June 30, 2009

Thanks to Mary

In recent months a lot of my interior energy has gone into a sort of impasse in my ministry, a complicated situation in which I did not know how to proceed well.

The night watchman is on vacation this week, so it fell to me to lock up the church last night. Going in around sundown and turning off the lights, I remembered that I had not yet finished my Crown (I pray the Franciscan Crown on days that I would otherwise give to the joyful mysteries of the Dominican rosary, namely Monday and Saturday.) So before locking up I made a visit to Our Lady's altar to finish my Crown, and I was praying for Mary's intercession in the trouble I'm going through.

Finishing the prayer, I started to close the windows and lock up. That's when a thought came to me, a practical suggestion I could bring to my pastor. Right away I knew it was a good idea and would help clear things up for me inside, but I waited until morning to bring it up. I've learned the hard way to let ideas sit overnight, even when they seem to be direct inspirations or the fruit of the intercession of Our Lady or another of the saints.

Today I brought it up, my idea was accepted, and I feel a lot better. Thank you, Blessed Mother, for your gentle intercession.

June 29, 2009

By Their Playlists You Shall Know Them

I've had an iPod for about a year. I never really meant to have one, and I certainly don't need one. What happened was that one of the last summer's brides gave me a sizable iTunes gift card. The guardian said I could keep it, so there I was an iTunes user all of a sudden. So then I wanted an iPod. Saving up my "day off money" for a couple months, I was able to get a nano. I'm sure the bride in question was just trying to say thank you with a fun and hip gift, but if you look at my library as a whole, my poor iPod has been sacrificed to nerdy purposes.

In a year my libary has only grown to a few hundred songs, gleaned mostly from old CDs and free downloads. A couple of times I traded my loose change for iTunes credit through one of those change machines in the grocery store, but I really haven't spent much money on the whole thing, and for this I am grateful.

What's funny is that my iTunes library is dominated not by music, but by sung Mass parts in the Extraordinary Form, different gospel and prayer tone examples for practice, and imported language learning CDs.

So I'm really an intense rock and roller, walking down the street with my iPod, trying to get 1962 Missale Romanum prefaces in my ear, or trying to learn German or Italian. Oh well, I guess it's about growing up.

Sunday Vespers and Benediction

Yesterday afternoon we tried something "new": Sunday Evening Prayer with Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament and Benediction. The parish had observed the Pauline year through a number of successful events, and we thought that Evening Prayer I of the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul would be a good way to conclude the celebrations.

Many of our older parishioners remember Sunday Benediction, though I have never had a good idea of how widespread it once was. My Baronius Press 1962 hand Missal has proper texts for Vespers each Sunday, so I suppose that public Sunday Vespers was also more common at one time than it is now.

This morning I am wondering why this practice more or less disappeared. Given the strong recommendation of the liturgical reform to find ways to make the Liturgy of the Hours the prayer of the whole people of God, it seems odd that one way it was already being done should abandoned.

On the one hand, Sunday Vespers and/or Benediction has a lot to recommend it. It would seem to fulfill the mandate mentioned above, and to me it would also round out the whole celebration of Sunday very well. To me each Sunday has three liturgical hinges marked by two celebrations of Evening Prayer with Morning Prayer between them. In almost all parishes the first two moments--if not the Hours--are observed pretty regularly, with the vigil and morning Masses of Sunday respectively. In some places there are also Sunday evening Masses, but--at least in the part of the world I live in--these seem to be disappearing quickly. The third liturgical hinge moment of Sunday, marked by Evening Prayer II, seems to get lost. The public celebration of Vespers and/or Benediction would seem to restore this liturgical moment of Sunday.

Of course it has to be said that few priests look forward to obligations on a Sunday afternoon or evening. For parish clergy, the period from Saturday afternoon to Sunday noon is pretty busy. Saturday night is a common time for parish events and celebrations that keep you up late. After a short rest it's time for the early Mass on Sunday. By the time the Sunday schedule is persolved, you can feel pretty beat. On top of this, Monday is the traditional day off for pastors, making Sunday afternoon a getaway day for many.

June 27, 2009

Sickness and Healing

Jesus is the healing presence of God arriving among us. As the afflicted woman pushed through the crowd just to touch his clothes, so we strive to enter His presence in prayer. As He entered the home of the little girl and raised her to new life, so He enters the inner room of our hearts in Holy Communion. Follow this link for my homily for this weekend.

June 26, 2009

Wedding Rosary

For this afternoon's wedding, the bride had her rosary wrapped around her left hand the whole time. I had never seen that before, but I thought it was a touching way to seek Mary's intercession on wedding day.

Perhaps this is a local or ethnic custom that I had not seen before?

Gratitude Against Resentment

Some good words from confession this morning:

We must always be very careful not to indulge resentment against having to struggle with sin. The indulgence of resentment--because it implies the insidious and incorrect belief that we have been denied something to which we are entitled--is a dangerous occasion of sin. Do whatever you have to do to be somewhat grateful for the struggle with sin, especially in those areas for which the struggle is intensified by your special state in life. This is your unique and particular sharing in the interior agony of the Lord in his Passion, and is part of the sacrifice of the priesthood. It's only armed with some gratitude for this personal struggle and sacrifice that you will have anything real to offer to the penitents who come to you.

June 25, 2009

No New Dictionary For Me Today

One of the friars re-gifted to me a Barnes & Noble gift certificate for $50. Woo hoo, I said, and realizing today that I had enough in my bn.com "basket," I went to redeem it. Having put in the codes a few times without success, I examined the certificate more closely.

"Gift Cert Issued 12-11-98"

According to their gift certificate depreciation policy, it's now worth negative $112.

"Perfect joy," as we Franciscans say! Thanks, brother!

Confession, On The Other Hand

I'm really into the confession theme this week. Maybe it's because I need to go!

There is another, more difficult side to the pastoral care of penitents. Sometimes you have to challenge or confront them in uncomfortable ways. Here are some examples:

1. When they come to confess other people's sins. I can't believe how common this is! Folks whose emotional and spiritual lives are very much embedded in their personal or family relationships are the most susceptible. Usually the tendency to confess other people's sins is a sign of the larger problem of taking emotional responsibility for the bad behavior of other people. This is very unhelpful because in almost no cases has the penitent actually been asked by the Holy Spirit to take up the pastoral care of the other party, and taking responsibility for them in this way actually enables the irresponsibility of the other!

With this you have to let the penitent know that perhaps it would be good to talk to someone about the problem, but that it's not appropriate for confession.


2. When something isn't sinful. People come because they feel guilty, but guilt is wider than sin. Just because we feel guilty doesn't mean that we have sinned. A lot of folks come to confession to exorcise their guilt, and there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with this on the emotional level, but it's not the real meaning or use of the sacrament. It's easy to feel guilty about mistakes, misfortunes, or things we have been unable to do, but that doesn't make these sinful.

Missing Sunday Mass is a good example. This is something commonly confessed, but not always a sin. For example, when a penitent is asked why she missed Sunday Mass, she might respond that she had to care for a sick child, or that the person she depends on to help her get there didn't come. These are not sins, but the penitent still feels guilty about it, because she knows that her world has fallen short of the faithfulness to God she desires.

In these sorts of cases it is important to help the penitent understand that the negative emotion of guilt is only there because it derives from the more positive spiritual stance of a desire for faithfulness to God. This is the place out of which he should pray. On a more general level, this is good for all penitents to remember if they are ever overcome by the guilt and shame of sin: they only feel that way because of the more powerful spiritual gift of wanting to serve God well.


