persons. How so? By affirming deadly violence against them as kind of malformed divine justice that is wholly incompatible with the God who Jesus taught to call "Our Father."

Oh, how we love reading our very late-modern pre-occupations back into Bible texts! It seems appropriate to discuss these matters on the eve of the liturgical memorial of St. Maria Goretti, whose canonization is the annual cause of much back-and-forth about whether Christian women, in order to be holy, are obliged to undergo death rather than be raped.

It's Friday. For no reason other than I heard it this week and remembered how much I like it and that I think an Erasure song might be over-the-top, our traditio is Blondie singing "Sunday Girl"-

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The (temporarily?) disrupted quest for a more perfect union

It seems customary to post something on the Fourth of July. I have to be honest, this year I can only do so in a half-hearted way. As I returned from my walk this morning, I thought "I really should post something up for the Fourth." I don't mind admitting that the thought made my heart sink. Not because I don't have a lot on my mind but because I have so much weighing on my mind as well as on my heart in this regard. It's not that I don't love my country. It's that I love my country a lot. While I am not an American exceptionalist, I am an American and, generally speaking, happy to be one.

I have to admit, this Independence Day finds me feeling pretty discouraged about the state of our increasingly tenuous union. Its tenuousness seems to increase each day. Instead of a united "us," a nation that largely agrees on ends but might differ as to means and is willing to compromise for the common good to accomplish to those ends, right now it's really us versus them. While I don't want to fall into the same trap I've just described, I can't help but note that we have a leader who seems to have no interest whatsoever in uniting the country. In my view, this is because his "power" and so his political strategy is very much rooted in dividing us and keeping us divided, exploiting the division for political gain. It fairness, this is nothing new in politics. What is new is the brazenness and ham-fisted way he does it. On the good side, it should alert all of us to this reality and help us to work collectively to overcome it.

While today is a holiday that I am happy to avail myself of (who doesn't want a day off?), I am taking a bit of a powder this year. As not only a veteran but a combat veteran, I am not enthusiastic in the least about the military parade. Again, I could say a number of things about this, but I will limit myself to observing that it seems like an attempt by the president to emulate the dictators for whom he has publicly expressed his admiration. I will also paraphrase President Eisenhower's reply when he was asked why the U.S. did not do impressive military parades like those put on in the Soviet Union: any nation that sees its strength mainly or exclusively in terms of its military might is weak. I find it disturbing that every national holiday has become a mixture of Armed Forces and Veteran's Day. Nonetheless, listening to the radio last week, I heard that the first U.S. service member born after 9/11/01 was killed in Afghanistan. If that doesn't cause you to be concerned, I don't know what would. And they called Vietnam a "quagmire."

While traveling for work a few weeks ago, I read the English translation of a wonderful book on the work of Simone Weil: Simone Weil: Attention to the Real. While I have long admired Weil, I must admit to never reading her in a systematic way. In a mere 81 pages, Robert Chenavier provides a very broad and surprisingly deep systematic treatment of her work. Just yesterday I ran across a very fine article ("Rooting for a New Nationalism") that treats Weil's work L’Enracinement (i.e., something like "Rootedness"- the need for roots), which was written towards the end of her short life in England on behalf of the Free French. The article focused on Weil's insistence that nationalism, at least as it is typically and historically conceived, needs to be redirected. Robert Zaretsky, the author of the pieces, notes:
Weil places human duties at the center of nationalism, and in so doing, displaces the nation from its traditional status among nationalists as the ultimate source of value. "The nation is a fact," she writes, "and a fact is not an absolute value." Unlike pride in one’s nation, which cannot be exported to other nations, compassion is, by its very nature, a universal impulse. To cultivate this sentiment is not only laudable but practical, because it tightens the bonds of fraternity both within and among nations
Zaretsky ends his piece by citing historian Samuel Moyn to the effect that "Human rights themselves wither when their advocates fail to cross the border into the language of duty; insofar as compliance with norms on paper is sought, the bearers of duties have to be identified and compelled to assume their burden."

I think the above observation applies directly to both the inhumane way the United States is treating captured immigrants, most of whom are refugees, along our southern border as well as to today's military parade. It also applies to our dealings with Iran, which tensions revolve around Iran's refusal to abide by an agreement on uranium enrichment that the U.S. sought to abrogate by walking away from it.

It also seems fitting on this Fourth of July to mention our deadly commitment to the proliferation of firearms contra all common sense. Referencing this year's 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the Washington Post reported that between 1 January and 6 March 2019 more people were killed by firearms in the U.S. than died in the storming of the beaches of Normandy. Noting that the Post's piece was true, Snopes pointed out that one would actually have to extend the time period one day, to 7 March. The sharp spike in firearms over the past several years is what prompted retired Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens, to argue for the repeal of the second amendment (see "Repeal the Second Amendment"). Of course, being tied as it is not only to a militia but to a "well-regulated" one, it shouldn't be as problematic as it is. I am quite certain the amendment was never meant to be a suicide pact.

While the U.S. Constitution is in many ways a remarkable document, it is not flawless and it is not divinely inspired. It's important not to lose sight of what its framers aspired to:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America
Yes, "defence," when used as a noun, is spelled with a "c." The framers made no claim to have established a perfect union, a utopia. Counting each enslaved black person as three-fifths of a person ought to lay to rest any claims of establishing a perfect union or channeling divine revelation. The same could be said for severely restricting the voting franchise, etc.

So, to my fellow citizens, as inheritors of this constitutional order it is up to us to further perfect our union. The good news is this is something we have done throughout our history. It's true, the on-going project of perfecting our union has happened something like a one and-a-half step forward, one step back manner. Given my unbelief in human perfectibility, this is an assymptotal endeavor at best. What I find distressing is that in the current moment it seems like we're not only taking two or three steps backwards but that we've turned and started running in the opposite direction.

Year B Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:13-15.17-19; Ps 4:2.4.7-9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:25-48 “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his incredulous...