Sunday, August 29, 2010

Making Time for God

I often complain about "not having enough time for God" in my day. Apparently, God got a bit weary of hearing that, so he made time in my day this week. Twice. On Friday, I dropped my kids off at school, which means I get to work early. Usually that means I simply start work earlier. But as I neared my usual exit to work off the interstate, there was a huge traffic jam on the off ramp. Annoyed, I decide to go up to the next exit instead. It is the long way around, but it was going to be far shorter than sitting in the long line on the highway. But then a thought came to me. By taking this other exit, I would go right past a nearby church. This church has a Eucharistic adoration chapel which I like to go to, but I usually cannot go there, because they close the chapel at noon during the week. However, at this time it would be open. So I went there for a brief but fruitful period of adoration.

The second instance was Saturday. I was attending a day-long workshop on marriage at our local seminary. It was supposed to end around 3:15 that afternoon. We have confession at our parish on Saturdays at 3:00, and it had been 2 1/2 months since my last confession, so I was far past due to go. However, my son had been at a sleep over at a friend's house, and I didn't want to take too long relieving the parents. To my surprise and delight, the workshop ended before 3:00, and I was able to get to confession and still pick up my son just about on time.

I think this week God was saying, "Ok, this time I'll make the time in your week. But from now on, it's up to you!"

I was reading Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth today and came across the section where he talks about Jesus' temptation in the desert. The Holy Father writes:

At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives (p. 51-Large Print edition).

This is in fact what I do, although I tell myself soothing rationalizations (lies) to make me believe that I am doing something far less grievous than this.

All of which ties in nicely with today's readings at mass. The first reading from Sirach and the Gospel reading from Luke focus on humility. Sirach tells us: "Humble yourself more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God" (Sirach 3:18). Jesus is our example here. He, Who is God, humbled Himself to become a human and to suffer a death of derision and humiliation. Then in the Gospel, we hear: "For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 14:11). Jesus, Who humbled Himself, was exalted in the resurrection. We are told that if we wish to participate in the "resurrection of the righteous" (Luke 14:14), then we must humble ourselves.

It is important for me to remember that pride--the opposite of humility--is making myself more important than God, more important than my neighbor. It is about exalting my time, my will, above the One Who humbled Himself unto death--for me. I pray that I will keep this in mind the next time I wish to sleep in instead of saying morning prayer or turn in at night without praying, even though found the time to watch television.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Quote of the Day - Mother Angelica

"If you're not a thorn in somebody's side, you're not doing Christianity right."

Mother Angelica, Mother Angelica's Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality, edited by Raymond Arroyo, p. 18.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Children of Hope - Fostering Eucharistic Adoration among Children

I was listening to Catholic Answers on the radio and heard Fr. Antoine Thomas of the Community of St. John. I've heard him a number of times, and he does a wonderful job of explaining the faith to young children. He is working on a new project, Children of Hope, which encourages young children to adore Christ in the Eucharist. There are many good things at the website: I highly recommend checking out this website and using it to either promote adoration with groups of children, or at least among the children in your life.

Quote of the Day - C.S. Lewis

Those who talk of reading the Bible "as literature" sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome. That seems to me to be nonsense. But there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are. Most emphatically, the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.

C.S. Lewis, Reflection on the Psalms, p. 3.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Seeing with God's Eyes

Jacopo Pontormo, Supper in Emmaus, 1525 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy)

(Note the "eye of God" above Jesus' head.)

What does today's second reading at mass and going to the pool have in common?

Let's start with the pool. My family and I went to a large public pool here in Cincinnati. We become very self-conscious about the bodies of others and our own bodies. We see others and we think that we don't measure up. It can be a blow to our self-esteem and our ego. We see others and we are tempted to turn them into objects for our pleasure. As I've been saying recently, bodies matter in Catholic theology. However, the pool can be a glaring example of how bodies should not be treated.

Our bodies are not for lust, but, unfortunately, going to the pool can be a test of "custody of the eyes." We corrupted sight early on. After the Father of Lies told Eve that God was a liar and that she would not die eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we read: "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, ... she took of its fruit and ate..." (Genesis 3:6). However, this is not the kind of sight to which God originally called us. We are instead to strive to live the words of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). If we can see others with the eyes of God, not as something for our gratification, but as children of God, then we can see them with a pure heart. And when we see them as God sees them, then we see God for we are using His eyes.

There is also the flip side of that situation. We can objective ourselves. Walking around in public can be a very humbling experience. At the pool we see many people who are physically attractive as the world preaches it. I'm not exactly the model for a Greek statue, so it is easy to imagine being viewed by others as deficient physically (even if that is not how others actually view me). I was rather heavy when I was young, and it is hard to shed that perception of myself, even though I am not now overweight. But still, I'm rather flabby (which would be helped if I would just exercise like my doctor tells me to do). I was walking around feeling somewhat embarrassed by my appearance, when I went into the pool because my son called to me. It wasn't anything he said. It was how he looked at me. Children, especially young children, have a way of looking at you that just shouts how much they love you. The amazing thing is that they see you. They don't see how much you weigh or whether you have well defined abs. They don't see how much money you make or don't make. They don't see whether you are successful or unsuccessful in the eyes of the world. All they see is the parent who, with the power of God, created them and loves them as bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. Or, if they are adopted, they see a parent who loved them so much that he or she chose them to be his or her own. They love us despite our flaws. They see us as God sees us. They see us as we are - we who yell at them, get impatient with them, don't always listen to them - and they love us anyway. They see us as we are - we who have the capacity to love, who have the desire to do what is right, who attempt to help others. And they see us as we want to be - heroes and saints.

So what does this have to do with today's second reading from the Letter of Paul to the Galatians (3:26-29):

Brothers and sisters: Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise.

God does not make distinctions among people as the world makes distinctions. The things that divide us from each other do not divide us from God. We must seek to see as God sees, and then we will love as God loves.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ask for Help

Today's readings for mass speak to us of the tendency toward sin of human beings, the initiative of contrition, and the need for God's forgiveness.

The first reading comes from 2 Samuel 12:7-10,13:

Nathan said to David: “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king of Israel. I rescued you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your lord’s house and your lord’s wives for your own. I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were not enough, I could count up for you still more. Why have you spurned the Lord and done evil in his sight? You have cut down Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you took his wife as your own,and him you killed with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.’ Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan answered David: “The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die.”

The Gospel reading comes from Luke 7:36-50:

A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher, ” he said. “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” He said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The others at table said to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Yesterday my daughter and I were going to confession. Today at lunch, I talked about confession with my daughter and my son. I asked them, "Why do we need to go to confession once we've been baptized?" My son gave me a much more profound answer than I would have furnished. He ran over to the refrigerator and pulled off a sign we have there for the kids to remember when they are frustrated because they feel that they can't do things like homework or a game or a sport. My son pointed to the second item on the list: "Ask for help." How true. At confession we are asking God for help. We are saying, "God, I can't do this on my own." (We are acknowledging that we are not Pelagians.)

