October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

What's Halloween without a surfy cover of the eponymous song by everyone's favorite Rock and Roll guilty pleasure, the Misfits?

October 28, 2010

Pro-Life: An Examination of Conscience

When I was leaving the parish to return to studies, I received a lot of kind and encouraging words from parishioners. A few in particular have stuck in my mind. One of them went like this: "You're a very good priest, Father, but there's one thing wrong with you. You're not pro-life enough."

I was reminded of this over the past few days by an ad on the subway. It had a picture of a mother and child and proclaimed, "I chose life." The caption said something like, 'unexpected pregnancy, unexpected joy.' I'm not sure I remember it rightly, but it was something like that.

The first time I saw this ad, I thought to myself how good it was to see a pro-life message on one of the subway lines that is always full of students and young people. As I have been shocked and scandalized to notice, even at the 'catholic' school I attend, the false idea of a 'right' to abortion seems to be common. On one campus poster I saw, the so-called 'pro-choice' position was listed among activities of 'social justice.' I thought of taking a picture of the notice and publishing it, but then I decided it was none of my business. (Or was that a rationalization by a Catholic who isn't pro-life enough? After all, it is revealing--and even unmasking!--that abortion is sometimes absent from our catholic discourse on 'social justice.')

But back to the subway. A couple of days later I saw the same, "I chose life" ad. This time someone had taken a marker to it and written "Pro-Choice!" over it. (Perhaps accidentally, but not incidentally, one of the words cut through the baby's face.) At first it made me sad. The so-called 'pro-choice' position is so incomprehensible to me and speaks to me of the terrible confusion of our society. But as I reflected, I thought that perhaps the defacer of the ad wasn't mocking the pro-life position, but making an accusation against the ad. In the end the ad was pro-choice. It held up someone who made the right choice, who had chosen the good over the murderous and dehumanizing violence of our culture, but it still celebrated that there was a choice to be made.

At that moment I realized that I had been tricked. My original appreciation of the ad was partly misplaced. Yes, the ad celebrated the goodness and blessing of life, but embedded in it was the acceptance that life could be a matter of our choice. I didn't even think about that until I saw the ad written upon in the way I described.

Perhaps my friend was right, and that I'm not pro-life enough.

October 27, 2010

Midway in the Embrace

For class this week I'm reading William of St. Thierry's The Golden Epistle, which I really recommend for anyone who would like to take the spiritual life seriously. Check it out in this edition.

The soul in its happiness finds itself standing midway in the Embrace and the Kiss of Father and Son. In a manner which exceeds description and thought, the man of God is found worthy to become not God but what God is, that is to say man becomes through grace what God is by nature. (96. Trans. Theodore Berkeley, OCSO)

To me this gets at one of the most critical retrievals we need to make in our contemporary sense of Christianity. The Trinity is not just our doctrine of God; it is our doctrine of the spiritual life. In the most basic terms, our teaching is that God is not some kind of static 'supreme being,' but is constituted in an infinitely dynamic and creative set of relations. What we call our 'spiritual life' is our finding of ourselves drawn into and included in these relations, so that when we take about the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son, we aren't talking about some kind of abstract, divine logic, but about the place where we find our own spirits in prayer.

Jesus Christ is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, as we say in the creed. He is the stretching forth of the divine relations of the Trinity to include within themselves our humanity. Christianity, then, is the life of being adopted into the eternal Embrace of Father and Son, the enjoyment by grace and adoption of the relationship to God which the human Jesus enjoys by hypostatic union. As William puts it, "man becomes by grace what God is by nature."

October 26, 2010

Church Music Rant

The other day I got into a conversation with someone on one of the standard conflicts of the parish ministry: music for funerals and weddings.

The conflict goes like this: the engaged who are preparing for their wedding or the bereaved preparing for the funeral Mass of their family member decide that they want a certain song in the liturgy. The pastor, priest, or music director objects, saying that such-and-such a song is not appropriate for divine worship because it is secular, sappy, vulgar, etc. Then the counter objection is made: on the contrary, this song 'mentions God' or is 'very spiritual.'

The first objection is easily dismissed. Just because a song 'mentions God' doesn't make it appropriate for the liturgy. Black Sabbath's "After Forever" (written by bassist Geezer Butler, a Catholic) mentions both God and Christ, and contains senses of eschatological urgency and counter-cultural belief in God that one rarely hears with such sharpness even in church, but this doesn't mean I want Ozzy to sing it at my funeral. For the blog, however, it's a fine inclusion. My funeral music is planned anyway, in a way.



