Friday, August 30, 2019

"You can't be sure of any situation"

Life is strange. But then you didn't need me to tell that, right? "Strange" is an ambiguous adjective. Life can be strange in ways that are good, in ways that are bad, and in ways that are just, well, strange. I have to say that my 50s thus far have been strange in both good ways and in puzzling ways. I am pretty sure that I've confessed before that I thought by the time I was the age I am now I'd have more things figured out. In reality, I am glad that I don't. In most ways, my life has worked out better than I expected it to, better than I had any right to expect. Of course, this doesn't mean that I have realized all my dreams and accomplished everything I set out to accomplish when I was younger. You know what? I am fine with that. Besides, I am not dead yet!

This observation was brought about by a lot of self-reflection these past few weeks. This introspection, in turn, was prompted by some interactions with an old friend. The nature of our friendship itself is rather strange. Without getting into any boundary-crossing detail, it is a relationship that not only left me very frustrated for more than a decade of my young life, it left me very much doubting myself and quite uncertain and insecure in ways I have found difficult to overcome. I blame none of this on my friend. It's all me. I will leave this already vague observation by stating something else you don't need to me tell you: in life, timing may not be everything but when it comes to certain things it is decisive.

As a result of the decisiveness of some choices, you have to learn to let the alternatives go. You can't live life in reverse. Nothing is more fruitless than going back 10, 20, 30 years and thinking "What if I had chosen differently?" What's even worse is to rewind the clock in your mind and wish someone else had chosen differently!

By contrast, few things are more fruitful than making the best of your choices and keeping the commitments you've made. This is not what some people describe as "settling." It is accepting reality in the realization that life will always fall short of the aspirations you have when making life's big decisions. This week the Church observed the memorial of St. Augustine. It was Augustine who wrote, at the very beginning of his Confessions (Book I Chapter 1): "You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You." Being fickle is not the road to happiness or the recipe for fulfillment.

Life forces some big decisions on each one of us. What I mean by big decisions are the kind of decisions that by choosing not to decide you've still made a choice. For example, do you join your life that of another person? Not deciding generally means you wind up alone, or maybe in a relationship of mutual convenience with someone else who refuses to choose. I believe the more intentional your big decisions and the more your adhere to them, own them, the better off you are.

As a Christian, I am not big on fate. Neither do I view God as a cosmic puppet master. In other words, I am far from certain that "everything happens for a reason." What is typically meant by the invocation of said "reasons" is everything that happens is at the service of some inscrutable and comprehensive plan for my life and for the cosmos. Whether consciously or not, people who adhere to the "everything happens for a reason" philosophy really don't believe in choice. Such a person believes that nobody makes choices because all outcomes are predetermined and at the service of the inscrutable cosmic plan. I believe my choices matter. I believe your choices matter. Your choices shape your life, just as mine shape my life. Even though all decisions are made at a specific point-in-time and within the constraints of specific set of circumstances, some choices are decisive for life and irrevocable. Frankly, I don't believe anyone who says they have no regrets. I have regrets, quite a few, truth be told. But if everything happens for a reason, what is there to regret?

While I am trying to zero in on the effect of choices on life, it bears noting, if only in passing, that some things happen for no discernible cosmic reason. I apply this to suffering, especially the suffering of the innocent and powerless. But then there are those decisions made intentionally and discerned as well as any decision can be that have disappointing outcomes.

Anyway, far too predictably our Friday traditio for this final week of August is Missing Persons "Destination Unknown."

When making the big decisions life imposes on you, you make them with some of destination, some kind of destiny, some imagined outcome in mind. That we desire a fulfilling destiny constitutes our humanity at its deepest level. If you had no desire you'd never be disappointed. As George Carlin noted- "Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist."

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Year C Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 66:18-21; Ps 117-1-2; Heb 12:5-7.11-13; Luke 13:22-30

The beginning of our Gospel reading today reminds us that during these weeks in Ordinary Time, as we read through St. Luke’s Gospel in a semi-continuous way, we journey with Jesus and his disciples from their native Galilee to Jerusalem. Their journey, which is a pilgrimage, is a metaphor for our lives as pilgrims, members of God’s pilgrim people, the Church, making our way to the city of God. Along these same lines, it also bears remembering that in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus travels to the holy city only once during his ministry.

As he makes his way, Jesus conducts a School of Discipleship. Fundamental to being a disciple of Jesus is grasping the nature of God’s kingdom. From the perspective of our fallenness, God’s kingdom is a bizarro world, a world turned upside-down and backward.

Jesus gives insight into the nature of God’s kingdom when he tells his largely Jewish listeners the first will be last and the last will be first. Specifically, he refers to the inclusion of Gentiles, who will come “from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.”1 Our reading from Isaiah tells of the opening of the one covenant to everyone, which prophecy is fulfilled through Jesus Christ.

As a theological principle, however, the first being last and the last being first needs a broader application. This application occurs in our Blessed Mother’s Magnificat:
He has shown the strength of his arm.
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly
He has filled the hungry with good things
and the rich he has sent away empty2
The revolutionary nature of the Gospel, so powerfully captured in the Magnificat, must first happen within you. By proclaiming God’s kingdom and calling you to conversion, Jesus seeks to awaken you from your slumber, urging you to reform your life. This reform consists of shaping yourself in accord with God’s kingdom. As Martin Luther, taking his cue from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, insisted, the shape of fallen humanity is best described by the Latin phrase homo incurvatus se (i.e., the human being curved in on her/himself). Following Jesus bends you outward, away from yourself and toward your neighbor. This can be painful at times.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about having the strength to enter through the narrow gate. You might well ask- How do I receive this strength? In the first instance, Christ strengthens you in and through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. The other part of the answer can be found in our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. As Jesus’s disciples, we develop the strength we need by practicing the disciplines he taught us. After all, a disciple is one who practices the disciplines taught and modeled by her/his master.