The only prayer that Jesus taught us (the Our Father) is composed of seven petitions. That is, we ask for God's help seven times.

Sometimes we don't go to confession because we are afraid. Sometimes we don't go to confession because we are proud. In both cases, we are unwilling to ask for God's help, either because we don't want to embarrass ourselves, or because we don't think we need confession. Either way, we are saying that we won't ask for God's help because we choose to elevate our embarrassment or our pride above God's mercy and grace.

Let us all ask God for His help and go to confession regularly.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Immaculate Heart of Mary, or Sylvia Poggioli Explains It All To You

Today is the Memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Today's Gospel reading for mass is the finding of Jesus in the Temple when he was a boy:

Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom. After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:41-51)

There are two aspects I want to focus on here regarding Mary. The first is that Mary did not understand what Jesus was telling her. She was at Ground Zero of salvation history, but as a human being, her understanding of what God was doing was limited. The second aspect is that despite (or because) she did not understand, she reflected on these events, on these words and "kept all these things in her heart." Lack of understanding provoked reflection to produce greater understanding.

With these ideas in mind, let us turn to the news reporting of National Public Radio's Sylvia Poggioli. In the last week she has had two reports about Catholicism. The first report was about adult women who had affairs with priests. Her report, "Letter from Priests' Lovers Reignites Celibacy Debate" is laughable as professional journalism. For a good critique, see the June 8, 2010 post at Get Religion. According to Poggioli:

In an unprecedented move, a group of Italian women who have had relationships with priests wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, saying that priests need to love and be loved.

What is this unprecedented move? A letter signed by...three women. An Italian woman, Stefania Salomone, claims that 40 women contacted her but want to remain anonymous. The Pope called celibacy "a sacred value," but Salomone told Poggioli: "And so we decided to tell people this is not a value, and this is not a sacred value, because sacred is the right of people to get married." This statement is illogical. All men have the ability to get married--instead of becoming a priest. The Catholic Church is not somehow denying anyone a right to be married. But no one has a right to be married and a priest (any more than anyone has a right to be a priest). The illogic continues when Poggioli says, "They [the women who have had affairs with priests] say a priest 'needs to live with his fellow human beings, experience feelings, love and be loved.'" The idea that priests do not live among their fellow human beings, do not experience feelings, do not love and are not loved is simply a denial of reality. I heard the other day about a priest who described his call to priesthood this way: one day he saw a very beautiful woman, and he thought, "I wonder what it would be like to be married to her Creator." Those don't sound like the words of a repressed or oppressed man.

Poggioli goes on to say: "But it's an open secret that priestly celibacy is often violated." The argument that celibacy should end because it is violated is utterly preposterous. With that kind of logic, one could argue with a straight face that marriage should be ended because it is often violated by adultery. Speaking of adultery, Salomone does not seem to grasp the adulterous nature of her relationship with the priest (adulterous on both sides). A vow to fidelity means that violating the vow is adulterous, whether we are talking about marriage or celibacy. Salomone told Poggioli, "'I think I represented a stain on his church dress,' Salomone says. 'He wanted to see me, but after seeing me he was not happy with his decision. He always tried to find a way to go away. I wasn't seen as a woman, I was seen as a danger, as a sin.'" This is always the way people act in an adulterous relationship, because adultery turns us from God, from others, and from ourselves.

Another of Poggioli's reports this week was on June 11, "Pope Begs Forgiveness Over Abuse Scandal." At the end of that report is an attempt to link the sex abuse scandal to celibacy:

Friday's Mass was preceded by a vigil service Thursday night in St. Peter's Square in which the pope responded to pre-selected questions from five priests.‬‪ In one query, Benedict was asked about "the beauty of celibacy."

Benedict called celibacy a great sign of faith and said it represents an act of transcendence that brings the priest closer to God.‬‪‬‪ The Catholic Church has denied that celibacy is one of the causes of child abuse in the priesthood — but even some leading cardinals have begun to question the requirement and are urging an open debate on the topic.‬‪

But the Vatican discouraged reporters from seeking the views of some of the thousands of priests who came to Rome — the Holy See police prevented even Vatican-accredited reporters from interviewing priests in St. Peter's Square.‬

One priest who was willing to speak on the sidelines of the ceremony was the Rev. Jose Vasco of Mozambique.‬‪

"The church first tried to resolve the cases on its own," Vasco said. "But now that they have become so grave, the church must seek the full truth, and to do that we need joint commissions with lay people, with civil society, especially at a time when there is the appearance that the church has protected the guilty ones."

Vasco said he would welcome the idea of a debate on celibacy to determine whether it could be one of the causes of the sex abuse crisis and if it should be mandatory.

Poggioli says: "The Catholic Church has denied that celibacy is one of the causes of child abuse in the priesthood — but even some leading cardinals have begun to question the requirement and are urging an open debate on the topic." The Church doesn't have to deny that celibacy is one of the causes of child abuse in the priesthood because there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that it is. This, despite remarks made in March by Cardinal Schonborn of Austria.

So what does all of this have to do with the Immaculate Heart of Mary? Let's go back to lack of understanding and reflection. Pope Benedict rightly speaks above about celibacy being "an act of transcendance." It is precisely this point that Poggioli, Salomone, and many others do not understand. Western culture is so saturated with a stunningly debased and reductionist notion of human sexuality that things like celibacy simply do not make sense. In fact, in secular culture, things like "transcendence" do not make sense.

Which brings me to reflection. When things do not make sense, one response is to examine them further, trying to learn what we don't understand, determining if there is more there than we initially thought. This is the kind of reflection that Mary did, the contemplation that keeps things in the heart. Then there is another response, a response that turns a blind eye to anything that does not fit one's own agenda or paradigm, that grinds axes to a sharp edge, that seeks to malign through implication when facts aren't available. This response closes the heart. We all have these two hearts at different times and different settings. This is how Mary differs from us. She has one heart, the first kind, the kind where lack of understanding provokes reflection to produce greater understanding.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

Image from the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales (

As the Incarnation and the Resurrection teach, the body matters. Last Sunday's Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ reinforced this message. And in case we did not get it through those reminders, today we celebrate the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We reflect that Jesus had a physical heart of flesh and blood. We reflect that he had a spiritual heart that encompasses love for every single human being, from the greatest saint to the most vile sinner. The image of his heart is pierced, reminding us that love requires sacrifice. There is a flame above the heart, showing us that warms us, consumes us, fires us up.

