January 31, 2007

Details, Devil in the

The challenges of the common religious life come not in grand things but in little ones. I hate to admit it, but there's a good and holy reason for things to be this way.

For example, there's an unspoken and yet bitter dispute going in my house over the correct function of the dish rack next to the kitchen sink. Is it for clean dishes that are waiting to be dry, either by hand or air, or is it a place for dirty dishes to wait on their way to the dishwasher? My position is the former, but that's beside the point.

That the struggles of common life should be of this nature is an expression of God's mercy. If the penances and challenges of the religious life were grand or glamorous or even interesting, there would be too much temptation to vainglory. As it is, nobody will ever write in the life of a saint that he courageously endured the dirty dishes of his confreres, and yet, (again I hate to admit it) this is where ordinary calls to patience and humility arise.

January 29, 2007

Book Review: Sloth

Having finished Sloth, I'm now more than half-way through the Seven Deadly Sins, which, you will remember, I received as a Christmas present. So at least I'm not slothful in my reading.

This volume is quite a departure from the three I've read already. It's different because it's funny. In fact, the whole book is a parody of self-help books and our self-improvement culture. It explains the error of those who have been telling us do this or that all our lives, and teaches us that the secret is to get over the need to do anything.

Thus in a parody of counting calories, we are taught to count "activity points," and not to go over 75 points each day. A chart explains that, for example, reading Shakespeare counts for 400 points, as much exertion as we should make in five days, while sitting and watching cartoons only count for 12.

Then, in the last chapter, comes the big zinger. The real sloths of our time aren't those who sit around and do nothing, but those who fill their lives with so much frenzy and activity that they have no time for passion or creativity. Such people are keenly described:
Their purpose is to keep themselves so busy, so entrenched in their active lives, that their spirit reaches a permanent state of lethargiosis. In other words, their hyperactivity is no different from yours or my slothfulness.

One can almost hear Jesus' words to Martha: you are anxious about many things, but there is only one.

This is a funny and cute book, and if you've ever felt victimized by the false promises of the self-improvers, or paid good money for their books, then it will give you some well-deserved permission to laugh about the whole thing.

The author, playwright Wendy Wasserstein, is recently deceased at the young age of 55. So let's pray for her too, and thank God for the wisdom and light-heartedness she bore into the world. God knows the world needs them both.

Movie Review: Sophie Scholl

Yesterday a visiting brother brought over Sophie Scholl-Die letzen Tage, and some of us watched it last night.

It's a powerful film, portraying the final days of Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans and their comrade Christoph Probst, all guillotined by the Nazis in February 1943. They were members of the White Rose student resistance movement.

It's carefully made, and the detail is stunning at times. There is a lot of metaphorical play on light and darkness, which is quite effective when part of the composition of scenes, but sometimes gets a little overwrought all by itself. I found the second act, Sophie's multiple interrogations, to be the most powerful part. One sees her courage against the cowardice of her interrogator, and their conversation approaches any number of critical themes: conscience, law and order, national security, war and non-violence. The analogies to our own time, though perhaps not purposeful, are clear.

Sophie prays at critical plot points throughout. To hear her prayers is almost worth watching the whole movie; they are simple and deep and personal, and are the kind of honest and unpretentious prayers that cut through any vain religiosity.

The film we had was in German with English subtitles. And if you need a happy ending, this one isn't for you.

January 28, 2007

Poor Taste

My car died earlier this week, so I wasn't able to get up north this weekend for my regular deacon gig. Thus, I had the chance to go "out to church" this weekend.

So I visited one of our local Franciscan churches. Near the entrance they had something remarkable: a kind of reverse ATM machine for taking donations. You could put in your credit or debit card and make a contribution. So far so good. We live in an age of electronic money, and why shouldn't the begging of mendicant friars adapt to it? And besides, people can get an immediate receipt for tax purposes.

But here's the part that got me: decorating the machine was a colorful cartoon caricature of a friar, complete with a sheepish grin and a basket of money, with dollar bills floating around him in the air.

Now far be it from me to begrudge the long-standing utility and truth of the stereotype of the greedy friar, but having him as the first thing you see when you walk into church? That seems like a little much to me.

January 27, 2007

Grief

I just saw a bit on TV news about the mothers of stillborn babies, and about how they want the option of receiving birth certificates for the deceased children, which apparently is not an option in every state.

They know, in their grief, that the child they were carrying was somebody, and they hope that a recognition from the state of the life that was would be a support.

Why not? The abortion people oppose the idea, and are fighting it, because, well, if you let people admit what they know in their heart, that an unborn child is somebody, well, there goes one part of the culture of death and convenience.

January 26, 2007

Conscience

For several years now, the friars around here have become involved in activist community organizing. They've done some great work toward achieving better health care for poor and elderly folks, and are also working on the awful question of youth violence.

I've never been into it, and my conscience has bothered me about it. Why not? Shouldn't I care about the rights of the poor? Trying to figure myself out on this point uncovered some previously unarticulated assumptions.

