December 31, 2013

The Holy Mother of God

We celebrate today Mary, the Holy Mother of God. We celebrate the maternity of Mary not only as one of the mysteries of Christmas, but also because her vocation is ours as well.

Like Mary, we are are called to welcome the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and to "protect Christ in our lives"--as Pope Francis said during the Mass for the beginning of his Petrine ministry--in order to be able to bear him and his mission into the world and into history.

In this sense Mary is the prototype of the Church; what she has done historically we are called to do spiritually. In the words of Lumen gentium, Mary "is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected is the world to come." (68)

It is the task of the Church, and of each of us as her members, to welcome the Word, to nourish and protect it, and to bear it and give witness to it in our relationships, in our projects, and in our world.

In this sense, God seeks our maternity. It is a virginal maternity because there is no earthly father, but only the Holy Spirit who conceives the Christian vocation within us as the presence of Christ.

God seeks us, as St. Francis greeted the Blessed Virgin Mary, as virgo ecclesia facta, 'the virgin made Church,' as a virginity ready to keep and hold the presence of Christ such that his presence might be born throughout the world.

O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

December 30, 2013

Meister Eckhart on the Humility of the Incarnation

Verse [1] 14: The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
116. Note first the "flesh" here stands for man figuratively, according to Matthew's text, "No flesh would be saved" (Mt. 24:22), and "No flesh will be justified from the works of the law" (Rm. 3:20). The Evangelist preferred to say "The Word was made flesh," rather than man, to commend the goodness of God who assumed not only man's soul, but also his flesh. In this he strikes at the pride of all those who when asked about their relatives respond by pointing to one who holds an important position, but are silent about their own descent. When asked, they say they are nephews of such and such a bishop, prelate, dean or the like. There is the story of the mule who when asked who his father was answered that his uncle was a thoroughbred, but out of shame hid the fact that his father was an ass.
From his commentary on John, quoted from Edmund Colledge, OSA and Bernard McGinn, trans., Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, (Paulist, 1981, Classics of Western Spirituality series). The editors note that the story is from Aesop.

December 28, 2013

The Crown Sister Ida Gave Me

My departure from the novitiate of the Order of Friars Minor, Holy Name Province (New York), on Christmas Day 1995, quickly became one of the most significant events in my spiritual journey. The prayer and spiritual attitudes that came out of it served me well then and have continued to serve and form me as a Christian and as a religious. I am more grateful to God for few things, and remain grateful to my novice master for having the courage to let me go when it was the right thing for my vocation.

December 25, 2013

Christmas

Christmas breathes into the world the Love that is the Blessed Trinity.

"And God said,....And it was so." (Genesis 1:6a, 7b)

Everything that is, everything that we know as some-thing and anyone we know as some-one, has its being from divine speech. God said, and it was so.

And today we learn that everything that is exists so that this same all-effective Word might be conceived by the Spirit-Love proceeding in full personality from that Word and the Unbegotten Source who speaks him, conceived as a historical human life in a little family, among a little people, in a little, out of the way place.

The Mystery to which all our human experience of love and knowledge points and tends--this Ground and Source that we clumsily call 'God'-- is revealed in a little child. His almighty-ness, his omnipotence begins to be revealed as not what we might think, a revelation Jesus Christ completes by his death on the Cross, the King of God's chosen reigning from a throne on which hands and feet cannot even be moved and from which this King could still less compel anyone to do anything by his authority and power.

But Christmas finds us revealed to ourselves as well. The fullness of the meaning of our creation in the divine image (Genesis 1:27) comes to light in the newborn Jesus Christ. We contemplate the mystery of his Nativity and we see God-with-us, born one of us, as each of us once was at the beginning of our earthly lives. But we realize that it is not the only-begotten Son of God who comes in our image but we who are created in his; in recognizing his humanity we see our own dignity as those born bearing the divine image. Each human life, from the first moment of its conception through all its joys and pains and loves and tragedies, is revealed in family resemblance to God himself, holding in itself, with all preciousness, something of the infinite divine dignity.

Nativity window, Sacred Heart Church, Yonkers, New York

December 22, 2013

His Birth, Our Rebirth

(This is the little homily I gave to the remnant of the brethren this morning.)

"This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about...his mother Mary...was found with child through the Holy Spirit." (Mt 1:18)

The Church was born in the same way, when the same Spirit filled the house where the apostles were gathered after the Ascension.

And every Sunday, even every day, the Church--we as Church--are regenerated right here by the Eucharist.

Just as God opened the side of Adam to form Eve, mother of all the living, so with the water and blood flowing from the side of Jesus--opened by our violence--all those brought back to life come to be fed.

This is the good news of our faith; in Christ crucified, God has transformed the violence of sin into the source of salvation. We, reborn in the same Christ conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, filled with the same Spirit, come to be washed and fed from the wounds of the Son become man. This is why we pray in today's Collect--the same prayer we pray three times a day in the Angelus--that the Passion and Cross of the Lord would bring us the glory of the Resurrection.

In these days, when we celebrate with joy the birth among us of the Son of God, we celebrate in the same way our regeneration in the Holy Spirit as the Church--the Body of Christ--as well as our daily and eucharistic rebirth, as John says, "not by water alone, but by water and blood." (1 Jn 5:6)

His conception in the womb of Mary is the dawn of our regeneration, his birth our rebirth.

December 8, 2013

Gaudens Gaudebo

I was relieved yesterday by the resolution of a liturgical dubium that had been troubling me. Everyone was acting as if today, December 8, was going to be the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception when it seemed to me that it should be the Second Sunday of Advent. After all, consulting the 'table of liturgical days' in the front of your breviary or missal clearly reveals that a Sunday of Advent enjoys precedence over almost everything, including solemnities of Our Lady.

December 6, 2013

Angels of Light

More and more life takes the form of prayer; a path at once obscure and beautiful, dark but on which the next step is usually clear enough, a journey somehow both inward and forward, a drilling down into the heart that is at the same time an ascent into the Mystery.

There are temptations on the path, angels of light that offer an easy illumination, cheap and seductive. But these false illuminations only turn out to be the real darkness. And it is through this that I come to trust the darkness of the path as the true light.

December 2, 2013

Evangelii Gaudium: My Favorite Parts

I gave the weekend to reading Evangelii gaudium. Broad and unfailingly positive, it is exactly what it says it is, an 'Apostolic Exhortation.' It is a plea that the Church and all her members might become evangelical and missionary in everything. There is much that strikes; for example, the length of the section on homily preparation or how, when Francis speaks of the option for the poor, divine and ecclesial, he speaks first not of helping or even of justice, but of inclusion in society. I was especially grateful for sections that gave expression to certain concerns that have troubled me over the years, such as much of what Francis says about 'pastoral acedia.' (n. 81 ff.)

Given those things, as well as the important passages already reported in a widespread way, here are some of my favorite quotes:

December 1, 2013

The Flannery O'Connor Prayer Journal

I'm glad for the inspiration to read A Prayer Journal, W.A. Sessions' editing of a journal kept by Flannery O'Connor during 1946 and 1947 when she was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Certain insights struck me as very deep and have been coming back to me in meditation, which I usually take as a sign that the Holy Spirit means for me to pay attention to them:

"I do not want to be lonely all my life but people only make us lonelier by reminding us of God."

"I feel too mediocre now to suffer. If suffering came to me I would not even recognize it."

The following passage really resonated with my own experience of prayer and journaling:
I will always be staggering between Despair & Presumption, facing first one & then the other, deciding which makes me look the best, which fits most comfortably, most conveniently. I'll never take a large chunk of anything. I'll nibble nervously here & there. Fear of God is right; but God, it is not this nervousness [.] It is something huge, great, magnanimous. It must be a joy. Every virtue must be vigorous. Virtue must be the only vigorous thing in our lives. Sin is large & stale. You can never finish eating it nor ever digest it. It has to be vomited. But perhaps that is too literary a statement--this musn't get insincere.
I'm not sure how to recommend the book; if you have ever struggled with prayer and yourself as a pray-er, or used journaling as a spiritual practice, I think you would probably appreciate it or at least enjoy it. The only thing is that it's almost too short to be worth paying for. So borrow a copy. I got mine on Kindle via the maternal economy.*

*Capuchin inside joke

November 28, 2013

Observant Expat

As I walked into the breakfast room this morning, the other American in the community gave me the standard festive greeting in Italian, 'Buona festa!'

Grasping about in the dimness of my consciousness, the first thing I thought of was not Thanksgiving, but the feast of St. James of the Marches.

Indeed, I'm a little scandalized that we are not observing St. James today, who for reasons I couldn't possibly fathom comes to us as an optional memorial. But I guess one must admit a diversity of opinion regarding who may consider himself a proper heir of the Observant reform.

St. James, pray for us! And a blessed Thanksgiving to everyone at home.