A year ago I was at a funeral mass on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. There I decided that I would receive communion on First Fridays in devotion to the Sacred Heart. I have done that for the next twelve months. I am only scratching the surface of this devotion. I pray that the next year brings me deeper into Jesus' Sacred Heart.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Joos van Wassenhove (active c.1460-80), The Institution of the Eucharist
c.1474; Oil on panel; Gallery of the Marches, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Today we celebrate the feast the focuses our attention on the Eucharist: The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, or Corpus Christi. As my son sat next to me at mass today, periodically pressing his body up against mine or putting his hand on my arm, I thought about how in human experience, bodies matter. Children love to sleep with their parents or with their brothers and sisters for the sense of closeness and belonging. The marital act is all about emotional and physical bonding. In pregnancy, the mother is so close to the child that she carries the child physically within her. Fathers will never know that kind of closeness with their children.

All of this help us to understand the Incarnation and the Eucharist. In the Old Testament God dwelt in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple as the shekinah. God thought, How can I draw closer to these people? And of course, the answer was, By becoming one of them. Hence the Incarnation, where Mary carried Jesus for ten months. As the new English translation of the Nicene Creed will say, Christ "was incarnate of the Virgin Mary," for a man can be born of a woman, but only a god can be incarnate, that is, the divine spirit becomes enfleshed as a human. We remember the beginning of the Gospel of John through our prayers of the Angelus: "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us." Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 using the term "Emmanuel," meaning, "God with us" (Matthew 1:23).

One might be tempted to think that incarnation was sufficient. However, God thought, How can I continue to live up to the name Emmanuel - "God with us"?

Lessons from the Garden - Coming Up from the Roots

Gardening can teach us many lessons. One of those lessons is resilience. Many plants have the amazing property of coming back from their roots after significant damage. I remember when I was a junior in high school many years ago. One of our neighbors had a maple tree growing in their back yard. I took some of the many seeds from that tree that year and planted six of them in a dirt patch in our back yard. Two of them came up. While they were both quite small, my dad did not see them one weekend and mowed over them. I was quite upset (not thinking that I should have marked them off so dad would clearly see them), and I left them in the ground, despite an impulse to just pull them up. Much to my surprise, they came back from the roots. Both those trees are now in the front yard of my parents' house with double trunks, a visual reminder of that earlier trauma to them which they overcame by regenerating from their roots.

I recently had a repeat of that experience. I have a couple of bronze fennel plants in my garden, and a third one came up outside of the border, in the grass, by our porch. I never told my wife about this plant, never put some border or markings around it, and, sure enough, she mowed over it. I left it in the ground, and, sure enough, it came back from the roots.

These plants can teach us the importance of going back to our roots after a trauma, after a devastating loss. If we are rooted in God, if we go back to the roots of our faith in the Scripture and the teachings of the Church, then we can begin again with new life. I remember when I returned to the Church but still struggled with my faith (not that we ever fully complete struggling in our faith life until we no longer need faith in the company of God). I made my first confession in probably thirteen years, and my confession was that I didn't know if I believed in God. The priest, a wonderful Franciscan, asked me if I wanted to believe in God. I said I didn't know. He did not need to absolve me, but he did, sensing something moving in me that I didn't understand. We were going to mass the next day, and he asked me to really reflect on the Creed when we said it. I was thinking, "But this is my point, I don't believe everything in the Creed." However, he understood that reflecting on the Creed is about going back to our communal and personal roots. The Creed is the foundational statement of what we believe, or at least what we ought to believe. The Creed is what the godparents assent to for the infant at Baptism, and the Creed is what the congregation reaffirms when a child is baptized at a mass. When we struggle in our faith or morals in our lives, we go back to the grace of the Holy Spirit from our Baptism and Confirmation for the strength to overcome those struggles.

If we go back to our roots, we can find the resources to restore the life we had, or perhaps live life more abundantly than before.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Quote of the Day - Abba Poeman

Abba Poeman was asked for whom this saying is suitable, "Do not be anxious about tomorrow." (Matt. 6.34) The old man said, "It is said for the man who is tempted and has not much strength, so that he should not be worried, saying to himself, "How long must I suffer this temptation?" He should rather say every day to himself, "Today."

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers by Benedicta Ward, SLG, p. 185, Poeman 126.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Pachomius and the Day of Remission

I am currently reading a wonderful book by Fr. William Harmless, S.J. called Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism which focuses on Egyptian anchoritic (hermits) and cenobitic (communities) forms of monasticism. The person often credited being the father of cenobitic monasticism is Pachomius, who lived in the 4th century. Pachomius founded a series of monasteries in the upper Nile region of Egypt (southern Egypt). One of the practices of Pachomius' monasteries was the Day of Remission, when annually his monks all gathered at the main monastery in Pbow (in the month of August) to reconcile with each other. Here is how Pachomius describes the Day of Remission in a letter:

The time is coming near for us to assemble together, according to the custom of remission, following the early prescriptions to convene together in order to carry out the remission and pardon. Let then everyone pardon his brother according to the commandment of God and in conformity with the laws which were written for us by God. Let everyone totally open his heart to his brother. Let the brothers share their judgments with one another. Let their souls be cleansed in sanctification and fear of God. Let there not be any enmity in their hearts. Let them rather know how to act in truth with one another, for it is a commandment of the law of God to seek peace and to walk in it before God and men. (Pachomius, Epistle 7, quoted in Harmless, Desert Christians, p. 130)

Reconciliation is central to the Christian life. Christ's death on the cross reconciled human beings to God. The sacrament of Reconciliation is a complementary sacrament to the Eucharist. I have been praying through the Gospel of Matthew, and it is clear that that gospel is insistent on reconciliation, especially early on:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. (5:7).

But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool! shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (5:22-24)

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (5:44-45)

And forgive us our trespasses,
As we also forgive those who trespass against us (6:12)

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. (7:1-2)

Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice." (9:13)

Inspiring words that are very, very difficult to live. Even if you were one of Pachomius' monks who had "renounced the world" and come to live an austere life of prayer and work in the Egyptian desert, you took the world of fallen human nature with you inside the monastery walls. Pachomius understood how central reconciliation is to the Christian life, and his Day of Remission was a wonderful way to remind his monks of that centrality, since it was only one of two days each year that all the monks gathered together. The other day was Easter.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Words of Wisdom Regarding Teaching from one of the Desert Mothers

As a teacher, I greatly appreciate this saying from Amma Theodora, one of the Desert Fathers and Mothers:

The same Amma said that a teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vain-glory, and pride; one should not be able to fool him by flattery, nor blind him by gifts, nor conquer him by the stomach, nor dominate him by anger; but he should be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible; he must be tested and without partisanship, full of concern and a lover of souls.

