May 31, 2007

Big Day

Pray for me, friends. Today I go to my first assignment in the Order.

Visitation

The feast of the Visitation reminds me of one of the ways I failed to endear myself to the clergy at the last parish where I worked.

The last time the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth came up in the Liturgy was on Christmas eve. I was in the sacristy with one of the priests preparing for Mass, and he was talking about his homily. He meant to build his message on the odd fact that of all of the journeys that make up the Christmas stories, this one was the only trip for which the Scripture did not give a precise reason.

Luke just doesn't say exactly why Mary set out to visit Elizabeth. So, being the pain that I am, I offered that it was so obvious that Luke didn't have to say. Mary was Jewish, it was Christmas eve, so naturally she was going out to get Chinese food.

Needless to say, the priest was not amused.

May 30, 2007

Snotty

Yesterday morning I put up a snotty and uncharitable post. By the grace of God I have old friends who are generous enough to keep an eye on what I write here, and one of them wrote to me right away to call me on it. So I gratefully took the post down right away.

So the spiritual question arises immediately, as it does whenever we find ourselves indulging or expressing the worst parts of ourselves: what difficult internal movements am I ignoring, such that they burst out in negativity?

From such a reflection I realized that I am more anxious about starting my first assignment than I was admitting. It's a big shift from the quiet, eremetic, self-scheduled life of thesis writing to the busy life of the parish clergy.

It's only when we recognize our troubles that we can offer them to God as the Cross of Christ. So I'm grateful today for the grace of God and the gift of friends who have helped me notice that I was more nervous than I had previously thought.

May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

I used to have mixed feelings about Memorial Day, our day to remember our war dead and veterans here in these United States. It used to bother me how it sometimes seemed like a way to ignore the obvious injustice of war itself by a mystifying use of grief. I was concerned that such a celebration was an under-handed way to manipulate emotions toward having us ignore the fundamental problem of war--kind of like the slogan, "I support the troops."

But after my brief time working for the Veterans Administration as chaplain in one of their psychiatric units, I've changed my mind. I had always known it in my head, but this experience taught me in my heart of the immense un-meaning of war. And it's an un-meaning that travels into the families and friends and communities of those who suffer through it.

Particular wars come and go, but the suffering they cause lives on in the hearts of persons. And whether they survive or not, the same suffering gets into their families and communities. It creates permanent underclasses of people who will never be o.k. again.

For this reason, I believe that every person of conscience bears the responsibility of bringing meaning, truth, human contact and compassion to the victims of war. That's why I think it is a good thing to have a holiday dedicated to "re-membering" those who have died and those who have lived through the wars of the powers of this world.

May 26, 2007

Vigil of Pentecost

Pentecost is one of those rare celebrations--along with Christmas and Easter--that has separate Scriptures for the vigil Mass and for the Mass of the day itself.

At the liturgy tonight, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles. He proclaims of those who believe and will receive the Holy Spirit:
"Rivers of living water will from within him."

The Spirit is not something imposed on us, as it were, from above. Because God has united himself to our very nature in the humanity of Christ, the Spirit dwells within us.

Just as Moses brought forth water from the rock in the desert--and as Paul assures us, "the Rock was Christ"--so will the Spirit empower believers to bring life and refreshment to those who suffer in the danger and deserts of this tired world.

And just as the prophet Ezechiel saw rivers of living water flowing out from under the Temple of the New Jerusalem, so it will be with us who have become, in Christ, temples of the Holy Spirit. The living water is the power of the Resurrection for the renovation and healing of the whole world.

May 25, 2007

Story

I don't watch a lot of EWTN, but one show I do like sometimes is "Parable." It's something about the composition. Plus it's fun and intriguing how people play the saints as teachers.

Anyway, I was watching the program last night and one of the brothers was talking about how the parables of Christ were analogous to the Incarnation. Just as the life of God becomes available to us when the Word quietly takes our human life in Jesus of Nazareth, so the doctrine of the Kingdom of God comes somewhat secretly in examples from ordinary life.

