May 30, 2006

Dams and Delight

With the arrival of the warm weather I was thinking about some of the funny things we did as kids. One of our favorites was a game called "Dams." First we would run the garden hose up to the top of the overgrown area of our backyard. Then, as the water began to roll down the hill, we would carve canals in the soil to direct it. Finally, we would try to construct great dams and waterways out of mud and sticks and whatever else was around.

There was a great delight in what we created. A genuine act of creation is always a moment of delight. It is our participation in God's creative act, the over-flowing of goodness by which creation itself comes to be through God's Word. The Trinity is the original community of mutual delight. When the Trinity expresses Its Delight, we get the creation all around us.

When we create our heart touches the primordial delight of the divine life. This is why our acts of creation are always moments of delight. The creative process of the artist. The mutual delight of sex. Children making things out of mud. These are all ways in which we imitate God the Creator and participate in the creating power of divine Delight.

This is also the insight of Dante when he says that art is the grandchild of God.

May 28, 2006

Bad Preaching

I heard an atrocious homily this weekend. The deacon was speculating on what the first Christians did in these ten days between the Ascension and the appearance of the Spirit on Pentecost. He said that they were able to select Matthias as Judas' successor during this time because that was just business and didn't require much inspiration. He assured us that they were praying, but without much consolation because the Consoler had not yet come.

The whole mess brings up a real question about how we read the Scriptures in the first place. We hear of many mysteries during the Paschal seasons of Lent, Holy Week and Easter. But the truth of the matter is that all these mysteries, the Passion and death of the Lord, the Resurrection and the sending of the Spirit, these are all really one thing. It is as if we are contemplating one jewel through different facets.

There are intimations of this in the Scriptures themselves. In John the Spirit is handed over from the Cross. Luke alone (except for the longer and doubtful ending of Mark) relates the Ascension and does so twice, once at the end of his Gospel and again at the beginning of the Acts. This alone ought to lead us to see that we are dealing with a narrative device rather than a chronicle. The story of Pentecost is set in the same place as the Last Supper, helping one to see that there is a connection between the farewell of Jesus, the gift of the Eucharist and the sending of the Spirit upon the apostles.

Perhaps this is why the Spirit gave us four canonical Gospels with sometimes differing accounts, so that we might not try to make a timetable out of God's work of salvation. The Passion and death of the Lord, the Resurrection and the gift of the Spirit are one mystery which we come to understand only through a contemplation of its distinct aspects.

May 27, 2006


When I was a freshman in college I took philosophy 101. We spent a few classes on the topic of the "meaning of life." The conclusion of students and professor was that there couldn't be any such thing as the meaning of life, and that the best we could do was to seek "meanings in life."

I remember being shocked. It wasn't good enough for me. Everything about the history of reflective human consciousness seemed to me to be about something more, from the Greek search for the arche to the quest in late modern science for the "theory of everything."

I wanted more than "meanings in life;" I wanted a seamless garment of a sense of how to interpret finding oneself as a human life in the world.

The Holy Spirit

As we approach the great feast of Pentecost, Bro. Chris has some fine reflections to help us on our way.

May 25, 2006


Dear readers, I can't figure out why the Univeralis liturgical calendar banner sometimes appears and sometimes not. It should be a box with the liturgical day and a link to Universalis, right between the most recent post and the ad banner. I presume that its unreliability has something to with the firewalls and privacy settings of different machines.

So, would you take a moment to leave me a comment and let me know if the liturgical banner generally appears on this page for you? If it isn't, I'll replace it with something else fun or edifying.


The Ascension of the Lord

I live in one of the last places in the States where Ascension is still celebrated today, on the 40th day after Easter. In most places it has been moved to the weekend and has replaced what used to be the 7th sunday of Easter.

Ascension always brings up some cloudy memories for me. It was, I think, at a vigil Mass for this day that I first presented myself to a parish for the catechumenate. That was 14 years ago, though it seems longer.

In the days approaching Ascension we always hear Jesus' farewell discourse from the Gospel of John. Never mind that the Ascension itself is only in Luke-Acts; that's a funny business for the Scripture scholars to figure out.

The whole thing reminds me of a brother here who famously said about the life of prayer, "God goes away." And that's the bizarre thing about prayer and devotion; the more we are drawn to God the less we feel as if we can say what we are even talking about when we make an utterance like "God."