The second objection, that an inappropriate song is 'very spiritual,' is a little harder. Here we are up against a flattening abuse of the term 'spiritual' which goes largely unchecked by preachers and pastors of souls. To the world, something is spiritual when it refers to the non-material life of the person, or the relation of the person to God or the divine in a very general way. For us Christians, however, the term is more specific. The 'spiritual life' and 'spirituality' refer specifically to the activity of the Spirit, the formal principle of the Church Who prays in her and as her both corporately and in her individual members.

But here's my challenge to pastors of souls and music directors on this issue. Who gets to decide which songs are suitable for the liturgy? Is it OCP or GIA? Who gave them this tremendous authority over the theological and catechetical formation of the praying assembly? If they, who are neither God nor the magisterium, can decide that a song is appropriate for liturgy, why not the couple preparing their wedding or the folks trying to mourn the loss of a loved one?

You see, I am begging the question. There is any easy way out of this problem, which is to begin to give up on the option of replacing the actual proper chants of the Mass with songs in the first place. Unfortunately, the option of replacing them has become so normalized that many priests no longer even recall that it is, in fact, a substitution.

Therefore, if pastors are unwilling to even investigate or begin to let go of this option become norm, and are also unwilling to try to preach a corrective against the flattening of the generic uses of 'spiritual' and 'spirituality,' then it's not fair to deny ordinary folks the option of substituting the music they think they want.


October 24, 2010

Spiritual Direction from a Pretty Princess

Sometimes I invest conversations with more meaning than is probably there. I don't apologize for this wholesale; often in the Scriptures people say more than they know, so why shouldn't it be so for me sometimes?

Consider a conversation from after Mass today. After I had given the standard buen Domingo to her mother, a little girl addressed me directly, in English:

"Do you know what next Sunday is?"

"The thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time?" I responded.

"No," she said, correcting me. "Next Sunday is happy Halloween!" As she said the 'happy' she spun around with a gleeful flourish.

"Oh," I said. "And what are you going to be for Halloween."

"I'm going to be a pretty princess!" she announced. "What are you going to be?"

"I don't know yet," I confessed.

"You better figure it out!" I was instructed. "It's next Sunday!"

Indeed. Who knows how much time any of us has left on this earth? I've probably used up more than half of my time already, and without having made hardly a beginning of a spiritual life. Receiving the grace of surrendering to the person God wants us to be in this life is a task of some urgency, and it gets more urgent with every moment that goes by.

October 22, 2010

St. Peter of Alcántara

Today is the feast of St. Peter of Alcántara, a great reforming friar of the sixteenth century. In your 1962 Missale Romanum you will find his feast day on October 19. He seems to have gone out of the general Roman calendar at the time of the reform, but remains in proper Franciscan calendars. I presume that his feast day was moved to today--at least in the United States, I don't know about other places--because of the concurrence with the North American martyrs.

In the Office of Readings for today, we have some of a curious and challenging letter from Peter to St. Teresa of Avila. He warns the "Mother Prioress" about seeking advice on matters of the spiritual life and the evangelical counsels from those who have no competence in living them:

I was not a little surprised, Mother Prioress, that you submitted a matter of such importance to learned men who no competence in the matter. Now when there is a question about lawsuits or cases of conscience it will indeed be praiseworthy to get advice from lawyers and theologians and follow their opinion. But when there is a question about the life of perfection reason particularly suggests that those persons to be consulted who profess the life of perfection; that lawyers and theologians cannot have better advice or opinion on this matter, a study and scrutiny of their works shows very clearly.

We should note that this means that who are religious must accept and embrace the particular expertise and competence we are supposed to have. By our religious profession we have made our Christianity public, and are obligated to pursue holiness in a particular and public way. People who seek from us knowledge and counsel on their own prayer lives and interior struggles for holiness ought to be confident that we have something to offer. Of course this also goes, in similar senses, for priests and indeed anyone who has accepted public ministry in the Church and thereby made their baptism a public property. In this regard it is also important to always be continuing our own reading and reflection in the spiritual tradition. In my own time as a parish confessor, I would occasionally have a penitent whom I suspected of being advanced far beyond me in the spiritual life. To such persons I could only speak to with great tentativeness from things I've read in books.