Archbishop Carballo On Leaving Religious Life

Recently there was a splash in Catholic news and blogs around the figure of 3,000 religious said to leave their institutes each year. This was quoted from a talk by Archbishop Carballo, former General Minister of the OFM and current Secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. His talk, or at least the part of it that made it into print, was folded into another presentation by one of our friars, which I was then asked to translate. Since I haven't seen any other English translation, what follows after the jump is my translation of Archbishop Carballo's talk. I am not an artful translator, and I am entirely to blame for any errors or misrepresentations.


November 24, 2013

An Inmate, a Decree, and a Donkey

The journey is a funny business with all its twists and turns. They all bear and speak of grace, though it's not always easy to see at the time. And grace itself isn't always easy. True, it's often consoling or even comforting. But just as often it's the pruning that the Lord promised. The pruning hurts, but it's also a sign that we have already borne fruit.

It just amazes me sometimes when I look back, how I could never have imagined what would become of me in this religious life, what would later become my relationship to certain brothers and sisters, places and times.

In the summer of 1995 I was a novice in the OFM, spending the summer at St. Bonaventure University. The weather was lovely, the group of novices was still in the 'honeymoon' phase, my prayer life was rich with experiences and consolations and I was full of the giddy pleasure of being finally a real religious, in the habit and everything. There I made my first Capuchin friend, a young friar on his way to priesthood. I coveted his theological knowledge, I admired what seemed like his confidence and I guess you might say, verve. In the lightness of those days I could never have imagined that eighteen years later I would be a Capuchin priest and he would be in prison for sexual abuse.

Seven years later, in the summer of 2002, I was on retreat in preparation for religious profession in the Capuchins. We were in a great old house of the Order in that part of the world, full of history and the old spirit of religious life in North America. It's true that in those days I gave little thought to what would become of me in the Capuchin Order, but I never could have imagined that eleven years later I would be sitting in front of a computer in a little room on the outskirts of Rome, filling out a form that would become the decree to suppress the same house.

I guess it's an ordinary grief of the journey, to watch what were the landmarks behind you crumble. On the positive side it produces a certain detachment in the knowledge that what presents itself as so pressing or attractive in this moment is also destined to a crumbling transformation into memory in the future, and it also reminds the soul that what we were really always drawn to, what we were always truly leaning on was the Spirit of God woven into all these things in his humility and with which they were shot through in his power.

It reminds me of the late spring of 1994. I had graduated from college and my parents had kindly given me a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a graduation gift. I went with the pilgrimage office of the OFM, the Order I was soon to enter as a postulant. The pilgrimage was led by Fr. Callistus Bamberg, may he rest in peace. Towards the end of the trip he gave me the gift of a little olive wood statue of the Holy Family in their flight into Egypt; Joseph walking, Mary on the donkey holding the infant Jesus. He said, and this has always stuck with me,

"Whenever you look at this, remember that it's a journey."


November 14, 2013

Ramble On My Slow Posting

This blog has really slowed down. Some of it I attribute to my use of Twitter, which, as I have shown, is eminently suited to Franciscan preaching. Not that most of what I do on Twitter is preaching, but the tweets I might consider preaching always end up as the ones that get the most retweets and favorites. But some of the slowing of the blog has also certainly come from changes in my life.

I started blogging during the Easter season of 2006, just when I was edging toward a series of intense transitions: from a temporarily professed religious to a perpetually professed one, from a layman to a cleric, from a friar in formation to one in his first assignment, and finally from a deacon to a priest. 

November 6, 2013

The Box

When I was first called about coming to Rome, one of the hopes that was mentioned was that I could eventually be tried out, as they say, 'in the box'; that is to say as someone who could interpret Italian into English for international meetings of the brothers.

So, almost a year and a half after moving to Rome, I was put in the box for the first time yesterday.

The view from the Box
For the first thing, a talk from the General Minister, I think I did o.k. He had given me his notes for the talk, which was a great help. Later on in the day, during less formal question and answer type things, I didn't do as well.

It's very tiring. On the other hand, it's a little like acting and in that sense kind of fun.

November 3, 2013

Fr. Cantalamessa on Zacchaeus, Francis, and God's Love

The other day, November 1 to be exact, was the feast of Blessed Raniero of Borgo Sansepolcro, one of those poor souls who has his proper feast day on the same day as the Solemnity of All Saints. It's kind of like having your birthday on Christmas, I suppose. He also has one of the zaniest vocation stories you'll ever hear.

In celebration of his Name Day, our own confrere Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household, presided at Mass today and preached for us.

October 28, 2013

Buses for the Holy Souls

It can't be denied that living in Rome one does have occasion to be scandalized from time to time by some of the very human souls our humble Lord chooses for the building up of his Church on the rock of St. Peter. There's even a joke about it; they say that Rome is the Deposit of Faith, in the sense that you arrive with your faith and then lose it in Rome, making your 'deposit.'

But from time to time Rome also edifies, warming your heart with the depth and strength of her tender devotion to our ancient faith.

To get anywhere beyond the remote compound where holy obedience finds me at this stage of my journey, I depend on Rome's buses, operated by ATAC, the Azienda Tramvie ed Autobus del Comune di Roma (Tram-ways and Bus Company of the Municipality of Rome, @InfoAtac on Twitter). Almost every morning, especially when I have to go somewhere that day (or the next day) I check their web page called "the log of public transport of the week." It tells you about diversions and cancellations for construction, protests, parades, political and papal events, etc., and most importantly, when there will be a strike.

Checking the page this morning, I found a link to this page, entitled, "Cemetery Lines: Enhanced Departures from Saturday, October 26 to Sunday, November 3."  There are more buses to help folks get to cemeteries and pray for the dead around All Souls' Day. That means that the city of Rome is helping the Holy Souls in Purgatory by making it easier for the faithful to obtain the All Souls' indulgences on their behalf. 

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. 
Requiescant in pace. Amen.

October 25, 2013

Docta Ignorantia

For a few days each year around this time we get, in the Office of Readings, St. Augustine's Letter 130, to Proba, on prayer. It touches me every time.

Today I landed on one of Augustine's somewhat famous expressions, docta ignorantia, 'learned ignorance.' In prayer there is an ignorance, an unknowledge that we learn, for our not knowing "how to pray as we ought" in which "the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26) is not just something we lack because of our distraction and sin, or even because of our innate limitedness, but is something positive that we learn in prayer, one of its precious fruits.

Indeed there is much to unlearn in prayer; it is, as Evagrius says, "the shedding of thoughts." I must unlearn about the deity that the flesh weaves out of its lusts and even ideas of the divine that give more rarefied delights to the intellect. True prayer means unlearning the unvirtues of the those false religiosities the flesh concocts to serve its purposes under sacrilegious cover. I am even invited to unlearn cherished ideas and attributions about myself.

In the end, it is all aimed toward the searing unlearning that "there is 'no such thing' as God because God is neither a 'what' nor a 'thing' but a pure 'Who.'" (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, chapter 2) And it is precisely this awakening that bears the most blessed fruit of prayer, the shedding of the 'whatness' and objectification of other people, learning to see them only as persons, as 'who.'


October 19, 2013

Shiny Muddy Puddle

In the dark chapel the brother sacristan begins to light the altar candles. From my place in choir towards the back of the chapel I see the smooth metal of the monstrance--in which we will soon adore the Blessed Sacrament--begin to glow in reflection.

Somewhere in the back of my mind St. Bonaventure reminds me that the power of these things--the light, the brother, the monstrance--to reproduce themselves as objects of reflection in my mind is the footprint from their origin, their faint imitation of the Word in which they are created, the Word who proceeds from the Unbegotten Source as perfect Image and Refulgence.

I take a moment to just appreciate the light; its dignity as the first of us creatures, the first of us to receive the original gaze of divine blessing, 'it was good.'

Seeing again the beautiful glow of the monstrance, I start to think that maybe it's good that we have shiny stuff in the practice of faith, for this too is our vocation, to become shiny, to become those from whom the light of God's overflowing love reflects to the people and situations around us.

Another teacher arrives from the back of my mind, certainly one my first teachers of the Franciscan tradition though I've forgotten which. I remember how he told us about a moment when he looked down and saw his reflection in a muddy puddle. He decided that the muddy puddle was his image for Franciscan spirituality. Even though the puddle was muddy, when the light was right he could see his reflection just fine.

And so that's our confession. The Light is right. The Light is right for the love of God to shine through us to the world, even though we aren't quite shiny, even in the poverty before God of being, at times, as shallow and dirty as a muddy puddle.

October 12, 2013

The Road of Iniquity

As a sort of token effort at interior consent to my new life in Italy I have been making my slow way through Manzoni's The Betrothed. I read some in English (trans. Bruce Penman, Penguin Classics, 1972) and then if I feel up to it I go back and try to read the section again in Italian.