I think because my conversion was heavily influenced by punk rock (especially the anarcho-syndicalist sub-humans of the UK) and also by some catholics with anarchist tendencies (e.g. Simone Weil and Peter Maurin), my imagination about the transformation of the secular world tends more toward the "dual power" model of creating new structures "within the shell of the old" rather than trying to bend the capitalist system to some sense of gospel justice.

I think this is at least part of what caught me heart in St. Francis: he left the world where identity was based on prestige and money and security, went to the lepers, and allowed an alternative society to form around him, based on "downward mobility," the community of "lesser brothers," or friars minor.

I'm not saying I'm right, but that my imagination about re-forming the world seems to come from a different place. But is this out of date? Am I wrong? I'm honestly not sure about this.

January 25, 2007

Conversion of Paul

I enjoy this feast day each year, perhaps because I'm a convert, perhaps because the event we recall is so mysterious.

I think what grabs me the most about Paul's conversion, or at least the way the story has come down to us, is the alternation of light and darkness. In every version of the story, (Acts 9:1-19, 22:1-16, and 26:1-18) the conversion event starts with a light, or "great light" that comes from heaven. In the first two accounts, the light leaves Paul blind, so that he has to be led by the hand on the rest of his journey to Damascus.

For me it articulates something so true about my experience of conversion and discipleship. God is on the one hand very luminous, an inviting Mystery Who is always there to be noticed, sitting below or behind or above (pick your metaphor!) my experience. The light calls. And yet, it's a very obscure kind of light, brilliant enough to beckon and invite, but hardly bright enough to grant what I would call understanding in any ordinary sense.

Perhaps that's what John of the Cross meant when he wrote about the prayer in which the the divine Presence appears as rayos de oscuridad, "rays of darkness."

January 24, 2007

Book Review: Greed

I'm still on my way through the Seven Deadly Sins, which, you will remember, I received from my father for a Christmas present. Over the weekend I finished the Greed volume, by Phyllis Tickle.

It's the shortest of the books so far, and a less systematic treatment. The writing is lovely, as usual, but I'm afraid my impression of the book was a little hampered by my feeling that maybe she's a religious relativist...what I've called the great heresy of our time.

Tickle does have her finger on something, though, as in her rich description of the existential meaninglessness of the modern secular person:
[The] shift from divinity or divine machinations to physical cause-and-effect as the source of our destructive and flawed natures has had an even more demeaning, and sometimes flagrantly neurotic, consequence over the last century and a half. It has robbed Western citizenry, to some greater or lesser extent, of the energizing and focusing dignity of spiritual struggle by robbing us of faith in the eventual benevolence of how things are.

Now our "destructive and flawed" condition is certainly our fault and has nothing to do with God, but the point is well-taken nonetheless, and it says a lot about the spiritual condition of our late modern world.

January 23, 2007

Five things you perhaps do not know about me

Jeff tagged me for this meme, which can only be fun. Here are my five things:

1. I used to pray with the Quakers. In my spiritual seeking period, before I admitted to myself that I was supposed to become a Roman Catholic, I enjoyed their quiet, "unprogrammed" style of Sunday worship, and have gravitated toward the silent and apophatic ever since.

2. This is my second time in religious life. Right after college I joined the Franciscans of the Leonine Union (the OFM), but left after a year and a half. I was back in the world for four or five years and then joined the Capuchins (OFM Cap.)

3. Without prejudice to genes, parental example, and a very good primary education, I credit Dungeons & Dragons with some of my scholarly ability. Maybe school wasn't always a challenge, but it sure was trying to find your way around the maze of rules and guidelines that made up the 1977-1980 Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide. Not to mention that it built a lot of vocabulary (one never had to say "dweomer," "philter," or "somatic component" in ordinary conversation) and demanded fine abstract distinctions, like articulating the difference between the "beatific" chaotic-good alignment as opposed to the "saintly" lawful-good, "demonic" chaotic-evil and "diabolic" lawful-evil ones.

4. I can make very good lentil soup. It once garnered me a marriage proposal. No kidding.

5. The first time I visited Assisi I was defecated upon by a bird and bit by a dog in the same day. And I wanted to be a Franciscan anyway.

January 22, 2007

Life

Today, on the anniversary of legalized abortion here in these United States, our bishops recommend to us a day of prayer and penance.
This day shall be observed as particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 373.
So let's take some kind of moment today to pray for forgiveness for all of our complicity in this culture's sins and offenses against the life God gives: abortions, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism, capital punishment, suicides (and all suicides are assisted somehow), child abuse, spousal abuse, racism, the violence induced by drug criminalization, prostitution, pornography, factory farming, and the pollution of our sisters the water and the air.

January 20, 2007

It's So Good To See You

Here's my homily for this weekend:

Today, friends, we have begun our reading of the Gospel of Luke, which will accompany us through this year’s Sundays of Ordinary Time.

Luke addresses his gospel to his patron, a certain “most excellent Theophilus.” The name “Theophilus” simply means ‘he who loves God’ or something like that. Therefore, friends, as far as we are people who love God, Luke’s gospel is addressed and dedicated to us personally.

