June 30, 2006


Yesterday I noticed that I had a cold. I probably caught it working at the soup kitchen on tuesday; I often catch little infections there. It doesn't bother me too much; in fact sometimes I think these little illnesses can be blessings that help me to come back to basic mindfulness. We notice ourselves when something is wrong!

Sickness, death, misfortune, all of these are the daily intrusion of un-meaning into our existence. They remind us of the starting point of all existential theological reflection: there is something wrong with the world; things don't seem to be the way they are supposed to be.

Somehow, mysteriously, we perceive the givens and obvious things of life as wrong and unfair; it's somehow not right that people are born into suffering, that "bad things happen to good people," that they abandon us by dying. But this only goes to show that our human consciousness is somehow geared to something beyond the given and the obvious, to a perfection and eternity that we desire. And this is the root of eros and the beginning of what we mean by "God."

June 28, 2006

True and Perfect Joy

Check out this new Franciscan blog: True and Perfect Joy looks like it will be enlightening and thoughtful.


Lately I've seen a lot of TV ads for eharmony. They claim to be able to put you in a good relationship based on mutual compatibility. Never mind that, many times, we are more charmed by the people with whom we're not compatible, or who are bad for us.

Or, for better or worse, often our compatibilities are pathological. My need to help matches your fear of taking care of yourself. Your unwillingness to take responsibility for your life matches my demand for control, etc. Sometimes we call this kind of thing "ministry," but then again, it's often easy to use religion to gloss over unhealthy dynamics.

Nevertheless, compatibility is critical. St. Irenaeus, whose memory we celebrate today, knew all about it. His Against Heresies is a brilliant text, and worth reading. He begins a theological reflection on the "economies" of God. This is to say that he tries to give an account of God through how God works on our behalf. Thus he comes to an account of the Incarnation:

The Word of God which dwelt in man was made Son of man to accustom man to perceive God and to accustom God to dwell in man, according to the good pleasure of the Father. (Adversus Haereses II:19:3)

A short statement but a deep one. God the Father is a love so generous and self-diffusing that he wishes to share even the divine life with us. His Word becomes one of us in order to establish a permanent affinity or compatibility between human and divine. The infinite distance between God's greatness and our littleness is overcome in Jesus Christ. Human and divine become compatible.

June 27, 2006

Cell Phones

So far I've been able to resist this cultural transformation, but I know the day is coming when I'll have to get a cell phone. Luckily for me, it's still considered slightly sketchy for a friar to have one.

It certainly seems convenient to be able to reach people and be reached on the go. On the other hand, it makes me sad when I constantly see people blabbing on the phone while ignoring the children they have in tow. I was on a shopping trip with another friar when he decided he needed to have a half-hour conversation on his cell phone, leaving me to communicate about possible purchases through gestures and facial expressions. On the subway, where people used to read or sleep, we are now introduced to everyone's private business.

It's definitely a transformation. You notice it in the movies, how people didn't always have cell phones.

When I was a chaplain in a psychiatric unit one of the head psychiatrists once remarked that he though the invention of the cell phone had done more than anything else to lessen the public stigma of schizophrenia. It used to be that someone walking down the street talking to themselves was odd and frightening. Now everybody's doing it.

June 25, 2006


In today's gospel, Jesus sleeps in the boat while a storm threatens to sink it. His disciples wake him and ask whether he cares about the danger to their lives. He rebukes the storm and then his disciples for their lack of faith.

Often we experience nature as an adversary. Though our technology helps us exploit nature, often to our great benefit, creation always comes back to remind us of our powerlessness before storms and other natural disasters. We pay for our exploitation of nature by inventing new curses for ourselves: global warming, new and dangerous diseases, existential alienation from our own creaturehood.

That nature should be our adversary is part of the mystery of original sin. By the curse of Genesis 3 we have to fight against the rest of creation for our survival. One aspect of the redeemed world inaugurated in the life of Jesus Christ is the restoration of our relationship to the rest of creation.