October 21, 2010

What is Theology?

The other day the director of the STD program asked me to think about preparing a talk on my sense of "the ecclesial vocation of the theologian." I'll have to give it next semester in one the little lunch meetings of the doctoral students. Of course the project is a bit remote right now, but the questions have been in the back of my mind and I have found myself thinking of various texts that could form starting points, illustrations, and apologies.

So, as I have started to reflect a little on what I think theology is and what its purposes might be in my own life and in any service I might be able to give to the brothers or the Church, I was struck by the first reading for Mass today:

I kneel before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,
that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory
to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self,
and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith;
that you, rooted and grounded in love,
may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones
what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,
so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
(Ephesians 3: 14-19)

Theology starts with prayer born of a desire for God, a kneeling before the Father that seeks the "riches of his glory." Of course, our entering into the Mystery of God through prayer is a kind of optical illusion of the interior vision; it is not we who enter into God but God who enters into us. We experience the logic of the incarnation in reverse, or, better, in fulfillment. That the Word becomes flesh means that our humanity, the enfleshment of our spirits, now seeks to enter into the Word and to find its delight and fulfillment in deiformity.

By our surrender to this life of prayerful desire, our spirit is strengthened, and Christ comes to dwell in our hearts through faith, grounding us in love.

What is this love? It is first of all the love of God. But to love God is to love the love that God is, and his love is for every creature. Thus to love God is to begin to taste and touch the love that embraces every creature. It is to stand in wonder at a Love whose horizon is broader and whose height and depth extend beyond what we can scarcely imagine. Indeed, to even speak of horizons and extension is too coarse.

And yet, we touch this Love. We have glimpses of it in each other, in the beauty and order of creation, in the Providence of God in the paths of our lives, and in the universal human suspicion (contuition?) that at the Center of it all is a Goodness we are always touching but not quite apprehending.

In Christ is revealed God's own desire to join himself to our human upward desire to know this love. God's self-emptying into our humanity allows us to fulfill the great Easter slogan: sursum sunt quaerite! "Seek thing things that are above." Theology is to reason and to attempt to articulate what this means and how this human process may be exercised. It is our attempt, in our context and time, to know what all the "holy ones" knew. These are the saints and doctors who have gone before us and who help us to see, by the reflections and articulations that they made for their time, what it could mean for us to do the same for the people of ours.

Ultimately, like all missionary efforts, the purpose of theology is to make itself useless. It is a means by which the theologian helps us "to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge," that "we may be filled with the fullness of God." This fullness is what God has accomplished for us in the incarnation.Theology is a means to understanding how we may surrender to it more and more completely.

October 19, 2010

Trying to Bite a Smooth Stone

Ever wonder why the hardest part of writing your theology paper is just starting? William of St. Thierry sheds some light on the problem:

"Truly, the Catholic faith is a totally smooth, rounded stone and who wishes to gnaw at it does not find a place to sink his teeth into it." (The Enigma of Faith, 73 trans. John D. Anderson.)

October 18, 2010

Limits and Paths

Yesterday afternoon I finished St. Bonaventure's Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ and arrived at the epilogue. The Seraphic Doctor writes:

This type of [divine] knowledge can be understood only with great difficulty, and it cannot be understood at all except by one who has experienced it. And no one will experience it except one who is "rooted and grounded in love so as to comprehend with all the saints what is the length, and the breadth," etc. It is in this that true, experiential wisdom consists. It begins on earth and is consummated in heaven. In trying to explain this, negations are more appropriate than affirmations, and superlatives are more appropriate than positive predications. And if it is to be experienced, interior silence is more helpful than external speech. Therefore, let us stop speaking, and let us pray to the Lord that we may be granted the experience of that about which we have spoken.

(trans. Zachary Hayes)


Such an approach to the desire for spirituality, or even mysticism, has always appealed to me. I think it appeals to a lot of people in our time. But we have to remember that Bonaventure writes these words at the end of two hundred pages of making careful disputation and distinction, reviewing the theological speech of many of who have come before him, and presenting his own conclusions with great care.

In other words, if we truly wish to arrive at the mystical moment when speech becomes useless and human articulations about God give way to the Mystery beyond what can be apprehended by our minds, we need to experience this limit through the disciplined use of the speech and reason God has given us. If we try to become mystics without first using the reason and speech God has given us to understand something of himself, we are bound to discover that our spirituality is only another species of vanity.

