Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Union with God

While I was singing at mass on Sunday, I began thinking about how we are united with God. Some people think of that union as a drop of water falling into an ocean. That image would seem to indicate an obliteration of the individual soul in God. I suppose there are aspects where we are no longer separated from God by our own will and ego. However, I was wondering if perhaps this union is not more like the singing of the congregation. In fact, perhaps Gregorian chant is a good metaphor (and we can only grasp with metaphors, with analogies and the like). Everyone singing in unison, the same melody, different voices and timbres. No one voice stands out, but they all create a beautiful, living, vibrant whole. I think of the new wording of the Nicene Creed which we will recite at mass beginning this Advent where we will speak of Jesus being "consubstantial with the Father." That is, the Son and the Father share one substance, yet they are separate persons. So even in the Trinity, the individual is not obliterated in the divine union.

I don't speak of these things from experience. I've been reading St. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle, and it is clear to me how far I am from what she is talking about. However, God gives us reason, and he gives us desire, and these can inch us along to greater understanding and deeper experience.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Fr. Sieger Köder

(Sieger Köder, Unexpected-The Closeness of God)

On Holy Saturday I included a painting by Fr. Sieger Köder. I was very taken by that painting.

Here are some places to find out more about Fr. Köder and his art.

Pauline Books has a large selection of posters of his paintings, as well as other media. There you will also find a book by Gemma Simmonds about Fr. Köder's art, Glimpses of the Divine: The Art and Inspiration of Sieger Köder.

Some blog entries about Fr. Köder include sites at Priya and Rev. Nick Helm.

There is an article about Fr. Köder in the November 2010 issue of Catholic Life (article not accessible through this link).

Art can truly help us to meditate on the deep mysteries of our faith, and Fr. Köder's art helps us to do that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us

It is so hard to live the Lord's Prayer.

There is a place near my neighborhood where an off-ramp intersects with another ramp. The ramp I take has a yield sign; the other ramp has the right of way. However, often when I stop to yield for the other car or cars, a car behind me lays on the horn, trying to get me to go. This is how my day starts on my way to work. Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on the day), this incident is immediately after morning mass. Fortunately, because hopefully I have had an infusion of grace to help me deal with this situation. Unfortunately, if I succumb to the urgent feeling of wanting to indicate to the driver behind me my irritation. This is such a minor thing, and yet it makes me very angry when it happens.

Jesus asked the Father to forgive his executioners for they did not know what they were doing. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and to pray for our enemies. Today was the feast of the apostles Philip and James, martyrs. They too, were to forgive their executioners. So I should at least be able to get over being honked at.

And then there is Osama bin Laden. It is truly difficult to pray for such a man to receive mercy from God. His hatred has cost so many lives. However, Jesus was crystal clear. He was not making a suggestion; he was commanding us. We must pray for our enemies, and bin Laden was Public Enemy Number One. This is where grace transcends our natural instincts. Despite our instincts, this forgiveness is for our own good. It just does not feel that way. However, that is why feelings are not our ultimate gauge for determining the rectitude of an action.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ordination to Transitional Deacon

(Ordination at Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Trenton, NJ in 2010; picture from http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2010/06/five_ordained_into_priesthood.html)

Today is a happy day in our archdiocese. Four men were ordained to the transitional Diaconate by Archbishop Dennis Schnurr for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati: Jon-Paul Bevak from Old St. Mary’s Parish (Cincinnati); Dan Hunt from Old St. Mary’s Parish, Matt Robben from St. Joseph Parish (North Bend); Marc Soellner, St. Andrew Parish (Milford). May God richly bless these men, strengthen them, draw them close to Himself, and fill them with the love of Jesus' Sacred Heart so that they may serve His people faithfully throughout their earthly lives.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Spectacle vs. Sacrament

I caught much of Prince William and Kate Middleton's actual wedding ceremony today. It was a beautiful ceremony, in both its visual beauty and its spiritual beauty. It struck me that the Anglican ceremony has a variety of elements quite similar to a Catholic wedding. The ceremony emphasizes that marriage is intended to be for life. We heard that marriage is intended to be an opportunity for bringing forth children. Furthermore, the ceremony reminds the bride and groom that the purpose of marriage is oriented towards their mutual salvation. Finally, we are told that human marriage reflects the union of Christ and His Church. All of these are critical aspects of what a marriage is.