3. Shifting the locus of culpability. Sometimes you have to try to get a penitent to look for the locus of moral--not emotional--guilt in a different place. In most versions of the act of contrition, there is a resolution of amendment. So, someone has to to know what such amendment of life might look like in practical terms. The best example is a recurrent habitual sin, often in the area of speech or sexual purity. Many times the pattern of habit is so ingrained that a plan for amendment that takes the form 'quit doing x' is never going to work. A better plan would be to try to rearrange and adjust the rest of one's life in order to eliminate the need for the function of the sin in daily life and reduce its occasions. In other words, the moral guilt of the penitent may lie not in the actual sinful act, but in the failure to address the arrangement of the rest of his life in which the sin fits so comfortably.


4. When someone doesn't believe in forgiveness, or doesn't believe she can be forgiven. In some ways this is the hardest of all. Sometimes the simple question, 'do you believe you can be forgiven?', carries a strong enough charge that it will reduce someone immediately to tears. Those with a strong desire for the devout life can sometimes be confronted on their belief in the forgiveness of sins. 'Don't you believe in the forgiveness of sins, in the sacrifice of Christ?' Those who are more fragile often need to be led little by little to accept that God could love them. Often these kinds of troubles derive from an unwillingness to forgive oneself that derives from self-pity or self-hate, which is then projected onto God. To such as these I often give the Apostles' Creed as a penance, just so the penitent will have to actually pray, "I believe...in the forgiveness of sins."

June 24, 2009

Hesitant Advice for Confessors

I didn't foresee hitting on something so big in yesterday's post on folks who randomly ask for confession. As I thought about the post and the comments, though, I realized that perhaps many of us who at least desire a devout life know both the intense disappointment of not being taken seriously in confession and the joy of making progress when we have found the right confessor.

I hesitate a little to say what makes a good confessor, as I have been hearing confessions for less than 22 months. But I have been a regular penitent for 17 years and I think my advice for confessors might be worth something.

It seems to me that to be a good confessor, a priest would need:

1. to be a sinner. Of course this is easy on one level, since all have sinned. But a confessor needs to be conscious of himself both as a sinner and as one who has received God's mercy. He needs to know what it feels like to be miserable on account of the traps of sin, and to have experienced the liberation that God delights to offer him. He needs to be aware of his own tendencies to selfishness and sin and to be contrite about them both in general and particular examinations. A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.

2. to be a regular penitent. I occasionally deal with angry people in the parish office who do not understand why they can't be a godparent without being confirmed. I tell them that it does not make sense to sponsor someone on a journey--in this case, Christian sacramental initiation--without having bothered to make the journey themselves. When I ask for directions, I look for someone who has actually been to place I want to reach.

The same goes for confession. At the basic emotional and existential level, a priest needs to know what it feels like to be a penitent: the vulnerability, the courage and trust it takes to enumerate embarrassing sins out loud, and the powerful emotional charges of shame and guilt that often go with our own personal histories of failure before God. Beyond that, on the professional and ministerial level, a priest needs a working knowledge of what is helpful and unhelpful to hear from a confessor in his own experience, so that he might be more sensitive to the situation of his own penitents.

3. to be reading the saints and the spiritual writers. Perhaps this will be more important for some confessors than others, depending on the nature of their ministry and the extent of their own experience. Nevertheless, I have found it to be important for me for two reasons.

First, it is possible to offer constructive pastoral advice to most penitents based on one's own experience of the spiritual struggle. However, some will come from states in life and situations that are pretty alien to your own, and so it is good to be aware of other spiritual narratives out of which you can speak to someone very different from yourself.

Second, you will occasionally encounter a penitent who is far more spiritually advanced than yourself. Perhaps this is more a problem for someone like me who is still trying to make a beginning of things, but I'm sure it happens to most priests from time to time. Having not arrived at this penitent's level of spirituality, you will be unable to speak to them from your own experience. In these cases, however, it is possible to diagnose the penitent through the language of the saints and spiritual writers. Here I have found the descriptions of spiritual ascent from writers like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila very helpful. Then I can at least say, "What you describe sounds a lot like what saint so-and-so calls x, and this is how she says we should work at that stage."

June 23, 2009

Father, Will You Hear My Confession?

Our earlier daily Mass is at 6:45, and--at least when I celebrate it--it's over by 7:10 or so. The next liturgy is Morning Prayer, which isn't until 8. There is almost always some part of the empty, in between hour in which I can be found around the church and sacristy, either tidying up after the first Mass, setting up for Morning Prayer and the second Mass, or just getting started on my rosary for the day.

A handful of people have discovered, over time, that this is a time when they can go to confession. Of course I'm happy to hear their confessions, and at that time of the day I still have the energy to gratefully receive the opportunity of penance if I happen to be inconvenienced by them. They are almost always very brief encounters, little snippets of the larger and deeper conversation between an individual soul and the Lord.

I always laugh inside a little bit, though. I would never have done such a thing back when things were the other way around. Perhaps I'm just shy, but I didn't see priests as approachable enough to just ask for confession at a random moment. Even if I really felt it was time for a confession, I would wait for the regularly scheduled times.

I laugh because this is a good thing. Back in the earlier years of my Baptism I used to go to confession a lot; at least once a week for several spells. I still go at least once a month, and sometimes more often than that. But I protest that universal law instructs religious to approach the sacrament frequenter. (CIC, 664) I didn't always go to confession for the right reasons, though, and that's why it was providential for my to have been shy about approaching priests about it. Some of my frequent use of the sacrament was about contrition, for sure, and some of it was just because I had a lot of zeal and was working hard in prayer and interior asceticism in those years. But I also went to confession all the time because I was having a hard time accepting myself as a sinner. I only wanted to imagine myself as perfect, and so I would use the sacrament not so much to celebrate the forgiveness we have in Christ as to get rid of the sin that was interfering with my beloved idea of myself as so very devout. Holiness too can become an idol. "The devil is not afraid to preach the will of God, provided he can preach it in his own way." (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 94)

So I'm grateful for the folks who interrupt my morning with their confessions; I'm just glad I didn't ever think to do such a thing when I was younger in the faith. I don't know if this is normal, but after my priestly ordination I was hearing confessions before I even offered my first Mass, and penitents continue to challenge me with their honesty and earnest devotion.

June 22, 2009

Little German Breviary

Today the mail brought my latest foreign language adventure, a German breviary. It seems as if it is their equivalent of our Shorter Christian Prayer, and contains Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. Unlike our short breviary, which is usually in one volume, this seems to be four little inexpensive volumes for--as far as I can tell--Advent/Christmas, Lent/Easter, Ordinary Time, and then a fourth volume for the sanctoral cycle (which seems odd to me.) I ordered the ordinary time volume. What I really want right now is the Compline. Knowing it well, it's usually where I start when I'm trying to learn to pray in another language.

Anyway, it's an adorable little pocket-size prayer book. Here's the title page and the nice and sturdy Benedictus/Magnificat card:



And now I shall go on a pet rant. Even in this little breviary, as you can see in the picture below, Sunday antiphons for the Gospel Canticles are provided according to the three-year cycle of Sunday Gospels. This is how it is in the typical edition. I have no idea why our English translators didn't see fit to print the whole set for the three hinge hours each Sunday. Instead we get the antiphon that corresponds to year A for Evening Prayer I, year B for Morning Prayer, and year C for Evening Prayer II, which means that the antiphon only fits the Sunday Gospel one out of three times on each Sunday. Come on, guys.



It comes with three ribbons, which is generous for the size of the book. They are the cloth kind, which can't be cauterized with fire, and so have to be either tied or shellacked so they don't unravel.

Coming Late and Leaving Early

It's wedding season, and I have a marriage to witness every weekend from now until the end of August. This past Saturday's was about as easy is could be: just the ceremony (no Mass), no dreaded "unity candle," no procession to Our Lady's Altar to offer her flowers, no other bonus features.

In fact, the wedding was especially short, because the couple left before it was over!