And over the course of this year Luke will proclaim to us why it is God is lovable in the first place, why, as we pray in the Act of Contrition, God is “all good and deserving of all [our] love.” As Luke says, he will tell us of the “events that have been fulfilled among us,” the salvation and re-creation of the world that has been accomplished in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In Luke’s account Jesus begins his ministry in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. He opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and proclaims the “recovery of sight to the blind.”

Now if you will indulge me for a moment, every time I hear about blindness in the Scriptures, I think of my work before I entered the Order. Before I joined the friars I worked in a group home with several folks with fairly intense mental and physical disabilities. One of the men assigned to me had been blind and deaf since birth, and, by then in middle age, he had a suffered much in various institutions.

But he was a very bright guy! If everything was where he expected it to be, he had learned to use the microwave to heat up his own snacks. He could retrieve his own basket of toiletries and start his bath all by himself. One time when I was showing how he did these things to a new staff member, she said with surprise and admiration, “Wow, he sees just what he’s supposed to do.”

And I thought: what an interesting thing to say, to say that “he sees what he’s supposed to do,” because, of course, he couldn’t see anything!

But it’s true—we use the idea of seeing and sight for all kinds of things. To see is to understand, like when we say “I see what you mean.” Or seeing means appreciation and gratefulness and love, like when we say, “It’s so good to see you.”

And friends, call to mind that feeling, when someone is before you, and you say “It’s so good to see you.” Think on that feeling, because, let me tell you, that’s how God looks at us all the time. God looks upon us and says, I love you, and it’s so good to see you.

And when we’re able to notice and appreciate this love of God, when we’re able to say to God, “I see what you mean,” well, there’s a name for that event in religion: we call it divine revelation.

Revelation is when God looks at us with love and we notice it.

Now the Scriptures often talk about this interaction of love, this divine revelation, with the language of opening a scroll. We hear two great examples of this in the Scriptures today:

In the 6th century before Christ, when the people of God had just returned from their captivity in Babylon, the scribe Ezra opens the scroll and reads the Law of Moses to the people, rededicating them as God’s special nation. Ezra then commands the people to rejoice; he knows that the revelation of God’s love ought to produce rejoicing on earth. In the Law the people of God found God himself looking upon them love and making them his own.

In the beginning of the public ministry, Jesus too opens a scroll—this time of the prophet Isaiah—and proclaims recovery of sight to the blind. He proclaims that through himself, this tired world which is so ignorant of God will come to notice and appreciate the love of God poured out on the earth. For Jesus Christ our Savior is God’s Word made a human being. And God’s eternal word is nothing more than the word “I love you,” and the word “It’s so good to see you.” And this is the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Finally, at the end of the Scriptures, in the book of Revelation, the Lamb of God, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, will open the scroll of the seven seals and bring all of creation to its final fulfillment in the perfect love and victory of God.

And so let us take the advice of Ezra the scribe, and rejoice in the Lord today. For Jesus the Lord takes the scroll and opens it for us. And the scroll he opens is God’s own inner life. The man Jesus Christ is the perfect expression of the secret, inner life of Almighty God. And the inner life of God is nothing but love. In the Word made flesh this perfect love becomes the loving gaze of God upon his creation, the perfect sight of God that knows and sees us and says to our hearts, “It’s so good to see you.”

God is perfect love, God is perfect joy. Where the presence of God is, where the Spirit of God rests in our lives, there we find this love and joy. Let’s accept this joy today, and rejoice in it. For, as Ezra says, “rejoicing is the Lord must be your strength.”

January 19, 2007

Heresy

I have a theory that we lose some of our spiritual vigor and urgency--especially some of us who are clergy and/or religious--because we have (perhaps unreflectively) bought into a certain secular philosophy of religion. And what's worse, it's one that makes us into subtle agnostics and pelagians.

The theory goes like this: religion is a category of human life and expression, and each particular religion is a path, but all the paths are going to the same place. Call this goal of religion what you will: "God," "the transcendent," "spirituality," what have you.

This imagination has certain secular advantages: it precludes the idea of competing religious claims, relieving us from intolerant religious violence. It means that "people of faith" can work together toward common goals of compassion and justice without the nagging feeling that they are relativizing their particular beliefs.

But there is a dark side; a price to pay for this relativism.

First of all, the theory contains the assertion that there is genus called "religion" into which all kinds of different phenomena have to be stuffed. This sounds fine when you're filling out a form and have to fill in the blank that says 'religion,' but it breaks down quickly in the particulars. A Christian and a Jew are hardly two species of the one genus "religion." More accurately we have to say that the Christian is a particular kind of Jew, or that both are the fraternal twins born of the end of Second Temple Judaism. Problems increase even more when we try to go outside of the Abrahamic heritage.

Second, the theory suggests that nobody really knows God. We are all using these different cultural and linguistic constructs that we call "religions" to try to articulate something about God, but the very fact of their diversity demands that God is some kind of Kantian noumenon to which nobody has any kind of genuine access. This is why, if we make the relativistic philosophy of religions our framework, we have become agnostics, who don't really know how to say anything for sure about God. And agnostics don't die for their beliefs. And they don't live for others for God's sake either.