The desert mothers and fathers used to believe that one sign of a saint would be his ability to live in harmony with all manner of dangerous animals, with nothing to fear from them. Original harmony and innocence came before original sin, and this is the proper state of thing restored in the saints.

June 22, 2006

Code Language

Sorry I didn't get to post yet today; for the early part of the day I was impressed into service as brother gardener's assistant.

Last night I was caught watching EWTN; I belong to a mainstream left-of-center North American religious community, so such a thing is considered misbehavior. On the show, three young Dominican sisters were being interviewed, from this community I think.

They were talking about sisters and catholic education, and a kid from the audience asked them if there were more sisters than secular teachers in their school. Sister replied that they would have more sister teachers, but that most in her community were in formation. "Formation," is, of course, the program of probation, training, education and revisable commitment one goes through upon entering religious life.

Sister's comment raised a pet peeve for my brother friar. He said, "we need to stop using jargon and code language; how is a little kid supposed to know what 'formation' means?" In a way he's right; code language and professional jargon encase power and privileged knowledge. For religious who are supposed to excel and humility, such things are certainly unbecoming.

On the other hand, if we were working to restore a catholic culture, would such things still have to be code language? If religious didn't insist on being invisible by wearing secular clothes, living alone, and working secular jobs, maybe the world of religious life could again be part of the ordinary catholic consciousness.

June 21, 2006

The Project

My experience of the trying to live a spiritual life is one of cycles and undulation. Sometimes I feel like I'm praying well, making an effort to discern attentively, and working on becoming more loving and less violent. Other times I'm distracted from the quiet speech of the Spirit, lazy about prayer, and mechanical in my religious obligations.

This has been going on since a few days after my baptism!

I used to think it just meant I needed to work harder, to put in more effort. And that's not a bad inspiration to have. It's what we Christians call ascesis, what our Muslim sisters and brothers call jihad, what the Buddhists call right effort.

But now I wonder if there isn't also a deeper meaning. Perhaps we experience an undulation in fervor and laziness, in devotion and dryness in order to teach us that the spiritual life is not a project or task like other things on our "things to do" list. Our ascesis doesn't accomplish our spiritual life but merely prepares our inner ground for God's activity.

After all, it is God's work in us. Our prayer life is not something we do in the strict sense. It is the Spirit who prays in us, praying to the Father through the Son, into whose life we have been adopted as sons and daughters in the Son.

June 20, 2006

Do Unto Others

I once asked a group of kids what they thought of this rule of thumb: "do unto others as they do unto you." If someone is kind to you, keep it in mind so as to be on the lookout to return their kindness. If someone treats you badly, ignore and avoid them. The kids seemed to like my practical wisdom.

In fact, this is the kind of "golden rule" that keeps the world going and helps us get things done. I remember to write a thank-you note to a brother so that I might enjoy his hospitality again. I fix another brother's broken rosary and then he helps me fix my car. I look for ways to return favors. If a brother is useless or dismissive to me, I don't bother with him.

It all sounds good right? Ordinary "networking" to make common life work, no?

No! "Do unto others as they do unto you" is actually the satanic "golden rule" as formulated by the famous Satanist Anton LaVey! More classically, it is the lex talionis, the approach of "eye for an eye, life for a life."

Jesus' challenge is to go beyond this worldy wisdom all the way to love of enemy. God gives sun and rain and all the goods of creation to both the just and the unjust. Pretty unfair, isn't it? And yet this is what we are supposed to imitate.

Sometimes we need the enemies of Christianity to remind us just how radical it is.

June 19, 2006


Today's first reading is quite a lurid tale. Ahab the king tries to trade for or buy the vineyard of his neighbor, Naboth. Naboth refuses the offer. Seeing that her husband is depressed over not being able to acquire the vineyard, Jezebel intrigues with Naboth's neighbors to have him falsely accused and stoned to death. With Naboth dead, Ahab takes the vineyard.