For the marriage rite outside of Mass, the intercessions are folded into the Nuptial Blessing, which begins after the blessing and giving of rings. So, I had this couple offer each other their consent, which they did quite beautifully, I have to say, blessed their rings and had them put them on. Then there was an applause for the newly married couple.

I looked down at my ritual to page up the Nuptial Blessing, but when I looked up, the couple was already walking down the aisle. I looked up to the choir loft and saw the organist shrugging his shoulders and wondering what to do. I motioned to him to start playing the recessional. I guessed that the marriage was valid (help me out canonist readers!) and not wanting to mess up their video, I let them go.

Email from the General Curia

This is too cool. This morning I have an email from the general curia of our Order, acknowledging my suggestions for the current revision of our Constitutions.


Dear br. Charles (PR Neoeboracensis et Novae Angliae),

We have received your suggestions about Chapter III (n. 52,1; nn. 50-51), that will be transmitted to the members of the Commission, in order to be evaluated.

Yours fraternally,

Officium Secretariatus Commissionis Constitutionum

Curia generalis OFMCap

June 21, 2009

Back to Normal

Today was my first ever opportunity--oh what a backwards world we live in--to pray publicly in the ordinary language of the Roman rite.

For years I've been doing some of the Liturgy of the Hours in Latin--those hours we don't pray in common, and since I've been a priest I've learned some of the quiet prayers of the Mass, but I have never prayed out loud in Latin at a public liturgy.

Today was the first time. It was "mission appeal" Sunday, and our mission preacher was a priest from the archdiocese of Kampala in Uganda. Of course this was also exciting for me on a personal level, given my devotion to St. Charles Lwanga. When it was Father's turn to preside at Mass, I concelebrated so that he wouldn't have to worry about the particularities of our procedures. Concluding the Eucharistic Prayer, Father intoned the doxology in Latin. I managed to overcome my happy surprise and join in around the est tibi.

Per ipsum et cum ipso et in ipso est tibi, Deo Patri omnipotente, in unitate Spiritus Sancti, omnis honor et gloria, per omnia saecula saeculorum.

Happy Fathers' Day, Father

I guess I just feel funny receiving Fathers' Day wishes. It goes against something inside me, but I can't quite articulate it yet.

Certainly there is a lot of spiritual fatherhood and motherhood in the order of grace. In any devout life we are given many mothers and fathers along the way, helping to conceive us as the new creations Christ calls us to be. Priests are supposed to be ministers of this spiritual fatherhood in a particular and intense way.

But for any ministering celibate--not just priests--this call to parenthood in the order of grace is always bound up with the darkness and obscurity of the renunciation of ordinary generativity. Done well, this emptiness and obscurity becomes a mystical contact with the Source of all, a kind of superfecund coincidence of opposites. Done poorly, well we know what disasters come from that.

Like any experience of true prayer, the intersection of spiritual parenthood and celibate chastity is a place both terrifying and sublime, and an experience of the Light Who is so bright that our minds and hearts can only see It as darkness.

I guess none of this explains why I feel funny when someone wishes me a happy Fathers' Day, but it's a start.

So go ahead, I guess, and wish your priest a happy Fathers' Day. But don't forget your mothers in the spiritual order on Mothers' Day either.

June 20, 2009

In The Homiletic Bind

This is "mission appeal" weekend for us, when a priest from a far away place comes and preaches and appeals for prayers and financial support. Because of this, I did not prepare to preach this weekend, as Fr. Visitor would be preaching at all the Masses.

Unfortunately, Fr. Visitor missed his flight this morning, and will not arrive until later on in the evening. This leaves me in a bind for the vigil Mass tonight. Since the day I was ordained deacon, I have not presumed to give a liturgical homily without preparing ahead of time, and I don't intend to start now.

However, I am obligated to offer a homily. (see c. 767 in your Code of Canon Law) So what am I going to do, seeing as I don't want to (1) preach without being prepared or (2) deny the people the homily to which they have a right on Sundays, and thereby (3) commit a mortal sin?

Well, here's my solution: Thanks to my favorite homily helper, the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, (of which I only have the Mark volume so far) the people are going to get a little bit of Augustine's homily on the gospel.

I Feel So Empowered...

The Capuchin Order is in the midst of a revision of its Constitutions. As the proposed revisions appear, all of the brothers are invited to offer alternatives for the review of the commission.

Today I offered my first. In the prayer chapter, Christ is identified as our interpres, which was translated into English as "spokesman." I suggested that a more Biblical or traditional word might serve better, perhaps "mediator" or "advocate."

Quodlibets and Curly Fries

We don't have a formal meal on Friday evenings, and there was nothing else going on, so tonight I went to the senior friars' home for supper.

It was quite the scene. Over their standard Friday supper of fish sticks and curly fries--they're real Catholics--the brethren were having an elaborate discussion about the eternal destiny of Judas Iscariot.

The questions at hand:

1. Is it possible that Judas could be saved?

2. Is final impenitence really possible?

3. Is it a pious and fitting thought to imagine that there are perhaps no human souls in hell?

4. Is it likewise pious and fitting to expect to meet Judas in heaven?

5. If someone were to meet Judas in heaven, what would we say to him?


The conversation self-destructed fairly quickly, but was nonetheless entertaining.

I'll put my contentions in the comment box, just to keep the post clean.

June 19, 2009

Sacred Heart

I doubt that anyone goes through this life without some heartbreak. For some the ordinary experience of the broken hearts of life seems to close them up in bitterness, while for others it helps them to learn to be gentle with the hearts of others. I don't know what makes for the difference, but whether our own pain closes off our hearts or opens them up to the pain of others--to com-passion--is the distinction between lives that come to be configured to the Passion of Christ and lives that are thrown away in unhappiness and sin.

To me this is the mystery of the Sacred Heart. Christ crucified is the broken heart of God, but on the Cross the Sacred Heart is broken open so that the divine compassion flows out--the water and blood that becomes for us the saving and refreshing stream of Baptism and Eucharist.

To receive these mysteries gratefully is to learn to imitate them, and to let our own hearts break open into compassion.

Cor Jesu Sacratissimum, Miserere Nobis.

Stumped

I need some help with this one, erudite Catholic readers.

I was just looking ahead, and noticed that the the Assumption of Our Lady falls on a Saturday this year. Of course this means that the obligation is abrogated, but that's not my question.

What about Saturday night, at the ordinary vigil Masses? I am told that they will be the Mass of the Sunday in Ordinary Time, not the Mass of the Assumption. I suppose this is correct, but I don't know why. Solemnities of Our Lady far outrank Sundays in Ordinary Time, but we're not really talking about the same day here, just a particular kind of intersection of liturgical days.

Is Evening Prayer of that day Evening Prayer I of the Sunday or Evening Prayer II of the Assumption? (My ordo says "EP II of sol.") But I am assured by those with more experience that the Saturday evening Masses are of the Sunday. Is it because the Sunday obligation would not be fulfilled otherwise?

Thanks for the help. Citations from authority would be a big help.

June 18, 2009

Phishing The Hierarchy

Would you be willing to become a bishop? Please give me your bank account information. Check out the whole story over on Just a Brother.

Catholic Quick Start Guide

It's no secret that the average Catholic does not practice the faith. For whatever reason, at this point in history there are huge numbers of Catholics who fall into the category of 'baptized but un-catechized.' After each moment of sacramental initiation, whether it be Baptism, Holy Communion, or Confirmation, many are lost to the praying assembly.

Occasionally it happens, though, that someone who has not practiced or considered the faith since their first Holy Communion or Confirmation is led back by circumstances or just ordinary grace. They range from the cautious but curious to the overwhelming zealous and energetic. Whatever their condition, they need a plan. So, having given this 'how get going again in the faith' advice several times in confession or in the parlor, I thought I would post it.

