September 29, 2006

Jacob's Ladder

In his sleep at Bethel, Jacob had a vision:

There was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. (Genesis 28:12-13b)

In today's Gospel for the feast of the Archangels, Jesus identifies himself with the Ladder:

And he said to Nathanael, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man." (John 1:50-51)

Such a simple expression of fundamental Christianity! What connects the utterly other, completely transcendent and unknowable God to our world of time and history and mundane matter? The human life of Jesus of Nazareth is the ladder that connects heaven and earth, on which ascend and descend the messengers and messages of God that we call the angels.

Christianity is nothing more than the grateful response to God's bridging of the gap between the transcendent realm of heaven and our world of time and matter in Jesus Christ. It's why we sing in the Easter Exsultet,

"Night truly blest, when Heaven is wedded to earth, and man is reconciled with God."

September 28, 2006


The images and metaphors we choose to describe our spiritual struggles to ourselves are not just idle place-holders; they can make a big difference for our sense of freedom and possibility. Here's an example:

I received a letter yesterday from a woman I met on retreat. She's in the midst of a turbulent and complex vocation discernment, and here's how she described her spiritual struggle:

I need to either swim beneath the waves or learn to walk on water.

Notice what she has done with this image! First of all, she has used the image of the waters as a metaphor for the dangerous forces of chaos and un-meaning. This has the advantage of being a good, demonstrable Biblical image, and puts her into the thought-world of the Scriptures.

But even with that, she could have said, "I'm just trying to keep my head above water."

But she didn't. Instead she imagined her options positively, and not only that, she imagined two constructive paths through the waters of chaos. She can swim beneath the waves, seeking a deeper place in prayer, below the chaos and turbulence of emotions and daily hassles. Or she can learn to walk on water, as the Lord himself did when inviting Peter to a greater faith.

I thought it was a brilliant thought.

September 27, 2006

St. Vincent de Paul

Someone once told me that St. Vincent said something to this effect: We had better love the poor. If we don't, they will never forgive us for the charity we give them.

I've returned to that one from time to time. It suggests to me that not only do we have to examine our motives and examine our consciences around our sins, but around the good things we do as well.

All of us who do charitable service, works of justice, or community organizing need to ask ourselves why we are doing these things on behalf of the poor. Is it because we love them? Or is it because we hate the rich? Or maybe it's because of our righteous indignation at the systemic injustice of this world. Or maybe, God forbid, it's our liberal guilt that motivates us.

Love is the only valid motive for our works of Christian service. Indeed, it's the only valid motive for anything. After all, it's the only motive God has ever known.

September 26, 2006

The Superdome

Yesterday I saw a bit on TV about the grand re-opening of the New Orleans Superdome for the Saint's victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Now I know they did some stuff to honor the suffering of the victims of hurricane Katrina, and they had some first responders present for the festivities, but I couldn't get over the part that I saw with a bunch of celebrities and important people in fancy suits, enjoying special treats and fine china.

It seems to me that it would have been more classy to fill the newly fixed and renovated Superdome with all of the poor and unimportant kind of folks who suffered through the hurricane. It would have been a fine opportunity to subvert the divisions of class and race that make this country suffer so much.

In the Office of Readings today God's Word comes through psalm 12:

"For the poor who are oppressed and the needy who groan
I myself will arise," says the Lord.
"I will grant them the salvation for which they thirst."

September 23, 2006

Holiness and Hazard

A confessor told me this story the other day, after making sure there wasn't anyone else in line for confession:

Once when he was superior of a large house, a brother was sent away to one of those places where priests and religious brothers and sisters go to deal with addictions or other serious life issues. When he was about to be released, the superior went to collect him.

While the head psychologist was discussing the brother's after-care needs with the superior, he received a phone call. To give him some privacy, the superior walked over to the office window. As he looked out on a beautiful spring day, he saw a number of priests and brothers and nuns walking about in silence in the yard below. Some were praying the rosary and some were reciting their office. They all looked holy to the superior, and he was edified by such a scene that seemed to give so much glory to God.

When his phone call was finished, the psychologist joined the superior at the window.

"Whatever is wrong with them individually, there is only one thing the matter with all of them," said the psychologist.

"Oh?" responded the superior.

"Not one of them has a friend in the whole world; no one to even shed a tear if they were to die," the psychologist continued.