Third, this religious relativism makes us into pelagians, because religion is about our human expression of an experience, our human articulation of whatever it is the different faiths are aimed at. This is, in fact, the opposite of Christianity, which proclaims that the gap between the human and divine has been bridged, not by human effort or cultural or language, but by God himself in the humanity of Christ.

Franciscan Blogroll

Check out Canadian Friar, who not only seems to have a thoughtful blog, but who taught me the trade of institutional dish-washing.

January 18, 2007

Punctuation

The other day after I had prayed the Act of Contrition in confession, I noticed that the way I punctuate the prayer has changed over the years, revealing a shift in my spirituality.

I used to say the end of the prayer like this:

I firmly resolve: with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, do penance, and to my amend my life.

But I realized that I now do it like this:

I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace: to confess my sins, do penance, and to amend my life.


When I was younger I thought I needed grace to do things. Now I realize that I need the grace to even make a resolution.

Defenestration

Just so you know that religious life is pretty funny sometimes:

Today the brother who volunteered to take down the Christmas Tree finally got around to it, and he asked me to help.

Our living room is on the 3rd floor, so we shuddered at the idea of carrying the thing through the house and having to vacuum pine needles from two floors of stairs.

So my bright brother suggests that instead, we pitch the tree out the window. So there we were, two friars throwing a dried up old Christmas tree out of a 3rd floor window onto the sidewalk below (having checked for pedestrians, of course) and hoping that none of the neighbors were noticing this procedure going on.

January 17, 2007

Anthony of Egypt

Today is the feast of St. Anthony, the "Father of Monks." Here is a homily I once gave to the brothers:

I suggest to you, brothers, that today we keep the feast of our great-grandfather. For Anthony, who took up the life of a hermit in the late third century, is seen by tradition as the beginning of men’s religious life in Christianity. After Anthony came our grandfather Benedict, who institutionalized the common religious life, realizing that not all who begin this journey are strong enough to fight the demons alone and without the support of human society. After this our own father Francis found a way to imagine a mendicant life that was faithful to the Church, inventing a new form of religious life that was freed from the limits of the feudal imagination.


Let’s listen for a moment to the Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius:


“Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according to custom into the Lord's House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Savior; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles' feet for distribution to then needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things he entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, 'If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and have treasure in heaven.' Anthony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church.”


Anthony’s religious vocation begins when he hears the Gospel addressed to him personally and he begins to put it into practice immediately. Sound familiar? One of our traditional stories about Francis is very similar. Upon hearing the Gospel on the feast of St. Matthias, in which Christ tells the disciples not to carry gold nor silver, nor wallet, belt or shoes, nor two tunics, Francis immediately puts what he hears into practice, as if it were addressed to him personally. Francis famously declares, “This is what I want to do with all my strength!”


But remember carefully, brothers. Remember that this event happened after what we usually call Francis’ conversion. Francis had already met the poor and humble Christ in the leper and in the Crucifix of San Damiano. He had already renounced his family and taken up the religious state. He had already repaired a couple of churches. He had already embarked upon a religious vocation in the best way he could imagine it. And yet he was still attentive enough to hear the Gospel calling him deeper into his vocation, into a new form of religious life, a new form for a changing world.


Athanasius assures us that Anthony was a perfectly good disciple of the Lord when he lived at home with his family. And yet, for the sake of the Church, the Holy Spirit invented a new form of religious life through him. And the Spirit did this through Anthony’s attentiveness to the Gospel. Francis too, was living a perfectly good form of religious life, praying, doing penance, repairing churches, when he heard the Gospel calling him to imitate the poor and humble Christ in a new way.


Let’s notice our own call in all this. Our Constitutions encourage us to be open to new forms of religious life that may be emerging in history. How will we know? The same way Anthony and Francis did, by being attentive to the proclamation of the Gospel and hearing it addressed to our particular time and place. Therefore, let’s show up and listen.

January 16, 2007

Martyrs

Today is the feast of the first martyrs of the Franciscan Order, killed in Morocco in early 1220. From all reports, Francis was very proud of them, and called them his first true brothers.

The Earlier Rule had not yet been promulgated then, but these brothers certainly fulfilled its advice about how to go among the non-believers:

And let all the brothers remember, wherever they are, that they gave themselves up and left their bodies behind for our Lord Jesus Christ. And for love of him they must make themselves vulnerable to enemies both visible and invisible.

January 15, 2007

Silence

Part of today's Office of Readings is just so wonderful that I have to post it:

Now there was one Teacher who spoke, and it was made, and even what he did in silence is worthy of the Father. He who has the word of Jesus can truly listen also to his silence, in order to be perfect, that he may act through his speech and be known by his silence.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, letter to the Ephesians

Suffering?

The other day I was speaking with someone who was really suffering. She had a lot of anxiety and was struggling in the anguish of feeling--not necessarily being--separated from God.

Later on when I was trying to pray she came back to mind. I thought, should I offer to take on some of her suffering for the love of God, and to give her some relief?

But then I thought, if I did experience some of her anxiety and stress, but I knew that I was doing it for the love of God and for her, would it really be the same suffering? Unless I felt like God wasn't in the picture, unless I felt like the suffering was meaningless, would it really be suffering of the same intensity?