When speaking of God’s discipline it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the point of authentically parental discipline is not retributive punishment of the wayward child. Rather, its purpose is to help the child understand the importance of self-discipline to growing in maturity and to realizing true happiness.

The Lord teaches three spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Prayer, which includes the sub-disciplines of silence and solitude, meditation and contemplation, is where everything begins. Along with authentic worship, genuine prayer leads to compassionate action, that is, to selflessly serving others. Alms-giving is more than giving money, it requires you to give of yourself, your time, your skill, your energy.

Fasting, the most neglected spiritual discipline, integrates prayer and alms-giving. When you fast, sooner or later you will grow hungry. This is the point of fasting. Your physical hunger should prompt you ask a really important question: What am I really hungry for? Fasting helps you discipline yourself, strengthening you to resist harmful impulses as well as to live in solidarity with those in need.

It must be noted, spiritual disciplines are not ends in themselves but means to the end of loving God by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. The purpose of practicing spiritual disciplines, then, is to develop holy habits. Another name for holy habits is virtues.

Most of you are familiar with the Seven Deadly Sins. But how many know that each deadly sin has a contrary virtue? For example, the virtue that overcomes pride is humility, the virtue that trumps envy is kindness, charity is the opposite of greed, etc. Virtues are those habits on which we can rely to make our lives work, to make the lives of others work, and make the world a better place. Vices, by contrast, are habits we can rely on to make our lives not work, to bring down others, and to trap us in a cycle of dysfunction.

Holiness is not mindless adherence to rules and regulations. Mindlessly adhering to rules and regulations has no power to bring about conversion. Following Jesus is never a matter of going through the motions. Christian discipleship is always intentional. Holiness cannot be imposed on you from the outside. But if you hunger and thirst for holiness, God will fill you with good things.

Living a disciplined life is not a way to earn to God’s favor. Through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit and by virtue of your baptism, you already enjoy God’s favor. Engaging in spiritual practices is how you attune yourself to the frequency of God’s grace. Practicing the spiritual disciplines is not magic, there is no ex opere operato involved. It is by practicing the disciplines of a follower of Christ that you come to know and to be known by the Lord.

Far from seeking to control outward things, holiness is about making your heart responsive to God in each and every circumstance in which you find yourself. As Richard Foster defines it, holiness is “the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.”3 I would add that holiness is the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done and doing it in the proper way.

Because Jesus is our master, our teacher, it is important to come to know him by reading the Gospels. A lot of the material in each of the four Gospels consists of vignettes in which Jesus encounters people experiencing various situations and crises. He does not have a template, a one-size-fits-all answer, for the people he encounters. Rather, he deals with life’s big questions as they arise in the circumstances of peoples’ lives. Holiness, Foster, continues, “means being ‘response-able,’ able to respond appropriately to the demands of life.”4 Learning this is how you become like Christ.

As our Collect today notes, it is by loving what God commands that you truly come to desire what God promises. It is the purpose of the new life Christ gave you baptism to acclimate yourself to God’s kingdom. For most of us, this means experiencing a sea-change in what we desire. Practicing spiritual disciplines is how you open yourself to God’s grace, letting God change your heart. Practicing the spiritual disciplines is also how you make God’s kingdom a present reality. Through such practice, you bring God’s kingdom, our promised future, into the here-and-now.

1 Luke 13:29.
2 Luke 1:51-53.
3 Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water, from Renovaré website-
4 Ibid.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Jesus and the fire of God's love

Readings: Jer 38:4-6.8-10; Ps 40:2-4.18; Heb 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53

What is Jesus on about in today's Gospel? These are the kinds of passages that prove scary to people, especially when they are treated in a vacuum rather than in context. As it pertains to Gospel readings from the Lectionary, context means both situating the passage in the biblical book and section of that book in which it is found, as well with the other readings from the Lectionary for that day, with which it is harmonized.

Our reading from the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) for this Sunday is taken from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. It is a difficult reading because Jeremiah, in being true to his prophetic calling, which consisted of calling the kingdom of Judah back to fidelity with its covenant with God, experiences the wrath of the king. The reason the king's advisors call for Jeremiah's death is because by speaking prophetically he is demoralizing people and, in their view, not interested the nation's welfare. The implication is that he is seeking to bring about Judah's demise. In short, Jeremiah is deemed an enemy of the state. In reality, the welfare of the people and of the nation are foremost on Jeremiah's mind as well as first in his heart.

Nonetheless, Jeremiah is seized and cast into a cistern in which there was "only muck." Seemingly in despair for being punished simply for being faithful to his divine calling, the prophet "sank into the muck." I use "muck" instead of "mud" as the result of making reference to Robert Alter's translation of the Hebrew Bible. His insistence on using "muck" arises from his observation that a cistern, which is a pit for collecting rainwater, in midsummer, which is when this episode takes place, would contain "only a residue of muck" (The Hebrew Bible: A Translation- Prophets, 986). Living in the desert, Alter's explanation makes me think of gnats, flies, and wasps, which hover over such muck in the heat of a summer's day.