Spiritual writers get at this particular anguish in different ways. Gregory of Nyssa talks about how prayer is both movement and rest at the same time. The author of the The Cloud of Unknowing tries to convince us that our loss of clarity and knowledge is itself an indicator of progress. John of the Cross talks about the "rays of darkness" which obscure the mind and force us to let go of everything we previously thought of as our "spirituality."

May 24, 2006

Poor Aaron

The psalter we use for Morning and Evening Prayer here in my fraternity is sometimes a little scrupulous about inclusive language.

This is the end of psalm 77:

You led your people like a flock
by the hands of Moses and Aaron.

But in our psalter it reads:

You led your people like a flock
by the hands of Moses and Miriam.

Now it's one thing to adjust syntax and pronouns so that each sex can feel included, or even to eliminate male pronouns for God so as to avoid the suggestions of theological patriarchy, but to change the Scripture itself in so bold a way is really something else.

Leaving aside the error of thinking we can just change the Scripture according to our taste, Miriam doesn't need our promotion anyway. Her song in Exodus 15 is said by some to the real historical beginning of Old Testament theological reflection. If you never noticed it in the breviary, that's because you've been forgetting to pray Morning Prayer on Saturday. So let's not expunge poor Aaron from psalm 77.

Basilica of St. Francis

Today is also the feast of the dedication of the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Brother Elias began building it in 1228 right after Francis was canonized (Francis died in 1226). It took two years to build and was dedicated on this day in 1230.

It's really a lovely church. Take your virtual tour here.

May 23, 2006

Limit Cases

I enjoy the character of the jailer from today's first reading. To me he illustrates two opposing limits of human freedom.

When he realizes that Paul and Silas have been freed from their chains, he decides that it is his duty to fall on his sword and kill himself. This is one way of looking at ourselves and the world; we can see ourselves in all of our failure to live up to the expectations of ourselves and others. We can see how we have failed in the very things we were meant to have done. We can dwell on how much we have not been the people we are meant to be. We may not take this attitude to logical conclusion of suicide, but we will commit many little acts of suicide, self-hate, and self-sabotage.

This is one limit of human freedom. On the other hand, when the jailer realizes that Paul and Silas haven't gone anywhere he asks, "What must I do to be saved?" This act of vulnerability, of admitting that he lacks something, leads him to baptism. This is the other limit of human freedom.

He goes from preparing to commit suicide to having a baptismal party with his whole household in one paragraph. Quite a turnaround!

We can look at our failure to be perfect, even our failure to be good or what we are meant to be, in two ways. We can hate ourselves because we're imperfect. In the end this kind of self-hate is a form of inverted pride; it assumes that we are supposed to be a genius or a saint.

On the other hand, we can look at our imperfection and accept our vulnerability and humiliation. And when we do this we can enter a school of prayer, and come to the right dependence of a creature on God.

So there are the choices for the broken and imperfect creature. Hate yourself because of it and tend toward suicide, or learn vulnerability and humility from it and tend toward God.

May 22, 2006

Jesus Saves

That I brought up The Passion of the Christ in passing yesterday brought up the atonement question. Many of us, and perhaps quite rightly, were uncomfortable with the soteriology expressed by the film. It seemed to many viewers that the doctrine behind the film was that it was the very intensity of Christ's sufferings that saves us. Of course this is a vulgar and inadequate sense of who God is.

So, real quick and dirty, here's my take on the question. We human beings are prone to hurting each other. We're selfish and self-involved. We value our own security at the expense of the lives of others. All of this blossoms into sinful habits, wars, and the unjust structures of society. This is the great and horrible mystery we call original sin. At the heart of it are the mysteries of despair and death.

God loves the world so much that the Word of God, the perfect image of God the Father from all eternity, takes flesh in order to deliver us from this unfortunate situation. He shares in our self-inflicted punishment of despair and death through his Passion and Crucifixion.

But...mysteriously united to the historical human life of Jesus of Nazareth is the divine life of the Eternal Word. Thus the death of Good Friday can't hold the life, both human and divine, of Jesus Christ. The divine life of the Word of God is too strong to be held by the peculiar uncreation we know as death. Passing through our death, the Word of God opens a path for human nature back to blessedness and freedom from sin. Jesus Christ, human and divine, passes through death and establishes a path for us to do the same. This is the mystery we call the Resurrection. "It is the passover of the Lord." (Exodus 12:11)

The path through despair and death is open to us in the Resurrection. This is why we say that our baptism is a baptism into the death of Christ. (Romans 6:3) When our initiation into Christ is completed in the Eucharist, our humanity is mingled with the humanity of Christ, and we come into the very life of the Trinity through adoption.