Suffering is one thing, but suffering that seems to have no meaning, that brings the searing loneliness of feeling to be without even God--let alone anyone else--that's something else.

I'm not sure if this is right, or if it makes sense.

Nevertheless, this is why--all Christology and exegesis of Psalm 22 aside--the Passion only makes sense to me if Jesus says "My God, my God, why have forsaken me" and really means it. For me to see the Incarnate Word entering into the most profound human loneliness and isolation and despair, well, that gives me hope for salvation.

January 13, 2007

Cana

Happy Ordinary Time everyone, and here's my homily for this weekend:

“Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.”

And so friends, as we begin this season of winter Ordinary Time, we hear John the Evangelist’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Without anyone seeing how it happened, water blushes into wine in the presence of the Word through which it was created, and the wedding celebration is saved from certain disaster and embarrassment.

John tells us that the sign Jesus does at Cana serves to reveal his glory. And this glory is the glory of the unseen God, the “heavenly king/ almighty God and Father” to whom we sing in the Gloria. In the feasts of the Christmas season, which we have just concluded—in the Nativity, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of the Lord—the Word made flesh appears on earth in order to reveal the glory of God the Father from within our human condition of weakness and limitation.

Seeing the glory of God revealed through the sign at Cana, the disciples begin to believe in Jesus. Let us, too, begin again to believe in Jesus. We have celebrated the great mysteries of the Incarnation in the great feasts of Christmas—now the Church offers us a few quieter weeks to sit back and digest the mysteries, and to believe anew in the quiet of our hearts and minds.

But exactly what is it that we are called to believe in? Perhaps, I suggest to you, today’s Gospel calls us to believe in the possibility of transformation, to believe that God can bring the richness and cheerfulness of wine out of the humble plainness of water.

We are called to have faith in the possibility of transformation in Christ—that our lives and our relationships, even the whole world, can be transformed by grace. As Paul instructs the Roman Christians: “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds, so that you may know what is the will of God; what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Our own patron St. Augustine, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, makes a perceptive comment. He asks us why we should be amazed that at Cana the water was made wine. Doesn’t God turn water into wine every year as vines receive the rains and the grapes grow? In fact nature is full of transformation that is nothing short of miraculous: ugly grubs become beautiful butterflies, tiny acorns become great trees, the love of couples turns into the new life of children.

And we are all too aware this time of year of the transformation of the seasons as we look forward to the day when winter will turn into the new hope and life of spring.

Now it’s an honored and durable catholic principle to say that “grace builds on nature.” So just as the sign at Cana led the disciples to begin to believe in Jesus, so the transformations of nature all around us ought to lead us to believe in the possibility of transformation in Christ for ourselves. To believe that God will take up our little lives and meager efforts and transform them into the great river of grace that flows out of the heavenly Temple and gives life to the whole world in Christ.

The prophet Isaiah gives us a sense of this transformation in today’s first reading. Recall the word of God that the prophet pronounced: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch.”

Grace and salvation are not just some nice commodity that God happens to have and that we can take if we happen to want them! The salvation of the world and the transformation of our lives by grace in Christ are God’s passion! God’s great desire is to save us, to make us good, to fill us with love and gentleness, to make us into the image and body of Christ. Quite literally, God is just dying to save us!

Each day God waits for us with patient passion for the moments when we are able to accept the life of grace, of transformation into the body of Christ. And this is the great miracle of the Eucharist! In faith we become what we receive; when the Eucharistic minister says “body of Christ” to each of us, they are calling us by our true name!

And this is how we become, in the words of the prophet, “a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord,” and the very “delight” of God.

Today Jesus begins his public ministry at the request of his mother. Now much ink has been spilled interpreting and apologizing for the brusqueness of Jesus’ response, when he calls her “Woman.” But recall the next time Jesus addresses his mother as “woman,” according to John the Evangelist, at the other end of his public ministry. From the Cross Jesus says, “Woman, behold your son,” and gives Mary to the beloved disciple as his new mother.

And from that moment on, Mary is the mother of every disciple of the Lord right down to us. So let us hope in and pray to our mother, that she will help us to accept the grace of transformation in Christ, that the stone jars of our own hearts will come to be filled with the good wine of gentleness and compassion. Amen.

January 12, 2007

Liturgy

Friends Forget Me Not and Carolina Cannonball reminded me of a post I had meant to write on liturgy.

As a convert, I was certainly attracted to the liturgical life of the church. But once I was living within the catholic world, I found things frustrating and confusing. Everyone seemed to have a different opinion on the right and wrong of liturgy, and feelings ran high. I was young, and didn't know applesauce from sin besides, and all around me liturgical debate ran around, full of terms I didn't always grasp: what was appropriate, reverent, inviting, inclusive, valid, licit, inculturated, etc.

Of course I was more attracted to liturgies that expressed sobriety and reverence than those that seem like cooking shows, but I told myself this was a matter of taste and tried not to attach any ecclesiological importance to it.

This trouble was only amplified when I entered religious life. Eventually I didn't know whom to trust about anything, so I came up with this strategy, which I have been using to this day:

I took the GIRM and the GILH and read them for myself. Then, whenever anything was my decision, I did my best to follow the instructions plainly. When something was beyond my control I tried not to worry about it, and did my best to stay out of discussions. Yes, I've endured a lot of illicit Masses and home-made liturgies of the hours, but I've kept myself from a lot of useless upset.