Why did Naboth refuse Ahab's offer? The king offered him money or even a better vineyard in trade. It seems like a fine offer. The problem is that the land was given and apportioned to the Israelites by God, and was not to be traded lightly. YHWH himself had decided who was to have what piece of land.

This is perhaps hard for us to understand, we who are formed to see the earth and the goods of creation as commodities to be used, traded, and taken advantage of. We must learn instead to look at creation as a place of revelation, more to be appreciated and reverenced than bought, sold, and used. When we read the "book of creation" rightly we can begin to see the vestigia, or "footprints" of the Creator.

Creation is not just the creation of the heavens and the earth, as a place for God to act and for us and other creatures to live. Creation is first of all the creation of a people. God delivered the Israelites from Egypt, put them into the promised land, and made them into a people of God. In just the same way the Resurrection of Christ creates a new land into which the new Israel is planted.

June 18, 2006

The Semiotics of Corpus Christi

One of the great things about religious language is its imprecision. Free and natural religious speech does not deliver a strict correspondence between utterance and referent the way scientific discourse does. It is not hard to understand what I mean when I claim that is already 79 degrees Farenheit this morning, or that my room is a mess. But it is a much harder thing to say exactly what is meant by an utterance like, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel," or "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit."

This the distinction McLuhan made between hot and cool media. Hot media proceeds more from exact definition, while cool media demands that some meaning be supplied by the listener. A novel is cool media because the reader supplies many of the details. For example, sometimes we see the film version of a book and feel like the characters don't look right. We participated in the story we read by supplying details out of our own imagination. In this sense a movie is hotter media than a book. Thus it's also more passive.

Religious language is very cool. It demands a lot of imagination and supplying of referents on the part of the listener. And it's right that it should be so. Faith is not information to be found, but a resonance to be discovered within.

The feast of Corpus Christi is a perfect example. What do we mean by "the Body of Christ"? Well, a lot of things. The body of Christ is first of all the historical body of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Incarnation of the Word. Today we celebrate, in part, that he was born, lived, suffered and died in a real, physical, human body.

But the Body of Christ is also the community of believers, the Church, constituted by the Holy Spirit to extend the mission and Risen life of Jesus through history. The Church is born, teaches, rejoices in God the Father, and suffers in perfect continuity with the historical life of Jesus.

Finally, the Body of Christ is the bread and wine offered in the Eucharist. Here the sacrifice of Christ and our participation in it as church is exercised and ratified.

This is why it is a piece of cool media when someone offers you communion and says "Body of Christ." Many people seem to take it simply as a claim of Christ's presence under the form of the bread, but it is also a personal address! When someone says "Body of Christ," they are addressing you as Christ's presence in the world.

Incidentally, when we refuse to accept that religious language is cool media and insist that it be hot (akin to scientific claims), that's when we become fundamentalists.

June 17, 2006

June 16, 2006

Martyrs of the Nazi Persecution

Today in my community we celebrate the memory of the Capuchin friars who were among the many victims of the Nazis canonized by John Paul II. If you scroll down a bit, you can see and read about them here.

Last summer I spent some time working in our infirmary, where I met a friar who knew these martyrs. While he was a student Father Zygmund was taken with them to Dachau. Unlike those we remember today, he survived until the liberation of the camp.

Father Zygmund's concentration camp stories were fascinating. They were always simultaneously funny and horrifying. He said that he was able to make a lot of friends because he spoke German. One of his friends was a Jewish barber who was so big and burly that "all the guards were afraid of him." Zygmund spoke with glee and almost jumped up and down as he recalled the guards being afraid of his friend the big barber. And then the story ends: "so then they shot him."

June 15, 2006


It's been great to hear the stories of Elijah in the readings this week. Yesterday we heard about his contest against the 450 prophets of Baal. Our Old Testament professor used to tell us to read these stories through the lens of the "emerging monotheism" of Israel. Struggles between the prophets of YHWH and the prophets of other gods represent Israel's struggle to come to firm adherence to the one God. I remember writing a paper I called "Elijah Slays the Prophets of Baal: Model for Ministry?" The title was probably the best part.