Unfortunately, these values were utterly lost in the media coverage. All of the emphasis of the coverage was on spectacle. So much spilled ink and blather about "the dress." One would scarcely be aware that there was a religious ceremony involved. This is why the motto for Engaged Encounter is so powerful: "A wedding is for a day. A marriage is for a lifetime. The Nicene Creed calls us to be mindful "of all that is seen and unseen." These are things that William and Kate may very well understand. These are not things, however, that those covering their wedding understand. And unfortunately, they are not things that many couples understand upon entering marriage these days. Those involved in marriage preparation ministry have their work cut out for them.

The Bishop of London gave a beautiful sermon at the wedding. If only the media coverage had picked up on some of his themes. He began by quoting St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast day is today. Then the Bishop said something that no one in the media seemed to find noteworthy, perhaps because it was to them a "dog bites man" story: "As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West...." Yes, the sacrament was lost, and only the spectacle seen, like smoke seen from a distance too far to observe the fire itself.

Here is the full text of the Bishop of London's sermon:

"Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire."

So said St Catherine of Siena whose festival day this is. Marriage is intended to be a way in which man and woman help each other to become what God meant each one to be, their deepest and truest selves.

Many people are fearful for the future of today’s world but the message of the celebrations in this country and far beyond its shores is the right one – this is a joyful day! It is good that people in every continent are able to share in these celebrations because this is, as every wedding day should be, a day of hope.

In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future.

William and Catherine, you have chosen to be married in the sight of a generous God who so loved the world that he gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the Spirit of this generous God, husband and wife are to give themselves to each other.

The spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves. Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover this: the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed. In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life.

It is of course very hard to wean ourselves away from self-centredness. People can dream of such a thing but that hope should not be fulfilled without a solemn decision that, whatever the difficulties, we are committed to the way of generous love.

You have both made your decision today – “I will” – and by making this new relationship, you have aligned yourselves with what we believe is the way in which life is spiritually evolving, and which will lead to a creative future for the human race.

We stand looking forward to a century which is full of promise and full of peril. Human beings are confronting the question of how to use wisely the power that has been given to us through the discoveries of the last century. We shall not be converted to the promise of the future by more knowledge, but rather by an increase of loving wisdom and reverence, for life, for the earth and for one another.
Marriage should transform, as husband and wife make one another their work of art. It is possible to transform so long as we do not harbour ambitions to reform our partner. There must be no coercion if the Spirit is to flow; each must give the other space and freedom. Chaucer, the London poet, sums it up in a pithy phrase:

"Whan maistrie [mastery] comth, the God of Love anon,
Beteth his wynges, and farewell, he is gon."

As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive. We need mutual forgiveness in order to thrive.

As we move towards our partner in love, following the example of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is quickened within us and can increasingly fill our lives with light. This leads on to a family life which offers the best conditions in which the next generation can receive and exchange those gifts which can overcome fear and division and incubate the coming world of the Spirit, whose fruits are love and joy and peace.

I pray that all of us present and the many millions watching this ceremony and sharing in your joy today will do everything in their power to support and uphold you in your new life. I pray that God will bless you in the way of life you have chosen. That way which is expressed in the prayer that you have composed together in preparation for this day:

God our Father, we thank you for our families; for the love that we share and for the joy of our marriage.
In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy.
Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer.
We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.

I have to admit, I'm a sucker for a guy who quotes Chaucer in the original Middle English.

The beauty of Catholicism (and in this regard, Anglicanism, too), is that we do not need to choose between spectacle and sacrament. God made us bodily creatures, not incorporeal angels. He made us take in the natural world through the senses, and He makes the supernatural world present to us through the senses as well. That is why sacraments have form and matter, so that we could take in the unseen by way of the seen. That is why we cannot choose one without the other. Spectacle without sacrament is a shell without a nut; sacrament without spectacle is ascending a mountain so high that one suffocates at the summit from lack of oxygen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

This Is Not My Day

Usually when we say "This is not my day" we mean that we are having a bad day. Things are not turning out as we had planned.

However, I have recently tried to say early in my day, "This is not my day" to remind myself that this is God's day, not mine. "This is the day which the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Psalm 118:24). I should be seeking to fulfill His plans, not mine. The success or failure of my day should be benchmarked against how much my actions conform to His will.

Everything I have is God's, not mine. That includes my time. It is often the distractions and the obstacles that are where we are most closely encountering God in our day. When we appear to be most off course, most off track, it is precisely then that we are often most engaged in doing God's will.