It's kind of "serenity prayer" approach to living in this tired liturgical world we find ourselves in:

Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.


In other words, when something is up to me, I try to just simply follow the instructions. When it's not up to me, and things aren't quite right, I try to accept it as a work of obedience, and above all try not to get worked up about it.

January 11, 2007

Despair

A long time ago I was taking a walk when I realized, just when I needed to hear it, why despair is a temptation and a sin:

Despair is like self-importance turned inside-out; it implies the belief that God ought to have given us more hope and faith than we have, and that he doesn't know what he's doing. Despair is an indulgence in our frustrated greed for certainty.

I recalled this moment when I found a post-it note in an old breviary that said, "You can be grateful for the grace of poverty of spirit, or you can indulge in self-importance of despair."

Iraq

I just watched the president's speech, and I think Mr. Bush would do well to review the definition of insanity they use in the recovery community: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

January 10, 2007

Franciscan Crown

Paula's comment on yesterday's post made me realize-to my surprise-that I had never made a proper post on the Franciscan Crown, which is a lovely devotion. I tend to opt for the Franciscan Crown on what would be Joyful Mysteries days for the regular, Dominican rosary, and during Advent.


The Franciscan Crown, or Seraphic Rosary, or Rosary of the Seven Joys of Mary ought to look more or less like a standard, five-decade Dominican rosary, except that it has seven decades. The front part, instead of the one bead-three beads-one bead configuration, should, working up from the Cross or Crucifix, have a configuration of two beads-two beads-one bead. Make sure you look for this if you seek a Franciscan Crown, since many are not built properly in this regard!

So here's how you pray it:

Start straight away with the seven decades, meditating on the seven joys of Our Lady:

1. The Annunciation
2. The Visitation
3. The Nativity of the Lord
4. The Adoration of the Magi
5. The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple
6. The Resurrection
7. The Assumption and Coronation of Our Lady Queen of Heaven and Earth, Angels and Saints (and of the Seraphic Order besides!)

An easy way to remember these joys is to think of the regular Joyful Mysteries, replacing the Presentation with the Adoration of the Magi, and adding the Resurrection and Coronation.

Once you have prayed the seven decades, pray on the beads that go down toward the Cross or Crucifix:

On the first set of two beads, pray two Hail Marys to make 72 in total; somebody once said that this was the number of years that Mary lived on earth. I don't know the origin of this tradition.

On the second set of two beads pray, for the intentions of the Holy Father, an Our Father and Hail Mary, finishing with a Glory.

Finally, I usually add, for the Cross at the end, Francis' own prayer he recommended to the brothers upon seeing a Cross: "we adore you, Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all your churches throughout the world, and we bless you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world."

There are several legends about the origin of the Franciscan Crown, The most popular legend says that a young man was very devoted to Our Lady, and used to put a crown of flowers on her statue each day. Later, after he had joined the Friars Minor, he found himself locked up in the novitiate and was unable to perform this devotion. He became despondent without this prayer in his life, and made up his mind to go back to the world. In order to save his vocation, Our Lady appeared to him in the night and taught him this prayer, so that he might give her an even better crown of prayers each day.

January 9, 2007

Making Text

O.k., enough notes taken, articles read, frameworks and structures discerned, it's time to open a blank document and put "chapter I" on the top and start writing this thesis. That's how I'm going to celebrate the beginning of Ordinary Time.

Yesterday I was at school for Mass, and the homilies there often reflect the life of students and teachers: "As we move from the Baptism of the Lord into Ordinary Time, we move from the the hidden Nazareth of winter break back into the 'public ministry' of classes and writing."

January 8, 2007

Epiphany Humor

We had a lovely Epiphany Sunday at the parish where I work, but some funny stuff happened:

1. When I showed up in church in the morning, the sacristan ran out and said, "Brother, we have no wine!" By the time I had said Morning Prayer some wine had been found, so I didn't have to tell the sacristan to fill the six stone jars.

2. When I went to the back of the church for the beginning of Mass, I met the Magi themselves, all ready for the procession. One had a little box filled with shiny beads. "Gold!" I said. The second had the incense boat. "Frankincense!" The third had a carafe with some brownish liquid in it. I asked if it was the myrrh, and the allegedly wise man said he wasn't sure. So I took off the stopper and smelled it. "Apple juice for the newborn king!" I remarked.

3. After the Mass, in proper Hispanic fashion, the Magi had gifts for all the children. Apparently being the junior friar of the place qualifies one for this honor, because I received a "Beanie Baby" monkey whose tag says he is called "Mooch."

January 6, 2007

Epiphany

Happy Epiphany, everyone. Here's my homily for this weekend:

And so, friends, we come to the climax of this Christmas season with today’s great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Jesus Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, reigns from his mother’s arms and is revealed to the Magi who have come from the east in search of the newborn king. In them the great drama of the Christian religion gets underway as Jesus begins to be revealed to all the nations and peoples of the world.