1. The blog "My World," written by a brother studying in Rome, seems to have disappeared. It always seemed a little sketchy in that he never posted any comments, of which I myself wrote several. I've removed it from the Franciscan Blogroll.

2. I noticed the other day that the Franciscan Federation of the Third Order Regular here in the U.S.A. is publishing a new Franciscan breviary. Check it out here.

May 21, 2006


Yesterday I decided that it was my cultural and pastoral duty to read The Da Vinci Code. I don't feel like I have to see the movie because everyone says it's a terrific bore. I think I need to see for myself what all this fuss is about.

When I've done such things in the past, there have been interesting results.

For instance, at some point I decided I needed to both see and read The Last Tempation of Christ. What amazed about it was that it actually is heretical, but not for any of the reasons people were screaming about. Oh well, Jesus is tempted to marriage and family instead of the Cross, big deal. There are worse temptations to imagine of him in Gethsemane. The real problem with the story is that Kazantzakis is a dualist and a Manichee, and is always talking about the transformation of matter into spirit, as if God didn't really mean it when he looked at the created, material world and said it was good.

Lesser known is Kazantakis' life of St. Francis, which though it suffers from the same problems, is an intense telling of the story nonetheless. I read it when I was a novice. An older friar told me he had done the same thing and he had been "messed up for weeks."

I also went to see The Passion of the Christ because everyone was talking about it and I thought I needed to be conversant with it. I had mixed feelings about this one. Some of the characters were great (Herod, Veronica, Simon of Cyrene,Mary and Mary Magdalene, the devil) while other things were handled poorly, like the devil-children pursuing the guilty Judas. The narrative structure in which the institution of the Eucharist was intertwined with the approach to Golgotha was both good story and good theology.

So if I actually get through The Da Vinci Code I'll post my humble opinion.

May 20, 2006

Sex and Power

The recent punishment of Fr. Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, has produced a lot of feelings. Conservatives feel bad for the Legionaries because they can forget ever having the joy and prestige of a canonized founder. Liberals indulge in the sick satisfaction that a community known for its strictness and traditionalism also has its problems with clerical sexual abuse.

For me it's just more evidence of how the church suffers with the disease of sexualized power. Sexual sins are often sinful not because they are about sex, but because they are about the abuse of power. One party in the sexual act has power and the other doesn't. In pornography I can look at you but you can't look at me. In prostitution, I have money and you don't. In clerical sexual abuse, I have ecclesiastical or (imaginary) divine power and you don't. When these imbalances of power express themselves through our sexuality, we have the recipe for some of the most damaging sins we can imagine.

Celibacy is a great charism, given by the Spirit for the building up of the church. But it's too hazardous a spiritual path to take without also letting go of power. If celibacy becomes a form of power and presige, we are setting ourselves up for sexualized violence.

May 19, 2006


Today's first reading raises a question that has always been vexing for me. In it the Holy Spirit acts through the apostles to bring about the great theological breakthrough of the primitive church: gentile converts do not have to become Jews to be Christians, but only have to follow a stream-lined version of the Law: they have to abide by marriage as it was set up at creation and keep the Noachic covenant with regard to food. The keeping of the whole Law is left behind.

But what does it mean for us now? Is the attitude toward the Mosaic Law in the New Testament meant to be our theological attitude to the rules and laws of the Catholic church now? Well, many of us certainly act that way, and you can make a strong argument for this position. This is the liberal position that is loose with church law, and it seems Scriptural from a certain perspective.

Or is the Holy Spirit that dispenses the gentile converts from the Jewish Law the same Spirit Who asks us to follow the laws and rules of the Catholic church now?

I have suffered anguish over this question from the day of my baptism, and have not yet come to a satisfying answer.


The Franciscan Blogosphere seems to be alive with quizzes these days:

Jason has a quiz of the form "what theologian are you." The questions are leading, but it's fun nonetheless. My result is a secret.

SFO Mom has one on 1980s song lyrics. As a child of the 80s myself, I took it and got a 63. But maybe a good score on something like this is a bad sign. The quiz is long but worth it for the one-liners the proctor supplies for your scoring.

May 14, 2006

Coming Events

Dear friends,

I'll be away for a few days this week, going to see the brothers in the big city for a little time off. So it might be a couple days before I can post again.

Nevertheless, the coming week is a big one for Franciscan saints. Here they are:

Tuesday is the feast of Margaret of Cortona, a 13th century penitent and sister of the third order. Legend has it that she was so good-looking that the sisters were hesitant to admit her, thinking that the temptations against her perseverance would be too great! Check out her Catholic Encyclopedia article here.