As teachers we think about things like subject matter expertise, rubrics, grades, learning styles, etc. What we do not think enough about - what I know I do not think enough about - is being full of concern and a lover of souls.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

J.R.R. Tolkien on Scandal, Faith, and the Eucharist

I was trawling the library the other day, and I came across The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1981). I happened by chance to open it up to a letter that Tolkien wrote to his son, Michael, on November 1 (All Saints Day), 1963 (pp. 337-339). It made me think of the clergy sex abuse scandal. It made me think about faith in light of such violations of trust by the predators, as well as the bishops and clergy who enabled them. It reminded me of how the Eucharist is where we should go to reflect, repent, and heal.

You speak of 'sagging faith', however. That is quite another matter. In the last resort faith is an act of will, inspired by love. Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the Church and its ministers, but I do not think that one who has once had faith goes back over the line for these reasons (least of all anyone with any historical knowledge). 'Scandal' at most is an occasion of temptation – as indecency is to lust, which it does not make but arouses. It is convenient because it tends to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scapegoat. But the act of will of faith is not a single moment of final decision: it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act > state which must go on – so we pray for 'final perseverance'. The temptation to 'unbelief' (which really means rejection of Our Lord and His claims) is always there within us. Part of us longs to find an excuse for it outside us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be ‘scandalized’ by others. I think I am as sensitive as you (or any other Christian) to the scandals, both of clergy and laity. I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe, and should not believe anymore, even if I had never met anyone in orders who was not both wise and saintly. I should deny the Blessed Sacrament, that is: call our Lord a fraud to His face.

If He is a fraud and the Gospels fraudulent – that is: garbled accounts of a demented megalomaniac (which is the only alternative), then of course the spectacle exhibited by the Church (in the sense of clergy) in history and today is simply evidence of a gigantic fraud. If not, however, then this spectacle is alas! only what was to be expected: it began before the first Easter, and it does not affect faith at all – except that we may and should be deeply grieved. But we should grieve on our Lord's behalf and for Him, associating ourselves with the scandalized heirs not with the saints, not crying out that we cannot 'take' Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd & cowardly Simon Peter, or the silly women like James' mother, trying to push her sons.

It takes a fantastic will to unbelief to suppose that Jesus never really 'happened', and more to suppose that he did not say the things recorded all of him – so incapable of being ‘invented’ by anyone in the world at that time: such as ‘before Abraham came to be I am' (John viii). ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’ (John ix); or the promulgation of the Blessed Sacrament in John v: ‘He that he eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life.’ We must therefore either believe in Him and in what he said and take the consequences; or reject him and take the consequences. I find it for myself difficult to believe that anyone who has ever been to Communion, even once, with at least a right intention, can ever again reject Him without grave blame. (However, He alone knows each unique soul and its circumstances.)

The only cure for sagging of fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals. Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to Communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a Mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people (it could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the 5000 – after which [Our] Lord propounding feeding that was to come.)

I myself am convinced by the Petrine claims, nor looking around the world does there seem much doubt which (if Christianity is true) is the True Church, the temple of the Spirit dying but living, corrupt but holy, self-reforming and a rearising. But for me that Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does) ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honor, and put it (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place. ‘Feed my sheep’ was his last charge to St. Peter; and since his words are always first to be understood literally, I suppose them to refer primarily to the Bread of Life. It was against this that the W. European revolt (or Reformation) was really launched – the ‘blasphemous fable of the Mass’ – and faith/works a mere red herring. I suppose the greatest reform of our time was that carried out by St. Pius X: surpassing anything, however needed, that the Council will achieve. I wonder what state the church would now be but for it.

Tolkien's letter is a beautiful hymn to faith and the Eucharist, a sorrowful lament on scandal and sin. He reminds us that sin was present from the beginning of the Church, and it will remain with us until Christ's Second Coming. Just to be clear, the clergy sex abuse scandal has been a terrible, terrible scourge to the victims, and nothing, absolutely nothing can justify either the molestations or the cover-ups. When the media has spoken the truth (which, unfortunately, they have not always done), they have done a great service to the victims and to the Church. What Tolkien reminds us is that the Church is made up of sinners in need of redemption, reconciliation, and amendment; however, that does not negate the fact that the Church is Christ's church (not ours), His body, and that Who He is and what He said is truth itself. What these few but tremendously destructive priests did to the bodies of children and teenagers is a stark contrast to the body which Our Lord gave for us on the cross out of love--the body we receive in the Eucharist; the body which these same priests were ordained to act in the stead of, in persona Christi.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

First Communion

(Pablo Picasso, First Communion, 1895/1896)

Today was my daughter's First Communion. It was a beautiful liturgy. My daughter already has a very deep devotion to Christ in the Eucharist through adoration, so it was very moving to see her partake in the ultimate intimacy of receiving Him. There was the usual party, and it was wonderful to celebrate with family and friends. There was the cleaning of the house, the buying of the dress and gifts. All these things were enjoyable, but it was also good to remind ourselves that they were merely accessories. The reason for this day is Christ and His love for us. I had no anticipation about how moving I would find this day, but both my wife and I cried a number of times. It is my prayer that for the rest of her earthly life my daughter will continue to receive Jesus in the Eucharist and grow in love for Him and His Church.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Union with God

Ignoring the imperfections of others, preserving silence and a continual communion with God will eradicate great imperfections from the soul and make it the possessor of great virtues. (St. John of the Cross, The Sayings of Light and Love, 118)

Someone asked Abba Anthony, 'What must one do in order to please God?' The old man replied, 'Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.' (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Abba Anthony, 3)

That we should establish ourselves in a sense of God's presence by continually conversing with Him. That it was a shameful thing to quit His conversation to think of trifles and fooleries. (Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, First Conversation)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

St. Francis de Sales

A colleague of mine gave me a copy of St. Francis de Sales' Philothea, or An Introduction to the Devout Life. I have heard a little of St. Francis' work, but not much. I am enjoying The Devout Life. I'm trying to go through it slowly, prayerfully, but I am like a leashed dog who wants to run ahead of its owner.

There are many passages I have liked. Here is one:

Recount all the mercies He has bestowed upon you, and how you have in return abused them; above all how many inspirations you have despised, how many good impulses you have neglected. How many Sacraments have you received and where are their fruits? where are those precious jewels with which your Heavenly Spouse adorned you? with what preparation have you received them? Think over all this ingratitude, and how God has ceaselessly sought you to save you, whilst you have always fled from Him that you might lose yourself. (Part First, Chapter XII [Meditation IV - Sin])

So much wisdom in this short passage. St. Francis is big on gratitude (what saint was not?). Not only does he have us focus on our sins of comission, but he has us reflect on our sins of omission as well. Recall all the times God has been calling us to do something, and we didn't do it, either because we didn't want to, or because we were "too busy" to even hear the call in the first place? St. Francis' attention to how we approach the sacraments is critical. How many times have we gone up to receive our Savior's body and blood, soul and divinity as though we were in line at a cafeteria ordering fried fish! Do we prepare for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by praying over the readings of the Mass beforehand? Do we come to church early to pray before Mass begins? If we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation at all, do we take time for a thorough examination of conscience, or do we just "get it over with"? The sacraments offer infinite grace to us, but we only receive as much grace as we are open to receive. Jesus warns us about false prophets, saying: "You will know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:16). We can tell how little we have been open to the grace of the sacraments by our pitiful fruits. Do we think of the sacraments as "precious jewels from our heavenly spouse"? Most of all, do we think about how God is the "Hound of Heaven" and how we run from Him towards our own destruction, a destruction which we clothe in the guise of "freedom" or "self-actualization" or "free-thinking"? I know I have so often fallen short in these ways, and in many more.