See the sublime humility of our God! At the beginning and at the end of his human life, Jesus reveals most clearly what sort of God we have. In the manger God is revealed as the powerless and dependent infant, and on the Cross God is revealed as the executed criminal who can’t even move his hands and feet.

This is the true revelation of the almighty God, the maker of heaven and earth, revealed in the little and the despised and the powerless. To understand this mystery, and better, to love it, requires a wisdom that only the Spirit of God can give us. This is the wisdom that the Magi were seeking—that is why we call them the “wise men.”

These men who were wise and learned, and rich I might add, bow before this little baby, because they have an inkling of the wisdom of God that knows God is revealed in such a special way.

They bring him gold, the riches that are fit for a newborn king. They bring him frankincense, because he is worthy of the worship due to the Lord of heaven and earth, to whom our prayers must rise like incense. And they bring him the burial spice myrrh, pointing to the destiny of his life on earth, of the death on the Cross that he will suffer for each and every one of us.

In the parish I belonged to before I was here they had an Epiphany banner that read, “The wise still seek Him.” And, with God’s help, that’s us. But we must pray for the wisdom to know where to seek God. This is not the wisdom of this world, the wisdom of those who are clever with words or money or with manipulating public opinion. God’s wisdom is a secret, hidden wisdom, and we must pray for it.

With it we can learn to seek the living God through the Nativity, in the innocence and powerlessness of the infant, and in the Cross, in the suffering love and worldly condemnation that comes to those who desire love and righteousness more than safety and security.

But, as we celebrate the beginning of this New Year with such good news, we know that the world is full of bad news. It seems harder and harder to discern a way out of the tragedy of Iraq while more and more of our young people die each day, not to speak of the local loss of life and structure and culture. New wars spring up all on the troubled African continent. Bizarre weather and natural disasters threaten poor folks everywhere. Everyone lives in either the imagined or real fear of terrorism, and the AIDS pandemic threatens to leave whole generations of orphans in some places.

So the words of the prophet Isaiah ring true today when he says that “darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples.” This veil, this darkness that covers the nations of the world is the ignorance of God and unwillingness to be humble enough to accept God’s love. And we are all implicated in this guilt!

It is because we continue to nourish and indulge bitterness and disdain in our own hearts and minds that these evil thoughts break out into the wars that injure and scar the world. We’re not at fault for bad weather and natural disasters, but we are for not following the constant Biblical command to take care of the poor. And because the poor have not been helped, lacking security and sturdy housing, they are that much more susceptible to the misfortunes that nature brings.

And yet, within this depressing situation, an unstoppable and indestructible hope has been growing from within the history of the world. It begins when God calls Abraham to leave home and travel to a land that God promises to show him. It continues when God commands the Hebrews to leave the slavery of Egypt, and, as they cross the Red Sea, God creates out of them a holy nation, the people of Israel. God promises that he will always be with his people Israel, in his holy presence and kindness and faithfulness.

In the Incarnate Word, the newborn king, in Jesus who is called the Christ, the promises made to Israel become available to the whole word! The Magi from the east who adore the infant Jesus today are the first of many brothers and sisters, of gentiles from all over the world who have become children of Abraham by adoption.

In them, we might happily see ourselves. As those who have become heirs of the promises made to Israel by the gracious adoption of God in Christ, The magi are our ancestors in the faith. Through Christ all the graces and favors of God’s holy people Israel become our own: the liberation of the Exodus, the vocation and holy words of the prophets, the favor of being God’s holy nation, a people set apart. Indeed, as Jesus himself says, “salvation is from the Jews.”

Let us then not despair amid the wars and confusion and sufferings of this world, but let us, like the Magi, follow the star to Jesus. The star is prayer, and the astrology we will use to follow it is the holy Wisdom only prayer can give.

Then let us adore the infant Jesus, through whom all of the promises of God become our own, so that we, as the Letter to the Ephesians says today, might become “coheirs,” members of his body, and “copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”

January 5, 2007

Book Review: Lust

On my way through the Seven Deadly Sins, today on the subway I finished Simon Blackburn's Lust. It's a "history of ideas" sort of treatment; Blackburn deals mostly with canonical philosophers and their most recent children, the psychologists, with occasional forays into literature and art.

The book is the rare and delightful work of philosophy that is both lightly and playfully written, while at the same time being patient, perceptive, and careful. If that's you're kind of thing, you'll like it.

Blackburn makes no apologies for his disinterest in theological or religious claims, and at least does the religious reader the courtesy of admitting it. He participates in the commonplace blaming of St. Augustine for some of the difficult relationship of Christianity and sex, though I have to admit that his treatment of the doctor gratiae is much more fair and accurate than what one usually hears. He captures a lot of Augustine's nuance, and makes the important point that Augustine was a moderate in his own context.

What you won't get from this book is the spiritual good news of sexual desire: our hearts--and our bodies--spontaneously reach out for another, for connection, for communion. In this energy is the beginning of prayer, of the drive for the Other Itself: the mysterious Other we call God.