It bears noting that it was a Cushite, not an Judahite (i.e., a Jew), who implored the king to let him save Jeremiah from starvation. So, Jeremiah's life was spared by the good graces of a benevolent foreigner. As Alter observes, the Cushite, Ebed-Melech, was very likely a black African. He further notes the irony that it should be a foreigner who takes "the initiative to save the prophet" (The Hebrew Bible, 986).

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews shows that the connection between Jeremiah and Jesus could not stronger. "For the sake of the joy that lay before him," the inspired author writes, Jesus "endured the cross" (Heb 12:2). Jesus did not merely endure the cross, by despising the shame this hideous form of death was intended to impose who were so executed, Jesus he defied death. Just as Christ endured "opposition from sinners," we, too, should remain steadfast and "not... lose heart" when our love not only when our love is not returned but when we are rejected and despised for it (Heb 12:3). In fact, our steadfastness should be such that we struggle against sin, our own sin, "to the point of shedding blood" (Heb 12:4).

This past week, the Church observed the Memorial of St. Maximilan Kolbe, who, like Jeremiah, died of imposed starvation. Fr. Kolbe voluntarily the place of a Jewish man in German concentration camp. Praying Morning Prayer that day I was struck by one of Intercessions, taken from the Common of One Martyr:
Your martyrs followed in your footsteps by carrying the cross,
   -help us to endure courageously the misfortunes of life
It may seem that, unlike Jeremiah, Maximilan Kolbe was not rescued by a foreigner. In a reversal, this righteous Gentile was rescued by the resurrection of the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.

Indeed, Jesus came to bring fire upon the earth. In its essence, what is this fire? Is it literal? Is God going to burn everything just as, in the flood, he drowned nearly everything? No! Jesus came to set the earth on fire with the love of God. He is God's love incarnate and resurrected. Jeremiah shows, as does Jesus, for that matter, that the love of God is frequently not well-received. It is not the one aflame with the fire of God's love who divides herself from others as the result of some imagined holy separation. Rather, it the division arises from the rejection of God's love by those on whom it is lavished. Far from embracing being cast into the cistern as a relief, Jeremiah languishes still on fire with the love of God.

Just as Jesus "endured" his passion without arguing or disputing, our passage from the Hebrew Bible conveys no words spoken by Jeremiah. The prophet certainly does not speak in his own defense. Just as Jeremiah was seen as a nemesis to his people, so Jesus was deemed to be a danger by the Sanhedrin of his own day. Let's recall these words put in the mouth of Caiaphas by the inspired author of St. John's Gospel: "it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish" (John 11:50).

As the Lord indicates in our Gospel today, love usually results in suffering. Love, of course, is not all suffering. But to love is to suffer, at least to some extent and some of the time. Jesus speaks about the "anguish" he must experience until the redemption, the reconciliation, the communion he came establish is fully realized. Walking the way of love is to intentionally embrace that path of maximum resistance. As a member of his body, the Church, it is through you that the earth is to be set afire by God's love and it is through you that Christ experiences the anguish to which he refers in our Gospel reading.

It was only a month ago that our second reading for Mass, taken from St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians, began with these words: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking* in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church" (Col 1:24). Indeed, these days faithful members of the Christ's Church suffer for the things inflicted on the young and innocent lambs who by wolves masquerading as shepherds and businessmen pretending to be bishops. To give up on the Church, however, is not only to give up on Christ, it is to give up on the love with which God seeks to set your heart aflame.

As the last verse of the twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, the chapter from which our second reading is taken, asserts: "For our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29). "Be who God meant you to be," wrote St. Catherine of Siena, "and you will set the world on fire."

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Depression and hope through faith

I don't want to go on and on about depression. One reason is that I don't want to wallow in my affliction. Another reason is I don't desire to impose my suffering others, still less to garner pity. In all honesty, it isn't really that pleasant to deal with either internally or externally. Hence, the purpose of this brief post is to share how, in my experience, God finds a way through the fog of my self-absorption. One key to this, at least for me, is to send out a beacon through the fog, so to speak.

I send out this beacon by keeping up the spiritual discipline of prayer. On a daily basis, for me, this consists of fidelity to praying Morning & Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, doing some spiritual reading in conjunction with Morning Prayer, which Monday-Wednesday consists of practicing lectio divina with the readings for the upcoming Sunday and Thursday-Sunday reading from a carefully selected book, along with reciting the Rosary during my morning walk. Something I do with less regularity than I should is practice the Examen in conjunction with Evening Prayer. In certainly helps in these circumstances that I am attentive, desperately looking for something, anything, that might be a life-saver.

For those who are unaware, just as Fridays are days of penance for Roman Catholics, Saturdays are devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. As a result, the Intercessions for Morning Prayer on Saturdays typically seek her intercession. Being the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time, we are currently praying from Week III of the four-week cycle found in the Liturgy of the Hours. This petition today struck me as my prayer:
You strengthened Mary at the foot of the cross and filled her with joy at the resurrection of your Son,
   - through her intercession relieve our distress and strengthen our hope

For spiritual reading, have recently taken up a book by the late Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini: On the Body: A Contemporary Theology of Human Person. This book is ideal for spiritual reading because, as the author says in his Preface: "I chose to write this book as a series of notes, comments, and maxims. I thought this was a more appropriate genre than a research paper or exegesis." Because he wrote this book in this way, it is well-suited for spiritual reading.

Reading only one note this morning was all I needed to be helped. The note I read is about physical illness. However, it quickly dawned on me that it is easily transferable to depression. To suitably adapt it I substituted one phrase, which will appear in brackets, for the phrase "physical pain"-
Sometimes I am seized by a fear of the future in which I see only darkness; at other times, I feel I am not receiving proper care. Loneliness, [mental anguish], irritability, disappointment, the difficulty of human interaction- I am disturbed by all this, and these predicaments reveal a part of me I did not know existed.