If we wish to rise above the limits of the mind, the ordinary path is to first know these limits by the careful and disciplined use of the mind's reason.

Here theology ceases to be a body of abstractions and becomes a Living Reality Who is God Himself. And He reveals Himself to us in our total gift of our lives to Him. Here the light of truth is not something that exists for our intellect but One in Whom and for Whom all minds and spirits exist, and theology does not truly begin to be theology until we have transcended the language and separate concepts of theologians.

That was why St. Thomas put the Summa Theologica aside in weariness before it was finished, saying it was "all straw."

And yet, when the contemplative returns from the depth of his simple experience of God and attempts to communicate it to men, he necessarily comes once again under the control of the theologian and his language is bound to strive after the clarity and distinctness and accuracy that canalize Catholic tradition.

Therefore beware of the contemplative who says that theology is all straw before he has ever bothered to read any.

(Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 148-149)

October 17, 2010

Recent Dreams

I've been having a lot of dreams lately about not managing to get where I'm supposed to be going.

The troubles are varied. In one dream I forgot to respond to an attractive invitation because I got distracted. In another I missed an appointment because I didn't leave enough time for travel. Another time I couldn't even begin to get on my way because the vehicle I was supposed to drive was too complex and unwieldy, a huge RV full of different systems and gadgets. In the most recent dream on this theme, the street on which I was walking was blocked off because the buildings were on fire.

The images are very telling, but the question arises: what is this troublesome journey which I am either anxious about beginning, making, or being able to arrive at its destination? What increase in vigilance and mindfulness do I need to adopt? What do I need to let go of in order to be free to begin or continue? What old paths need to be re-routed that I might avoid the destructive forces, inside and out, that impede my steps?

The unwieldy vehicle is probably my own soul, and a warning to me that I need to care for myself better in these days full of new distractions and temptations to the dissipation of my internal attention. But I'm also worried that the unwieldy vehicle might be our province of the brothers which finds itself at a contentious moment and needs to find a way to step forward. The burning block of buildings is also full of possibilities. Probably it's one of the old paths of my prayer and interior habits that has become useless and even dangerous. New and less comfortable paths to God always need to be charted. This, after all, is the journey of faith at its dark and searing heart. But I also fear that the burning buildings might have something to do with BC; I walk the paths of that campus and I always remark on how robust, beautiful, and well-maintained the buildings are. (In contrast, of course, to the buildings of other Catholic institutions and parishes.) I worry that the vision of the dream might have been a glimpse into the actual, spiritual condition of BC. In the dream I remarked on two oddities of the scene: there were some firefighters, but they didn't seem to be doing anything, and there were people in the buildings, but they didn't seem to be trying to escape.

More importantly, though, what is the journey which so challenges me? Is it the STD program? Is it my place in the province and my obedience to the brothers, aware as I am aware of certain forces swirling about me, imagining particular outcomes to this course of study I have begun? Or is it something more fundamental and internal in my own interior journey with the Lord? Am I at one of those places in which I am straining to go to the next level of faith and trust, moments that always come with a lot of confusion and vertigo and grief at letting go of aspects of the false self I always thought were irreducible parts of "me" but which have to be jettisoned if I am to take another step into the Mystery?

October 16, 2010

Bernard, Gyrovagues, and Acedia

Just one more post before I leave my little St. Bernard theme. In Jean Leclercq's classic The Love of Learning and the Desire for God I came across Bernard's commentary on the four kinds of monks from the Rule of St. Benedict.

Here's what Bernard says about one of the bad sorts, the gyrovagues:

Then come the spiritual gyrovagues: their inconstancy carries them from reading to prayer, from prayer to work, preventing them from obtaining the benefits of their undertakings: stability in effort and perseverance in devotion. Victims of acedia, they think it better at one moment to do one thing, and, at another, something else; they begin everything and finish nothing.

As I have continued to puzzle through the mysterious passion of acedia, this is another text that makes me think it might just be one of the primary spiritual dangers of our time when the dissipation of attention through hyper-stimulation, "multi-tasking" and constant connectivity is becoming the norm.

October 15, 2010

The Christ of the Burnt Men

Today in class our professor told a story about the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray. Some Jesuit students asked for his blessing before a big exam. He willingly gave it, in these words:

Ab illo benedicaris, in cuius honore cremaberis.