About half done after a year, I came across this wonderful description of how it feels to be a sinner:
Our manuscript remarks here that the road of iniquity is indeed wide, but that does not mean that it is a comfortable road to travel; it has its stumbling blocks and its difficult stretches; it is a painful road and a tiring one, although it goes downhill. (337)

October 5, 2013

Meeting Pope Francis

Back when it was announced that Pope Francis would go to Assisi for the feast of St. Francis we were told that his day would include a short visit to the parish church of Santa Maria Maggiore, adjacent to the bishop's house and currently in Capuchin care. There he would have a brief meeting with our General Minister and other Capuchins. For this purpose especially, the Provincial Minister of Umbria was going to offer hospitality to twenty friars from the General Curia fraternity.

The rarely-seen Umbrian Balloon of Welcome

So up went that commonplace of religious life, the sign-up sheet, and even I signed up.

October 1, 2013

Praying for the Big Meeting

Who can keep up with our good Pope Francis? Today there is another interview, this time with La Repubblica. This morning on Twitter I saw some exasperated soul wish out loud that Pope Francis would 'switch to decaf.'

And today begins the first official meeting of Francis's council of Cardinals, including, of course, our own Seán Patrick O'Malley, from whose prayer and hands I am a priest of Jesus Christ and a presbyter of the Roman Church, though I bear both poorly and awkwardly.

I find their meeting coming into my prayer. I pray for them, for their courage, their wisdom, their humility, their willingness. I keep thinking about how often you open the breviary to the feast of some bishop or other and it says that he was a reformer of his diocese, the clergy, etc. Perhaps it takes saints for true reform, and so we should pray for saints and serve each other's holiness. But I think reform itself--in the struggles and energy released in the work of reforming--also makes saints.

So I want to pray in thanksgiving for the holiness of our Holy Father and his council of Cardinals as they begin to meet today, that their discernment and effort may serve the holiness of the Universal Church, at once the bride of Christ and his Body, born in poverty, working to heal and reconcile, suffering, crucified, and Risen.

September 28, 2013

Ciak

For the second time in my religious life, I find myself in community with another Charles. The first time was back in Yonkers when the late Fr. Charles Repole was living on the other side of the building in the fraternity for senior friars. He had spent much of his religious life as a missionary in Nicaragua, and his claim to fame, of which he was very proud, was that he had edited a trilingual dictionary of the English, Spanish, and Miskito languages.

I doubt that there was ever much danger of confusion but in order to avoid it anyway, he used to call me 'Charles, junior.' and would say, "You're my 'junior.'" Some of the other brothers, finding this amusing--Fr. Charles, senior, was somewhat given to the 'mascot' role in the family system of the senior friars--shortened this to 'CJ.' Fr. Charles would also call me mi tocayo, Spanish for 'my namesake.'

In this second situation of two Charleses, some elements in the community seem to be suggesting that it be clarified by calling the other Charles 'Charley' and me 'Chuck.' I guess I don't have anything against 'Chuck,' but I would tend to resist it a little in the current circumstances of my life, given the resonance that immediately obtains between Friar Chuck and Friar Tuck.

Anyway, yesterday we had a local chapter here in the General Curia fraternity. One of the events during the chapter was an election held in order to fill a vacancy on the house council. The fraternity is large enough, hovering around thirty friars, to have an elected council to meet with and advise the guardian and his vicar. I was nominated a scrutineer for this election, and my main duty ended up being the verification, out loud, that the number of ballots received matched the number of ballots passed out. This was very amusing for the brethren because it put on display the inability to count which has been a thorn in my side since second grade.

When no election (by majority vote) had occurred on the second ballot, we proceeded, according to our customs, to the third ballot on which only the two brothers who had received the most votes on the second ballot would be eligible. There was, however, a three-way tie for second place on the second ballot, and I was one of those so placed. This meant, according to our customs, that the tie would be broken by seniority in the Order and so we were each called upon to announce the date of our temporary profession. Things got even funnier at this point when one of the brothers needed help remembering. I, on the other hand, knew well and announced my date of August 4, 2002 with confidence because I knew I was the youngest in religion and thus the most disqualified from further eligibility in the process at hand.

The point of all this is to say that as scrutineer I also had to verify the names written on the ballots while the other scrutineer announced them. One of them was found inscribed with 'Ciak.' After a moment of reflection, this was revealed as an attempt to write 'Chuck' in Italian.

It's kind of odd because there's no letter 'k' in italiano standard, as the Italians would call it. Nevertheless, the internet tells me that in Italian a ciak is one of those clapperboard things they use making movies. So in that spirit, here's a still of me from the last movie I was in, ca. 1997.


Ciak

September 23, 2013

Overheard: Alleluia

 Overheard at fraternal recreation:

"When he was a member of the Académie française, they asked Cardinal Lustiger what was the most beautiful word in the French language. He said,

'Alléluia.'"

I always remember Cardinal Lustiger because I recall how, when I was first exploring the idea of becoming a Catholic, I asked the priest if being a convert made you a sort of less-than Catholic. He said something like,

'On the contrary; the Archbishop of Paris is a convert.'

September 22, 2013

A View from the Roof of the Hospital

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.
I've always loved that image of the Church as a hospital and so I was delighted to see it in our Holy Father Francis's instantly-famous 'interview.' As an image I think it makes some sense of the tension we see and feel between a salvation we know to have been fully accomplished, a Kingdom of God we know to be in some sense arrived, and our experience of feeling still broken, still being sinners in a world that still suffers and which seems to insist on its suffering. As a baptized person, I know that I have become free from original sin. And yet, the wounds left by sin still fester in me, sometimes even so badly that it might be hard to believe I had truly received that freedom in Christ.


September 21, 2013

Some Jargony Fun and Encouragement

Yesterday life conspired to give me a little encouragement to maybe feel less bad about myself, which was certainly a welcome thing given the experience from earlier in the week recounted in the previous post, when one of my Franciscan brothers refused me entrance to a party to which I had been invited.

The first thing was that I realized it was already the second anniversary of that crazy day when my Provincial Minister called me in the morning to make a phone appointment for later in the day, saying that we needed to talk about something important. Of course I spent the rest of the morning freaking out; I was a new guardian at the time and, sorry to say, it wasn't going very well. What was up? Was I being removed? Was one of the brothers in the house in trouble? It turned out to be the rather stunning news that the General Minister had asked for me to be summoned into service at our General Curia.

So, two years later, as part of that assignment, one of my little jobs yesterday was to prepare the decree to authorize the Provincial Minister of Great Britain to convoke their next Provincial Chapter. To do this I had to look up the dates of their last one. In so doing I noticed that it was on September 6, 2011 that my predecessor in this assignment had been elected Second Definitor of the Province of Great Britain.

Now, if my Provincial Minister called me more or less first thing in the morning on September 20, 2011 to tell me that the General Minister had asked for me to come to Rome, that means that our General Councilor must have called him the day before at the very latest.

That means that if it was the election of my predecessor to his Provincial Definitory that precipitated the search for a successor, it was only thirteen days, at most, between that precipitation and my being thought of for the job. That's not a lot of time for many friars to have been asked and then to consult with their superiors and spiritual directors, etc., before having to say that they couldn't say yes at that moment, so therefore I conclude that I wasn't that far down the list of preference when candidates for my current assignment were being considered. So in that conjecture I guess I'm invited to a little recovery of self-confidence after recent events.

September 17, 2013

Perfect Joy

The good Lord knows our hearts and our struggles, and he consoles us, though not to make us complacent, but just enough to help us go on and spur us to take up our cross and follow him for another day. He knows that after almost twenty years on this journey of seeking the footprints of St. Francis, there are times when I doubt, when my heart is full of worry about whether what has become of me as a friar carries any Franciscan meaning, whether I am about the Franciscan vocation that the Lord himself once gave me the grace to set out upon in a simpler, easier time.

September 16, 2013

Humility

"Whatever we make of our life, whatever truly Christian content we give it, is still has something of the stamp of the 'me generation' on it, and we have to be humble enough to see this. This is where we begin." (Seraphim Rose)

September 15, 2013

Sweeping Woman and Atheist Kid

Sitting a little with the Sunday gospel we have today, Luke's parables of the lost things--the lost sheep, the lost coin, the two lost brothers--I got to thinking on various things. The first was 'seeking.' In Lumen fidei our holy fathers Francis and Benedict spoke a lot about those who 'seek God.' I remember that in the days before I decided to declare myself a 'catechumen'--what vainglorious ignorance to think it worked like that!--one of the labels I learned and which I applied to myself was 'spiritual seeker.' I guess it meant that you were looking for something, though you weren't yet sure what it was.

September 14, 2013

On the Way with the Empress

This blog has been pretty quiet lately. The truth is that I had something of a rough landing back here in Rome; as soon as I got back I caught a cold. Combined with the jet lag, it made for some miserable days. For three nights I was up at midnight, no longer able to sleep and troubled by one of various, persevarating fever/anxiety dreams. If Martin Luther said that Romans were 'polished deceivers,' I have found this to be quite true regarding Roman colds. At the beginning you think, 'O.k., I have a cold, but this one doesn't seem like it will be so bad.' But then, on day three or so, it gets quite yucky.