(N.B. This plan is for Catholics who have previously begun their sacramental initation as infants or children, and are coming back to the faith. The situation of catechumens--those who are adult candidates for Baptism--and baptized Christians of other Churches and ecclesial communities is a different case.)


Pray


Attend Sunday Mass as devoutly as you can. Get yourself a Sunday Missal or Daily Roman Missal to help you prepare ahead of time as well as become more familiar with the Mass in general. A good hand missal will also have a lot of other good resources for your prayerful exploration.

Develop a practice of going to confession to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Once every couple of months, with extra effort for Advent and Lent is a good minimum schedule for a devout soul. If you don't have anything to say, either you have a bad memory or your sin is that you aren't reflecting on your life. If you are struggling with serious and habitual sins, go more often.

Pray each day. It doesn't matter how, though a mixture of formal prayers and simple quiet before the Lord is good. Find the time of day when you can pray with the least distraction. For many people this is the peace of the early morning before things get crazy. For others it's the evening after the day has been dealt with. For some with a bi-phasic workday (like a parish priest) the afternoon might be the best time for prayer. Try different forms and practices of prayer and follow what catches your heart. If you don't have a rosary, get one. If you have one on your car mirror, take it down and pray it instead.


Join

If you are not an active member of your parish, become one. In most cases you are a parishioner of the parish territory in which you live, which is usually the closest Catholic church. However, you can also make yourself a parishioner of a parish somewhere else simply by registering there. Go where you feel your soul will be fed. Support your parish with your prayer, your good example, and a weekly financial contribution.


Learn

If you don't have your own copy of the Sacred Scriptures, get one. The standard American English Bible for Catholics is called the New American Bible.

Empower yourself by learning the faith and the teachings of the Church. Pick up a catechism. For those in the States, the Catholic Catechism for Adults by our bishops is very good, and is usually in stock in regular bookstores. If you want to go first class, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a great reference, and is available everywhere. When one person (even a priest!) says that the Church teaches this or that, and someone else says the teaching is something else, you don't have to wonder. Learn it yourself.

Visit a Catholic bookstore when you can, and browse the spiritual books. If something grabs your attention, pick it up.


Discern and adjust your life

Through prayer and learning you will soon notice ways in which you need to bring your life more in line with Catholic teaching.

If you have not completed your sacramental initiation, begin this process right away. In many cases this means that Confirmation is still lacking. Most parishes will have a program for this, or can direct you to one.

If you are struggling with serious, habitual sin, find a confessor whom you feel takes you seriously and can offer practical advice. Do a little detective work on yourself. Ask what this sin does for you. When does it happen? What are the occasions of the sin? What is the opposite virtue and what are the practical means of acquiring it?

There are many lifestyle and marriage situations which may need adjustment. Some marriages outside the Church are easily regularized according to Catholic practice, while others may be more complicated. Talk to a priest whom you trust, and then pray to the Holy Spirit to show you opportunities to speak and pray with your spouse about it. The same goes for those who are not married, but may be simulating marriage through cohabitation. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you notice opportunities to open the subject of the Church's expectations of the two of you.


Above all

Take it easy! The plan for this life is to walk with the Lord, so there's no need to run. This is a work of grace; it's not your own. Your job is not to push, but to consent. Attend to the graces at hand, stay grateful, and take it one day at a time.

June 17, 2009

Recently in The Onion

I try to be very careful in my use of the internet, but one frivolous thing I allow myself is the online edition of The Onion, a satirical publication I have been reading since it was just a newspaper out of Madison, Wisconsin.

One recent article pokes fun at our increasing dependence on input from electronic media: "Report: 90% of Waking Hours Spent Staring at Glowing Rectangles." The humorous diagnosis is uncomfortably true. From the computer screen to the television to the PDA, phone and iPod, a lot of contemporary life revolves around interactions with "glowing rectangles."

To me it's one of our most serious obstacles to taking the Lord's advice on prayer, which we hear in the gospel for today: "But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you." (Matthew 6:6) The spiritual tradition consistently interprets the door and the inner room in a kind of mental way; we are to pray by going inside ourselves to the place that is higher (for ancients) or deeper (for moderns) than the din of distraction from within and without. Our lives are so full of sensory and intelligible input, both good and bad, that it can be hard to "close the door." I have heard of people practicing "news fasts" in order to get some control in this area, and there is also my proposal of the spiritual practice I call "the dark night of the web."


The other humorous article titled, "60-Year-Old Hippie Pitied By 40-Year-Old Punk" also caught my attention recently. That says more than I can comfortably admit about my own investment in the much examined generational conflicts in contemporary North American religious life.

June 16, 2009

Martyrs of the Nazi Persecution

Today in the Capuchin calendar we have the option of celebrating those five Capuchin friars among the 108 Martyrs of World War II beatified by John Paul II in 1999.

Their feast day, today, was the occasion of one of the most remarkable experiences of my whole religious life. For one of my summers during studies, I went to one of our infirmaries to help out. One of the friars there, Fr. Zygmund--then 91 years old--is a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp.

When the day of our blesseds arrived, I was with Fr. Zygmund in the sacristy. Taking the ordo (the little guide book that indicates which Mass and Office to offer each day) he read the names of the five martyrs, telling me a little about each one. He explained how one had always seemed like a saint, while another was easily annoyed and difficult to live with. He laughed about another whom he said never liked him because Fr. Zygmund's command of Russian was better than his.

I stood there, overwhelmed and amazed. The man standing before me was lucky to be alive, and it was only chance that he was alive and living in the obscurity of a Capuchin infirmary while his friends and confreres were being celebrated as beati in Capuchin churches all over the world.

One day Fr. Zygmund will die in the same obscurity. Even so, he shared the same sufferings as his brothers who will be known and celebrated as blesseds (at least) until the end of time.

I keep this story in mind sometimes when I'm around a lot of strangers, perhaps on the bus or the subway, or even in church. I try to remember that one never knows the sufferings that other people have been through, and how much they have survived in their lives with God's help and care. It helps me to remember that I'm called to treat others according to their final destiny in God's eyes, as those meant for flourishing holiness in this life, and sainthood in the next.

June 15, 2009

Growing Up

Growing up in this life I had the blessing of a pretty much determined plan: Elementary school, middle school, high school, college. I was fortunate to have free choice about where to go to college, but what I was choosing was mostly details; the general idea was a given. When I graduated, at age 22, it was the first time I had to lay out a path for myself entirely on my own. The pre-arranged linear road had come to end, and I had to decide what to do next. Certainly this was nothing unusual; I imagine that most of my classmates were in the identical existential situation.

I decided that I wanted to be a Franciscan friar. With a few twists, turns, and detours it has all been downhill from there, and I'm very grateful.

Coming to religious life sets one upon a similar linear path of growing up. There are the stages of religious formation: aspirancy, postulancy, novitiate, temporary vows, perpetual vows. Of course there are free choices to be made within this structure, the most critical of which for me was discerning whether or not to declare myself a candidate for sacred Orders. But even this wasn't much of a choice for me. I didn't come to Franciscan life with any clear thought about whether or not I would be a lay friar or a priest friar; all I knew at that point was that I wanted to be a Franciscan. When I did declare myself willing to be ordained if the Order and the Church thought it a good idea, it was more of a consent to what was emerging in my life than a choice.

Recently I feel as though I have arrived at the point in my relgious life parallel to my life in general when I was 22. Thus far my religious life has been arranged for me. The formation program was laid out for us. We were sent to a certain school. When I was done with school, I was assigned to the ministry and fraternal life I have now, no questions asked, no questions needed.