It makes sense that if God wanted to communicate with us he would tell a story. Everyone loves stories. It's something you certainly notice when you preach. You might be losing the assembly as they space out to your abstract and mystical doctrine, but as soon as you say, "One time when I was a kid," or "I remember when," or "This reminds me of the time," they start to listen intently.

Indeed it's one way we can understand the Trinity and Incarnation of God. The Word which God speaks from all eternity, this word is a story. When God speaks the Word in the creation of Genesis, things come to be. Creation becomes the illustration of the Story that is within God. And then the Word, the Story of God becomes one of us in Jesus Christ, making a path for us to enter into the Story at the heart of God.

It's kind of corny, I know, but I think it's at least a little beautiful.

May 24, 2007

Spirit

There's a dynamic shift that occurs over the fifty days of Easter, as we move from a celebration of the first resurrection appearances to the presence of the Risen Lord with us now. This process culminates in the novena of Pentecost that began with the Lord's Ascension last week.

It is the Spirit who prays in us, it is the Spirit that is the soul of the Church as the Body of Christ. And yet it is hard to proclaim the Holy Spirit in our world, because it has ceased to believe in the spiritual.

To me it doesn't make any sense. People routinely die for spiritual things like "god" or "truth" or "freedom." Folks everywhere make life decisions upon the basis of "love." All of these are spiritual realities. Two teenagers can proclaim their love in a graffito that says, "together for ever," even though neither of them has any sense of eternity or final commitment. Something about their very experience of being in love touches a transcendent eternity, a spiritual level.

And yet all these things that have such a profound effect on us, we say that they're not really real, or are only abstractions, or are just ideas. And yet to me, anything that makes us a person dispose of their freedom with finality, up to and including risking death, that seems pretty real to me.

Today is also the feast of the dedication of the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. I put up a post about it last year, which you can check out here.

May 23, 2007

Provision

On a practical level, one of the great things about being a religious is having people who are there for you. There's always a generous brother to help you move. You can always get a ride to the airport.

Yesterday I had to take a subway ride, and I had nothing to read because I had already packed up all my books. When I got home, I found that one of the brothers had sent me the Holy Father's new book, Jesus of Nazareth. So now I have something to read as I make my transition to a new assignment.

On a deeper level, being brother and having brothers allows us to be vehicles of Providence for each other. When brothers help me move or serve my needs, it gives me a chance to be grateful for the Spirit Who inspired them. When I am quiet enough to let go of myself and seek the chances to be Providence for my brother, I find an opportunity to let go of the ultimately boring "tyranny of the self."

To see through the mundane and ordinary events of life to the order of grace is the fruit of prayer. When I was younger I looked for the benefits of prayer in the existential moments of prayer itself, as if I was supposed to have grand and mystical experiences. I now see a kind of spiritual greed or spiritual materialism in that kind of attitude. The fruit of prayer is found in the rest of life, in the times of apparent non-prayer.

May 22, 2007

Seminary Standards

Ok, this is meant to be humorous...but there's a good deal of truth in it too.

"You profess Chalcedon...or you take a beatin'"

In Migrante Veritas

Packing up and getting ready to move reveals a lot. For instance, you just might have just spent five years nerding it up in theological study if:

1. Boxes of books accounts for a greater volume of stuff than all the rest of your things combined.

2. There is a whole box labeled, "dictionaries."

3. In getting to the bottom of a pile of notes, you realize that the uneven corner of your desk is being leveled out by St. Bonaventure's Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ.

May 21, 2007

Keys

I always know that I'm in a transitional moment when I start to run out of keys. I was used to having five keys on my everyday key chain: two for school, two for the parish where I worked, one for the friary where I live. Now school is done and I've quit my current parish gig, so I'm down to one key.

Friars always say it's challenging to be in transition. I like it. Pulling together loose ends and cleaning are gratifying to me, and packing and moving always makes me feel curiously alive.

What I'm not good at is the landing. That is to say starting up in a new place. But the mendicant life is supposed to be an itinerant life.