Fortunately, things here are still more or less in a mode of summer quiet. In these days we have been observing the orario super-estivo, the 'super summer schedule.' This means, among other things, that instead of the regular observance of Morning Prayer at 6:30, a period of meditation following, and then Mass at 7:15, we just have Mauds* at 7:15.

In the celebration of Mauds, the psalmody of Morning Prayer replaces the Penitential Act of the Mass. Thus, the presider has to manage somehow the somewhat awkward liturgical seam between the greeting after the Sign of the Cross, The Lord be with you... and the beginning of the psalmody. Being attentive to such things, I'm always observing how the various priests do this, thinking on what might be the best way, given that that neither the Missal nor the Liturgy of the Hours (as far as I can tell) gives any direction. When it was my turn to be principal celebrant last Sunday, I kept it simple and only said something like, 'Dear brothers, let us begin our Sunday celebration, praising God with the psalmody.' I don't know I feel about that, though. It's the sort of liturgical line that reminds one that he is offering Mass without the deacon that ought be there to give such liturgical monitiones.

In any case, the friar who ended up as presiding celebrant for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross today has won this little challenge as far as I'm concerned. After the Sign of the Cross and the greeting, he said something like this:

'Dear brothers, we celebrate today the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. With the Empress Helena we are on pilgrimage to the Holy Land; she to the earthly Jerusalem, we to the heavenly one by means of praying the psalms.'


*Since the Roman rite seems to have no proper name for it, 'Mauds' is the name I give to the liturgy that results when Mass is combined with Morning Prayer, a portmanteau of 'Mass' and 'Lauds.' For more information, see my post, "On the Various Forms of Prass.'

September 5, 2013

Socks, Kittens, and the Spiral Staircase

Years back I had this idea that I could save time and annoyance by always buying exactly the same kind of socks. That way I wouldn't have to worry about matching them, because they would all match each other, I thought. But this turned out to make matching even more difficult because I had to match the socks according to age, by how worn out they were, more or less. I then realized that to make the plan work I would have to change all my socks at once and then be careful to wear them in an exact rotation so that they would all wear out at the same rate. Feeling that I had reached the point of diminishing returns on my plan, I gave up.

I thought of that today on my little visit to the local colony of semi-feral cats, which seems quite lively upon my return to Rome and full of medium-sized kittens from the explosion of births that seemed to happen right at the end of spring.

Fleshly Religion vs. Christianity

There is an idea of religion that is preached by the flesh, and it says--among other things--that religion is a sort of binary project, a choice between being a saint or a sinner. 'Saint' in this case means somebody 'holy'--given an idea of holiness as something that is accomplished or possessed, a sort of spiritual capital analogous to social, cultural, or political capital. Being a 'sinner' in this scheme is then the opposite: being impure, dirty, unacceptable, without value.

The God of this fleshly religion is at best a sort of cosmic landlord, a deity that allows us to live in the fleshly security and comfort of something like a 'state of grace,' so long as we pay the dues of our successful efforts to be 'holy.' Those who succeed in this holiness may approach their god with the rotten satisfaction of being his favorites, the children he likes best, knowing that they are better than the lazy, unholy remainder of humanity whom they imagine their god despising as much as they do.

Christianity liberates us from the tyrannical binary of this fleshly religion, revealing that holiness isn't like that at all. For the choice given to the Christian isn't whether to be a 'saint' (that is, according to some pre-conceived idea of sanctity we have woven out of our vanities) or a 'sinner,' but a choice that clusters around what sort of sinner we want to be. We have all sinned, and we continue to be sinners. Our choice is whether to be the sort of sinner for whom the misery and suffering of sin hardens the heart and spirit, or the sort of person for whom the experience of sin becomes a path to humility and gentleness.

We live in a world broken by sin, a world scarred by all of us who have taken the easy path of allowing suffering and violence to reproduce in ourselves, responding to hurt with more hurt. And this continues to happen because this broken world is inhabited by all of us broken-hearted people, folks whose ability to make good choices has been injured by the legacy of brutality to which we are heirs.

But the good news is that Jesus Christ, in his Passion and Resurrection, has taken all of the misery and suffering that we insist on for ourselves, all that we are at worst, disregarding, torturing, and killing each other, and has given nothing back but blessing and new life. In this Mystery he has blazed a new path for the humanity he borrowed from us through the consent of our Blessed Mother. This is the path of letting our broken hearts break open instead of closed, of allowing our experience of ourselves as broken and sinners to teach us the humility and gentleness of the Kingdom of God rather than the bitterness and disregard of the world and its culture of death.

September 2, 2013

St. Teresa On How To Live In Community

As I end my little vacation today, here's the last little section of Teresa's The Way of Perfection--my blessed vacation reading--that I wanted to post. In the last chapter there is some plain and wonderful advice for living in community in a way that serves and is integrated with prayer and holiness, as well as an honest account of some of the very basic temptations that try to rob of us of the blessedness of common life.
Another source of harm is this: we may judge others unfavourably, though they may be holier than ourselves, because they do not walk as we do... You think such people are imperfect; and if they are good and yet at the same time of a lively disposition, you think them dissolute....It is very wrong to think that everyone who does not follow in your own timorous footsteps has something the matter with her... 
Try, then, sisters, to be as pleasant as you can, without offending God, and to get on as well as you can with those you have to deal with, so that they may like talking to you and want to follow your way of life and conversation, and not be frightened and put off by virtue. This is very important for nuns: the holier they are, the more sociable they should be with their sisters. Although you may be very sorry if all your sisters’ conversation is not just as you would like it to be, never keep aloof from them if you wish to help them and to have their love. We must try hard to be pleasant, and to humour the people we deal with and make them like us, especially our sisters. 
So try, my daughters, to bear in mind that God does not pay great attention to all the trifling matters which occupy you, and do not allow these things to make your spirit quail and your courage fade, for if you do that you may lose many blessings. As I have said, let your intention be upright and your will determined not to offend God. But do not let your soul dwell in seclusion, or, instead of acquiring holiness, you will develop many imperfections, which the devil will implant in you in other ways, in which case, as I have said, you will not do the good that you might, either to yourselves or to others.

August 31, 2013

Why Twitter Is Franciscan

From the Rule, chapter IX, section 3:
Moneo quoque et exhortor eosdem fratres, ut in praedicatione, quam faciunt, sint examinata et casta eorum eloquia (cf. psalm 11:7 and 17:31, Vulgate), ad utilitatem et aedificationem populi, annuntiando eis vitia et virtutes, poenam et gloriam cum brevitate sermonis; quia verbum abbreviatum fecit Dominus super terram. (cf. Romans 9:28, Vulgate) 
"I warn and exhort the brothers that in the preaching that they do, their words be considered and chaste, for the usefulness and edification of the people, announcing to them vices and virtues, punishment and glory with a brief word [e.g. 140 characters]; for the Lord made a short word on earth."

August 30, 2013

St. Teresa On Community Drama

As I've mentioned, one of the joys of this little vacation, already almost at its end, has been the slow re-reading of St. Teresa's The Way of Perfection. Towards the end of the book, in chapter 36 on the petition of the Our Father, dimitte nobis debita nostra, Teresa has this wonderful section about one of the ways the devil tricks us religious into bringing the world into the cloister, as it were, stirring up the 'drama' which is such a persistent and enervating distraction in religious life:
God help us, how absurd it is for religious to connect their honour with things so trifling that they amaze me! You know nothing about this, sisters, but I will tell you about it so that you may be wary. You see, sisters, the devil has not forgotten us. He has invented honours of his own for religious houses and has made laws by which we go up and down in rank, as people do in the world. Learned men have to observe this with regard to their studies (a matter of which I know nothing): anyone, for example, who has got as far as reading theology must not descend and read philosophy— that is their kind of honour, according to which you must always be going up and never going down... 
The thing is enough to make one laugh—or, it would be more proper to say, to make one weep. After all, the Order does not command us not to be humble: it commands us to do everything in due form. And in matters which concern my own esteem I ought not to be so formal as to insist that this detail of our Rule shall be kept as strictly as the rest, which we may in fact be observing very imperfectly. We must not put all our effort into observing just this one detail: let my interests be looked after by others—I will forget about myself altogether. The fact is, although we shall never rise as far as Heaven in this way, we are attracted by the thought of rising higher, and we dislike climbing down. O, Lord, Lord, art Thou our Example and our Master? Yes, indeed. And wherein did Thy honour consist, O Lord, Who hast honoured us? Didst Thou perchance lose it when Thou wert humbled even to death? No, Lord, rather didst Thou gain it for all. 
For the love of God, sisters! We have lost our way; we have taken the wrong path from the very beginning. God grant that no soul be lost through its attention to these wretched niceties about honour, when it has no idea wherein honour consists. We shall get to the point of thinking that we have done something wonderful because we have forgiven a person for some trifling thing, which was neither a slight nor an insult nor anything else. Then we shall ask the Lord to forgive us as people who have done something important, just because we have forgiven someone. Grant us, my God, to understand how little we understand ourselves and how empty our hands are when we come to Thee that Thou, of Thy mercy, mayest forgive us.