But now I've come to a point where the conversations about what comes next are starting to happen, and I realize that a lot of this is in my hands. All of a sudden I have a responsibility for my own destiny that I have experienced before, but not for a while. It drives me to prayer, signifiying that is a healthy challenge. So pray for me, that I seek and listen to the advice of the right brothers and sisters, and embrace the freedom the Holy Spirit seems to be trying to give me.

June 13, 2009

The Body and Blood of Christ

The gift of the Eucharist extends the gift of the Incarnation and the grace of the Lord's sacrifice into our midst and our lives. Follow this link for my Corpus Christi homily.

June 12, 2009

Sede Vacante?

Word around the campfire is that our sometime Capuchin brother, Pope Pius XIII, the only supreme pontiff I have almost met, has died. I've been poking around, but I can't confirm it. If anyone knows, or knows if he will have a successor, leave a comment and let me know.

Little Fishes

The church two parishes away has a little chapel off the left side of the main sanctuary. I don't know if they ever have Mass in there, but it would be great for a group of up to thirty people or so. Gated off on one side is the old baptistery, which fascinates me. It has a mosaic floor made to look like a pool, with fish swimming about in it. On the floor, in Roman capitals, is an inscription that has always fascinated me:

SED NOS PISCICULI SECUNDUM IXΘON NOSTRUM IN AQUA NASCIMUR

So today when I was there I wrote it down. A quick Google search reveals its origin in Tertullian's De Baptismo 1, 3:

Sed nos pisciculi secundum nostrum ιχθον Iesum Christum in aqua
nascimur, nec aliter quam in aqua permanendo salvi sumus.

"But we little fishes are born in water according to our Fish Jesus Christ, and nor are we saved in any way but by remaining in the water."

Whoever designed the baptistery perhaps left the Iesum Christum out of the quote to get the IXΘON right in the middle of the inscription, which is very striking.

Neat, right? That's my next baptism homily. Better translations are welcome in the comments. It took me a while to figure out how to get the Greek letters into Blogger; my usual method of cut and paste from Word didn't work. I was happy to this chart of the HTML for the Greek alphabet.

Timmy Dolan's Backyard Barbecue

Yesterday I went to one of archbishop Dolan's "cookouts" for the priests of the Archdiocese of New York. Of course it wasn't outside, because it was a rainy and gloomy day, but in the big room in the seminary gym where we are occasionally summoned for meetings and presentations.

It's a little bit intimidating to walk into a room full of a few hundred priests (including a few bishops, too.) To me, priests--by appearance--seem to fall into a handful of types, so each one looks like you know him or must have met him somewhere along the way. We were instructed to dress casually, and most seemed to have complied. You can always tell which priests generally wear clerics all the time and which religious their habits, because their casual clothes will be really out of date or terribly mismatched. Others, of course, are as stylish as could be. Following his own advice, the archbishop soon appeared wearing a Milwaukee Brewers shirt and a baseball cap from the Yonkers police. He worked the room, using one hand to shake hands with each priest and other to hold his beer. He made a forceful and encouraging impression, I have to admit.

There were long tables covered with picnic gingham and set with silver colored plastic cutlery. There was a lot of food: hot dogs, hamburgers, corn, chili, chicken, ribs, sausage and peppers, and potato salad. The woman serving the hamburgers turned out to be a Salvadoreña and another friar and I talked to her a little about El Salvador. Seeing that he didn't have one, I told the bartender to put out a tip cup. Priests are almost invariably cheap this way, but that was no reason to give up, I said.

All in all, it was very enjoyable. There's another one coming up for lay religious, and some of our friars are going. Do you think I could get away with it if I went too?

No More Plurks. Or Tweets.

Well, I've decided to delete my Plurk and Twitter accounts. It's fun, but it's not working for me.

I don't want to be negative about it, because I can see how forums like these could be exceedingly helpful for people in the sharing of resources, mutual support, and to create an online community of prayer. But for me, it's just not the right thing. When I went to pray my breviary this morning, I neglected to mute the laptop. The bell went off announcing "new plurks" and "new responses." I wasn't able to let go of it, and I interrupted the prayer to check them. Sorry. Make me choose between God and the promises I have made as a member of His Church, and you lose. "If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away."

Styles of Christian life, prayer, and devotion depend a lot on temperament. For me, since my earliest days my own life with the Lord has depended intimately on a certain kind of solitude, a spiritually fruitful aloneness. Traditional blogging fits in well with this, but I've decided that Plurk and Twitter do not.

For all of the truly inspiring friends I have made through Plurk, I am not rejecting you. You are great for me, but the format is not. Thank you for your prayers, and for the privilege of praying for you and with you. Many of you I will certainly see around, perhaps through your blogs or in Z-Chat. Stay strong in the Lord. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit delights in working through you for the much needed sanctification of the internet. Keep fighting the good fight, and be assured of my prayers. Peace.

Do you lose "karma" when a friend deletes their account? Please let me know in the comments. If so, I will offer a Mass for my "Plurkfriends" to make up for it.

(Aren't you surprised that I wrote 'forums' instead of 'fora?' See how I can let go? ;-) )


June 10, 2009

Fulfilling the Law

Jesus' words in today's gospel have always fascinated me:

Jesus said to his disciples:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.

Matthew 5: 17-18

But what does this mean for us, the latest in a long line of gentile converts to Christianity, grafted onto the faith of Abraham by our baptism? Surely we have not followed the Law that God gave to his people through Moses! So what does it mean when Jesus says that he has not abolished, but fulfilled the Law, and that none of it will pass away?

There are lots of angles on this, but here's the one that works for me: the Law was a gift to the people, that they might imitate the holiness of God. "Be holy as I am holy." Now everyone who has tried to live a holy life knows the experience of mixed results. Our attachments, sins, and unconscious motivations often make a mockery of our desire for holiness and devotion, and we find ourselves in the discouragement of desiring God but being stymied by our own inability to seek Him devoutly.

The gift of the Incarnation is a remedy for this sorry condition. Jesus, in his divine humanity, mirrors the holiness of God from within our human condition, and offers the perfect sacrifice of obedience to the Father, thereby justifying our humanity before God. Thus the holiness we could not attain on our own has been accomplished on our behalf by one like us in all things but sin.

At this point we must be careful not to make the protestant error which sometimes seems to say that we remain in our miserable state of utter failure even though we are justified before God in Christ. Not necessarily! We in the apostolic churches--and in some ways the Orthodox even more than us Catholics--have what one of my teachers called a "maximalist anthropology." We believe that the human person can be redeemed and lifted up to sanctity in Christ. This is because Jesus has allowed the blessing and grace of his perfect sacrifice and holiness to pass over into us through the Resurrection. This is exactly what we mean by the coming of the Holy Spirit as the animator of the Church, and by the Eucharist as the living memorial of the Passion. Jesus has handed over the fruits of his own perfect sacrifice into our hands, that we too might fulfill the Law through him, and become holy as God alone is holy.

June 9, 2009

How Much Should I Pray?

One of my first spiritual directors gave me some advice that I have always struggled with, but in a good and productive way. I asked him how much time I ought to devote to prayer in a day or a week. He said, "More than you want, but less than you think you should."

We should pray more than we want to.

If you're anything like me, you protest right away. But I want to pray all the time! I want to pray always as the Scriptures command! So how could I pray more than I want to? This apparent problem is important for our spiritual self-awareness. Do we want to pray always, or do we want to want to pray always? There's a big difference. To take a simpler example, we may say that we want to eat apples instead of candy, or drink water instead of gin, but it's really that we wish we wanted to change, not that we want to.

Any person who tries to get serious about a prayerful life knows this conflict. We want to be the sort of person who is utterly committed to prayer, but we soon find that this isn't who we really are. Sometimes we feel like praying and sometimes we don't. To keep our rule of prayer and to pray earnestly and intentionally precisely when we don't feel like it is critical to our spiritual growth. This our invitation into the "night of sense." To pray through our dryness of lack of delight in prayer purifies our motivation and offers us the great gift of not becoming attached to the consolations that are meant to help beginners get going.