It's the prayer for the blessing of incense at the beginning of Mass.

"May you be blessed by him in whose honor you will be burned."

October 14, 2010

Holy Card

I love finding old holy cards in books. Back at the time of this post I gave one away too quickly and then received another claim via email. So I'm not going to make that mistake again.

In the smaller Latin edition of Bonaventure's Mystical Opuscula (Quracchi, 1926) I found a souvenir card from the ordination and first Mass of a Father John M. Quirk, on the first and third of May, 1942, respectively.

So, should there be any family, friends, or confreres who would like me to send it along, leave a comment (which I won't publish) with an address. Or perhaps you are still with us yourself, Father!

October 13, 2010

Praying for the Willingness

I'm still reading St. Bernard, and I was thinking about these lines in sermon 74 on the Song of Songs: "I have known many who were sadder for knowing the truth, for they did not have the excuse of ignorance when they knew what the Truth wanted them to do and did not do it." (trans. G.R. Evans in this edition)

More and more I become convinced that the primary virtue of the spiritual life is the willingness to consent to God. I suppose some would call this surrender or abandonment, but perhaps because my own prayer life grew up in the Centering Prayer tradition, I prefer the language of consent. Prayer is the consent to the presence of God, and the spiritual life is the daily willing to consent to where God leads.

As St. Bernard points out, the spiritual life thus becomes hazardous. Having spent a first fervor at any stage, finding the willingness to follow God can be an intense and searing struggle. This is especially true when we find--as we always will--that God calls us into dark places and commands us to be free of the forms of interior bondage with which we didn't even know we were suffering. This can be really hard stuff. After all, it is the violent who take hold of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 11:12), because God is a violent lover in the sense that he is relentless and forceful in his desire for our flourishing in this world and our salvation in the next. "God did not invite the children of Israel to leave the slavery of Egypt. He commanded them to do so." (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 110)

But the spiritual life is dangerous because it becomes a sadness and frustration at the moments or during the spells when we have trouble finding the willingness to consent or surrender.

A very wise director once advised me to 'pray for the willingness.' It has become one of the most formative bits of spiritual doctrine I have ever received. I don't pray for particular graces. I pray for the willingness to consent to the grace that's already there.

October 12, 2010

The Love of God

"To lose yourself as though you did not exist and to have no sense of yourself, to be emptied out of yourself (Phil 2:7) and almost annihilated, belongs to heavenly not to human love. And if indeed any mortal is rapt for a moment or is, so to speak, admitted for a moment to this union, at once the world presses itself on him (Gal 1:4), the day's wickedness troubles him, the mortal body weighs him down, bodily needs distract him, he fails because of the weakness of his corruption and--more powerfully than these--brotherly love calls him back." (Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God, trans. G.R. Evans)

Most anyone who has tried to live a life of prayer knows what St. Bernard is talking about. The experience of God can seem to be fleeting. At one moment we feel an awareness of God's presence to us, but at the next we can't even seem to remember what it was we experienced the moment before. As we go forward in the spiritual life, the situation becomes more challenging, for two reasons. First, God himself becomes more mysterious. Of course God isn't changing, but as our concepts of God are purified of idolatry and superstition, the blessed and dazzling starkness of the Mystery himself comes more into focus. Second, as we become more free for the charity that is God dwelling within us, we will find that this charity calls us out of our recollection more and more often, and in greater ways.

We must not resent this experience. Yes, the experience of God is perfectly sweet and delightful. God is the best thing there is for us, by definition. But we must always be careful to run after God and not the experience of God. It is his will we seek, not the delight of his presence. God's presence feels fleeting for us not because God is sometimes here and sometimes not, but because his brilliance is so bright that we only see it as darkness. In the course of our prayer we are given little tastes of God, not so that we might chase after the savor in a kind of spiritual gluttony, but that we might follow God into the darkness and thus become savory ourselves, the salt of the earth.

What St. Bernard describes might seem like someone whose prayer life is a mess; even if his momentary experience of God isn't shattered by his own corruption and distraction, charity soon calls him out of his delightful recollection. And yet this is a description that belongs to Bernard's account of the highest degree of the love of God, in which we have passed beyond even loving God for his own sake to the place where we love ourselves and our neighbor only in God.