So let us all pray for St. Francis de Sales' intercession that we will stop running from God, that we will open ourselves to His ocean of grace, that we will seek out His sacraments with humility, gratitude, and preparation. St. Francis, pray for us.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mercy, Resurrection, and Reconciliation

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter. We will pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet as a family for the first time. Today is a good day to reflect on mercy, on reconciliation, on resurrection.

Yesterday my daughter and I went to confession. I have been trying to get to confession more often - every 2 to 4 weeks or so. Going to confession more often has helped relieve the anxiety that I have long felt about confession ever since I was a child. Fortunately, my daughter has almost no anxiety about confession. As I was waiting in line for confession, I realized that the One who waits for me in the tabernacle to be with me is the same One who waits in the confessional to show me mercy. That connection between the Eucharist and Reconciliation helped me to both be less anxious about confession and to see more clearly the connection of the two sacraments.

We attend a couples Bible study each month which I lead. We have been studying the Acts of the Apostles since September. We read from Acts when Paul is before King Agrippa, testifying that he lived as a Pharisee, which was the sect of Judaism that believed in the resurrection of the dead, as opposed to other sects of Judaism, such as the Sadducees:

And now I stand here on trial for hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? (Acts 26: 6-8).

Old Testament references to the hope to which Paul refers can be found in Ezekial 37:1-14 ("I will open your graves and have you rise from them") and Hosea 6:1-2 ("He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence").

In his work, The Resurrection of the Dead (210 A.D.), Tertullian links resurrection and reconciliation:

Therefore, the flesh shall rise again; certainly of every man, certainly the same flesh, and certainly its entirety. Wherever it is, in the safekeeping with God through that most faithful agent between God and man, Jesus Christ, who shall reconcile both God to man and man to God, [and]the spirit of the flesh and the flesh to the spirit (63:1).

The resurrection reconciles the body with the soul. Confession reconciles people with God. On this Divine Mercy Sunday, let us remember that Jesus, who conquered Death, waits for us to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation to receive His mercy so that we may be united with Him in the life of the Trinity through grace.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Quote of the Day

The true sense of the teaching authority of the pope consists in his being the advocate of the Christian memory.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Conscience and Truth" in Catholic Conscience: Foundation and Formation (Braintree, MA: The Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Research and Education Center, 1991), 22.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Holy Week and Vulnerability

I was thinking about vulnerability during this Holy Week. A human being is usually vulnerable through power or intimacy (or both). The poor or the uneducated can be vulnerable to the power of those who exploit their situation. A spouse can be vulnerable to the words or actions of the other spouse in the most intimate of relationships. The word vulnerable comes from the Latin word vulnus, which means wound. It makes me think of Original Sin and our wounded human nature. Because of that wound, we needed a Savior, and because we needed a Savior, we needed a Sacrifice, since only love could save us, and real love is self-giving. Another meaning of vulnus is disaster, and it certainly seemed a disaster on that first Good Friday and Holy Saturday. However, what appeared to be a disaster became our salvation.

Even God makes Himself vulnerable. In the beginning, He gave us free will because love cannot be compelled. God allowed Himself to not be loved, so that we could know love. When He became a man, he made Himself a vulnerable baby: God needed the protection of a lowly carpenter and his teenage wife to protect Him from the murderous King Herod. Jesus made Himself vulnerable to betrayal from His closest friends. Judas turned Him over to the power of the the religious authorities. Peter denied knowing Him. All the apostles except John abandoned Him at the Crucifixion. Jesus subjected Himself to the power of the Roman Empire in His scourging, in the mocking, in His march with the cross, and in His crucifixion. There is speculation that He was naked on the cross, which is about as vulnerable as one can be. From the cross, Jesus voiced the great prayer of vulnerability, Psalm 22: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!" The five wounds of Christ are the marks of His vulnerability. The beautiful prayer, the Anima Christi, reminds us that Christ's vulnerability can be our stronghold: "Within your wounds, hide me."

From the vulnerability of the Crucifixion came the strength of the Resurrection. From Christ came two very intimate sacraments with great power: the Eucharist and Reconciliation. In the Eucharist, Jesus makes Himself vulnerable to us. He opens Himself to neglect, to sacrilege, and to indifference in exchange for giving us the opportunity for the intimacy of receiving Him into our bodies. In Reconciliation, we make ourselves vulnerable, exposing our most embarrassing, our most humiliating, and our most degrading sins in exchange for the the opportunity for the intimacy of receiving His vast mercy. From both of these sacraments we encounter the tremendous power of grace.

Vulnerability can lead to strength. Such a paradox. Holy Week is a time for contemplating paradox, for contemplating the contradiction of the cross.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Master Has Need of It

During the reading of the Gospel at the Procession from today's Palm Sunday mass, I was thinking of the passage about the untying of the colt. The owners of the colt ask the disciples why they are untying the colt, and Jesus has already told the disciples to respond, "The Master has need of it" (Luke 19:34). This line struck me as a wonderful reminder of how Jesus calls each of us to serve Him in small, unnoticed ways, because He has need of us to do so. Just as He rode the colt in His triumphant procession into Jerusalem, we, too, can be instruments for the Lord to carry out His work in humble ways. Sometimes we are tempted to say that we are not important, or that we have no purpose. However, Jesus tells us that the this is not true. Jesus chose that colt for that occasion. This Holy Week, let us humbly submit to the Lord, serving Him in whatever way He asks, no matter how small, no matter how seemingly insignificant, knowing that the task He selects for us is meant to move us closer to eternal life with Him. Let us trust Jesus when He tells us that He has need of us.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Some Thoughts on Fasting

I don't like fasting. I'm of Italian heritage, and we like our food. This Lent I'm trying to fast on Fridays by skipping lunch. I have had some difficulty doing this. Last week I gave in and add some food (still not a whole lunch, but not what I had planned). Today I made it, with some help from the wisdom of others.