Ironically, it is when I accept the fact that "This is not my day" that my day will be better, not worse.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Catholic Identity

Tonight we watched a documentary film called Barnstorming. It is a wonderful story about two men who fly antique planes and in 1999 set down in a hayfield on a farm in Indiana. They form a friendship with the family who owns the farm, and year after year the pilots return to renew that friendship and spread the love of flight.

One of the interesting aspects of this film to me is the Dirksen family who own the farm. Matt and Paula Dirksen, along with their large family, portray their Catholicism in very quiet but visible ways. I first noticed the crucifix on a bedroom wall. Then there was the sweatshirt of one of the daughters, which read "Seton" (with a cross forming the "T" in the middle of the name). The family said grace at the table, using the common Catholic prayer of "Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts...." There was the size of their family (six or eight children, I didn't get a certain count). And that was it. No more than that. But that was quite a bit. Quite a bit, indeed.

It's the little things that add up to big things.

I remember being at a faculty interview session a number of years ago where a candidate was facilitating an exercise. The exercise was geared to show how race is invisible for some and visible for others, but in this case it revealed something else to me that I never forgot. We were asked to describe ourselves with three words. I was thinking of words like "patient" (I forget the other two adjectives), focusing on descriptors that were pertinent to me and my individuality. However, one of the current faculty members included among his words "Catholic." That descriptor had never occurred to me. He said but a simple word, yet that example of faith and Catholic identity has stuck with me over the years, and I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to live up to his example.

Our Catholic identity is part of our responsibility to bring the Gospel to the world. It helps us to build a community that strengthens each other when challenged by a sometimes very hostile culture. It helps us to give witness to others that our faith permeates every aspect of our lives and is not a mere accessory. The resurrected Christ in His glorified body still bore the marks of the Cross. Those marks caused Thomas to believe. We, who are the Body of Christ, are marked through our baptism and confirmation. Those marks can be a source of faith for others if we just let them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday

(William Adolphe Bouguereau, The Holy Women at the Tomb, 1893)

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen." (Luke 24:1-5)

So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?" (Luke 24:29-32)

And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." (Acts 1:9-11)

So often we are looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. The women went to the tomb looking for a dead man when the One they sought was alive. The two men travelling on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus who was with them on the journey. They only recognized him in the breaking of the bread, in the Eucharist. At the Ascension, the apostles are looking at Jesus leaving them, but He is not really leaving them.

I am reminded of a story that a priest told during a homily about a little boy preparing for his first Communion. This boy knew where to look for Jesus. Another priest was not convinced that the little boy understood enough about the Eucharist to take his first Communion. However, in talking with the priest, the boy pointed to the crucifix in the church and said, "That looks like Jesus but is not Jesus." Then pointing to the tabernacle, the boy said, "That does not look like Jesus but is Jesus." Then, pointing to the priest himself, the boy said, "That does not look like Jesus but is Jesus. Only fatter." The boy understood the crucifix to be only an artistic portrayal of Jesus, the Eucharist to be the Real Presence of Jesus, and the priest when saying mass to be standing in persona Christi.

Echoing Matthew 25:31-46, Mother Teresa said: "I see God in every human being. When I wash the leper's wounds I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?" (Carol Kelly-Gangi, editor, Mother Teresa: Her Essential Wisdom, p. 19). As with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus is in front of us every day in the people we encounter. We merely need the eyes of the little boy or Mother Teresa to see them and Him.

Jesus is not hiding from us. Yet we seem to look for Him where He isn't and miss Him where He is. May this great Easter season we are embarking upon fill us with the grace we need to seek first the kingdom, and then we will find the King.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday

Tomb by Sieger Köder, found at http://contemplativecottage.com/2010/04/02/holy-saturday/

For us today, Holy Saturday is a time of waiting, of expectation, of longing. For Mary, Mary Magdalene, the Twelve, and Jesus' other disciples, Holy Saturday was when time stood still. They had no expectation, no longing. They had only confusion and grief, disorientation and loss.

However, they also had hope. Their hope was a very different kind than ours. Their hope was that of Abraham's before offering his son, Isaac, as sacrifice. Their hope was that of Job when he had lost everything dear to him. Their hope was Daniel in the lion's den. Their hope was Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace. Their hope was the psalmist's in Psalm 22, which begins with "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? (1) but ends with "Posterity shall serve him; men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it" (30-31).

This is the hope that holds out despite the temptation to despair, despite all empirical evidence pointing against hope, because this hope is rooted in trust in God's love for us.