Wednesday is the feast of Paschal Baylon, a 16th century Spaniard who became a friar with the Alcantarine reform. He became famous for his devotion to the Eucharist. Check out his Wikipedia article here.

Thursday and friday are the feasts of Felix of Cantalice and Crispin of Viterbo, two Capuchin friars of the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively. Both had the ministry of "questor," the brother who would go through the streets seeking food and alms for the support of the friars. People used to call Felix "brother Deogratias," because this was his greeting to all: Thanks be to God. The Australian Capuchins have pages on both Felix and Crispin.

Getting a Pruning

Fr. Cantalamessa's homily for this Sunday's gospel of the vine and the branches is so beautiful that I don't even want to write my own reflection. Zenit has a translation.

He explains that to live is to choose, and to choose is to shut out other options. If we don't choose what we want to be about our lives will be dissipated among too many things, and we won't bear much fruit. We must prune our lives so that our fruitful branches will bear even more fruit!

This really speaks to me as I approach my final vows as a friar. This permanent profession of the religious life in obedience, poverty, and chastity shuts out a lot of other possibilities. It is a letting go of many other goods, the loss of which I grieve now and will no doubt grieve in the future.

Pruning gives more life and energy to fruitful branches, that they might bear even more fruit. If I have found myself fruitful in the Lord in my religious life, why wouldn't I desire to have other possibilities pruned away? How can I not strive to be single-minded in the path that has proved so fruitful?

May 13, 2006

Nota Bene

1. I've added another blog to our Franciscan Blogroll, by a brother who calls himself True Preacher. It's a myspace blog, so I wasn't able to contact him (not having or wanting an account myself), so if you read this, brother, drop us a note.

2. Sr. Eva-Maria reminds us that today, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, is the 25th anniversary of the attempt on the life of John Paul II.

3. Speaking of Fatima, the always thoughtful Paula brings up some hard but honest theological questions.

4. And finally, if you have ever appreciated fine irony or simple "reverse-psychology," you must check out "From the Depths," a hilarious (and unwitting) form of catechesis by Satan himself!


May 12, 2006

Being Begotten

I was struck by the end of today's first reading:

Paul preaches: "We ourselves are proclaiming this good news to you that what God promised our fathers he has brought to fulfillment for us, their children, by raising up Jesus, as it is written in the second psalm, You are my Son; this day I have begotten you." (Acts 13:32-33)

I found this piece of Paul's speech interesting because the author uses psalm 2 with reference to the Resurrection. In the later tradition the "this day I have begotten you" is usually interpreted with reference to the eternal generation of the Word of God, the second Person of the Trinity. But here it is not used with reference to the eternal procession of the Son from God the Father, but to the Resurrection of this same Word made flesh in history.

Certainly The Son is not begotten of God in the Resurrection. He had already been incarnate for 30 some years, and had been with God the Father from all eternity. What gives? Who is being begotten here?

Well, it seems to be us. In the Resurrection the whole world is renovated, and, through our baptism, we come to share in the "begottenness" from God that the Word has always enjoyed in the inner life of the Blessed Trinity. The Resurrection is God's ability to say to the whole world, "you are my beloved, and this day I have begotten you."

Today is also the feast of St. Leopold Mandic, a Capuchin Franciscan friar who lived in Europe around the turn of the 20th century, and was known for his great compassion in confession and spiritual direction. Check him out here.

Religious Illiteracy

I'm happy to say I have neither read nor paid much attention to all the hoopla around the Da Vinci Code.

The problem is not that someone made up a story and is making some noise in the world for a little while. People do this all the time.

The problem is that many of us don't know our own faith and that we have lost a sense of a catholic culture. And when you don't know who you are, anyone fool is free to come and tell you. We suffer from what Cardinal Poupard has called religious illiteracy. You can check out what he says today in Zenit.

To address this situation is critical if we are to be able to "give an explanation to anyone who asks us a reason for our hope." (1 Peter 3:15) Perhaps the Da Vinci Code is a grace to help us recognize our need.

May 11, 2006

Being a Beginner

I didn't feel like praying this morning. It's the sort of moment that teaches me that I'm still a beginner in the spiritual life. And the best we can do with such moments is to find the grace of humility in them.

If I only pray because I feel like it, it's not much different spiritually than if I got a 12-pack of PBR and watched TV all day because I felt like it. In fact, it's safer to do the latter; then one is free of the possibility of the Pharasaic delusion of holiness.