If this struggle seems foreign to our time, think again. Monotheism is still struggling to emerge in history. We still sacrifice our time, energy, and love, even our loved ones, to other gods. Nowadays these other gods are not the Baal or Astarte that the Israelites struggled with, but the gods of wealth, celebrity, and security. Think how many young people have been sacrificed in Iraq on the altar of the high god we call "national security" and the "american way of life."

June 14, 2006

Personality Tests

Today Don has a link to an interesting personality test. Be warned, it's a little more thoughtful and involved than your typical web quiz. I took it and was labeled a "reserved experiencer," for whatever that's worth.

In religious life one takes a lot of personality tests. I've taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator many times. I'm an INTJ, though I used to be an INFJ, the most common type for catholic religious. On the Enneagram, I'm a five. These tests are supposed to promote self-awareness. Thus we supposedly become better able to understand why we act the (crazy) ways we do with the people around us.

We can't take this too far, though. The so-called psychologizing of religious life has already produced a significant backlash. If we want to know who we really are, let's read the Scriptures.

The Scriptures teach us that we, like all creatures, were created through the Word that God speaks at the beginning of time. "God said....and it happened." Through God's Word we are created to the image and likeness of God.

In the fullness of time this same Word takes on a human life in Jesus of Nazareth. Thus Jesus is the Incarnation of the Word through which we were created in the first place. So if you want to know who you really are, study Jesus. Read about him in the Scriptures. Contemplate his Spirit in the poor. Study his presence in the Blessed Sacrament. This is who you really are.

June 13, 2006

St. Anthony

Today is the feast of St. Anthony of Lisbon, or Anthony of Padua as he is more commonly known. Although he has become famous and popular for finding lost keys and such, he was one of the great preachers and itinerants of the first generation of the Franciscan movement. He was roughly contemporary with Francis himself, born only fourteen years his junior and living only five years longer.

He was also the first friar to teach theology to his brothers. It was an important moment in the history of the life of the order, and Francis wrote him a letter about it:

To Brother Anthony my bishop brother Francis gives greetings. It pleases me that you read sacred theology to the brothers, as long as, amidst this kind of study, you don't extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion, as is contained in the Rule. (my translation)

A simple reminder for the conscience of any student.

June 12, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

As I mentioned the other day, I finally pushed myself through the book. It's hard for me to see how anyone is threatened by it. It's nothing more than a fairly linear (and tedious) detective story that happens to be set within a fabricated set of mysteries surrounding the history of Christianity. It's a simple book; the kind of thing people read at the beach. As A. O. Scott said, it would probably take longer to see the movie than read the book.

Nevertheless, it seems to be fashionable to say something about it, so here goes:

1. To say that the "sacred feminine" is a hushed secret within Christianity is not quite accurate. For one thing, it's no secret. The Da Vinci Code acts at one point like the allegorical interpretation of Church architecture as feminine anatomy is some kind of secret. Mystical writers have long seen Church buildings as the womb of Mary, out of which we believers emerge as the newly born Body of Christ. Even someone as strict as St. Francis called Mary the virgo ecclesia facta, or "virgin made church."

Furthermore, the suppression of the feminine face of God is hardly the fault of Christianity. Historians of theism tend to see this suppression as occurring around the time of the first agricultural revolution, when people first settled down and came into more control of animal and plant fertility. Holding onto land became more important than the fickle fertility cycles of nature, and thus feminine fertility gods gave way to masculine war gods. All this is, of course, long before Christianity. Diarmuid O'Murchu has written about this, though I forget in which book.

2. The portrayal of Opus Dei has been annoying for them and a joy for their detractors. But the main Opus Dei character in the Da Vinci Code is described as a monk, and there is no such category of membership in Opus Dei. On the other hand, wild rumors and accusations are part of the price an organization has to pay for being so secretive.