August 29, 2013

21st Anniversary of Baptism Ramble


Well, there I am, twenty-one years ago today, receiving one of the anointings from Deacon Ron at little Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Quaker Hill, Connecticut. It was a Saturday.


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August 24, 2013

Perfect Faith, Imperfect Understanding

Some of this post I already wrote about four years ago. I apologize in advance.

A couple of things have come together in my reflection today: Jesus' encounter with Nathanael (John 1: 45-51), which we have as the gospel for the feast of St. Bartholomew today, and an outing I took with one of the friars yesterday.


August 18, 2013

In The Cloud, Eyes Fixed

From the readings for Mass today:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12: 1-2a)
My reflections on the readings today fell on this one sentence. It seems to me that it contains a simple and beautiful plan for beginning, or beginning anew, to live a spiritual life. I began to see three moments:


August 16, 2013

Proper Procedures Having Not Been Observed

I'm always amused--and a little heartened, in some funny way--when I come across evidence of the continuity of religious life, of how little certain aspects of it seem to change over time. For example, adjusting the names and some of the particulars of place and lodging, it would be no surprise to encounter something very close to this letter of St. Bernard to the abbot of Trois-Fontaines even today:
By way of example, I will tell you about something similar that once happened to me. It was when my brother Bartholomew was still alive. One day he displeased me. Trembling with rage and using a threatening expression and tone of voice, I ordered him to leave the monastery. He immediately walked out, went to one of our barns, and stayed there. When I learned of this I wanted to call him back, but he stated his conditions: he would only return if he were received in his own rank; not in the last rank and as a fugitive, but as if he had been sent away lightly and without just cause. He maintained that he should not have to submit to due process of the Rule for his return, since proper procedures had not been observed in his dismissal. Distrusting my own judgment of this response and of my own actions, and because of the ties of blood between him and me, I entrusted the decision of this affair to the hands of all the brethren. Thus they judged, in my absence, that his return should not be subject to the letter of the Rule since it was certain that his dismissal had not been conducted in a regular fashion.
(Quoted from Jean Leclercq, Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercian Spirit, trans. Claire Lavoie (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1976), 41-42.)

August 15, 2013

St. Teresa on Prayer and Mental Distress

As I wrote yesterday, I've been reading St. Teresa's Way of Perfection. There are so many wonderful little passages. I share this one which I think could be a comfort and encouragement to anyone trying to pray through emotional distress, upset, anxiety, depression, etc.:
There are occasions when one cannot help doing this [i.e. suffer distraction]: times of ill-health (especially in persons who suffer from melancholia); or times when our heads are tired, and, however hard we try, we cannot concentrate; or times when, for their own good, God allows His servants for days on end to go through great storms. And, although they are distressed and strive to calm themselves, they are unable to do so and incapable of attending to what they are saying, however hard they try, nor can they fix their understanding on anything: they seem to be in a frenzy, so distraught are they. 
The very suffering of anyone in this state will show her that she is not to blame, and she must not worry, for that only makes matters worse, nor must she weary herself by trying to put sense into something—namely, her mind—which for the moment is without any. She should pray as best she can: indeed, she need not pray at all, but may try to rest her spirit as though she were ill and busy herself with some other virtuous action. These directions are meant for persons who keep careful guard over themselves and know that they must not speak to God and to the world at the same time. What we can do ourselves is to try to be alone—and God grant that this may suffice, as I say, to make us realize in Whose presence we are and how the Lord answers our petitions. Do you suppose that, because we cannot hear Him, He is silent? 
(from chapter 24. Text from Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

August 14, 2013

cosa tan ruin

The other day I went to the library of this friary where I have been staying to look for something light to read (and light to carry) for when I take the subway. For this purpose I was delighted to find the Cistercian Studies edition of Jean Leclercq's Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercian Spirit, which I think I may have read before but I can't remember. In any case it's a lovely little book. But I also took it to be a work of Providence that I came across an old paperback edition of St. Teresa of Ávila's The Way of Perfection, which I am now going through for the first time in years.

I thought the find perhaps providential because I have been seeking Teresa's example and intercession from time to time lately. Why?

August 13, 2013

Griptape And Old Cloaks

(Note to readers: this is another half-silly post, so I apologize to anyone so unfortunate as to live in a spiritual landscape so barren as to have to seek serious, devout doctrine from this silly blog and has found it so quiet lately. What can I say? I'm on vacation, you know.)

I am a small but long-standing theological dubium for which I would like a definitive answer. I last mentioned it on this blog five (!) years ago. The question is this: does, or does not investiture in the religious habit of a (non-Carmelite) religious institute dissolve a previous investiture in the Brown Scapular?

On some evening in the years between my first and current time in religious life, I went to some kind of Catholic youth event at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Hamden, CT. It might have been 1997 or 1998. The event was organized and led by some Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. In the course of things, I accepted investiture in the Brown Scapular.

Now, since the Brown Scapular is a form of the Carmelite habit, my best guess is that my (re-) investiture in the Franciscan habit in 2001 dissolved my investiture in the Brown Scapular, as it would certainly seem unfitting for someone to wear the habit of two religious orders at one time. Therefore, since then I have not bothered to wear the Brown Scapular nor carry it in any other way about my person.

However, I remain open to correction on this point. I was reminded of all this when I saw this video which has been making the rounds. As you can see around 1:15, the friar, a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate even, seems to have embraced the contrary position.

August 3, 2013

Liturgy Craft Time: Ribbon Toasting

So here I am on vacation, home in the USA. I brought my Italian Liturgy of the Hours to use so I wouldn't forget the little bit of the language I've learned over there. But for those of the Hours that I pray with the brothers, I went and dug out of storage my old Roman-Franciscan Christian Prayer, which was given to me for my use when I arrived as a postulant with the OFM way back on July 17, 1994. (The day is easy to remember because it was the final match of the World Cup (Brazil vs. Italy, 0-0, 3-2 (penalities))).

However, when I found my old friend, I saw that it had no ribbons. A breviary with no ribbons? What kind of Catholic do you think I am?

July 31, 2013

Rome, The Deposit Of Faith

I've started on a version of this post several times, but for some reason it never comes out right and either abandon it before posting or delete it soon after. I'm not sure why.

There's a joke that gets made in Rome, that Rome is the 'deposit of faith.' That is to say that one arrives in Rome with faith, or at least because of the faith, but that living and working in Rome causes one to lose the faith. Thus, when one leaves Rome, the faith is left behind, 'deposited' there.

July 30, 2013

Terrible Tangle, Blessed Mess

Over the years the parable of the weeds in the field, which we had in the lectionary as the parable itself (Matthew 13:24-30) this past Saturday and then again today as the 'in-house' explanation given to the disciples (13:36-43), has become for me one of Jesus' most comforting words.

For as the world is populated by the children of the Kingdom and the children of the evil one, so we ourselves are like the field where weeds have been sown along with the wheat. And, as the master of the field says, the way they are tangled together--at the roots, presumably--makes it hard to simply pull up the weeds and be rid of them without also compromising the growth of the wheat.

In other words, it's not like our holiness and our sinfulness, our good points and our pitfalls, our gifts and our flaws are such discrete and separate things. As individual created persons, we are a unity. Like the tangled roots of the wheat and weeds, so the goodness and evil in each of us.

For example, the temperament that makes someone patient might at other times make him passive. The gift of caring for others can turn into the need to be needed. The desire for righteousness and justice can edge into intolerance and a frustrated zeal for the reform of others. At the very core of the human being is the desire of the heart to go out of itself, to lose itself and thus find freedom in loving another. Indeed, this is the very engine of prayer, as we strive in prayer to open ourselves to the Other whom our hearts most desire. But too often this basic spiritual energy gets lazy and settles for less than its genuine object, God, and lets itself be corrupted into lust, or worse, the dirtier modalities of lust such as possessiveness or the drive to control or use others.

There's a debilitating frustration that can creep into the practice of a devout life, as we start to despair, in little, secret ways, of being rid of the weeds that choke our spirit and keep us--and those around us--suffering. As we grow in holiness and devotion, we might also feel like we are 'growing in sin' at the same time, as the roots seem to get more and more tangled.

We want to pull up the weeds in one grand gesture, one confession made especially well, one very devout retreat. But it just can't happen like that. The roots of the weeds are tangled with the roots of our goodness, of our preciousness to God. To uproot the weeds without ruining the growth of the wheat takes time and patience. God is so good and so delightful that we want to run with him. But his invitation is to walk.

July 24, 2013

Unchained, Not Going To Ostia

Perhaps others with experience of religious life will feel some resonance when I say that one of the ordinary and persistent trials of religious life is finding out that one's expectations of it and presumptions about it are unfounded and erroneous, respectively.

