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.