We should pray less than we think we should

Every serious religious person has a kind of image of herself as the saint she wants to be. This is a good and holy desire, and helps us to strive to go beyond ourselves as we are. Sometimes, though, this gets to be an obstacle when what we really want to worship is the idea of ourselves as a holy person rather than the living God. When this gets really bad someone walks about, missal or breviary bulging with holy cards, in a self-satisfied stupor covered by a kind of affected humility that even a child can tell is fake. He is not in love with God, but with religion and the idea of himself as a servant of God. The religious self can be a powerful idol, and one the devil is happy to encourage.

If we are honest, we will hardly have to try at praying less than we think we should; anyone with even meager self-awareness will realize that he is not living up to his own expectations for devout prayer and religious practice. Instead of letting this produce a self-involved discouragement, this experience of not be able to pray as we ought should invite us to the humility that depends only on God. "The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings." (Romans 8:26)

This is the big "Aha! moment" with prayer, but also one of its hardest challenges: it is not something we do at all. It is not our activity or project. It is the life of the Blessed Trinity come to live within us, the prayer of the Spirit that has made a home in our spirit through our communion with the humanity of Christ. To realize this is a great liberation, for we only have to consent rather than do anything, and we have no credit in it, and thus no occasion for vanity.

June 8, 2009

Love Against Unchastity

There are many otherwise devout people who struggle with sins against purity or chastity. In our highly eroticized culture in which sexual perversions and pornography are so normalized, it's hardly a surprise. All states in life are susceptible, married and single, religious and secular, cleric and lay. Such sins range all the way from daily imperfections (e.g. failures in vigilance in "guard of the heart" or "custody of the eyes") all the way up to dangerous and risky behaviors (e.g. anonymous sex.)

These sorts of sins can seem intractable because they form powerful habits that reach into several different layers of the person (physical, spiritual, affective, etc.) and because they are often smokescreens for other problems.


You fool! You have really done what you did not want to do! God has left you with the pleasure, because the pleasure also was His will: but you have neglected the happiness He wanted to give you along with the pleasure, or perhaps the greater happiness He intended for you without the pleasure and beyond it and above it!

You have eaten the rind and thrown away the orange. You have kept the paper that was nothing but a wrapping and you have thrown away the case and the ring and the diamond.

--Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 201-202.


Should there be a desire for repentance and amendment of life, one of the questions someone might ask is how much they are willing to suffer in order not to displease God. In this spirit I love this story from the Desert Fathers, not only because it is a tale of utterly committed ascesis, but also because it shows how genuine love between Christians can help defeat the "demon of fornication."

Abba Phocas also said, 'When he came to Scetis, Abba James was strongly attacked by the demon of fornication. As the warfare pressed harder, he came to see me and told me about it, saying to me, "Tomorrow, I am going to such and such a cave but I entreat you for the Lord's sake, do not speak of it to anyone, not even my father. But count forty days and when they are fulfilled do me the kindness of coming and bringing me holy communion. If you find me dead, bury me, but if you find me still alive, give me holy communion."

Having heard this, when the forty days were fulfilled, I took holy communion and a whole loaf with a little wine and went to find him. As I was drawing near to the cave I smelt a very bad smell which came from its mouth. I said to myself, "The blessed one is at rest." When I got close to him, I found him half dead. When he saw me he moved his right hand a little, as much as he could, asking me for the holy communion with his hand. I said to him, "I have it." He wanted to open his mouth but it was fast shut. Not knowing what to do, I went out into the desert and found a piece of wood and with much difficulty, I opened his mouth a little. I poured in a little of the body and the precious blood, as much as he could take of them.

Through his participation in the holy communion he drew strength. A little after, soaking some crumbs of ordinary bread I offered them to him and after a time, some more, as much as he could take. So, by the grace of God, he came back with me a day later and walked as far as his own cell, delivered, by the help of God, from the harmful passion of fornication.'


This is from this edition of the Sayings, which is my favorite in English.

Sitting in the Dark

Sometimes on Sunday I go back to the church in late afternoon or early evening to say my Vespers and just sit for a while. We tend to close up and lock the church on Sundays after Masses are over in the early afternoon. I really love the place with the lights off, and feel bad for most of our parishioners because they never get to experience it; we almost always have some lights on at least in the sanctuary and around the side altars. I always notice the windows--the Mysteries of the Rosary--more without the lights.

Now that I've been here for a couple of years I realize what a subtle gift it is to open up the church around six in the morning a couple of days each week. Over the course of the year there are so many variations in the light, from a superabundance in these days when we approach the nativity of John the Baptist, to an utter lack on the other side of the year, as we near that of our Lord. The church is "oriented" more or less south-south west, so the dawn arrives in the back of church on the Blessed Mother side, and the day disappears off to the St. Joseph side of the sanctuary.

The church is generally open during the day, usually from about six in the morning until seven or eight in the evening. I'm so grateful that we do this. People visit too; in the course of day I notice many people making visits and praying. Lots of them I don't even know, but some I can count on to be there at certain hours offering their rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet. The anonymity of it all helps me to remember that the community of prayer is larger than we know or are supposed to know. I don't need to know their struggles and anxieties and searing sadnesses, and they don't need to know mine in order for us to pray for each other. I try to remember all these folks I don't know when I pray my office (most of which I do on my own) or my own rosary. Oremus pro invicem.

"Solitude is a hard won ally, faithful and patient. Yeah, I think I know you." --Henry Rollins

At night, after we lock up, is special to me too. There you can sit in real darkness, with just the vigil light keeping watch--and making up for our negligence--before the Blessed Sacrament. That, to me, is a special darkness. Perhaps it's because prayer is a kind of darkness, or because the Light of God is so overwhelming to our mind that we experience it as an obscurity. St. John of the Cross talked about contemplation as rayos de oscuridad, rays of darkness.


City churches are sometimes quiet and peaceful solitudes, caves of silence where a man can seek refuge from the intolerable arrogance of the business world. One can be more alone, sometimes, in church than in a room in one's own house. At home, one can always be routed out and disturbed (and one should not resent this, for love sometimes demands it). But in these quiet churches, one remains nameless, undisturbed in the shadows, where there are only a few chance, anonymous strangers among the vigil lights, and the curious impersonal postures of the bad statues. The very tastelessness and shabbiness of some churches makes them greater solitudes, though churches should not be vulgar. Even if they are, as long as they are dark it makes little difference.

Let there always be quiet, dark churches in which men can take refuge. Places where they can kneel in silence. Houses of God, filled with His silent presence. There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least they can be still and breathe easily. Let there be a place somewhere in which you can breathe naturally, quietly, and do not have to take your breath in continuous short gasps. A place where your mind can be idle, and forget its concerns, descend into silence, and worship the Father in secret.

There can be no contemplation where there is no secret.

--Thomas Merton, "Learn to be Alone," in New Seeds of Contemplation, 82-83

June 7, 2009

Eponymous Adages

I love eponymous adages. Some of my favorites are Hanlon's Razor, Futterman's Rule, and what I call Gallagher's Rules.

Hanlon's Razor states that one should never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity. How much interior distraction one can save oneself through a diligent application of this advice!

Futterman's Rule states that, "when two are served, you may begin to eat." Yes, that's the one from the Beastie Boys.

Gallagher's Rules I learned from one of my college professors, Eugene Gallagher, who was a good influence on me and taught us that in any act of interpretation one should begin with his "two rules" of hermeneutics:

1. Everyone's lying
2. Follow the money

They sound cynical, but are surprisingly useful tool against the many mystifications and red herrings one encounters every day.