October 9, 2010

Does This Analogy Work? I'm Not Sure.

It's when the sun shines through them that you notice how much your windows need to be cleaned. Nevertheless, it's best to wait for a cloudy day to clean them, because the direct sunlight will dry up and clump whatever cleaning agent you use, and you will find yourselves in a frustrating battle with smudges and streaks.

In the same way, it's when we most feel the presence of God in prayer that our sins and state of distraction comes most sharply into focus. But this isn't the moment to dwell on or work through such troubles. We should just enjoy and appreciate God shining upon us, however imperfectly we receive Him, and not give in to the temptation to turn back on ourselves. There will be plenty of dimmer moments to work out our plans for ascesis and the means to increase our recollection.

October 7, 2010

Four Years a Cleric

Today I am four years in the clerical state of life; on this feast of Our Lady of the Rosary four years ago, another friar, a bunch of Jesuits and I were ordained deacons at St. Peter's in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Having my religious life compounded by diaconate and the priesthood that followed eleven months later (on Our Lady's birthday) has retained a kind of adventitious character for me. It still seems new somehow, even after four years. I think it's at least partly because I didn't come to the Franciscan life having thought much about priesthood. My desire and interest was to be a friar. I remember going for an interview with my home diocese in between my time with the OFM and before I entered the Capuchins. Thinking myself a good candidate to be a secular seminarian--relatively young, having the ideal academic background, etc.--I was shocked when the vocation director said that my sense of priestly vocation didn't seem well formed. He was quite right. I hadn't really thought about it. As it turned out later, I didn't really know how to think about it either.

In the course of my formation with the Capuchins, however, the question came up eventually. Should I declare myself a candidate for Orders or remain a lay friar? I wasn't sure, but my real problem was that I didn't know how to discern the question. I had come to the Franciscan religious life because it was what I wanted to do as an individual Christian; I had decided, to the best of my discernment, that this was the best way for me to live out my baptism. Priesthood didn't seem to me to be the same sort of question. It wasn't something I should present myself for just because I might desire it. It was more of a public property than that.

I thank God that I had a wise director at the time, who advised me to examine my own experience of myself as a public minister. How did I experience myself at the moments I was called upon to preach? To lead public prayer? This practice confirmed for me the words of one of my most important teachers at the former Weston Jesuit School of Theology, who said, "The question isn't whether or not you think you want to be a priest; the question is whether the priesthood of Jesus Christ is struggling to born in you in this particular way."

Based on all of that, but not without some trepidation, I was able to consent to declaring myself a candidate for ordination to the diaconate and thence to the priesthood. I am now convinced that this life of religious priesthood is where God was aiming me all along, even though I didn't know it. But I didn't need to know it, and that's part of the point. God only inspired me and gave me the desire to take the next step at each moment along the way. This experience has helped me to remember a salutary spiritual truth that I have kept in mind ever since: Just because God leads us somewhere, or we have the grace to put good discernment into practice in leading our Christian lives, it doesn't mean that we know the whole story at any given moment. God's plans for us are bigger than we know.

October 6, 2010

Pro-Tected

In religious life it becomes critical to notice and remind ourselves of the spiritual gifts and privileges our daily life. I have found that I must be careful to rekindle my own appreciation and gratitude for these graces, lest I take them lightly and my spiritual life become insipid.

For example, these lines from The Seven Storey Mountain have struck me ever since I first read them:

"If I could not wear the religious habit, I would at least join a Third Order and would try my best to get a job teaching at some Catholic College where I could live under the same roof as the Blessed Sacrament."

To live under the same roof as the Blessed Sacrament. I remember thinking about that as I went to sleep after my first day of religious life. What a privilege it was! The Lord in his mysterious Presence was no longer Someone I had to go visit. He was right downstairs, waiting for me who was now happily without excuse for any failure to visit.

After ten years of sharing a home with the Blessed Sacrament, however, it's easy to take it all for granted. Here's the tabernacle, which we have just like we have a microwave or a TV. I know that it's shocking, but it's easy to slip into such an insensitivity. I remember the first time I saw a religious pass in front of the Blessed Sacrament without making any reverence, either the genuflection we make in the Roman rite, or the bow that seems to be substituted for it (by what justification, I don't know) in religious life. I was totally shocked. After these years, I don't even pay attention to such things. Sometimes I don't even reproach myself appropriately when, in my own distraction, I do it myself.