On the other hand, despite his stated disinterest in spiritual claims, Blackburn comes pretty close to this good news in his refutation of the idea that sex demands privacy because it is shameful:

Embarrassment arises because when we are looked upon or overheard by someone else, there is a complete dissonance between what they witness--infantile prattlings, or, if their gaze is obscene, just the twitchings and spasms of the bare forked animals--and the view from the inside, the meanings that are infusing the whole enterprise. (102)

Great English, no? The book is almost worth it just for sentences like this one, of which there are many.

Mystery

When I was little I was sometimes overcome by mystery. I would try to reflect upon and understand something, but be unable. I didn't have the language or the framework or anything.

For example, I would think about the particularity of my own interiority, wonder if other people had the same thing, and ask myself if this particular interiority had to be tied to this person born at this time. Could this same consciousness that is "me" have appeared in China, or are the interior and exterior person necessarily connected? Now I'm not saying I used this language, but it's what I was trying to think about. Trying to think about it at all was very hard. I tried to ask adults about it, but the only language I had was to talk about my "outlook," meaning the particularity of my individual perspective. Needless to say, I didn't get my question across.

A similar question would overcome me that was something like the question of the 'totality' or 'why is there something rather than nothing?' kind of thing.

All this led me to a kind of frustrated and confused wonder. But it was wonder nonetheless!

All this is to say that, as I go through this Christmas season, I have an analogous experience when I try to really reflect upon the Incarnation. First of all, it's hard for me to give even a faint account of what is meant by the utterance "God." But then to suggest that this almighty and transcendent and loving Reality empties himself of divine prerogative, deciding instead to reveal the divine from within the fragility and contingency of the human person, well that's almost too much to think about.

Movie Review: Jackass 2

In a spirit of relaxation during this winter break from classes, one of the brothers invited me to watch Jackass number 2 last night. When Jackass first appeared, I found it to be an amusing and light-hearted take on the skater culture, but now it's really descended into the morbid and depressing.

These guys, through a barely concealed haze of alcohol and drugs, are really hurting and humiliating each other. It has become clear, at least to me, that these guys are no longer having any fun, but are just desperately treading water in a fetid sea of raging homosexual frustration.

January 4, 2007

Being Yourself

Don't miss this wise and beautiful post from Br. Chris.

Heavy

Sometime around 3rd grade, I started to be a heavy person. Since then I've had lighter times (high school, working at the group home) and heavier times (middle school, now). It's something to which I've paid spiritual or practical attention only sporadically.

One of the things you notice right away about religious life is the prevalence of lifestyle disease: hypertension, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, not to mention an unseemly amount of general malaise and a sense of bourgeois entitlement.

In any case, lately I've been feeling like I've arrived at the age when I might be approaching my last chance to do something about my weight before I set myself on an irrevocable path to one of these ailments.

The new year is the traditional time for such dreams, so why not?

So, who is the right patron saint for such a spiritual ambition? A famous food ascetic like Catherine of Siena? A brother fat friar like Thomas Aquinas?

January 3, 2007

Holy Name

Today is the beautiful feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, which we Franciscans celebrate with a certain heightened festivity. The devotion to the Holy Name was zealously promoted by the friars of the Observant reform in the fifteenth century, especially Bernardine of Siena.

It is very fitting that this feast should come during the Christmas season, which is all about the concrete manifestation of the otherwise unseen and unknowable God. The Word of God becomes flesh in a particular human life, and thus God, for us, has a name: Jesus or Yehoshua of Nazareth, who is called the Christ.

The Holy Name of Jesus is thus a Christmas mystery in that it makes God available to us in a human way. It sits within the rolling process of manifestation that begins with the Annunciation, continues in the Nativity and comes to a climax in the Epiphany.

Names have carried meaning for us ever since Adam began to name the animals in the garden, and now we have a human Name through whom we can call on God the Father. Yes, God did reveal a name to Moses, the holy and divine name, YHWH, but this is hardly a name in any human sense we can understand.

Today we celebrate the absolute fulfillment of the human searching for a way to call upon God, begun so long ago in the time of the children and grandchildren of our first parents: "At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord." (Gen 4:26)

January 2, 2007

Book Review: Gluttony

The other night I finished Francine Prose's Gluttony. As I mentioned last week, I received the whole series of seven for Christmas. I enjoyed it and thought it was a good treatment. It goes into the Biblical and patristic roots, and how our sense of the sin has changed over time.

She also does a good job in showing how, in contrast to many classical sins, gluttony is still a sin in modern, secular society; how all of the complex and mixed doctrines about food and the body, combined with food being urged upon us at every turn, has turned everyone just a little bit crazy, and some of us a lot crazy.

The only thing I found annoying about the book is that the otherwise lovely color plates do not correspond to the paintings that are actually discussed in the text.

January 1, 2007

Retreat

Happy new year, everyone.

Today I'm hitting the road for a couple days of, well, part retreat time and part visits to friars.

In the job I had before entering the Order the holidays were always a lot of work, so I used to take the first full week of the new year as vacation and go to St. Joseph's Abbey. So, in that spirit, I'm off.

As usual, who knows if I'll be able to catch a signal, so posting is subject to that. In any case, I hope to make it back to be able to send a greeting on the feast of the Holy Name.