May 19, 2007

Meme

Dear friend Paula has tagged me for the "three book meme." This one will take some reflection, but I promise I will get to it soon.

May 18, 2007

Commencement

Today is graduation day at the school where the brothers study theology. It's also the feast of St. Felix, a first generation Capuchin and the first canonized saint of our reform.

The feast of St. Felix is a good day for a friar to receive a theological degree, because Felix was a humble lay friar, no master of "worldly argument" as Paul says, and spent his life in the streets of Rome preaching by his simplicity and seeking alms for the friars.

Education is a form of wealth, and one that inheres in a person with more durability than either the religious or clerical state. By the prayers and example of St. Felix, may we friars who receive professional and academic degrees today know how to hold them sine proprio, not as our own proper achievement, but as the property of the people we serve.

May 17, 2007

Ascension

I always feel like the feast of the Ascension is about how, in our existential experience of faith and especially in prayer, there is always a tension between our senses of the presence and absence of God.

God, in a very mysterious way, is both presence and absence. His Presence, beneath, within, around (pick your metaphor!) everything--we know this Presence as the Spirit Who is the Gift of both Jesus and the Father.

On the other hand, often what we feel is the absence of God: "Men of Galilee, why are you looking up into the sky?" This sense of absence can make us desire the Mystery more, or it can be discouraging. We feel it every time we try to utter anything about God; as soon as we rejoice in some insight, we notice that, well, it's not quite what we had hoped to say.

It's easy to get at this spiritual tension with the little kids with whom I do a children's liturgy of the Word on Sundays. I sometimes ask them if anyone has ever seen God. In perfect agreement with the doctrine of the letters of John, they say, no, nobody has ever seen God. But then I ask them where God is. Invariably I get the same three suggestions, always in the same order. First, God is in heaven. Second, God is in our heart. Third, God is everywhere.

Now I don't push them into the obvious and very mysterious question: How is that Someone is both everywhere and in each individual heart, and yet we easily admit that nobody has seen Him or is comfortable making any claims about Who He Is? I know they feel the Mystery on some level, and I wouldn't want to ruin that with words.

May 16, 2007

Communion

This line from St. Francis' first Admonition has been fascinating me lately:
Thus, the Spirit of the Lord, who lives in his faithful, it is he who receives the sacred body and blood of the Lord.

So often we think of holy communion as something that we receive from Christ. In fact, it is the eternal communion of Father, Son, and Spirit, stretched forth to include us in the sacrifice of Christ, that we simply allow ourselves to step into.

Holy communion is the perfect joy and mutuality of the Trinity. The humanity of Christ--his Body and Blood we receive in the Eucharist--is just a portal for us enter into it.

May 11, 2007

Bob Jack

Sometimes for no reason I can see but grace, I just feel grateful for someone God has given me along the way.

When I was 17 or so, with no idea that just three years later I would be baptized in the Catholic Church, I had my first "spiritual director." Bob Jack was one of the punks we hung out with, going to record stores and shows. He made a lasting impression on me.

He made every effort to avoid having money. "The tool of the system," he called it. Being a bit of an artist, he tried to live by barter. He would paint the designs and slogans that punks wanted on their jackets in exchange for food.

He was "straight edge," so he never drank or did drugs. But sometimes he would try to make his friends get drunk so he could "examine them pretense removed," to see if they were genuinely committed to punk values or if they were posers at heart.

I had no idea--thank God!--that all of this was the proximate preparation for my Christian and Franciscan vocation.

So today I'm grateful to God for the spirit of gratitude. Gratitude is an antidote to many sins and miseries.

May 10, 2007

Easier or More Demanding?

I'm in the curious situation of living in one diocese and working in another. So as I start to think about Ascension day next week, I had something to figure out. I know Ascension is still on Thursday here where I live, but is it on Sunday in the diocese where I work?

As far as I understand, most places in the world have moved Ascension to what had previously been the seventh Sunday of Easter. And most clergy I know support this, saying that weekday "holy days of obligation" that have to fulfilled under penalty of sin are a hardship for working people and parents.