Fr. Mark, a Benedictine monk from the Tulsa, OK diocese has a wonderful blog, Vultus Christi. In his entry from February 23, he says that each Lent he chooses a saint (or actually, he asks the Lord each to choose a saint for him) to be his companion for the season. I thought that was an excellent idea. I am trying to walk with St. John of the Cross this Lent. Currently, I am reading his Sayings of Light and Love. Here are a couple of passages that are relevant for fasting:

If you make use of your reason, you are like one who eats substantial food; but if you are moved by the satisfaction of your will, you are like one who eats insipid fruit. (#46)

This way of life contains very little business and bustling, and demands mortification of the will more than knowledge. (#58)

Feed not your spirit on anything but God. Cast off concern about things, and bear peace and recollection in your heart. (#81)

I also thought about Philippians 3:19. Speaking of "enemies of the cross of Christ":

Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame.

Finally, I started taking a course in moral theology last night, and we discussed values. I thought to myself today, which do I value more, my God or my stomach?

When I am weak, I try to remember that I cannot do this (or any other thing) on my own. I need God's strength. I think of Habakkuk 1:11:

...guilty men whose own might is their god!

And so I will continue to try to learn the lessons of fasting, which Christian tradition highly values as a path towards God.

Friday, February 26, 2010

On the Prophets

I was reading Habakkuk, one of the "minor" prophets, over the last couple of days. It got me thinking about prophets and what they do.

Prophets listen to God

Samuel says to God, ""Speak, for thy servant hears" (1 Samuel 3:10). Prophets are people who are open to God's call. They live lives of prayer. They listen for the still, small voice (such as Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-12). Sometimes they are reluctant to accept the call (such as Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jonah). But ultimately, they submit to God's will for them so they can be His instruments.

Prophets tell truth to power

This is why the prophets endured suffering and death. "Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute?" (Acts 7:52). "Woe to you! for you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed" (Luke 11:47). One can understand the reluctance of prophets when receiving their call, because they knew that telling powerful people they are doing wrong is never popular. John the Baptist lost his head over telling Herod that his marriage was contrary to divine law. Jeremiah calls himself "a man of strife and contention to the whole land" (Jeremiah 15:10). This is not surprising, since God tells Jeremiah:

You shall say, "Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, Behold, I am bringing such evil upon this place that the ears of every one who hears of it will tingle" (Jeremiah 19:3).

Leaders of any kind don't like to hear things like this. But God often has hard truths to tell us.

Prophets call the people to conversion

The powerful are not the only ones asked to change. Jonah's message to the people of Nineveh causes them to repentance from the king on down. On Ash Wednesday we hear from the prophet Joel:

"Yet even now," says the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments." Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. (Joel 2:12-13)

Hosea, who uses spousal imagery to describe the covenantal relationship between God and His people, calls the people of Judah to conversion:

I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress they seek me, saying, "Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn, that he may heal us; he has stricken, and he will bind us up." (Hosea 5:15-6:1)

When Judah's love proves false, God says, "I have hewn them by the prophets" (Hosea 6:5). The way a lumberjack would cut down a tree, the prophets cut down our defenses, our rationalizations, our self-deceptions. All falsehood falls before the prophets' words of truth.

Prophets know who is in charge

They do this through prayer: "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). They come to know that they are prophets because of God, not because of themselves, in contrast to "guilty men, whose own might is their god" (Habakkuk 1:11).

Prophets are faithful

Despite the difficulty of their missions, they persevere. Even Jonah, who fights God every step of the way, fulfills his mission. Their faithful witness is an example to a faithless people.

All the baptized are called to be prophets

We often think of prophets as "other people," in the same way that we too often think of saints. We think that these are people we can never aspire to be. However, such a view is an abdication of our baptismal heritage. In Lumen Gentium from the Second Vatican Council, we are reminded that

...all the faithful, that is, who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ, are constituted the people of God, who have been made sharers in their own way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ and play their part in carrying out the mission of the whole Christian people in the church and in the world. (31)

The prophets who came before us are our examples. God the Father Who gave us His Son is our love. Christ Who died for our salvation is our strength. The Holy Spirit who inspires us is our wisdom. We are called to be prophets. The key is to pray, listen, and follow.

Mother of Prophets

One of the titles of Mary in the Litany of Loretto is "Mother of Prophets." As the litany goes, "Mother of Prophets, pray for us."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Winter Thoughts of God

We have had two snow storms in a week, with a third on its way tonight. Last night as I was praying through lectio divina, I came upon this passage in Isaiah:

Yes, as the rain and the snow come down from the heavens and do not return without watering the earth, making it yield and giving growth to provide see for the sower and bread for the eating, so the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do. (Isaiah 55: 10-11)

There is also a passage from Daniel that is applicable to these dreary winter days:

Cold and heat! bless the Lord:
give glory and eternal praise to him.
Dews and sleet! bless the Lord:
give glory and eternal praise to him.
Frost and cold! bless the Lord:
give glory and eternal praise to him.
Ice and snow! bless the Lord:
give glory and eternal praise to him.
(Daniel 3:67-70)

Finally, I was thinking of the opening to Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God:

That in the winter, seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the providence and power of God, which has never since been effaced from his soul. That this view had perfectly set him loose from the world, and kindled in him such a love for God that he could not tell whether it had increased during the more than forty years he had lived since. (p. 15)

What I like so much about these passages is that they help us to keep in mind that the natural world can point us towards the supernatural world. Creation can orient our vision towards the Creator. The unpleasantness of winter can be transformed into a penitential experience: we can offer up our frustrations (such as waiting in traffic when it snows) and our discomforts (such as the bitter cold winds). The bare trees can make us think of the coming spring, which can enhance our Lenten preparation for Easter. As Brother Lawrence points out, God is watching out for us. Let us watch for God, in the falling snow, in the hanging icicles, in the wind that blows where it will.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Swindle and Salvation

I'm reading through Anne Rice's novel, Angel Time. I came across this sentence that I thought was quite apt: "People swindle themselves out of Salvation with great regularity" (p. 58). How true. We've been doing it since Adam and Eve. The sad and troubling part of free will is that no one else but ourselves can swindle us out of salvation. We like to blame others (we've been doing that too since Adam and Eve) rather than accept responsibility for our own actions. Salvation is a gift that we either accept graciously or throw back in God's face. Fortunately, God gives us many opportunities to accept that gift. But we do not have an unlimited number of opportunities to accept that gift. So often we harden our hearts. Or else we become so distracted in our daily lives, that we simply overlook the gift. We are our own worst con men and women. May God's penetrating love turn our stony hearts into natural ones, and may we accept His gift of salvation which came at such a dear price.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Here Am I

Today I went to the archdiocesan seminary in our neighborhood for Eucharistic adoration. While there, I thought of a passage I have been meditating on for the past few days:

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, "Here am I, here am I," to a nation that did not call on my name. (Isaiah 65:1)

I thought about how Jesus substantially resides in the Eucharist, calling us, waiting for us, and how often we are deaf to that call, or ignore it. I thought, "How crazy is it that the God of the Universe is in that box up there? And yet, there He is."