The positive, spontaneous flow has been blocked, and my first impulse is to distrust everyone, myself included1
One caveat: at my age, I know all too well this part of me exists. Probably time for confession: Jesus, I trust in You. 

Like Mary at the foot of the cross, always remember, hope lies beyond optimism.

1 Carlo Maria Martini, On the Body: A Contemporary Theology of the Human Person, Crossroad: New York, 2001, 18

Friday, August 16, 2019

"What they want, I don't know"

In my opinion the only thing good about late Summer is the early morning when there is a hint of Fall in the air. Otherwise, you can have it. People still speak of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), which was quite the rage years ago. But as someone who works to keep the black dog at bay, I don't find wintertime the worst season of the year. For whatever reason, late summer seems to be the time I struggle most.

This particular August is proving to be very busy. Now, I admit I am mostly busy with good things, that is, doing things that I enjoy. Still, I am too busy. Add to that being an older parent of younger children and you have a recipe for dissatisfaction. Perhaps I am projecting, but dissatisfied people are rarely able to keep their dissatisfaction to themselves. To be more specific, I am unable to keep my dissatisfaction to myself. Predictably, this only makes things worse.

I am glad that Fridays for Roman Catholics have traditionally been and still are, at least for those who care to observe them as such, days of penance. Without a doubt the main way this has been expressed is by abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals. While not obligatory, except on the Fridays of Lent, abstaining from meat remains the primary way Roman Catholics in the United States observe penance on Fridays. Let's face it, it's not much of a deprivation.

Praying Morning Prayer this morning, I by these words from Psalm 51, known as the Miserere: "My sacrifice to God, a broken spirit." The implication of this for me is that when I feel broken-spirited (i.e., dispirited), I need to offer it to God. Part of what it means to offer it to the Father through Christ in the power of their Holy Spirit is, like fasting and abstaining, not drawing anyone's attention to the fact that I am doing it.

In case you're wondering, I am indeed asserting, very strongly, that there can still be meaning in the exhortation, these days mostly used in jest, to "Offer it up." By making this assertion, I am not saying this is the best thing to do in every situation. It's important to let the circumstance determine the method.

In an effort to assuage my overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction with everything and pretty much everyone, our Friday traditio is The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop."

In addition to (once again) there is nothing in the world that will yield the satisfaction for which I really long. By the grace of God, may I be able to make a more acceptable sacrifice next time around this dilapidated block.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today the Church throughout the world observes the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For Roman Catholics, today is a holy day of obligation, which means we are required to attend Mass, just as we are on Sundays, on pain of sin. That sounds pretty solemn, I know. I don't know about you, but for me, it's really the case that today I get to go to Mass. To that end, on holy days, parishes offer more Masses and celebrate them at convenient times.

Christians believe that the Blessed Virgin, either prior to dying or immediately after dying, was bodily assumed into heaven. In a week's time we celebrate the related Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church teaches that after her glorious Assumption, she was crowned Queen of Heaven. In fact, the Blessed Virgin's Assumption and her coronation as Queen of Heaven are the fourth and fifth mysteries of Glorious Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. And so, her bodily Assumption is a mystery of our redemption that we can and should ponder often. The fruit of this mystery is the grace of a happy death.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven serves a preview of what awaits those who respond to God's gracious invitation issued through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Any authentic response is both prompted by and made in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Blessed Mother is often closely aligned with the Holy Spirit. After all, she was in the midst of the nascent Church at the first Christian Pentecost, when, in accord with Jesus's promise, the Holy Spirit descended on Mary, the Twelve, and others who responded to God's call in the form of fire. Being the model Christian disciple, Mary shows us the glory that awaits the children of God.

In the one and only infallible papal proclamation since the First Vatican Council, in the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, set forth and loosely defined the dogma of papal infallibility, Pope Pius XII, in 1950, dogmatically declared the Blessed Virgin's Assumption. This was no great innovation as her Assumption, at least up until the 16th century, was held always, everywhere, and by everyone. In other words, it was held to be a dogma of the faith prior to the then-Holy Father's proclamation.

As Pius wrote in his Apostolic Constitution On the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
the august Mother of God, mysteriously united from all eternity with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination, immaculate in her conception, a virgin inviolate in her divine motherhood, the wholehearted companion of the divine Redeemer who won complete victory over sin and its consequences, gained at last the supreme crown of her privileges - to be preserved immune from the corruption of the tomb, and like her Son, when death had been conquered, to be carried up body and soul in the exalted glory of heaven, there to sit in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of ages
Today the Church throughout the world prays: Veni Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam - Come Holy Spirit, come through Mary!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Year C Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 18:6-9; Ps 33:1.12.18-22; Heb 11:1-2.8-19; Luke 12:32-48

Today Jesus teaches “where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”1 This prompts a question each one of us should ask ourselves: “Where is my heart?” The central theme of this week’s Scripture readings is faith. Like “grace,” “faith” is a word we use and hear all the time, at least in Church. As a result of its frequent use, the theological meaning of “faith,” along with its implications for our lives, can grow dim.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews provides a working definition: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”2 It is important to link faith to hope, just as it is important to link faith and hope with charity. Hope is the flower of faith and charity is their fruit.

The Greek word translated as “faith” is pistis. Pistis refers to placing your confidence, your trust, in something or someone. Especially in light of how “faith” is often used, it seems important to note that faith requires an object; you don’t have faith in faith.