I'm sure this is true to some extent. Not everyone can afford the beautiful witness of being like Sandy Koufax, who famously refused to pitch game one of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.

On the other hand, it has been my anecdotal experience of living in the inner city that poor folks are often attracted to sects and ecclesial communities which are very demanding. The Jehovah's Witnesses around here spend their time dressed up nice and going door to door, while we catholics hardly even dress up for Sunday Mass. I've often observed people in the storefront Pentecostal churches at mid-week or in the evenings.

So for me, a question of pastoral strategy emerges. Is it better for a religion to have the sort of particular expectations that produce group identity and solidarity and preserve their distinctiveness within the larger culture, or is it better for these sorts of things to be relaxed in order to make it easier for people to be faithful?

This is one of those questions for which I honestly don't have an easy answer. Any thoughts?

May 9, 2007

Prayer

It was a big moment for me when I realized that prayer wasn't something I was doing.

I think that when I was first a Christian I had this idea that I had to work hard at prayer in order to "get" the grace (read: will power) to live a Christian life.

So it was real good for me to hear a spiritual director tell me that I should always be careful to express my gratitude for the grace of prayer.

It is the Holy Spirit who prays in us. In fact, prayer is the ordinary way we are touched by the joyful, dynamic life of the Trinity.

We are baptized into Christ's death and burial. In Holy Communion we become what we receive, the body of Christ, suffering and risen in the world. Our prayer, then, is the prayer of Christ to the Father, and this we call the Spirit.

As we pray the psalms, the prayer of the Israel of history becomes the prayer of the body of Christ, the Israel of God. As we pray in silence, we enter into the original silence in which the Word is eternally spoken by the Father.

May 8, 2007

First Communion

This weekend was first communion at the parish where I work, which is one of my favorite annual celebrations. It's a beautiful witness, makes everybody happy, and it doesn't demand much extra liturgical or ritual effort.

There was also a friend of one the brothers visiting, along with his new girlfriend. Later on in the day I remarked to the friar on how devoutly and attentively she had received her communion. "That's interesting," he said, "she's a Baptist!"

So I guess I ministered one more first communion than I knew.

May 7, 2007

Zeus


Last night some of the brothers were watching The Amazing Race, so I checked it out. Usually I don't watch "reality" TV. I watched a whole season of one show once, and was alarmed at how emotionally involved I became with the fate of the contestants! As the winning team was approaching the finish, one of them started praying that God would let them win so that they could have the prize money.

So I thought: is God like that? Does God intervene in our affairs to create winners and losers, whether it be in game shows or families or history?

When I heard the first reading today, the scene from the Acts of the Apostles in which the people try to proclaim Paul and Barnabas as Hermes and Zeus, it all made sense. Zeus is the kind of God we often want; a God given to making winners and losers, a God whose actions confirm our own desires by imitating them.

But this is not the God revealed by Jesus Christ. Here is a God who insists on giving people their freedom and who refuses to control human affairs: "If you are the Messiah, come down from the cross!"

Our God is not a God who makes winners out of those who love and serve him, but who asks those who love him to identify themselves with the losers of history, with those who serve and wash feet.

May 5, 2007

Book Review: Pride

It's taken almost five months, but with Michael Eric Dyson's Pride, I've finished the Seven Deadly Sins series.

This last book is of a very different sort from the others. It's not so much a treatment of pride per se, but a discussion of race in America. Of course this topic touches on pride very deeply, and when it comes to whiteness and blackness one finds an effective place to examine both healthy and destructive forms of pride.

If you would like a thoughtful, honest and brief treatment of blackness and whiteness in contemporary North America, this is your book. After all, white privilege and the far-reaching, brutal legacy of slavery are a necessary part of any discussion of social issues in the United States. If you want a book of about pride as a sin, or about the history of reflection on pride as a sin, it's not.