This is why I have found it vitally important for my own religious life to constantly remind myself of the great spiritual supports and privileges of this life. They hold me up. There was one of the old friars who used to ask me how I was each day. I would say, "Thanks to your prayers, Father, I'm still slightly above spiritual ruin." Silly, for sure, but there's some truth to it. In religious life, whether you feel like it or whether it seems to mean anything to you that day, you still go to chapel and recite the Divine Office with the brothers. As much of an unrecollected mess I might be on some days, I still have the privilege of living under the same roof as the Blessed Sacrament, and I can't pretend that his Presence doesn't hold me up. These are deep gifts and spiritual privileges, and like it is with so many things in the spiritual life, my task is to stay grateful and not take them for granted.

October 5, 2010

Filling out Forms

Filling out forms drives me crazy, especially when they are online and thus limit one's responses. On one that I was recently supposed to do, I could hardly answer anything. Here are some examples of the problems I had:

1. "Marital Status" The choices were single, married, or widowed. Since there was no "consecrated celibate" I had to choose "I decline to answer." Now normally I would give in to "single" but this was an explicitly Catholic institution I was dealing with, so I had no mercy.

2. "Gender" The choices were male and female, which are responses to the query "sex," not gender. Had the responses been masculine or feminine, I might have chosen one, but again, for lack of appropriate responses, I had to choose "I decline to answer."

3. "Religious preference" A list of religions was provided. I suppose I am supposed to supply the response "Catholic." But I'm not a Catholic because I prefer it to some other religion. I prefer Dr. Pepper to Coca-Cola. I am a Catholic because God has called me to be one. I might have preferred some other religion, whatever such a statement might mean, but that's not the point. Again, I might have let this one slide, had I not been dealing with a Catholic institution that should know better.

Them's Fightin' Words

The liturgical historian Josef Jungmann on the sequence Stabat Mater:

"...it shows traces of individual piety, of Franciscan devotion to the Passion and our Lady hardly consonant with the objective spirit of common prayer."


October 4, 2010

Chalices, Windows, and Prostitutes

Today I'm reading about Maurice de Sully, who was bishop of Parish from the 1160 death of his great predecessor, Peter Lombard, until his own death in 1196.

Maurice, of course, was the bishop who ordered the construction of the great cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Apparently, or so I read, he refused donations of chalices and stained glass windows from the Parisian prostitutes.

It's a complicated question. If you were a pastor or a bishop building a new church, would you accept such gifts from the local prostitutes? Would you let it be inscribed as such for all to see? What might it mean to accept or refuse?

Francis, Punk, and Conversion

As we have approached another feast of St. Francis I've been reflecting a little bit on how it is I got to be a Franciscan. It's always an interesting reflection for me, for at least a couple of reasons. On the one hand, my interest in and desire for the Franciscan life goes back almost to the beginning of my Christianity. On the other hand, my first priest, who had care of my soul as a pre-catechumen and again as a neophyte, insists to this day that I am a Benedictine at heart. I don't think he's correct, but perhaps there might be those of my confreres who would agree with him.

As I have thought about it over the years, I have come to the provisional conclusion that Francis caught my desire and imagination so strongly because I found in him a synthesis of punk rock and Christianity.

I first met St. Francis in a history class during my sophomore year of college. I was not yet a Catholic, though I was on my way. I had begun to read the New Testament the summer before, found it compelling, and had decided that I wanted to become a Christian. I didn't know what sort of Christian, however, and didn't even know how to make such a decision. As it turned out, this impasse was a great gift of grace, as it became my first school of prayer and helped me to learn that this wasn't something I was doing, but my first steps of surrender to God. In the end I didn't so much as decide to become a Catholic Christian but only confessed that I had been led in that direction.

But I also have to admit that having met Francis of Assisi, the 'thoroughly Catholic and apostolic man' was an influence in my surrender to the Catholic I had become.

Punk had taught me to question. It had showed me that the given value, that what everyone said or thought was the thing wasn't necessarily the right or best way to go. Even the geography of punk life spoke to this: the record stores were hidden away on second floors of buildings. The bands played in basements. It was an intensely liberating discovery for me. No longer was there the anguish of feeling like I didn't fit into the world around me; punk made me realize that I didn't want to fit in anyway. Punk was stern in in its social critique; the injustices of our society were unacceptable. Opting out of the dehumanizing system was the only option; the situation was beyond compromise.