My originary and archetypal experience in this regard came a few days into my first postulancy, when, in my innocence, I asked of one of the directors when I would be told which of the priests was to be my confessor. For better or for worse, the sort of lives of the saints that had formed my idea of religious life had made me think, among other things, that being assigned a confessor would be one of the important first moments of my religious life. Instead, I was informed that it was the policy of the formation program that whatever had been the individual postulant's use (or lack thereof) of the sacrament of Reconciliation prior to entering, he ought to continue it quietly.

At the time, this left me not only scandalized but also with the nagging feeling that religious life was not going to provide me, as I had presumed it would, with the structures and resources for living what seemed to me to be a religious life.

Now, almost twenty years later I have had the latest experience of this sort. I discovered that, to the best of my knowledge and inquiry, there is no longer any such person as the Cardinal Protector of the Franciscan Order, despite the concluding words of the Rule that all of us friars of the First Order have professed:
In addition to these points, I command the ministers through obedience to petition from our Lord the Pope for one of the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, who would be the governor, protector, and corrector of this fraternity, so that, being always submissive and subject at the feet of the same Holy Church and steadfast in the Catholic faith, we may observe poverty, humility, and the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ as we have firmly promised. (Later Rule, XII: 3-4, FA: ED I, 106)
Why should I be concerned about this? Well, it has to do with another word we have from St. Francis, in his Testament. The question of the legislative weight of the Testament is an ancient and abiding one in Franciscan history. The problem derives from St. Francis himself, who says in the document itself that it is not 'another Rule' but at the same time seems to make commands by obedience. The Capuchin branch of the Friars Minor, of which I find myself a member at this stage of my Franciscan journey, has always maintained as one of its characteristics the tradition of holding up some of the alleged precepts of the Testament and cherishing it as the primary gloss on the Rule.

Quick and dirty excursus into Franciscan history done, here is the section of the Testament I have in mind:
And if some [brothers] might have been found who are not reciting the Office according to the Rule and want to change it in some way, or who are not Catholics, let all the brothers, wherever they may have found one of them, be bound through obedience to bring him before the custodian of that place nearest to where they found him. And let the custodian be strictly bound through obedience to keep him securely day and night as a man in chains, so that he cannot be taken from his hands until he can personally deliver him into the hands of his minister. And let the minister be bound through obedience to send him with such brothers who would guard him as a prisoner until they deliver him to the Lord of Ostia, who is the Lord, the Protector and the Corrector of this fraternity. (St. Francis, Testament, 31-33, FA: ED I, 126-127)
The Lord of Ostia mentioned here is, of course, that famous character of early Franciscan history, Cardinal Ugolino dei Conti di Segni, Cardinal Protector of the Order and the future Pope Gregory IX.

Therefore, one of the comforts I had always felt as a Capuchin, in this branch of the Order said to hold the precepts of the Testament dear, was that if it happened that I abandoned the Divine Office or somehow began to deviate from the Catholic faith, my ministers would put me in chains and deliver me to the Cardinal Protector of the Order for correction and, I imagined, some kind of remedy. But if there is no longer any such person, I now realize that my comfort was in vain.

If however, one wanted to do his best nonetheless and deliver me to the Lord of Ostia, that wouldn't be so simple either. Depending on how one wanted to read the intervening history of the Roman Church and her suburbicarian sees, it might mean delivering me either to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, or to Bishop Vincenzo Apicella, the latter being, incidentally, the bishop of our blogging colleague Fr. Z. But I leave that discernment up to my superiors, may God forbid that it ever be necessary.

July 22, 2013

Theses on Prayer from Mary Magdalene

More and more over the years, I turn to Mary Magdalene's encounter with the Risen Lord as both a means to understand and a model for prayer. I've written the same stuff before, but instead of linking some old post I thought to make a new one in the 'theses' style.


Theses on Prayer from Mary Magdalene (John 20: 11-18)

  • Getting up early helps
  • Stay still, stay where you are inside. Don't get up and do something else either physically or interiorly at the first thought of doing so, even when others have run away.
  • Even when all you have inside seems like emptiness, look into it.
  • Whatever question or concern or hurt happens to be on your heart, address it simply to whatever presence seems to be there, whether you recognize the presence or not, whether it seems like anything or not.
  • Know that when you recognize the presence of God, this is how our limited perception experiences God recognizing and calling you. So like many aspects of prayer--and indeed, prayer itself--things feel like our action and our perception when in fact they are the action of the Holy Spirit praying within us. This is a sort of optical illusion of the interior vision that happens because of our being limited to time and space.
  • Accept without discouragement that the experience of God in prayer feels fleeting. It feels this way because God is not a 'thing' that can be possessed like our other created experiences and still less like a physical, temporal good. In this sense prayer is the first and primary school of holy poverty, because the object of our desire cannot be grasped and possessed. Prayer trains us in letting go, because we have no choice with God but to let go.
  • Further, even if it seems as if God flees from us in prayer, he is not fleeing in order to rid of us, but as a way of drawing us, seducing us even, deeper into the mystery, to begin again with an even more profound gaze into the empty tomb.
  • The fruit of prayer is witness to and announcement of the Resurrection, that the world may know that the new creation has begun to arrive.

July 21, 2013

The One Thing

By giving us Abraham's mysterious encounter with the three men (Genesis 18: 1-10a) as the first reading, the liturgy today sets us up to interpret the gospel of Martha and Mary of Bethany (Luke 10: 38-42) in terms of hospitality.

This leads us most immediately to Martha the anxious hostess and to noticing the Lord's tenderness towards her despite his unwillingness to intervene in the drama between the sisters--as he gently points out to her that the injustice she perceives outside of herself is really within. What a fine meditation this gospel might be for those who dismiss God because he doesn't intervene in the world in the way they imagine he should!

But a reflection on hospitality also brings us to Mary, who is also receiving the Lord by making herself a disciple who sits listening at his feet. She teaches us that prayer, adoration, and the love of God are acts of hospitality, of graciously receiving the presence of Jesus Christ.

A merely human religiosity can see prayer as an addressing of ourselves to a deity somewhere up in the sky, either literally or in some rarefied sky more palatable to persons imbued with modern science. We pray to this god either in the hopes of manipulating him for our purposes, which is magic, or to try to squeeze benefits and graces from his apparent stinginess.

The good news of Christian faith is that it turns all of the unwisdom of such human theological imagination on its head. From the call of Abraham to the Resurrection appearances, Christian faith speaks of a God who arrives, who is adventitious. He is not a supreme being who must be pulled down from the sky or a cthonic power that must be conjured up from the netherworld. Rather, he is a Presence discovered, sometimes as a surprise, as with Abraham and the three men, or simply recognized precisely when he calls us by name, as with the Risen Lord and Mary Magdalene. Prayer and adoration, then, as the postures that make us disciples of Jesus Christ, are acts of hospitality, of graciously receiving the Presence of God as he arrives in the particular circumstances of our days.

A similar teaching comes to us in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). The Bridegroom is always arriving in our lives, of course, because he lives in transcendent eternity. But it is only by allowing our souls to be lit up by the burning oil of prayer that we come to notice his arrival and know to make space, to graciously receive him.

James Tissot, Les Vierges Sages

July 14, 2013

Justified Ramble

In the summer of 2002 I emerged from the former Capuchin novitiate in Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin and moved to Boston to become a student at the former Weston Jesuit School of Theology. (How passing are the things of this world!) In various senses I was at an impressionable moment, and this turned out to be a good thing because my ideas of the Catholic faith at the time were somewhat random, spotty, and unbalanced, the result of some years spent in solitary reflection, undisciplined reading, and uneven use of pastoral care and spiritual direction. I was very much ready for the good teachers that I had at Weston.

Each time the parable of the Good Samaritan rolls around in the lectionary, as it does today in the Sunday cycle, I think of one of those teachers, the professor I had for Moral Theology 101. One of his things, which he returned to a couple of times during the semester, was that the tradition had always seen the Good Samaritan as more of a Christological allegory than a moral example, and perhaps we would do well to preach it that way. I took the advice and have always done so, more or less, up to and including today. Trying to give homilies with my little bit of Italian, I have stuck close to some of my familiar approaches, at least so far.

Nevertheless, though I had my little homily prepared in this way a week ahead of time, my personal reflections went in a different direction. As I practiced the gospel before Mass, the reflexive motive in 10:29 just stayed with me; in Italian, volendo giustificarsi, 'he wished to justify himself.'

This scholar of the law had one of the great privileges of all of human history, to have the Lord himself say to him, 'You have answered correctly.' And yet, in that little shift into the self in his final question, he made a spiritual wrong turn. Everything he had said before that turned him outwards, loving God with all his heart, being, strength, and mind, and his neighbor as himself. But wishing to justify himself, it got turned around, twisted back, and he became the homo incurvatus, the human being bent over into himself.