At root, being a Christian means placing your trust in someone, namely Jesus Christ. This is why even Catholics can assert: we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Making this assertion it becomes all the more important to have some grasp of what faith is.

In the context of our second reading, hope refers to what you expect as a result of placing your trust in Jesus Christ. This realization spares us the nonsense of reducing faith to mere belief, to intellectual assent to a set of carefully constructed doctrinal propositions. Faith reduced in this way has no power to save. We also don’t place our faith in ourselves, at least not when it comes to what truly matters: life eternal.

Exactly what should you expect as a result of saying “Jesus, I trust in You”? Jesus himself makes clear what you must not expect: health, wealth, and a trial-free life. We must never forget that the only way to resurrection is through the cross, which is why, a few chapters earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel, the Lord tells his would-be followers:
If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it3
As the soon-to-be-canonized John Henry Cardinal Newman observed: “To be at ease is to be unsafe.”4

In our first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom, we hear about Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Leaving Egypt required the children of Israel, along with the mixed multitude who came with them, to place their trust in God’s promises as delivered through Moses, their one-time oppressor.5

Abraham's Journey From Ur to Canaan, by József Molnár, 1850

God’s oath was to bring them out of Egypt to the promised land, the very land to which God led Abraham when he called him in a similar way. Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was to go.”6 This shows us that faith is our response to God’s loving initiative towards us. When we come to faith, we begin learning what it means to trust Christ by taking baby steps.

Like the children of Israel, whom the inspired author of Wisdom refers to as “the holy children of the good,” we, too, in this very Eucharist, offer “sacrifice… putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.”7 The sacrifice we offer is nothing other than ourselves. During the Offertory of the Mass, our gifts are collected and then brought to the altar, along with the bread and wine that will become for us the body and blood of Christ. These gifts symbolize the offering of ourselves. The only convincing evidence that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ is the transformed lives of those who partake of it.

In the consecrated bread and wine, Jesus gives himself to us body, blood, soul, and divinity. All he asks in return is that we offer ourselves to the Father through him by the power of their Holy Spirit body, blood, soul, and humanity. During the intercessory part of Eucharistic Prayer III, the priest implores the Father: “May [Christ] make of us an eternal offering to you, that we may obtain an inheritance with your elect…”8 This, dear friends, is an act of faith, hope, and love, which is what makes it acceptable to God.

In our Gospel, Jesus urges his followers to sell their belongings and give alms to the poor. In a subsequent parable, he asserts that those who do so are like the Israelites of old, who, trusting only in God’s promise, were ready to depart Egypt at a moment’s notice. In the parable, those who obey Jesus are the vigilant servants who are ready for the return of their master, who can arrive at any time.

When Peter asks if these hard teachings apply to everyone or just to a select few, Jesus tells another parable, this one about a steward. A steward has charge of the household in the master's absence. He contrasts a faithful steward, who takes good care of the other servants, with one who abuses his power and status by ill-treating his fellow servants. This leads to the crux of Jesus's teaching: if, as a follower of Jesus, you have wealth and/or power, much is expected of you in terms of helping the oppressed and those in need.

Contra many self-professing Christians, rather than being a sign of God’s favor, riches often constitute the greatest obstacle to inheriting God’s kingdom. It seems obvious that one who hoards riches and uses power for his/her own sake works against the establishment of God's reign, thus becoming in their very person an obstacle to the realization of that kingdom. It bears recalling what we learned in last week’s Gospel: one who seeks security in riches dies twice.

When distilled, the point of today’s Gospel is that by handling well the wealth and power you accumulate, that is, using it for the benefit of those in need and the building up of God’s kingdom, this obstacle is lowered if not removed entirely. If you save your life by losing it for the sake of the Gospel, how much more do you become rich in what truly matters than by divesting yourself of earthly riches for the sake of God's reign? By so doing you provide evidence for things not seen, a sign of hope.

1 Luke 12:34.
2 Heberws 11:1.
3 Luke 9:23-24.
4 Henri Bremond, The Mystery of Newman, trans. H.C. Corrance, 203.
5 Exodus 12:38; Wisdom 18:6.
6 Hebrews 11:8.
7 Wisdom 18:9.
8 The Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” Eucharistic Prayer III, sec. 113.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Saint Lawrence, deacon and martyr

I suppose with a blog named Καθολικός διάκονος, I would be remiss not commemorate today's Feast of Saint Lawrence. Rather than doing so out of a sense of obligation, however, I am eager to post something about one of the greatest deacons of Christ's Church on his feast day. More than 1,700 years after his martyrdom, the deacon Lorenzo stands as an exemplar of diakonia. Deacons today should look to Lawrence as they allow Christ to shape and form them, by the power of the Holy Spirit given through the grace with we are infused by virtue of our ordination as servants, into his likeness, the likeness of a servant.

Part of what it means for deacons to look to Lawrence is to ask for his intercession, especially in matters pertaining to our diaconal service. Diakonia is either a self-sacrificing undertaking or it is nothing. While it is necessary for deacons to manage our commitments to marriage, family, and employment vis-à-vis our ministry, keeping in mind that we are always and everywhere deacons who are called upon to act in persona Christi servi- our ministry extends well beyond the Church door- it is important that a deacon does not merely serve at his convenience.