3. The Da Vinci Code suggests that Jesus of Nazareth was married to Mary of Magdala, that they had children, and their descendants came to be the Merovingian dynasty in what became modern France. First of all, there is no way of knowing any of this. Historically speaking, both characters are hard to pin down biographically. Even if it is true, that their descendants became the kings of France seems far fetched. It's the same kind of creative salvation history that likes to variously identify the ten lost tribes of Israel with the British, the Jamaicans or the Native Americans.

Even more, to allege that Jesus was married and had children does not interfere with any dogmatic Christological claim as far as I can see. The only thing such a claim does is dismiss the imitatio Christi strand of the Christian celibacy tradition. But that's only one aspect of the tradition on celibacy.

4. It's hard to see how the Da Vinci Code didn't make a good movie. The book reads like a movie, constantly cutting between one scene and another. Maybe the casting was all wrong. Tom Hanks doesn't seem geeky enough to be Robert Langdon. Paul Bettany doesn't seem tough enough to be Silas. Ian McKellan is too stately to play the short, fat, half-crippled Leigh Teabing. On the other hand, Audrey Tautou is just as I imagined Sophie.

June 11, 2006

Trinity Sunday

The scholastic theologians, teachers that they were, came up with a numbered mnemonic for keeping the doctrines on the Trinity in mind:

1 nature: deity

2 processions: the Word and the Spirit. The Word proceeding from the Father, and the Spirit proceeding from them both. Thus we are led to...

3 persons: Father, Son and Spirit. And the two processions lead to relationships imagined from both directions, leading to...

4 relations: paternity, filiation, and active and passive spiration. And we add to these 4 relations the unbegottenness proper to the Father, we get

5 notions: paternity, filiation, active and passive spiration, and unbegottenness.

Thus we come to the famous frustrated formulation of theology students everywhere:

5 notions
4 relations
3 persons
2 processions
1 nature
and ZERO understanding!

June 10, 2006

War and Pornography

Do check out Jeff's brilliant post on the state of our collective soul.

Yesterday I finally made it through the very tedious Da Vinci Code. I'll post on it soon.

June 9, 2006

Children's Books

The other day I ran across the book version of The Red Balloon. I always enjoy looking at it because its pictures are very vivid in my early memory. The French window shutters. The railing outside the shop the boy goes to. The thick yarn tied to the balloon, looking more robust than the string on any balloon I ever had.

Upon this reading the whole thing seemed like a Christological allegory. The balloon chooses the boy, giving him wonder and delight. Then the balloon is killed by bullies. The boy is sad, but then many more balloons appear, and they take the boy up into the sky. The great crime of the Lord's Passion is followed by the wonder of the Resurrection, which renovates us, creation and all of history.

Along these lines I was also thinking about The Giving Tree. What are we to make of it? Is it an illustration of Christ's self-emptying and self-expending love? Or is it about an acquisitive and demanding man and the co-dependent tree who kills herself in a vain attempt to please his greed for experience? Apparently there's a lively debate on this book; here's a set of essays from, of all places, First Things.

June 8, 2006


Paula has a great quote today on one of our most insidious spiritual pitfalls. It is entirely possible to seek God, to seek spirituality, even to seek perfection in the wrong way.

We live in a consumer culture. We are supposed to have all kinds of things: the right clothes, the right car, the right kind of security for the future. It's easy to think of God and spirituality in these terms; God becomes one more thing we are supposed to have and enjoy. And there are plenty of people who are prepared to sell you some spirituality as if it were a commodity to be enjoyed like beer or books.

God is not one more thing, one more good alongside the goods of the world! God is not in competition with the ordinary goods of human life! Anyone with any experience of the ascesis of prayer knows that God will not be possessed like money or things. As soon as we notice and think, "I am having a wonderful spiritual experience," it's gone.

Prayer and spirituality don't get us anything. They don't give us anything we can depend on for security or put on our resume to impress anybody. If anything, real prayer convinces us of our littleness, our insignificance, our natural call to humility. If we aren't greedy for faith or spiritual experiences, we can accept this gratefully because we only need God to be good. We're on our way to learning something about holy poverty.