We must be mindful of our motivation at all times. I may pray because I like the idea of myself as a religious or holy and dutiful person. Or maybe my motivation is fear. In all of these we can use our so-called spirituality to bend us back upon ourselves, rather than turning us to face God and our sisters and brothers. And thus, by being "prayerful," if we're not careful, we can foil the whole purpose of the spiritual life. The devil is perfectly happy to have us pray and be religious as long as he can use these things for his own ends.

The only proper and genuine motivation for prayer is a loving response to the love of God. Nevertheless, our motivation will never be pure, and this too can teach us humility. This is one way we can take Jesus' parable of the weeds and the wheat. (Matthew 13: 24-30)

Today is also the feast of St. Ignatius of Laconi, an 18th century Capuchin lay friar. He was famous for his humility, and there are plenty of odd miracles associated with his life. The Australian Capuchins have a nice page on him. Check it out here.

Labels and Violence

Our friend Don has a fine post this morning, as part of his on-going reflections on peace and non-violence:

"There is so much focus on the distinction between nonviolence and violence, between nonviolent people and violent people. But in reality it's not that easy to take sides like that. One can never be sure that one is completely on the side of nonviolence or that the other person is completely on the side of violence. Nonviolence is a direction, not a separating line. It has no boundaries.--Thich Nhat Hanh.

"This quote comes from one of my favorite authors and it expresses a truth that is too often not appreciated. We/they, us/them arguments are false arguments that leave us as adversaries. Peacemaking requires not only the acceptance of the enemy as he/she is. It requires us first to accept that we are flawed, that no one is completely violent or nonviolent. Living this way helps us accept ourselves and others as we are with all our imperfection. Peace."

I appreciate Don's reflection because it points out that even the distinctions we make in our effort to promote peace can become forms of violence. We must exercise great care in the categories and labels we apply to each other!

May 10, 2006


I'm in a light-hearted mood tonight because another school year is in the can, and I feel like a new picture.

Damien of Moloka'i

I was fascinated to read Blessed Damien's Wikipedia article. I had no idea that:

1. There was so much controversy around him
2. Gandhi had taken him as an inspiration
3. He had once been voted greatest Belgian of all time

Of course whenever you talk about someone who served lepers, Franciscans everywhere get excited. Francis himself, in his Testament, presents his encounter with lepers as the environment of his conversion:

The Lord granted me, brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: When I was in sin, it seemed very bitter for me to see lepers. But the Lord led me among them, and I had mercy on them. And when I left that place, what had been bitter was changed into sweetness of soul and body, and I lingered a little, and left the world.

As one of my formation directors once pointed out to me, Francis' time with the lepers was not just an act of charity, but an act of minority. And this is the core of the Franciscan vocation, to make yourself minor. To go to those placed below you in the world's structure of class or hierarchy, and put yourself below them. In the end it's nothing more than an imitatio Christi, an imitation of the descent of the Word of God, who did not consider equality with God something to be "grasped at." (Phil. 2)

May 9, 2006

St. Catherine of Bologna

Catherine was a 15th century Poor Clare, known for being a foundress of convents and famous novice mistress. Today's Office of Readings has an excerpt from her Treatise on the Seven Spiritual Weapons. Here they are:

1. diligence
2. distrust of self
3. confidence in God
4. remembrance of the Passion
5. mindfulness of one's own death
6. remembrance of God's glory
7. the injuctions of Sacred Scripture, following the example of Jesus Christ in the desert

I was fascinated with diligence as the starting point. Our word in English is, of course, related to the Latin verb diligo, one of the ways of expressing the act of love. And isn't that what spiritual practice is all about? It's not what you do, but how you do it.

Spiritual practice means to do whatever it is you are doing diligently. This is to say that you do it with love for your act, mindful and attentive to what you are doing and to yourself as you are doing it. In this way you are attentive to the act you are doing, rather than just thinking about the result, or worse, what you have to do next.

After all, the future doesn't exist yet, so if you are always ahead of yourself, thinking about the next thing you have to do rather than what you are actually doing, you are living in an un-reality. And living in unreality is a sure recipe for depression.

Check out a fuller biography of Catherine here.

The Franciscan blogosphere is lively this morning. Don has a fine reflection on the dialectic of contemplation and action to which we are all called, and Chiara has a lovely fable that reveals the truth about God's expectations of us.

May 8, 2006


1. Check out our latest Franciscan Blogroll addition, the Mercy Blog. The author is a brother of the Anglican TSSF, and seems to have a fine cat.