After leaving the seminary chapel, I remembered a winter's scene from years ago when I was in graduate school at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I was an atheist then, so very far from God. And yet, somehow, I felt drawn toward what I did not understand. It was a cold evening, and snow had begun to fall. It was falling hard and accumulating fast. Around 11:00 PM I went for a walk on campus to enjoy the scene. Students were out, playing in the snow like children. I walked past where the students were and went to the chapel. I heard organ music being played inside. The organist did not seem to be playing hymns, but rather classical music (although it may have been sacred music composed by the likes of Bach, for all I knew). I stood on the portico, outside the front doors to the chapel. With a roof over my head, I was dry, but I still felt the fresh, cool weather, and I stood and soaked in the music as I watched the peaceful, falling snow. It was such a beautiful experience.

Looking back, I see it as the still, small voice calling to me. As the remnants of my shattered conscience calling to me. As the Holy Spirit, still there from my baptism and my confirmation, calling to me. And yet, all I could do was stand there outside the doors, unwilling to go in, unable to understand why I was there, and what that meant. However, God gave me the snow; God gave me the peace, as signs, as tokens. These were some of the bread crumbs that God left for me to lead me home. Fortunately, Satan, unlike Hansel and Gretel's hungry birds, could not take these crumbs away to keep me off the path that God was leading me on.

This memory coincides well with a book I am reading. I've started reading Anne Rice's novel, Angel Time. It is about an assassin who grew up Catholic but lost his faith. The description of this character resonates deeply with who I was once (without the assassin part). Here is a passage, where the narrator walks into the Serra Chapel at the San Juan Capistrano mission in California:

I loved the red sanctuary light burning to the left of the tabernacle. Sometimes I knelt right up there before the altar on one of the prie-dieux obviously intended for a bride and a groom.

Of course the golden retablo, or reredos, as it's often called, hadn't been there in the days of the early Franciscans. It had come later, during the restoration, but the chapel itself seemed to me to be very real. The Blessed Sacrament was in it. And the Blessed Sacrament, no matter what I believed, meant "real."

How can I explain this?

I always knelt in the semidarkness for a very long time, and I'd always light a candle before I left, though for whom or what I couldn't have said. Maybe I whispered, "This is in memory of you, Jacob, and you, Emily." But it wasn't a prayer. I didn't believe in prayer any more than I believed in actual memory.

I craved rituals and monuments, and maps of meaning. (p.7)

Like Francis Thompson's "Hound of Heaven," God seeks us even when we are not being sought. He is always here, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we believe it or not.

One of the ways in which He moves us to seek Him is through these impulses that are knit into our deepest selves that we do not understand. We crave rituals and meaning, and this craving leads us to God. If we are lapsed Catholics, then this sense of ritual and meaning has at least been somewhat nurtured in us. As Rice elaborates a couple of pages later:

Maybe when you're brought up Catholic, you hold to rituals all your life. You live in a theater of the mind because you can't get out of it. You're gripped all your life by a span of two thousand years because you grew up being conscious of belonging to that span. (p. 9)

I have always referred to what tugged at me during my apostasy as "ritual and repetition." I used to say "I believe in belief" even when I could not believe in God. Rice is doing a good job of laying out that dynamic interplay of belief and unbelief. "I believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24).

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Writing Our Own Prayers

Sometimes we may feel that the only prayers worth praying are one written by other people. We certainly should feed on the treasury of prayer that has developed over the centuries by people who have diligently pursued closeness to God. The Psalms have been such a treasury for both Jewish and Christian believers for millennia. The Lord's Prayer has a special place, of course, because it came from the lips of Jesus. The Hail Mary is the foundational prayer of the Rosary. Prayers by such saints as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Patrick, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, St. Teresa of Avila, and others can be tremendous helps to guide our thoughts towards God and deepen our relationship with and understanding of Him.

However, it is important that we learn to pray from our own hearts as well, to speak to God in our own words and through our own thoughts and feelings. We can even write our own prayers that we can pray again and again. Without any prompting, my daughter has written two prayers of her own in the last couple of days.

While the grammar and theology of these prayers may not always be precise (it is of course not possible for us to love God as much as He loves us), they are beautiful expressions of love for God.

Here is the translation into standard English:

God's Praying Prayer

Lord, let us praise you from our hearts. We love you as much as you love us. We promise to bow before you and worship you. I will show you love in the name of my heart. My family will praise you and so will I. Amen.

The Holy Prayer

Store up your minds with all your love. We will worship you as the holy king of heaven. I love you as Mary, your mother loved you. Your father God has been a friend to all people and so have you. We thank you for all your help and teaching. Amen.

My daughter is teaching me a great deal about a contemplative life saturated with the presence of God. Hopefully, I can store up my mind with such love.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Pokey, Protect Jesus from Darth Maul

Children use their imagination in such entertaining and instructive ways. My kids were playing with a nativity scene, and they were incorporating some of their toys into it. My wife and I then overheard our son say, "Pokey, protect Jesus from Darth Maul." Howls of laughter from the parents ensued.

Once I got over the initial absurdity of that unlikely cast of characters, I began to think more about what was going on in my children's minds.

They were demonstrating that stories matter. Stories are how we communicate to others our deepest values, hopes, and fears. The infancy narratives of the New Testament resonate so much with us because they are stories that allow us to engage--not explain--profound mysteries. The Star Wars saga, from which Darth Maul comes, is a very different kind of story (with some interesting parallels, actually) from the infancy narratives, but it too is a story that resonates with people for a variety of reasons. That story invokes themes of good and evil, heroism and betrayal, and ultimately, redemption. I have no idea how Pokey figures into it. Perhaps he is simply hanging out in the manger looking for food, only to find himself impressed into service to defend the Christ Child.

Stories are a way to communicate truths and emotions that tracts and dissertations cannot do. Think of the different literary genres in the Bible. For instance, consider the difference between the Passion narratives and the letters of St. Paul. In certain respects, St. Paul's letters are often explanations of the meaning and impact of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. As important as such elaborations are, the Passion narratives still convey meanings that no amount of exegesis, no amount of commentary, can ever convey.

I certainly am not saying that the infancy narratives are the same kind of story as the Star Wars saga. They most certainly are not. I do not believe that the infancy narratives are a poignant story of fiction that touches us on an emotional level but are only stories. Rather, they are history told as story, which is quite different than history told as a chronology of facts. History without story is dead to us, and story without history is moving but not saving.