Lawrence originally hailed from Spain. He lived his entire life in the third century: AD 225-258. It was in Spain that he met and struck up a friendship with the future Pope Sixtus II, who was Greek. Upon becoming pope in AD 257, Sixtus ordained Lawrence, who was quite young (20 or 21), a deacon. Moreover, Pope Sixtus appointed Lawrence as the archdeacon of Rome, placing him in a preeminent role over the other six deacons of that city. I don't have any problem surmising that it is likely Lawrence was engaged in diakonia prior to being ordained a deacon. In terms of the renewed and restored order of deacons in the Latin Church, this is key: diakonia is the not result of ordination. Rather, a candidate for the diaconate is someone who is already engaged in diakonia. It is also easy to see that Lawrence was martyred not long after ordination.

It's interesting that today Christians lament martyrdom as a tragedy. In the ancient Church, martyrdom was viewed as a crowning achievement. In his sermon for the Feast of Saint Lawrence, Saint Augustine said this about him: In Rome "he ministered the sacred blood of Christ; there for the sake of Christ's name he poured out his own blood." This strikes me as a very good and succinct description of diakonia, boiling it down to its essence.

Saint Lawrence, icon by Theophilia

As the archdeacon of Rome, Lawrence was entrusted with responsibility for the Church's material goods. This meant that he also had charge of distribution of alms to the poor. There are many legends handed down about this sainted deacon. Saint Ambrose of Milan related that when the prefect of Rome demanded Lawrence hand over the Church's treasures, he brought the poor before the prefect with the words: "Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church's crown." This occurred during the reign of the Roman emperor Valerian, who undertook a persecution of the Church in Rome.

Lawrence and Pope Sixtus were was arrested in the same imperial round-up in the Eternal City. Sixtus was arrested while celebrating Mass in the catacombs of Saint Callistus, along with four deacons who were serving alongside their bishop. Like Lawrence, Sixtus, along with his four deacons, were executed by imperial decree. Pope Saint Sixtus II was buried in the same cemetery in which he was arrested. The Church observes the memorial of Saint Sixtus II, pope and Companions on 7 August.

One can imagine the resilience this persecution summoned forth from the Roman Church, which lost its bishop and five of its seven deacons. It fell to Sixtus II's successor, Pope Dionysius, to reorganize the Church in Rome. He was aided in this when Emperor Gallienus, Valerian's successor, issued an Edict of Toleration, which brought that persecution of the Roman Church to and end.

It is said that during the days he spent in prison awaiting his execution, Lawrence preached the Gospel and baptized fellow prisoners. Another traditional legend has it that Lawrence died by being roasted on a hot gridiron. He is alleged to have said as he roasted, "I'm well-done on this side. Turn me over." While the credence of both his manner of death and his uttering these words are doubtful, the deacon Lawrence is patron saint of comedians, as well as of cooks and chefs.


Father, you called Saint Lawrence to serve you by love
and crowned his life with glorious martyrdom.
Help us to be like him in loving you and doing your work.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

If I were to provide a traditio for the Feast of the deacon Lorenzo, it would surely be Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" (see "Who do you serve? You gotta serve somebody").

Friday, August 9, 2019

"Just sees what he wants to see"

I am pretty sure that my reflection on last Sunday's readings was my least popular post ever (see "Guarding against the desire for more"). As I ruminated on this a bit (I've blogged too long to obsess over such things), I wouldn't change a thing. The past few times we have cycled through Year C of the Sunday lectionary, I have been struck by how challenging St. Luke's Gospel is during this long stretch of Ordinary Time between Pentecost and the Feast of Christ the King. This is especially true, it seems to me, for the Sundays that fall during these hot summer months. As Jesus teaches his School of Discipleship whilst on the way to Jerusalem, we are provoked virtually every week. Jesus shakes us out of our lazy notions about what it means to follow him as well as our self-serving ideas about the kingdom of God.

One of the great benefits of blogging independently and doing it for absolutely free is that people can take it or leave it. As I have written many times before, at least in the first instance, I blog because I find it personally beneficial. If others find some benefit from reading Καθολικός διάκονος, so much the better. It comes as no surprise at this point in my life, ministry, and blogging that people are happy to leave what makes them uncomfortable. As Tolstoy observed a long time ago: "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." Jesus is relentless in his call to conversion to those with ears to hear and eyes to see, especially those of us who are relatively well-off and comfortable. By no means do I exempt myself from this critique. Heaven knows I need to change A LOT to be conformed fully to the image of Christ.

It occurred to me this week that in attempting to meet the Enlightenment-generated demand for certainty, Church doctrine since about the mid-eighteenth century, began to be formulated in a highly reductive and hyper-detailed manner, seeking a clarity and precision that is just as illusory in the realm of divine revelation as it is in the natural sciences. Inherent to this shift is the risk of getting it wrong. In no aspect has this tendency been more pronounced than in the realm of human sexuality. Of course, this is the result of a very reductive and quite unnatural formulation of natural law.

The Second Vatican Council's insistence that truth is hierarchical (see Unitatis redintegratio, sec. 11), it seems to me, provides a lever to help the Church overturn this reductive tendency. Contrary to what many think, sexual morality and whatever ethics might flow from it are not first order theological concerns. In fact, sexual morality is a third order issue. Recognizing Church teaching on sexuality is not dogmatic is a first step to dealing with the genuine complexity and ambiguity of human sexuality.

It has been noted that a major hallmark of spiritual maturity is the ability to deal with ambiguity. Ambiguity is nothing other than humility in the face of the complexity of reality. Other names for ambiguity are "mystery" and "wonder." Doctrine should never reduce mystery to human measure or seek to eradicate wonder. When it comes to the complexity of the human person, this is nothing less than a reflection of the imago Dei, the very source of our humanity.