2. Our blog is now showing up in the results of most popular search engines.

Following the Beast

In these Easter days we read from the book of Revelation in the Office of Readings. We're in chapter 13 right now, and the great Beast has appeared. The "whole earth" follows the Beast "with wonder." They say, "who is like the Beast, and who can fight against it?"

Who is the Beast? For John the Seer's first readers it was probably the power of the Roman empire. But for us it is those same imperious forces of oppression and control, remaining with us in new forms. It is the selfishness and violence that emerges from the human heart and explodes into the great wars and occupations and genocides all around us. It is that cluster of pride, lust, and selfishness that Christian technical jargon calls the "world."

And the Beast speaks and calls his followers. He transmits his values through television, through the media, through education. And we follow because to follow the Beast seems like the only game in town. And as Revelation tells us, only those with the mark of the beast were allowed to buy and sell. Then, as now, economic security is bought at the price of accepting the values of the world.

There is another voice, however. The Word of God is spoken in the silence of the human heart. It is the very illumination of the human mind, the atmosphere of its genuine discernment. But God's voice is quiet, however, and easy to miss amid all of the noise and distraction that the Beast causes in the world. It is a humble and patient voice, compared to the proud voice of the Beast, always demanding instant action and gratification.

We've all had the experience of realizing that the loudest person in the room is not necessarily the one worth listening to.

And this is what Gil Scott-Heron meant in his famous poem The Revolution will not be Televised. It's often quoted wrongly, but if the poet is understood we realize that the real revolution couldn't possibly be televised.

The real revolution, the one that will change the world, is when "you change your mind about you look at things." And this will always be unavailable to television or to any of the Beast's voice-boxes, because it happens in the secret, inner place where God's Word meets the human person. And that's the mystery we call Jesus Christ.

Blessed Jeremiah

Today is also the feast of Blessed Jeremiah of Walachia, a 16th century Romanian Capuchin who came to some fame serving his sick brothers in Italy.

And let me tell you from personal experience, this ministry is no joke.

I couldn't find a bio about him in English, but if you want to practice your Portuguese, click here.

May 7, 2006

New Sidebar Section

I've added a new section to our sidebar. Entitled "Be a Friar," it has links to vocation websites. I have to set the limits somewhere, so I have included only my own branch of the Order as it is here in the United States.

Use the "outside the USA" link for other jurisdictions.

If I have missed your page, or if there are other questions, email your humble blogger here.

The Good Shepherd

Today the Jesus of John's Gospel names himself the Good Shepherd, a metaphor with deep roots in the royal theology of the Old Testament. It is an imagination which continues down to our own day; we still talk about pastors and "pastoral" care, and Latin rite bishops and abbots still carry crosiers that resemble the staffs of shepherds.

The first religious house I ever lived in had a pet sheep. They had received her from someone for nothing, so they named her Charity. She didn't have much personality, but earned her stay as a kind of independently contracted lawn-mower. In the morning you could put her in a section of field, and she would alternatively eat grass and sit there all day. Then you could put her somewhere else. Thus Charity helped cut down on the need for lawn care by humans who usually have something better to do.

Being a city kid, I hadn't known any sheep before Charity. My acquaintance with her helped me understand that, though sheep look peaceful and sweet in pictures (especially religious ones), what we see as peacefulness is more accurately termed stupidity. And when you're around sheep, you realize that they don't smell very good.

So imagine yourself as a shepherd, caring for a group of stupid, stinky sheep. Some danger arrives, maybe wolves or robbers or whatever. Do you protect yourself, or do you save the sheep? What if you can't save the sheep without putting yourself in danger? Are you going to put your safety or even your life in jeopardy for a bunch of dumb, smelly sheep?

Of course not. Even if you consider the lives of the sheep to be as intrinsically valuable as your own (and I bet few people would act this way if that's what it came down to), you have an instinct for self-preservation.

Therefore notice how outrageous Jesus' claims are today. He is the Good Shepherd who loves the sheep in a way that goes beyond all reason. He goes so far as to lay down his life for the sheep. Imagine: it's hard enough to contemplate giving up one' s life for a fellow human whom we love, but for some sheep?

Our God is a curious God. This is a God who loves the world so much that he is prepared to let go of of the power, control, and prestige that any reasonable reflection expects of a "supreme being."

This is why it is God himself who is the perfect model of holy poverty. He gives up even what it means to be God in order to enter into the vulnerability which is solidarity with creatures. And through it, even though we kill him over and over in each other, the whole process ends in the great reversal of Resurrection because of the indestructibility of so perfect a love.