Anyway, I want to propose one of my own. It's called Charles's Law of Homiletic Undulation. It's rare for a parish to priest to offer a single Mass on Sundays and their vigils. I usually offer Mass at least twice on any given liturgical Sunday. I can't help but notice, in the giving of the same homily three times between Saturday afternoon and Sunday,

The first time it's ragged.

The second time it's good.

The third time it's stale.

I have experienced this many times. So if anyone can confirm that it isn't just me, we can have a new eponymous adage.

June 6, 2009

The Blessed Trinity

Sacred Scripture is the living Word of God, so if God is a Trinity, we can expect Scripture to reveal what we mean by this. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

RIP: Fr. Owen Shelley, OFM Cap.

Tonight, at home in the friary, our Capuchin brother Fr. Owen left this world.

Fr. Owen was invested in the Capuchin habit on August 26, 1937. That's over 70 years of religious life. He professed his perpetual vows on August 29, 1941 and was ordained priest on May 16, 1945.

Fr. Owen's last illness was particularly long and difficult. Please pray for his peace and his speedy arrival at the everlasting joy of the New Jerusalem.

Requiescat in pace.

June 5, 2009

From My Confessor

Some good words on the struggle and the ministry:

In a very real way it is good for a priest to know the misery and struggles of sin. It helps us to understand and be compassionate with those we serve. But as a priest, we cannot stop there, as if a simple sharing in the same plight and spiritual condition of everyone else were enough.

A priest also has to know the path to freedom from sin, the path that Christ has won for us. He has to know that the humanity of Christ has christ-ened his own humanity. This is what people long for, to find and experience the path to freedom which is the humanity of Christ. When I say 'know' I mean really to know it as a personal experience in one's life. Granted, we must know this in an intellectual way so that we can find the words to express it in preaching, but the sine qua non is the personal experience of the freedom, liberation, and joy we communicate to others in our ministry of the Sacraments.

Distractions in Prayer

Anyone who decides to get serious about prayer and the spiritual life soon knows the discouragement of struggling with distractions during the time of prayer. They may be useless or even sinful, or just an intruding awareness of the next thing we have to do during the day.

To be distracted when we try to pray and recollect ourselves in the Presence of God is one of the ordinary and most useful trials in the spiritual life. Dealing with the annoyance and disappointment of distraction can help us accept the tutelage of the Holy Spirit and allow Him to draw us deeper into the Blessed Trinity.

That being said, what should we do if we find ourselves unacceptably distracted in prayer?


Outside of the time of prayer

First of all, if we are distracted at the time of prayer, it may be because we are distracted in our life in general. Mindfulness is critical in the spiritual life. Age quod agis, as the saying goes: "Do what you are doing," and not something else.

There can be no hope for prayer if we spend the rest of our day in a state of distraction, with the attention of heart and mind thrown about by every little thing that presents itself to them. A life of prayer demands that we begin to practice "watchfulness of thoughts" and "guard of the heart." We must work with our thoughts, inclinations, and affections throughout the day, practicing the letting go and breathing out of those that are useless, vain, or sinful. If we do not at least begin to discipline our interior attention and affect throughout our whole day, we cannot hope to just turn off the chaos during the time we have set apart for prayer.

Second, we need to practical about planning out our daily prayer. At what time of day is our mind most clear and at peace? For many the early morning is the best time for prayer, when the dawn or pre-dawn--the summo mane as the rubrics for the Liturgy of the Hours put it--recall the Resurrection and the whole world is quiet. For others the best time is the evening, after the day has been dealt with and stress has been worked out. For parish priests who often have a kind of crepuscular, bi-phasic workday, the best time may be in the quiet of the afternoon. We should seek the time for prayer that suits our particular temperament and circumstances best, so that we set ourselves up for success, praying when our mind and heart are most at peace.


Within the time of prayer

Even when we have organized the rest of our lives in service to our prayer, we we will still have to work with distractions while we are praying. It is good that we have to do this, because it trains us in our prayerful intentionality and will leave us more free from the tyranny of our thoughts during the rest of our day.

The most basic response to distractions in prayer is to simply let them go. Thoughts wander into our consciousness without our consent, and we are under no obligation to pay them any attention. If we don't, they will continue on their way. Images are sometimes helpful here. One that I like compares our mind to a river and our thoughts to little boats. I think I got it from Thomas Keating. Imagine the consciousness during prayer to be like a section of a river. Thoughts and distractions are like little boats that come floating downstream. If we don't pay them any attention, they float by and are gone. If we put our attention into them, or worse, weigh them down with an emotional reaction, the little boat gets heavier and moves that much slower. The more attention and emotion we put into the little boat, the heavier it gets and the more sluggish it becomes in floating away.

The purpose of an imaginative exercise like this is to help us learn that one of the real purposes of prayer is dis-identification with our thoughts. Our conscious thoughts do not exhaust our real identity, any more than our body does.

In order to make the letting go of thoughts and distractions work, we need to give up control. As long as we try to force thoughts out of our consciousness, we will only introduce more distraction. The point is not to push them out by force, but to let go of control and to dis-identify with the thought-stream altogether. We are not the thoughts, but the spiritual being that has the thoughts. Just as control is opposed to love in relationships between people, so control is opposed to prayer in the interior person. Let go. If distractions want to be there in our mind, let them be there. It is none of our business. When we don't worry about them or pay attention to them, they will go somewhere else. Control is the opposite of prayer.

Practicing in this way has tremendous spiritual fruit in our life outside of prayer. As we become less identified with our thoughts and feelings, we find ourselves less controlled and determined by our thoughts, feelings, and "tapes" as we go through our day. We become free from what we thought, half wrongly, was our "self."

Now sometimes it happens that we will be overwhelmed. Distracting thoughts come that have such an emotional charge or urgent intensity that they drown out everything else. At this point we sometimes have to simply surrender to the distraction and pray with it instead. As pain in the body is meant to make us deal with an urgent issue, so it sometimes happens with the soul. If distractions are so intense that we cannot let go of them or work with them, we have to start praying through the issue the distraction presents. But we shouldn't resort to this too readily. To let go of thoughts and distractions is a much more fruitful practice.

Church Nerd Humor

Acrimonious debater: What would St. Thomas say if he were here?

Unhelpful friar: He would say, 'Did I miss the Second Council of Lyon?'

June 4, 2009

Overheard in the Parish Office

Priest: Have you picked the readings from Sacred Scripture for your wedding?

Bride: Not yet. I just don't want that one that everybody has, you know, 'love is jealous..."

Priest: I think it says, 'love is not jealous.'

Groom: [laughs]

Christian Prayer

New friend Adore te Devote has a wonderfully honest and humble post today called Hypocrisy in Prayer. Check our her blog if you aren't already reading it. She outlines an experience that most serious Christian pray-ers have probably had, and certainly those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

Her annotation of part of psalm 18 says it all:

He rewarded me because I was just, (When have I been just?)
repaid me, for my hands were clean, (My hands are filthy!)
for I have kept the way of the Lord (No, I haven't)
and have not fallen away from my God. (Yes, I have)


It's true. In praying these lines it is hard to own them. They seem to accuse the pray-er who knows that they aren't true. Rather than the bold proclamation of the psalmist, they seem to enforce upon the pray-er her sense of inadequacy and distance from God and his righteousness.

This experience demands a theological account of Christian prayer. What do Christians mean by prayer? Christian prayer is first and most completely the prayer of Christ. As Sancrosanctum concilium 83 puts it, "Christ Jesus, the high priest of the new and eternal Covenant, took our human nature and introduced into the world of our exile that hymn of praise which is sung in the heavenly places [in supernis sedibus] throughout all ages.