It's tempting to take the easy way out of this ever-present danger of religion and say 'God is other people,' forgetting the simultaneous truth of 'God is other, people,' as teaches the oft-repeated anecdote about Avery Dulles, may he rest in peace. The transcendence of God pushes us inside, to the mind, the soul, the spiritual parts of our created being that resemble most the being of God. In this sense a spiritual life can't be lived without some reflection on one's own self, examination of conscience, discernments and resolutions aimed, on the one hand, at living better the obligations of the state of life to which we are called, and on the other, staying out of sin, especially mortal sin. But this sometimes slips from its rightful context of the love of God such that our religion turns into a sort of lease between ourselves and the Landlord, who is happy to let us live comfortably (and in bad cases, in presumption) in a 'state of grace' as long as we pay the rent of our good behavior. Our 'spirituality,' which is supposed to inspire us to abandon and lose ourselves in God and his designs, goes into a sort of reverse, becoming a project of managing the interior safety and security of ourselves as pious persons. As if our salvation were something God offered with indifference, a 'take it or leave it,'  instead of something he wills for us, and is just dying--literally--to give us!

Also in the spiritual order people sometimes try to trade freedom for security, but these securities turn out to be illusory and ordered to misery. And the last miserable result is a soul ready for and resigned to hell because it's easier than surrender.

The cure, as Jesus points out to the scholar and to any of us who have fallen into similar distortions at one time or another, is mercy. To become the merciful neighbor by allowing our hearts to break open at the sight of our suffering sister or brother, and to accept the freedom to let their suffering intrude upon our time and resources. This is the path to the re-forming of ourselves in God as persons salvaged and saved, re-ordered according to God's vision for the blessedness of creation, as St. Francis himself discovered:
The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin to do penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter was changed into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I lingered a little and left the world. (St. Francis, Testament, 1-3)

Ad Orientem

Whatever you want to think about ad orientem as a liturgical tradition, you have to admit that it's a concept well-embedded in the critical vocabulary of Christian spirituality.

From the De mysteriis of St. Ambrose in the Office of Readings today, on the rites of baptism:

"You entered to discern your adversary whom you thought to renounce and you turned toward the east [ad orientem]: for the one who renounces the devil, being converted to Christ, discerns Christ by a direct gaze."

Conversion turns us around; after discerning the pointlessness and misery of the false promises of the world, the flesh, and the devil, we turn around and face east, toward the dawn of the new creation that is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

July 11, 2013

Abortion Ramble

Back when I was at the parish, one night I was locking up the church and a lady stopped me to say something.

"You're a good priest, Father, but you're not pro-life enough."

July 10, 2013

St. Veronica Giuliani

Today is the feast of St. Veronica Giuliani, Capuchin Poor Clare abbess and stigmatic (+1727). She's really one of the great characters of Capuchin history. A couple of times my current assignment has found me scanning a page from her diaries for someone, and I always remark on how much she wrote and that one of these days I should get around to reading it.

At some moment or other here in Rome, I picked up a little booklet, 'The Rosary with St. Veronica Giuliani.' It's from Shalom, which publishes a lot of such helpful little things here in Italy. For each of the mysteries of the rosary, it has the corresponding passage of Sacred Scripture and then a text from St. Veronica's diaries. I've been praying my rosary with the booklet for a few months now. The texts are simple, but striking. Here are some examples.

For the Nativity:

"While I was looking at the Baby in the nativity scene, it seemed to me as if I saw him moving and giving me a look at he said: 'I am all for you.' And I said: 'I am all for you.' I would have wanted to give him anything. He said to me: 'I want your heart.'"

For the Flagellation:

"After Matins, there came to me a recollection in which there was a vision of our Lord's scourging at the pillar. I saw him bound to the pillar, all wounded. He said to me, 'Do you see where love has led me?'"

For the Resurrection:

"I seemed to be in a beautiful and spacious place and I felt a great desire to unite myself totally to God. Right away the Lord appeared, completely glorified, and he said to me: 'What do you want?' And I answered: 'I long for you alone, to give me everything according to your will.' At this point the Lord showed me his holy wounds and said to me: 'These are the keys and the doors for entering me.' Oh! What happiness, what joy try the soul when she has found the one for whom she was longing!"

July 9, 2013

MOPs

As a native speaker of English living in a foreign-language environment, one comes to have some compassion for those who would like to learn English or improve the English they have (because everyone has a little, whether they admit it or not), but find themselves frustrated by the difficulties of the language, e.g. elastic vowels, phrasal verbs, an immense vocabulary, etc.

There are in circulation various pieces of verse that point out some of the eccentricities of the English language, making light and fun of them for the amusement of English speakers and the consolation of those who would like to join them.

One of these that I have seen a couple of times ends with a quip that wonders why, if one's father is 'pop,' why isn't one's mother 'mop'? Now I have to object to this, not the least because it doesn't make any sense--mom might be mop only if dad were fop, which, if he ever was, one might hope he was no longer by the time he got to be one's father--but mostly because, as I once learned, there, in fact, are mothers who are 'mop.'

I'll explain how I came to be aware of this.

July 7, 2013

The One Mediator

Yesterday someone challenged me on Twitter with regard to devotion to the saints, asserting that such amounted to necromancy. In the course of things she or he adduced 1 Timothy 2:5,

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.


June 30, 2013

Let Us Pray For The New World Order

Attentive readers of this blog will have noticed that since initiating a liturgical life in Italian a little over a year ago, I have tried to be attentive to the possibility of sinister forces at work in the Italian Liturgy of the Hours. For example, there was my fear for the reappearance to the Joachimite heresy in the prayers for the feast of St. Benedict.

Today I have another concern to share.

June 29, 2013

Humility Against Shame

It's been my turn to be hebdomadary this past week so it fell to me to proclaim the short reading for first vespers of Peter and Paul:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son: To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:1-3a, 7)


June 27, 2013

Building Concessions

One of the benefits of my current assignment in the Order is being under no exterior obligation to be reading anything in particular and so I've been able to go back and read various things I never got to in the past. One of these has been the selections we are given in the Francis of Assisi: Early Documents series from Ubertino da Casale's Arbor vitae crucifixae Jesu Christi, 'The Tree of the Crucified Life of Jesus Christ.' One gets the feeling that Ubertino is one of those friars about whom one enjoys hearing stories more than one would enjoy actually living with him in community, a not unknown type in the Order.

June 26, 2013

The Call to Holiness

We are taught that the 'universal call to holiness' was one of the great gifts and insights of Vatican II, and it's quite true. But like all good doctrines, it wasn't new at all but something that the Church had always taught, as they say. It's just that at certain moments it seems good to the Holy Spirit to highlight certain truths anew or to give them a new expression so that they may be more joyfully and confidently received by the Churches.

I was thinking about this today, namely the doctrine of the universal call to holiness winding its way through the last couple of generations before Vatican II. For us Capuchins today is the feast of Blessed Andrea Giacinto Longhin, who was a a Capuchin spiritual director, seminary reformer, and bishop of Treviso from 1904 until his death in 1936. He also suffered imprisonment during the First World War. Here's the selection we are given from his writings for the Office of Readings:

June 23, 2013

with blessed Joseph, her Spouse

I must be a little out of it, or busy, or preoccupied, or distracted--'all of the above' perhaps--to have missed something as sweet and lovely as the addition of St. Joseph to the Eucharistic Prayers last month.

It's a beautiful thing for the whole Church Universal of which St. Joseph is patron; that is, the Church at rest in Heaven, the Church suffering the purifying hope of purgatory, and the Church here on earth, still struggling on the earthly pilgrimage. But it's also a particular joy for those of us who have a devotion to St. Joseph.

June 8, 2013

301 Years Under Immaculate Mary

A little post for the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary today, which is also the feast day of my province of the Order. On the 7-language grid of the circumscriptions of the Order, to which I'm always referring in my current work, we are along the line Provincia Neoeboracensis et Nov. Angliae. So happy feast day to all the brothers at home.

In his forthcoming circular letter for the Year of Faith, our General Minister refers to an event of which I had never heard. In 1712, he says, the Capuchin Order was placed under the patronage and protection of Mary Immaculate.

June 6, 2013

The Ambiguous Fate of the Fat

This morning I thought to practice the readings for the solemnity of the Sacred Heart tomorrow, knowing that I would be asked to proclaim one or another of them.

I soon found myself in an eschatological dubium.

June 4, 2013

Boasting in the Lord

Not to scandalize anyone, but I can't say that in my experience of religious life I have been edified overwhelmingly by the influence of Sacred Scripture in the discernment and planning of everyday tasks and administration. Today, however, was an exception.

A brother was at work preparing a request to certain ministers of the brothers, that they might compile certain informations regarding the maintenance of buildings, the condition of temporal goods, that sort of thing.

Another brother issued a warning, reminding the first brother that it had been Satan who had incited David to "number" Israel, and that the end result had been a divine judgment that left seventy thousand dead and Jerusalem just missing being destroyed. (Cf. 1 Chronicles 21)

The first brother responded that David had been punished because he tried to make an accounting of his strengths (which intimated failure to have faith in the Mighty One of Israel), but that the Order (according to the salutary spiritual advice of the Apostle) was endeavoring to render an account of its weaknesses.