When we let go of the good things of the world, that is only the beginning of holy poverty, of living sine proprio, without anything of our own. When we begin to surrender for others what is properly ours by nature, our will, our gifts, our powers, that's when we begin to imitate the God who lays down his life for his sheep.

May 6, 2006

Conversion and Clarity

Sometimes we have the idea that conversion implies clarity. When we see someone who, because they have discerned a call from God, changes their mind on purpose and commits themselves to a new course of action, we imagine that they are able to do so because they are sure of what they are doing.

We wonder where they get the strength and conviction to risk the commitment, and we figure that they have deliberated within themselves and are secure and convinced of what they are doing. We guess that they have access to a level of clarity which is, unfortunately, denied to us.

Yesterday we read the account of the conversion of Saul from the Acts of the Apostles, and it shows that the opposite is the case. The immediate effect of God's intervention in Saul's life is that he goes blind. After this converting event, he has to be led by the hand. He doesn't recover his sight until he received the care and ministry of another disciple, Ananais.

Saul's conversion put him in a place where he lost his clarity, and it was a while before he recovered it and re-emerged as Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.

The genuine experience of God that will lead to conversion if we allow it does not necessarily produce clarity. It may rob us of the clarity we thought we had and lead us to doubts that are more agonizing than the ones we had before.

If conversion gave us clarity, there would be no risk and vulnerability. And without these there can be no true love. The leap of faith is a leap into vulnerability. It is just this kind of risky love. The light of God is so bright that our little hearts and minds experience it as darkness. To believe it is light nonetheless is the un-clarity of faith. To accept it in love is to be converted.

p.s. Special thanks to SFO mom for giving us a link on her site!

May 5, 2006

Liturgical Dance

I'm not surprised that our slightly pompous post from yesterday produced some comments, though it didn't turn out to be the flame bait I had thought it might be.

In one comment our Franciscan friend Jason challenged us to render comment on the Gospel procession from somewhere called St. Nicholas. Apparently their little video was circulating a while back and drawing the ire of the more conservative catholic bloggers. Check it out here.

Now I don't know the place or its background, so it's dangerous to make any claims about it based on this little video. But it is true that this general question of "liturgical dance" produces a lot of strong feelings. For some it is a liberating expression of joy. Others see it as a hippie accretion bordering on sacrilege. So what can we say? Is this sort of thing justified, or even just o.k.? Well, yes and no.

If you haven't seen anything like it, I would recommend The Dancing Church, a video of African Poor Clare sisters put together by Paulist Father Thomas Kane. Here you can see liturgical dance working as worship. It works because it is an inculturation of the Gospel into a dancing culture in which dance is integral to prayer and praise.

It doesn't work so well when north Americans of European ancestry try to do it. Why? Because we come from the culture that produced the sober and understated Roman liturgy we all know and love. When we start trying to do liturgical dance, it's not a legitimate inculturation, but an effort to invent our own liturgy, to do what we feel like doing. And thus it becomes one more symptom of the greater problem (brought to us via the New Age, I think) that we can invent our own religion and worship according to our tastes and fashions.

So if you're an African Poor Clare, praise God in your dance. But if you're a white, suburban European-American, get over yourself, and, as the Beastie Boys put it, stop "dancing around like you think you're Janet Jackson."

May 4, 2006


Check out Brother Chris. He's a friar of the OFM studying in Rome, and is personally known to your humble blogger as a humble and upstanding man.

I've added him to the "Franciscan Blogroll"

Blessings and Woes

Yesterday I ran across a little conflict that was going on over at the always exciting and informative The Cafeteria is Closed. It was over someone's characterization of the Voice of the Faithful movement, but certainly falls into the general category of catholic progressive vs. conservative quarreling. I threw in my two cents in a comment, but didn't feel good about it later. Why?

I think it's because I have problems with both sides of this classic debate.

You "liberal" and "progressive" catholics, you VOTF types, you're great because you insist on justice both within the structures of the church and in the larger world. You take the church's teaching on social sin seriously and understand that part of our vocation is to do something about it. You put church rules into a proper perspective because you believe the good news that our righteousness comes to us apart from the law.