So, by Christian prayer we mean first and foremost the prayer of Christ. We who are Christians, then, have as our praying project to simply join ourselves to this prayer. Note the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours 6: "Prayer directed to God must be linked [conectatur oportet] with Christ, the Lord of all, the one mediator through whom alone we have access to God." This is why Christians always pray, 'through Christ our Lord;' our prayer is meant to be taken up into his.

In the end it is not us who pray at all, but the Spirit who prays within us. Thus prayer is the real fruit of our being baptized into the life of the Blessed Trinity. Just as the Spirit conceived the Word of God that He might borrow our humanity from Our Lady, so the Spirit delights to conceive the prayer of Christ in the lives of those who consent to be Christians.

So when we come to praying the psalms, for instance, the primary praying voice is not ours, but Christ's. He is the righteous one who can pray "my hands are clean' and 'I have kept the way of the Lord.' Christ can pray this prayer even thought we can't. But since Christian prayer is the prayer of Christ, the righteousness that we hold up to God in sacrifice through our prayer is not our own but Christ's. It is by his righteousness and obedience that we are saved, after all, not by our own. When we pray these lines it is His voice praying, and his perfect and eternal sacrifice in which the Father delights.

On the level of day to day spirituality, then, Christian prayer is not matter of effort but of consent. The prayer is always there, as the Holy Spirit has stretched the perfect praise of the Blessed Trinity to include our humanity in the Incarnation. We just have to permit the Spirit to pray within us, through Christ our Lord, that his prayer might take shape in our humanity as well.

June 3, 2009

Covered in Blood

Once in a while I have extra spiritual experiences while offering Mass; interior visions or insights, that sort of thing. A good example is my "dirty chalice" experience. I'm grateful for these for the fear of the Lord and understanding they offer, but I have to be very deliberate with the rest of Mass because I feel distracted and likely to skip something, etc.

Today was another one. I was very happy to offer the Mass of St. Charles Lwanga, because his feast is my "name day." In a rather uncharacteristic display of practicality, I chose to be baptized with the name of a saint identical to the name I had before. I didn't know much about St. Charles, but since I also already had the middle initial 'L' it seemed like a perfect fit. Over the years I have sought Charles's prayers as a special patron, and also having learned more about his life and martyrdom I have come to believe that my choice was entirely inspired and providential.

Today at Mass I tried to preach on St. Charles as an undiscovered patron saint for our times. As he was martyred at least in part for his unwillingness to accept a situation of sexual abuse and exploitation at the king's court, so we should seek his prayers in our effort to find a path to healing and a place beyond the scourge of sexualized power and exploitation in our Church.

As I was leaving the ambo after the homily and returning to the chair, I noticed my red chasuble and all of a sudden I had this interior vision of myself covered with blood. With this seemingly grotesque insight I peered for a moment into the truth of the Mass and our martyrdom. St. Charles is counted among the martyrs precisely because his own blood was taken up completely into identity with the Precious Blood of Christ. The Eucharist he received was so powerful in his life that in his sufferings his own blood became the extension--in his particular time, place, and culture--of Christ's Blood poured out on the Cross.

This is the joy and the challenge of the Eucharist for us. Christ's Blood was poured out on the Cross. He is broken. In the Eucharist we receive his broken Body and Blood poured out so that our blood might become His. We too are to break ourselves so that the Blood of Christ may flow from us for the life of the world. The goal of the Eucharist is Holy Communion--a communion in which the Blood of Christ, the blood of the martyrs, and our blood and lives are ultimately--and only ultimately--the same thing.

June 2, 2009

Paying Attention

The spiritual part of the human being, i.e. soul, mind, spirit, etc., reveals its spiritual nature most simply insofar as it is not bound by time and space. Unlike the body, which (apart from the most extraordinary phenomena) can only be where it happens to be in space and time, the mind, soul, and spirit do not have to be in the same place as the body. Through memory, the mind can place itself in the past, or it can be present to the future through imagination. The inner attention can be somewhere else apart from where our body is; somewhere we have visited perhaps, or would like to go.

That our spiritual nature is not bound by space or time is the means of prayer at the most basic level. We can 'raise heart and mind' to God and be present to the Ultimate and Infinite rather than the contingent and finite things of this world. We can take a peaceful walk and work through our memory, allowing our heart and soul to travel through time in search of a greater understanding and acceptance of the present. These uses of our spiritual power are very good and salutary things, and help us to be more human.

But this powerful faculty of our spirit is also dangerous and the occasion of many pitfalls. The ability of our soul and inner attention to be somewhere else can be misused. We can go through our days with no attention to the moments that God puts before us. The grace of God unfolds before us but we miss it because our soul is somewhere else. To be sure, we might be about something very pious in our mind and soul, like preparing a homily or a pious blog post, but we are nonetheless failing because we are not mindful of the present where God is always revealed in a privileged way. If we are naturally bright and a good multi-tasker, we can even seem like we are listening to someone or working quietly, but all the time we are going over something else and talking to ourselves or running 'tapes' in our head and not really paying attention. And then we find ourselves unhappy and we don't know why. We are unhappy because we have spent all our time living in an unreality.

June 1, 2009

Doubts

From time to time people tell me about their worry over doubting God or some truth of the faith. I become concerned for them, not because they may be doubting, but because such anxiety easily gets in the way of using the experience of doubt well. I tend to offer these sorts of reflections to those who say they are struggling with doubt:

First of all, the human mind is a creation of God. Therefore, there can be no fear of being led away from God by the right and thoughtful use of the mind God has given us. Indeed, the mind is mysterious, spiritual, and sublime and can be thus overwhelming in its incomprehensibility, but this is only part of its imitation of the God to whom it is similar. In other words, we shouldn't be afraid to think. Opening up our minds to the Mystery may wrench some of what we thought were our beliefs, but this is not doubt or danger.

Second, we need to recognize that the truths of faith, though often expressed in simple language, are often quite subtle in their meaning, and are complex combinations of metaphorical, symbolic, sacramental, and narrative expressions. In the Creed we make utterances like, "I believe in God," or "begotten, not made." These are deceptively simple in language, but demand for their understanding at least a partial grasp of many difficult concepts, e.g. eternity, divinity, etc.

Far too often I find that people have not been helped to own a faith that goes beyond a simple intellectual assent to claims that they aren't sure how to understand. I once knew a religious sister in the prime of life who would omit the line, "is seated at the right hand of Father" when praying the Creed, because she found it unbelievable that "heaven was a place with chairs." How bad I felt for her that she had never come to the realization that the language (compare iconography here) is a window into eternity and not a discourse on furniture!*

Most of the time, in my experience, people who think they are struggling with doubt are actually being invited into a deeper relationship with the truths of the faith. They are experiencing God's invitation to give up the role of spectator--those who worship God and his Mysteries as something beautiful and praiseworthy, but without relationship to themselves--and to accept that the Truths of faith are mysteries that we are to step into with our lives.



*Here I have to mention, parenthetically, the error that is commonly made by the world when someone arrives at this spiritual moment. The world suggests the civil theology of 'many paths to one spiritual something-or-other' in which all religious language is more or less inadequate, but all of it points to something, perhaps spiritual, perhaps ultimate, that we call "God." Conveniently, this pseudo-doctrine leads to no demand on anyone and no dogmatic claims, except for the "dictatorship of relativism" in which no one is allowed to say that anything might be wrong or unacceptable.

No. Language is important, not because someone says so, but because we believe in the Incarnation. Christianity is and will always be a kind of 'scandal of particularity' because it proclaims that God is perfectly revealed in the very particular human life of Jesus of Nazareth. By his Resurrection into the Eucharistized community that we call his Body, the mystery of the Incarnation is extended through time. This is why the particular language of the successors of the apostles gathered in ecumenical council is privileged as an unfolding of our understanding of divine revelation.