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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.)
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.
"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.
I am a cradle Catholic who considered the priesthood for several years, then fell away from the Church and God altogether for many years, returning to find that I had little understanding of either the riches of the faith or the depth of God’s love and grace.