But though punk taught me a critical turn against the world and gave me a desire to opt out of the 'system'--"Death to the World" as the Orthodox 'punks to monks' used to say--punk didn't seem to me to present much of an alternative. We critique, we opt out, but then what? What would a better world look like? True, some punks had some idea of this, such as the brighter and more committed anarcho-punks and others who took starting points like veganism to their logical conclusions and even became pro-life, but most of us didn't. It was all rage against the system but little plan for a renewed or healed world.

For this I needed Christianity, and Francis became the model, or 'pattern' to use a more Franciscan term. Francis lived in a society with deep parallels to our own. Violence was endemic and increasing. The reinvention of the money economy was creating new injustices. Like a good punk, Francis opted out. Recovering from the illness that had come upon him as a prisoner of war, he began to pray. He sought God, finally renouncing his own place among the new wealthy of his time. He stood naked before his neighbors, calling only on God. He lived with the lepers, renouncing his welcome among those who were called decent and healthy.

Against the evils embedded in his own society, Francis had done what punk had made me want to do as a response to mine. But unlike the punks, Francis had a durable and workable alternative. He would live as the Lord revealed to him he should, secundum formam sancti Evangelii, according to the form of the holy Gospel. (Testament, 14)

Punk rock taught me that human society and culture were subject to critique, and that compromise with its anti-human, anti-life 'horrendous policies' was not an option. The radical Christianity of Francis of Assisi showed me where I could go with this insight, and God has given me the grace of an opportunity to follow the Gospel according to his pattern.

Holy Father Francis, deacon, founder of the three Orders, pray for us!

October 3, 2010

The Transitus of Francis

784 years ago tonight, our holy father St. Francis departed from this life. On this eve of his feast day tomorrow, Franciscans everywhere will celebrate the transitus of Francis, marking his migration from time to eternity. As a ritual it does not seem to have a fixed form, but usually includes the reading of one of the accounts of the saint's last hours.

Here is one of the traditional antiphons for the celebration, courtesy of the 1955 Rituale Romano-Seraphicum:


omnes stant et cantant:

Salve, Sancte Pater,
patriae lux, forma minorum:
Virtutis speculum, recti via, regula morum;
Carnis ab exsilio duc nos ad regna polorum.

omnes genuflectunt et duo Cantores cantant:

V. Franciscus pauper et humilis caelum dives ingreditur
R. Hymis caelestibus honoratur.


All stand and sing:

Hail, holy Father,
light of our homeland, form of minors;
Mirror of virtue, right way, and rule of conduct;
lead us from the exile of the flesh to the kingdom of heaven.

all genuflect and two cantors sing:

V. The poor and humble Francis enters heaven rich.
R. And is honored by celestial hymns.


Translation improvements are welcome, as always.

Curiously, neither the ritual nor the Roman-Seraphic breviary offer any rubric as to when or how this celebration fit into the course of the Divine Office for the day. Also, and interestingly, the old ritual imagines the Transitus as a public celebration, as evidenced by one of the final rubrics instructing the celebrant to bless the people with a relic before the ritual concludes with an opportunity for religious to kiss it.

Happy feast of St. Francis!

The Son Descends

What we mean when we say that the Son of God descended into the time and space of creation:

"The Son does embark on a space odyssey, leaving the Father for a period of time, literally coming down, and later returning to his proper abode in the trinity. Such an understanding arises from taking a metaphor too literally. It must be understood that God, precisely as trinity, is present at all times and places. To speak of a mission of one of the divine persons is to say that the eternal emanation is made manifest in time and has a particular temporal effect. The purpose of any such mission is to deepen the reality of the indwelling of God in human souls. Thus, when we say that the Son is sent, or that He descends, this does not indicate something new on the part of God, but designates that the temporal effect of the eternal emanation has a beginning and endures in time."

(Zachary Hayes, OFM, in his introduction to Bonaventure's Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity (Franciscan Institute, 2000)

October 2, 2010

Overheard in the Friary

At supper the brothers were talking about a certain ritual book, and the advantage of having a bilingual version in both Spanish and English.

One of the brothers asked another about a certain such edition, but he said "bi-ritual" instead of "bilingual."

"Is it a bi-ritual version?"

"Yes, Brother; on facing pages it has the ritual in the traddy and liberal versions."