With Pokey protecting Jesus from Darth Maul, I know that my children are getting at some fundamental and important ideas (whether they understand them or not) . Jesus was with farm animals, which is not the usual place for human babies. Jesus needed protecting, as we see with the slaughter of the Innocents and the flight to Egypt. There is evil in the world; there is darkness which seeks to extinguish the Light at every chance it gets. If my children come to more deeply understand only these truths, then they will come to appreciate the Lord's Nativity very deeply indeed.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Kings False and True

Today in the United States we observe the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (which actually occurs on January 6). My son, who is in kindergarten, was one of the the Three Kings in the Christmas pageant, and today he got to reprise his role as one of the Kindergarten Kings (along with a Star-Bearer) who processed in at mass and then brought up the bread and wine for the Offertory.

So this week I've been thinking about kings, and what makes them true or false to their role, especially as compared to the King of Kings.

Let's start with today's gospel reading:

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel." Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage." After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)

We learn many things about true and false kings here. The King of Kings is born in poverty. He is called by the title that will appear on the placard that will hang above him on His cross during His crucifixion ("king of the Jews"). He is a shepherd-king, like his ancestor, David. The Magi are not said to be kings in the Gospel of Matthew, nor did the early Fathers indicate that they were kings (see the Catholic Encyclopedia). But they know how to treat a king, and they pay Jesus homage with gifts and, more importantly, prostrating themselves before Him. Today after mass, my daughter, who loves to prostrate herself in Eucharistic adoration, did so at the tabernacle, and she asked me to do the same. Usually, I save prostration for when I'm alone at the tabernacle, or there with only my family. But there were many people still around from mass. Yet, I took it as God asking me through my daughter to prostrate myself with her, so I did, and I was glad of it.

Herod, on the other hand, is our shining example of a false king. He lies about wanting to pay homage to the newborn king. He is only concerned about maintaining his own power. In the English medieval mystery plays, Herod was always portrayed as insanely angry all the time--the medieval version of someone in desperate need of anger management. As we know, Herod went on to slaughter male children under the age of two in Bethlehem--something no true king would do.

I think of the Third Sorrowful Mystery - the Crowning of Thorns. There, we have soldiers who serve an earthly king - Caesar - mocking Jesus by putting a crown of thorns on Him, giving him a reed for a scepter, and clothing Him with a purple robe, and then beating Him. The true king wears a crown of pain, unrecognized as king by those torturing Him. Then there is Jesus' encounter with Pilate. Pilate, an earthly ruler who condemns Jesus out of fear of the crowds and who contemptuously asks Jesus, "What is truth?" is a stark contrast to the true king before him, the king who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Herod and Pilate are intimidating figures in their day, but St. Paul reminds us that they do not have the last say:

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. (1 Corinthians 2:6)

The Wise Men who sought the Child Jesus possess a very different wisdom than Herod. And the wisdom that St. Paul imparts is a lasting one, although it is mocked by the powerful of this age. Mary, in her Magnificat, reminds us that God "has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree" (Luke 1:52). Mary is reiterating the same concept in Sirach: "The Lord has cast down the thrones of rulers, and has seated the lowly in their place" (Sirach 10:14). The writer of Sirach reminds us that "the king of today will die tomorrow" (Sirach 10:10).

I am reminded of the wonderful poem, "Ozymandias," by the English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, that reflects on a false king who let pride deform his kingship; his downfall serves as a reminder to us all of the limitations of power and self-interest and pride:


I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This false King of Kings, Ozymandias, came to nought. As the writer of Sirach says, "The Lord has overthrown the lands of the nations, and has destroyed them to the foundations of the earth. He has removed some of them and destroyed them, and has extinguished the memory of them from the earth" (Sirach 10:16-17). And why? Because "The beginning of man's pride is to depart from the Lord; his heart has forsaken his Maker. For the beginning of pride is sin, and the man who clings to it pours out abominations" (Sirach 10:12-13).

We need to realize that there is One true King, Jesus. But we also need to remember that as baptized Christians, we share in His kingship, as the Second Vatican Council reminded us in Lumen Gentium:

...all the faithful, that is, who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ, are constituted the people of God, who have been made sharers in their own way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ and play their part in carrying out the mission of the whole Christian people in the church and in the world." (31)

Were we to fully understand our own participation in the Kingship of Christ, what an epiphany this would truly be.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Faith, Hope, and Charity

I was at Eucharistic adoration this past week, reading the Bible, and I came across a passage that I had never read before. It is from Lamentations, attributed to Jeremiah, as he laments the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans in 586 B.C. Amidst the lamentation, there are moments of hope in God's love and faithfulness. The passage I have been reflecting on this week is Lamentations 3:21-23:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.

Verses 24-33 are also very meaningful to me, but I want to focus on 21-23, because I have been thinking about the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love).

The Cathecism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us that "The theological virtues are the foundation of Christian moral activity" and that "They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being" (paragraph 1813).

The CCC defines the theological virtues this way:

Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself (1814).

Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit" (1817).

Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for love of God (1822).

The CCC is so helpful. We are reminded that faith is not simply believing in God (as has often been pointed out, Satan believes in God), but in doing what God asks us to do. How do we know what God asks us to do? Through prayer, and through the teaching of the magisterium. We need our own personal discernment and the discernment of 2,000 years of prayerful people listening to God.

Christian hope is not a vague, fuzzy optimism. Christian hope is about getting our priorities straight (making eternal life with God the most important goal of our lives), finding solace in the reliability of Jesus' word, and not placing our hope in ourselves or the world.

Charity is about discovering the Source of love, becoming like a torch, lit by that source, and going out to light the world with the fire of that love.

Here are some of my favorite passages from the New Testament related to the theological virtues:

On faith

As he [Jesus] entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress." And he said to him, "I will come and heal him." But the centurion answered him, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth." And to the centurion Jesus said, "Go; be it done for you as you have believed." And the servant was healed at that very moment. (Matthew 8:5-13)

This is a cautionary tale to Catholics that while "there is no salvation outside the Church," that does not mean that everyone who is a baptized Catholic will be saved, nor does it mean that all who are not baptized Catholics will not be saved. As Jesus reminds us, "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required" (Luke 12:48). In addition, this is where we get the prayer we say immediately before receiving Jesus in the Eucharist: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed." (In the U.S., the English translation we will be saying at mass in a few years will be closer to the Latin text, which is closer to the scriptural text.)

On hope

Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15)

To have true Christian hope, we must understand our faith. And then, knowing what a tremendous treasure we have been given, we must share that wealth with others, always in a charitable manner.

On charity

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)

In his Farewell Discourse before his passion, Jesus orders us to love one another. But he is not talking about some sort of sentimental love, but rather a sacrificial love, because we are being told that we must love as He has loved us, and the way that He loved us was by laying down his life by being lifted up on a cross. This is why the way St. Paul tells husbands how to love their wives is so beautiful, and so daunting: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her" (Ephesians 5:25-26).

So in this new year, may we grow more deeply in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.