June 7, 2006


Warning: Today's post is a little far out.

I find the end of today's Gospel fascinating. Mark's Jesus, defending the truth of the Resurrection to the Sadducees, quotes God's words to Moses:

I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.

So what's that supposed to prove? Just because the God who is our God today is the same God who was God of the patriarchs, how does that demonstrate the Resurrection? "He is not God of the dead but of the living," Jesus continues. Does that mean that the patriarchs are still alive? That doesn't seem to follow either. I can say, "this is Abraham Lincoln's house," but that doesn't mean he is still alive.

As we exist in creation we are time-bound; time is a creature as much as we are. But as we exist in the mind of God there is no before or after; God is everyone's God in the same eternal instant. The Resurrection is, of course, proper to the end of time, the end of time that Jesus' own Resurrection inaugurates. But for God it's all in the right now. The Resurrection is just God's permanent idea for us, even though for us it seems like something in the future.

June 6, 2006

Jesus and History

Yesterday I was visiting with my mother and she asked what I mean when I write about Jesus making a difference for human history. I've been thinking about it. This is an important question, because it goes to the heart of why Christianity should be worth anyone's time or effort, or why we call it the good news.

We have to start with a properly metaphysical reflection. What makes mutal relationship possible between two beings? How is it that two people are able to communicate, to trust each other, to have what we call a personal relationship? They are able to relate, to communicate because precisely because they share something in common, and that's what we call human nature. This is why the same depth of relationship is not possible with a cat, because human nature and cat nature are not quite the same thing. But it also means that we are able to relate with a cat more than we can with a bat. And we can empathize with the bat better than we can know what it's like to be a tree or a rock. Human nature and tree or rock nature are just so far apart that we can't even guess what it means to have a personal relationship with these creatures.

It's the shared nature that makes relationship and communion possible. So what of us and God? Certainly human nature and divine nature are infinitely separate, by virtue of God's Infinity. It would seem that there could be no relationship between God and us. Now God can communicate in a mediated way, as he did when he appeared in the fire and storm with Moses, or in the "still small voice" of the prophet as he revealed to Elijah. But what of direct mutuality with God; is such a thing possible?

The good news of Christianity is that God has closed the gap between human and divine nature in the life of one historical human person, Jesus Christ, by the Eternal Word's unity with this particular human nature. Thus for Jesus Christ the two natures existed as one, but without confusion or division. In him perfect communion between human and divine was established.

The good news for us is that God the Holy Spirit makes Jesus' relationship to God available to each human person and all human nature. By baptism we are given the chance to have the same relationship of communion with God that Jesus had. The Holy Spirit is precisely this availability of the great event of the Incarnation.

This is why the great celebration of Christianity is precisely holy communion, in which the "sacred exchange" between human and divine nature is exercised and made present.

June 1, 2006

Hanlon's Razor

The common life is integral to many forms of religious life. It is certainly the foundation of almost all Franciscan life. So why bother to live closely with other people?

If you listen to the preachers of sunshine you might think it was just for mutual support and personal intimacy needs. These are part of what religious community is about, but I don't think they are the main thing.

If you live closely with other people you quickly realize how unreasonable and idiosyncratic they are. If you pay attention to their reactions to you, you will soon notice that they have drawn the same conclusion about you. Thus you can find in the common life an opportunity to give up your (unreasonable) expectation that others should be perfect in their work and interactions. And you can also realize how much pettiness and irrationality they have forgiven you.

Thus the common life can be a powerful school of humility.

How we interpret the words and actions of others becomes critical. Do we hold them to every little claim they make? Do we demand that everything about their lives be coherent? Here one hermeneutical rule that has helped me greatly is Hanlon's Razor. It says, "do not attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Put somewhat more delicately, if a moral judgment is not necessary to explain what you observe about your sister or brother, why bother with it?