To tie the first and second part of what I wrote above together, while the imago Dei is ineradicable, our likeness to God is lost through sin and restored by grace. As the Angelic Doctor noted: grace builds on nature. Hence, the orders of grace and nature not only complement but complete each other.

My next to youngest son, who is 10, has developed a great love for The Beatles. While, like everyone, there are a few Beatles' songs I really like, I cannot say I am a great Beatles fan. This is simply the result of never having gone through a Beatles phase in my life. One of The Beatles' songs I like, a song with which my son was unfamiliar until last Sunday, is "Nowhere Man." So, "Nowhere Man" is our Friday traditio for this summertime week:

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Guarding against the desire for more

Readings: Eccl 1:2. 2:21-23; Ps 90 3-6.12-14.17; Col 3:1-5.9-11; Luke 12:13-21

Taken in an aggregate way, today's readings urge us to focus on the things that really matter. In his short book, the English title of which is simply On Prayer (in its original German the title is Von der Not und dem Segen des Gebetes - On the Need and Blessing of Prayer), the late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner hit the nail-on-the-head beginning at the top of the very first page. Late in his life, when asked which of his many works he found most pleasing in retrospect, he indicated this short book. He intimated that he felt he had synthesized his theology very well in it.

From the very beginning of On Prayer:
Human life is made up of many and varied activities. Deep in the human heart is the longing, fitfully glimpsed and but half realized, to gather up all these strivings into an intense pursuit of one all-embracing objective worthy of the toil and tears and devotion of the human heart. Such is the half-shaped dream; but the reality is a picture of heaped-up activities, where the trivial jostles the less trivial, and the less trivial elbows the important things, and there is no unity of design, nor any intensity of single, concentrated purpose. There is no real perspective of values: what is essentially trivial but immediately urgent, looms large and commands attention; while what is essentially important, but not immediately urgent or insistent, is relegated to the hazy recesses of the background. But the thing of greatest importance is not always what is demanded by the needs of the moment
Of course, the last sentence refers to prayer. If anything, advanced Western society has grown more fragmented in the nearly 70 years since Rahner wrote those words. To borrow a well-worn cliché, this observation has as much if not more relevance now than when it was written.

Prayer, meditation, contemplation, which require both solitude and silence, are, as Rahner insisted, "essentially important." However, they are not urgent and usually not insistent, especially if you have never formed the habit of practicing these disciplines. Indeed, we call these practices "spiritual disciplines."

When discussing spiritual disciplines, it is important to note up-front that they are not magic or transactional in nature (i.e., my doing y does not necessarily result in God doing x as a result). It is also necessary to note that disciplines are not ends in themselves but means to the end for which we are created and redeemed. These spiritual disciplines are time-tested and proven means of sanctification.

At least from a Christian perspective, practicing spiritual disciplines are the means to the end of loving God with your entire being by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. These ends can be summarized as becoming Christ-like or, to borrow a more ancient term, divinized. It is through silence, solitude, prayer, meditation, and contemplation that you not only discern how to live the circumstances in which you find yourself each day but these help us makes sense of what we experience- life is strange and the unexpected happens frequently.

Our first reading from Ecclesiastes deals with exactly the same thing Rahner dealt with at the beginning of On Prayer. So much so that the lengthy quote above can accurately be viewed as an updated version of this reading. Are you someone whose "business," or occupation, is worry? If so, why? Making worry your occupation shows a distinct lack of trust in the Lord, who repeatedly tells his followers not to worry, even about life's most basic needs. The very next section of this same chapter from which today's Gospel reading is taken contains Jesus's teaching about not worrying about what you will eat or what you will wear, etc. In effect, the Lord tells his disciples not to put their hope (i.e., their trust) in ephemeral or passing things.

Detail from Jesus Teaching the Sermon on the Mount, by Fra Angelico, 1442

In today's Gospel, the Lord urges us, as his followers, to "guard against all greed" (Luke 12:15). In the original Greek, the word translated here as "greed" transliterates as pleonexias. Literally, pleonexias means "having more." As his followers, Jesus is telling us to guard against our seemingly insatiable desire to have more. This means guarding against the temptation to equate having more money with security, having a bigger house or more things "completing" you, fighting against the mindset that "What I need to be truly happy is (fill-in-the-blank)." I think most of us have had the experience of thinking some achievement, possession, experience, amount of money is what we need to be fulfilled, only to attain the achievement, acquire the possession, have the experience, or receive the money and then experience an anti-climax- the realization that it is nothing more than ashes and dust.

Disciples of Jesus not only revel in having less but in giving what they have to those in need in the certainty that doing so is the path to fulfillment, the realization of her destiny. Jesus did not come to make you monetarily or materially wealthier, or even secure. He makes the same point over and over in varied ways that wealth, far from being the assurance of divine favor, is an obstacle to be overcome. Jesus came to make you truly wealthy by urging you to divest yourself of what you don't need and by encouraging to you to use what comes your way to help those in distress. Any person or any doctrine that teaches otherwise is not only un-Christian, it is anti-Christian!

Too often we reduce the call to discipleship to some imaginary form of "being moral," which we mistake for true righteousness. To give but one example, we assiduously avoid saying words like "fuck," "damn," or "shit." Most Christians do not realize that St. Paul, in several places in his letters, uses what many would consider to be "bad," even shocking, words. Drawing from Isaiah, Paul likens the works we do that we are prone to think make us "righteous" to used tampons. He says he would like to castrate the Judaizers, whom he sarcastically calls "super-apostles." He uses the Koine Greek equivalent of "shit" for sure. Too often what we think of as righteousness is nothing more than self-congratulatory and self-righteous nonsense. Biblically-speaking, usually a better translation of words rendered in English as "righteous" is "just."