But sometimes you don't understand that the relativism, moral chaos, and pervasive "culture of death" of the early 21st century demands a church that stands for its own positions strongly and plainly. You know that the Gospel is about liberation, but sometimes you can't tell the difference between the liberation that the Holy Spirit desires and every spurious form of human liberation that the world offers. Thus you sometimes want everyone to endorse homosexuality and every other form of moral chaos that the liberals of the world dream up to justify whatever it is they feel like doing. In your ecumenical spirit you attend to other faith traditions, being sure to scrupulously respect their customs and traditions, but when you come home you don't care whether your own Eucharist is licit or sometimes even whether it is valid. And you, for all of your liberal identity, are often the most intolerant of all.

And you "conservative" and "traditionalist" catholics, you EWTN types, you're great because you understand that our time demands that we rebuild our catholic culture. You understand that we need to distinguish ourselves with a proper identity amid all of the competing truth claims in our relativistic world. You see clearly that this demands a back-to-basics approach wherein we simply follow the instructions and take our own legislation seriously. You know that our liturgy and customs need to be protected from the false recipes for liberation that the world offers, from the ever-increasing pressure of New Age accretions, and the impulse to syncretism masked as inter-religious dialogue.

But you too sometimes fall into errors. You sometimes take on some of the conservative views that the world offers, getting mixed up in nationalism. You can be dismissive of the spiritual depth of the liberation experienced by the older generation through the changes of the Second Vatican Council. Sometimes you don't know the difference between retrieving our tradition (for our time) and just trying to restore what was before. And you can be a trifle self-satisfied in your views.

May 3, 2006

A Fraternal Economy

Don left us a supportive comment on our May Day post, and made some astute observations regarding the nature of our world's economy. (He also made me notice that my comment settings were set very strictly, so my apologies to anyone who wished to comment but was not allowed.)

The neo-liberal, capitalist project of globalization is dedicated to the production of wealth. We here in the United States package it as "democracy" so that it sounds like something desirable, and then try to sell it to the world. But wealth in itself is no value. Wealth only means something if it produces weal, or common good. If wealth is produced for the sake of wealth it becomes an idol, and, like all idols, ultimately disrespects the idolator by destroying his soul.

The practical consequence of this kind of political economy is that it makes economy and wealth logically prior to persons, rather than the other way around. Economy ought to be derived from the needs of persons and the common good, rather than the production of wealth and security. Instead of security and independence as values in themselves we need a system that fosters inter-dependence and mutual care.

The current minister general of the Capuchin Franciscans, John Corriveau, OFM Cap., has done quite a bit of writing on this topic. He calls for a "fraternal economy" based on inter-dependence rather than security and the common good rather than the production of wealth in itself.

You can check out some of his "circular letters" here.

May 2, 2006

Feast of Athanasius

Athanasius writes in his Orations Against the Arians:

But if it is for our sakes that he sanctifies himself, which he did when he became a human being, then it is quite clear that the descent of the Spirit upon him in the Jordan was a descent upon us, because of our body which he carried.

The Son of God was not incarnate in a human nature, but in our human nature; the story of the good news of Jesus Christ is not a tale of a single, discrete human being, but is our story. The doctrine of the two natures of Christ, fully human and fully divine, means that when you read the Gospel you are reading about yourself.

And this is why the Resurrection is more than the greatest miracle that ever happened. It is the renovation of our human condition, that we might be able to call God our Father in the same way that the Eternal Word does in the inner life of the Trinity. What a gift!

A fine, recent translation of Athanasius is available in the Routledge Early Church Fathers series.

May 1, 2006

May Day

May Day, the great feast day of many labor movements, and it's made all the more relevant here in the United States this year by the increasing debate on immigration.

And for us Catholics it's the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, instituted by Pius XII in 1955 in an effort to show that the catholic church also cares about labor. This has been especially true since Leo XIII began the great documentary tradition of modern catholic social teaching, our "best kept secret."

Work is a complicated thing. On the one hand, it is meant to be humankind's great dignity, a sharing in the creative overflow of the goodness of God; this is the sense of the God of Genesis 1 who put our first parents in the middle of the garden to care for and cultivate the earth. On the other hand, work often gets mixed up with injustice and sin, and here we see the curse of toil and suffering of Genesis 3.

Many of us in the northern hemisphere are lucky enough to be able to support ourselves through work that is stimulating, interesting, and may even contribute to the common good. But today let's remember the injustices and the sufferings inflicted upon the workers who make our clothes and our food, and do so many other things that make our life possible. Part of the ease of our life is bought at the expense of theirs, and this is a great sin that many of us carry with us always.

We don't need to do anything to commit this sin. It is all around us. The moral odds are stacked against us without our even reflecting on it. So let's opt out of dehumanizing economies as much as we can, and try to create justice and human dignity wherever we happen to be.