For those of us on this side of the Resurrection, our hope is that of those who have heard the witness of the triumph of Love over Death. The seventeenth-century Carmelite, Brother Lawrence, had a profound epiphany of God's caring for us that led him to a radical trust in that care:

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 would 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." (The Practice of the Presence of God with Spiritual Maxims, p. 15.)

It is because of the Resurrection that Brother Lawrence could see the return of Spring in terms of God's providence.

Perhaps those who loved Jesus and mourned his death remembered his words as Matthew tells us:

"Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? and why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day." (Mathew 6:25-34)

Through their hope, those who loved Jesus sought first the kingdom, although many no doubt wondered if that kingdom had been but a beautiful dream, a mirage, an illusion. Yet, they hoped anyway.

Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day. Let Holy Saturday be a time when we remember that heart-rending loss. However, let us also dwell in the luxury we have that they did not: we need not be anxious, because we know what tomorrow will bring: Life-giving Love.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

(Georges Rouault, Christ on the Cross, 1936)

Since Good Friday was the day I longed for even while I was away from the Church and did not believe in God, it is fitting that I get back to this blog on this most compelling day.

We went to our parish's Good Friday liturgy and veneration of the Cross. My son referred to it as "the strangest mass" he'd ever seen. I told him that was very perceptive. After explaining that it was not a mass, we talked about what had happened and what it meant, and that this liturgy was special because this day is special.

Venerating the Cross has always had a special place in my heart. There is something about that act of humility, of love, that is very physical, very tangible. This whole day is a dramatic reminder that ours is not a religion of the spirit only, but of the body, and that the two are not opposed but enmeshed.

The modern painter, Francis Bacon, was interviewed by David Sylvester, and when discussing Picasso, Bacon spoke of Picasso's "brutality of fact" (David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 182). The Crucifixion is all about the brutality of fact. That is what today is about: the brutality of fact. Sin is a fact that we attempt to rationalize away in the thick fog of ego, therapy, and relativism. Sin is a fact with brutal consequences. A most inconvenient fact, to re-frame Al Gore's famous title.

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus takes up a similar theme in his amazing book, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross:

The gnostic impulse is still very much with us. We draw back from looking long and hard into the heart of darkness; we recoil from the brute facticity of the horror; we are scandalized by the truth that we worship a crucified God. As well we should be. (p. 120)

We see crucifixes every day. They hang in our bedrooms. But we do not truly see them. We do not truly see the dark event that these sanitized versions dimly reflect.

Bacon painted a triptych, Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962). The right panel appears below:

This figure is so visceral (literally), so repugnant. It captures the emotion of what the Crucifixion actually was, actually is. The reading from Isaiah at today's liturgy points to this revulsion:

He was spurned and avoided by people, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom the people hide their faces, spurned, and we held him in no esteem. (Isaiah 53:3)

As Fr. Neuhaus says in the quotation above, if we understand the Crucifixion, we should be scandalized.

Bacon was inspired by the medieval crucifix of Cimabue (1272-1274):

If you invert the Cimabue painting, you get something of the broad outline of Bacon's figure. The language that Bacon uses to describe Cimabue's portrayal of Christ is significant:

You know the great Cimabue Crucifixion? I always think of that as an image - as a worm crawling down the cross. I did try to make something of the feeling which I've sometimes had from that picture of this image just moving, undulating down the cross. (The Brutality of Fact, p. 14)

Bacon's words may seem distrubing at first. After all, he is comparing the Savior to a worm crawling down the cross; how repulsive! However, Bacon's words should remind us of two types of Christ from the Old Testament. One is from the great messianic Psalm 22:

But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people. (Psalm 22:6)

The other type is from Numbers:

And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:8-9)

In the Gospel of John, Jesus explicitly links himself to the bronze serpent:

"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." (John:3:14-15)

Perhaps Bacon's Crucifixion can help us see our crucifixes in a new light, one that helps us to encounter, however tenuously, the brutality of sin. Yet, we do not remain in that brutality. We know that brutality could not defeat love. Not the sentimental love we see in greeting cards or romance novels. This is a love that has a will of steel, because it is a will wholly consonant with the will of God.

Today is a good day to reflect on the line from the "Animus Christi": "Passion of Christ, strengthen us." Strengthen us to endure the pain of Good Friday and the loneliness of Holy Saturday, as we long for the resurrected joy of Easter.