What the Lectionary has been providing us with the past 6 weeks or so is nothing less than the heart of the Gospel. We know it constitutes the heart of the Gospel because what Jesus teaches us to do is way harder than not "swearing," etc. Because being a Christian is so contrary to how we are socialized, which socialization finds its origin in our fallen human nature, being a Christian seems to cut against the grain of our very being. The Gospel confronts us, challenges us, provokes us. This is why Paul refers to living as a Christian as an agon. Agon refers to a battle, or a struggle. Agon is the root of our English word "agony." Never be deceived, the only way to resurrection is through the cross.

It is to the cross that Jesus leads his followers. This is the pattern of discipleship that can be discerned so easily in St. Luke's Gospel and that of the other Synoptics (i.e., Matthew and Mark). Back in the ninth chapter of Luke, the inspired author tells his readers: "When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem..." (Luke 9:51). As Msgr Luigi Giussani sagely observed: "[Christ] mounted the Cross to free us from the fascination with nothingness, to free us from the fascination with appearances, with the ephemeral." Putting your trust in money, status, or possessions is nihilism pure and simple. It is a fascination with nothingness.

The point of Jesus's story about the rich man is simple enough: he who dies with the most possessions and/or money still dies. Moreover, he dies in a perilous state, a state liable to harsh judgment. You can't buy or bribe your way into God's kingdom. Besides, if you are not striving live as if God's kingdom is a present reality, seeking to make it present, even if in small ways, like a mustard seed, you are not preparing yourself for beatitude, for the happiness that comes from putting others before yourself. The time for repentance, for conversion, for change is now, not later.

Once again, Paul in our second reading is discussing the effect baptism should have on our lives. Remember, in baptism you died, were buried, and rose through and in Christ to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. As a result, baptism should bring about the change of heart and mind (in Greek metanoia, frequently translated as "repentance"), what we might call the "conversion," or "change," Jesus is calls us to make today. We think about the things above precisely by living in a different way here below. Living this way is called hope.

Friday, August 2, 2019

A visit to Vernal: faith and reason

I had the great opportunity to spend last weekend in Vernal, Utah, with most of my family (minus our 2 oldest children, who are grown). We visited Dinosaur National Monument and the wonderful state-run natural history museum there. We went swimming, to supper at local establishment (7-11 Ranch Restaurant). We also attended Mass on Sunday morning at St. James the Greater parish. On our way there and back we listened to Agatha Christie's intricate thriller And Then There Were None. In short, it was one of those weekends that made me wish we could do these kinds of excursions more often.

What I wrote above may seem a bit incoherent to some people, to some who are not religious at all and to some who are. It's those religious people who the irreligious think all religious people are like, that is, biblical literalists and fundamentalists, who would find my insistence problematic. For my part, after my hyper-fundamentalist upbringing, I marvel at what a wonderful thing it is to grasp that faith and reason go hand-in-hand. It's wonderful to grasp that the two creation narratives found at the very beginning of Genesis, which, while complementary in certain aspects, are irreconcilable. It's great to comprehend that these narratives, which echo other Near Eastern sources in some ways and differ from these sources significantly in others, were never intended to explain how things came into being. Instead, these texts deal with the why of existence, but do not seek to do so exhaustively. When one considers the first of these two texts, which comprises the whole of the first chapter and the first four verses of the second, it is a very poetic take on creation. If one attends to reading it closely, it clearly has what might be called an evolutionary structure. The second narrative is earthier, quite literally. It lacks the cosmic dimensions of the first narrative, taking more an existential viewpoint.

I will be so bold as to assert that to read these texts in a literal way (i.e., as explaining the how rather than dealing exclusively with the why) is to forfeit the rather rich revelatory value they possess. It makes no sense from the standpoint of reason and faith cannot smash the two accounts together to make them a seamless whole, just as the three synpotic Gospels cannot be completely harmonized and the Synoptics cannot be harmonized with the Johannine account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Nazareth. The ancient Jewish redactors (i.e., those put Genesis together in the form in which we possess it) did their best to make these two divergent stories complementary. At least in my view, they did a pretty remarkable job.

Taken in Hog Canyon, a box canyon located on Morris Ranch in Dinosaur National Monument

In his book On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, written all the way back in the early fifth century, St. Augustine lamented that all Christians were tarred with the same brush as those who read the creation narratives in Genesis literally. He grasped that they were not to be read or understood as scientifically verifiable accounts of how the earth came to be and to be populated. My first step towards becoming Catholic was encountering John Henry Newman's Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. What this showed me was that faith and reason are not only compatible but have an symbiotic relationship. Hence, I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ, belong to the Church he founded, celebrate the sacraments, read Scripture, etc. and grasp that human beings, like the rest of life on our uniquely situated planet, are the product- though not exclusively- of evolution. In terms of the overall age of the earth, homo sapiens are a fairly new and late-breaking phenomenon. Human culture dates back maybe 10,000 years and history, the beginning of which was marked by human beings chronicling events, is younger than that by a few thousand years. The Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) stands as a remarkable chronicle of a single people over the span of about 1,000 years or so.

Our traditio for this mid-summer Friday, the first of August, is a song that was on our family playlist during our trip. It's a song we all sang along to- The Proclaimers singing "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)." This is song rife with the requisite Celtic spirit.

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...