May 4, 2007

Jerusalem

From today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles:
For even though they found no grounds for a death sentence,
they asked Pilate to have him put to death,
and when they had accomplished all that was written about him,
they took him down from the tree and placed him in a tomb.
But God raised him from the dead,
and for many days he appeared to those
who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem.
These are now his witnesses before the people.

If we want to be witnesses to the Resurrection, we must be willing to travel with the Lord from Galilee to Jerusalem. Galilee is where we're from, where we know how things work and how to relate. It's home.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the place where the Name of God has chosen to dwell. It is the place where God's glory dwells in the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the beauty of the Liturgy. But it is also the place where the Lord is tried and executed for failing to live up to the human expectations of deity. And this is why being willing to go to Jerusalem often means going to place where Jesus Christ is crucified in the poor and suffering of the world.

To see the Risen Lord, we must hit the road, leaving the place that's home and where we "get it," and make our way to Jerusalem.

May 3, 2007

Special

Jason's comment on my post about my averageness made me feel like it needed a follow-up. To risk becoming a priest or religious is something special, something remarkable, as is trusting not only God but another human being enough to enter into a sacramental marriage. The same goes for any vocation that we take up in response to the grace of God.

Each human person is a unique creation. Since grace builds on nature, adapted to and blended to it, as it were (the humanity of Christ!), the grace of each person is also unique and unrepeatable.

So, it is true what your kindergarten teacher told you: you are special. Just by being ourselves we are special, and especially by responding to the unique grace and paths that are ours in the Lord.

On the other hand, we must not take our specialness in the sense that the world gives. It does not make us any more important or remarkable than anyone else. It is not an excuse to think of my needs or desires or security as any more pressing than anyone else's.

This latter sense of being special, of being special in relation to others, is the sense against which we must begin to do penance. This is why my favorite anti-hero, Tyler Durden, drilled into each of his disciples the teaching that they were not "a special and unique snowflake!"

We are special because of the perpetual newness and freshness of grace, not because of anything that we can say is our own.

Yes and No

It's that time of the school year, and two friars were looking at the final, take-home exam for Canon Law.

"The answer is always no," said the first, "and we just have to figure out why."

"The answer is always yes," said the second, "and we just have to pray for the perspective to see it."

May 2, 2007

Average

One of the guilty pleasures of pursuing a religious or priestly vocation is thinking that you're special, different, or doing something heroic or remarkable. In fact it's more than a guilty pleasure; it's a genuine spiritual danger.

In this light I had to laugh when I read the report of the Center for Applied Research into the Apostolate on the priestly ordinandi of 2007 in these United States. Of the 475 transitional deacons to be ordained to the priesthood this year, I am totally typical and average. Like most, I am a white, European-American. I am exactly the average age (35), had the typical educational background when I came to the Order (college) and, like most, had previously worked in some kind of human services or education.

So my 474 brother transitional deacons have given me a little gift to help me avoid the sin of Luke's Pharisee:
"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, `God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me a sinner!' (Luke 18: 10-13, RSV)

The lesson on prayer is, for me, Luke's genius. The Pharisee prays to himself, because the prayer is all about him, while the tax collector is the one who is really praying to God.

You can check out a pdf page of the CARA report here.

May 1, 2007

Blog

Paula turned me onto Dying Man's Daily Journal. I'm grateful, because it is a beautiful witness to faith and grace, done in a simple and honest way. Here's the beginning of the latest post:
I came to a realization today. I have become part of this world or ours that expects instant gratification. I want what I want, and I want it now. Yesterday, I was in the hospital and they gave me a prescription for a couple of medications to help me feel better. I am almost embarrassed to admit but this morning I was a little disappointed when I woke up. I took the first of the new medications last night and I really don’t feel any different this morning, whats up with that?

What makes this an important spiritual reflection is not the depth of the problem-an attachment to instant gratification-but the way in which such things are laid bare when we are facing the ultimate.

That's why we're called to heal our attachments and little maladaptive patterns of behaving. Sure we can work around them in ordinary life, but when we are faced with ultimate questions like permanently committing our life or illness or the final act we are called to accomplish, our death, little spiritual foibles magnify themselves. Check it out!