June 2, 2013

Kittehs

I guess a Catholic blog is supposed to be an enterprise of the New Evangelization, using new means to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a world once-evangelized but grown confused and forgetful. But one can't be in the world and totally not of it, as it were, and one can't be online and not be, at least to some degree, bedazzled and rendered subject to the internet's beguilings. So, after, seven years of blogging I surrender to the internets, and present to you a post of kitten pictures.

aliquantulum quiescit

There are about thirty friars assigned to the house where I live. Most of them are priests. Many of them live itinerant lives in their service to the Order, so at any given moment two-thirds or so of the group might be at home. This means that as a priest one gets to be principal celebrant only once or twice a month. I really look forward to it, especially for the particular circumstances of Holy Communion.

After the Behold the Lamb of God...(the phrasing of which is curiously inverted in Italian, i.e. it goes, first, Blessed are...and then Behold...) the concelebrants begin to approach the front of the altar, where the acolyte has already placed the paten and chalices for them. Given that this procession of the concelebrants takes a few minutes, the principal celebrant is left with all the time he could want in receiving Holy Communion. I really appreciate it. One can even observe the brief period of meditation prescribed in the Extraordinary Form after receiving the Host and before receiving the Precious Blood. Tridentine accretion or 'mutual enrichment'? I don't know...but the great thing is that nobody else is paying you any mind such that he might render an opinion.

I just love the stress-free nature of the moment, the chance to receive Holy Communion in total peace. No worried temptation to look out of the corner of your eye to make sure the full complement of EMsoHC has assembled, no anxiety over whether you will soon find out that you will be expected to engage in some bizarre 'local custom' or illicit Communion Rite procedure.

As I received Holy Communion today, the gospel came back to me. (Luke 9:11b-17) I knew myself as one of those tired faces in the crowd, finding myself in the 'deserted place' of this world--and is if that weren't bad enough, finding myself as the 'deserted place' of my own soul, my own prayer and devotion having been made a desert by my negligence and sin. But it was precisely for me and all my brother and sister miserable sinners that Jesus Christ gave himself as bread to the Twelve, that they might give him to us. And it is in just this way that the bread that was more than enough for the hungry crowd, passed on by the apostolic Churches down to today, comes even to me.

May 29, 2013

Now For The Real Fire

At supper tonight we got to talking about Capuchin beards, their growth, meaning, value, etc. Among items confessed was my abiding shame at being, apparently, incapable of growing a proper, traditional Capuchin beard. It's my Pauline thorn, I suppose.

May 28, 2013

Cut

Over the years some of those who have had the misfortune of being my pastoral caregivers have suggested that I might be afflicted with scrupulosity. I've never really accepted the diagnosis; in any case they can't be all bad, the sort of things that get pointed out, because I learn things from them.

For example, at times I have had a hard time getting myself to genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament. At such moments it seemed like it could be hypocritical for such a person, so far from submission to God in mind and so far from a pure intention of pleasing God in the heart, to make such a strong, public gesture of adoration. But in trying to reflect upon and pray through my hesitation I came to realize that a gesture like a genuflection to the Blessed Sacrament is less a proclamation, 'this is the sort of person that I am,' than a confession, 'this is the sort of person I would like to become.'

Perhaps a spoken prayer like the Act of Contrition is an easier starting point to elaborate the same point. I couldn't even guess how many times I have said one version or another of this prayer since my first one at my first confession, a week and two hours after my baptism. Nevertheless, sometimes I have had trouble getting myself to say it. How could I dare to speak such a prayer, proclaiming myself genuinely contrite when I knew all too well that I wasn't? Would it not be at best a lie and at worst a sin against the commandment, taking God's name in vain?

But again, trying to reflect upon and pray through this hesitation, I came to understand better the nature of the  prayer. An Act of Contrition is not a proclamation, saying 'I am this sort of person,' but a confession that God has put into my heart a desire to be the sort of person who might be able to say such a prayer honestly, and thus, precisely as a prayer, it contains the supplication that God would help me surrender to the grace of becoming one.

May 26, 2013

Y el ventalle de cedros aire daba

I was quite struck by the homily of the friar whose turn it was to be principal celebrant at Mass today. I guess it was the Holy Spirit's way of taking me down a bit after last night's vanity of re-linking on Twitter my own Trinity Sunday homily from three years ago, in which I make fun of Trinity Sunday homilies as an opening device before stumbling around in my own doctrinal brambles.

May 22, 2013

Pope Francis's Exorcism

I saw what has been called the Holy Father's exorcism on Sunday and didn't take much note of it at the time, though inquiring minds would like to know what was in that folder. Since then, though, it's been coming back to mind. Maybe it's the strange progression of the story in the Italian media, though I have to admit that the grammar of Italian public discourse is somewhat opaque to me even at baseline.

Was it an exorcism? Spokescleric Fr. Lombardi says no. Apparently some experienced exorcists who watched said it certainly was. Another I heard speaking in private said no. In any case, as far as I'm concerned, it's none of my business. If the Holy Father knew by some means, natural or supernatural, that an exorcism was indicated and he did it, well, good for him.

What I do feel like saying, however--and this goes for both the more religious and less religious sorts of people--is that often when we get to talking about such things we don't take seriously enough that the devil is happy for us to do so, so long as our discussion, whether it be fearful or dismissive, bemused or pious, can be made to serve his purposes. The devil is happy to have us discuss things like demons, possession, exorcism, etc., so long as such conversations serve to make us dismiss religion or spiritual danger on the one hand, or to focus less on the love of God and the victory of Christ on the other. In other words, if the result of such talk is that we end up more dismissive of God and true religion on the one hand or more afraid and timid on the other, the devil wins.

In my opinion, we would do well to take Fr. Merrin's advice and be wary of demonic tactics that could be at work even in our conversations about such things:

"He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us."

But we should also remember that the devil knows well our tendency to collect shiny things even when their edges cut us, and always tries to make us think that his primary efforts are the sorts of sensational things that make for tabloid sales and  'viral' videos. The comment of Jeffrey Burton Russell comes to mind:

"The Devil no doubt has some interest in cultural despair, Satan chic, and demonic rock groups, but he must be much more enthusiastic about nuclear armament, gulags, and exploitive imperialism . . ."

(Mephistopheles, 257, quoted from Arthur Lyons, Satan Wants You: The Cult of Devil Worship in America)

May 20, 2013

One Year In Italy Post

There's still a week left to go until I will have been here in Italy for a calendar year, but in liturgical time the anniversary has come. It was the Monday after Pentecost, the first day of the greater stretch of Ordinary Time, that I left the USA.

May 18, 2013

Sometimes

For us Capuchins, today is the feast our first confrere to be canonized, St. Felix of Cantalice. Having served here in Rome, and with his relics venerated here to this day, he is also an optional memorial for the diocese.

Saying my prayers this morning, I was, however, a little troubled. For the second reading in the Office of Readings, we are given a chunk of chapter 17 of the Earlier Rule, which is basically St. Francis's sense of the interior attitudes of the Friar Minor-preacher (and, perhaps, more generally, a spirituality of Franciscan ministry).

May 9, 2013

Novelties Ironic and Blessed

At this point in my little journey, going on twenty-one years since I was baptized according to the rite of the Roman Church, I find myself living in Rome herself. And how funny Rome seems today as the brothers and I celebrate a liturgical day unknown to our mothers and fathers in faith, namely the Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter.

May 7, 2013

Rosary Ramble

It's almost twenty-two years since I first tried to pray the rosary. Since then I've had a lot of them; some break, some get given away, others go missing. Still others that seem extra special for some reason or other get hidden away before they break. I tend to identify them with where they came from, who gave them to me, or who blessed them.

May 3, 2013

RIP: Jeff Hanneman

I had known about his unfortunate illness, but I didn't realize how serious it was.

For better or for worse, Reign in Blood--much of the music for which Hanneman wrote--changed my life. I still listen to it sometimes. One time a while back I found myself listening to it on my little old iPod (which I have thanks to a gracious Yonkers bride who gave me an iTunes gift card) as I walked the path around the Collegio Internazionale San Lorenzo da Brindisi here in Rome. I stopped as I recalled how, twenty-one years before, my decision to become a catechumen had come out of a brooding daily routine that often included a nocturnal walk around the outer path of Connecticut College while Reign in Blood played in my Walkman. Maybe I'm boring. Maybe I know a classic.

Though at times the devil has gotten into it to stir up a vainglory that made me forget other, more important graces, it's still true that the music epitomized by what Jeff Hanneman gave us was indeed a remote preparation for greater graces God has given me, by making me realize that the ordinary thing, in this case the music that everybody else was listening to, wasn't what I really wanted.

Requiescat in pace. May his family and friends have strength and comfort in these days.