The story illustrates a critical hazard of the spiritual, and especially the formal religious life. It's necessary that we pray and practice our devotion to God in the quiet of our hearts. But if we aren't also interested and devoted to other people, and if we don't allow them to love us in turn, we have wandered into a pseudo-spiritual blind-alley, cheated ourselves out of the good news, and have not believed in the God who is revealed in the utterly human life of Jesus Christ. And in this state we will be easy prey for all of the addictions and substitutes for God that the world tries to force upon us each day.

Franciscan Blogosphere

One of the Franciscan members of the hierarchy here in the USA, Cardinal O'Malley, is blogging his current visit to Rome. Check it out here.

September 22, 2006


I have a couple of neat things to share today:

1. One of the brothers sent me this link to a collection of pictures of Jesus. Some are serious, some are silly, but, as I looked through them, I thought that all of them are provacative in their own way, and force upon us the query Jesus asks of all his disciples: Who do you say that I am?

The most reflection provoking ones for me are the Jesus made out of fruit and Jesus throwing Bush, Cheney and Greenspan out of the Temple. The one of Jesus showing off his tattoo seems silly at first, but then it really got me thinking about Jesus as God's revealer. But maybe that's because I just started a course on John's gospel.

2. Our friend Brother Lesser has a poem today about Francis, beauty, and Lady Poverty by Peter Maurin. I really liked it.


September 20, 2006


I have my arguments with Gaudium et spes, but I have to admit that the opening of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is quite something:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.

I was reminded of this by the critique Jesus delivers in the today's gospel:

Jesus said to the crowds:
“To what shall I compare the people of this generation?
What are they like?
They are like children who sit in the marketplace and call to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance.
We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.’

It is part of our confession of the Incarnation, our belief that the Word was made flesh, that we should rejoice in all human rejoicing and mourn every human grief. All genuine human happiness and flourishment is the business of a Christian because it is all grace. All human suffering, depression, and depair is our concern because it is part of the mystery of sin.

That the Word of God, Who was with God from the beginning, and Who is God should have become flesh, not just taking on flesh like a garment, but becoming flesh, raises all human experience to a new kind of theologically dignity and gravity.

September 17, 2006


Because today is Sunday, the stigmata of Francis aren't celebrated this year. Nevertheless, this remains my favorite feast day in the Franciscan calendar.

Some folks like to argue about what "really" happened to Francis on that day. Some say what the brothers decided were the wounds of Christ on Francis was really leprosy. Others say the whole thing was invented by brother Elias as part of the promotion of the cult of Francis.

All of this misses the point. We'll never be able to describe precisely the great mystical experience of the Crucifed Christ that Francis had toward the end of his life. Even his early hagiographers disagree.

The point is to see God's willingness and overwhelming desire to identify God's own life with the suffering of the world. The point is not to ask whether Francis really had the stigmata, but to learn to see the wounds of Christ in every person who suffers with the meaningless of sickness, is made an orphan or homeless by war, or struggles under the searing burden of poverty.

These are the wounds of Christ. Stigmata are all around us.

September 15, 2006

Our Lady of Sorrows

Mary, like many mothers before her and since, had to go through the suffering of having her own son fall victim to the world's twisted cycle of violence, oppression, and war.

Women bear a disproportionate share of the injustice and suffering we human beings insist on making for ourselves. Just as Mary became the path of the Word into the world, so Our Lady of Sorrows can be a path for us to share in God's compassion for all the suffering women and mothers of our world.

September 14, 2006

The Triumph of the Cross

The feast of the Holy Cross brings a special little joy to Franciscans everywhere, because it reminds us that the great feast of the Stigmata is coming soon. All of the accounts of Francis' great mystical experience set the stage by saying that he was off praying alone around the time of this feast.

The Cross, most simply, is an intersection of a vertical and a horizontal beam. In this way it points to the most concentrated intersection of God's passion and human experience. And this point of contact, by God's mysterious design, is human suffering, loneliness, and despair.

So if you want to find God you have two choices. Go sit with your sisters and brothers who are suffering, or, if you're really brave, sit with the secret places you hate inside yourself where you are broken and ashamed and feel all alone.

September 13, 2006


To the great relief of everyone, the ongoing mystery of Youtube's Lonelygirl15 has been resolved, and even the New York Times reported today that she was a fake and a scam.

It reminds me of the Scripture professor who taught us about form criticism. At the end he said, "Form criticism isn't just for the Bible; do form criticism on anyone who seems to need to tell you anything!"

Or the religious studies professor who said that just about anything could be interpreted with just two simple hermeneutical rules:

1. Everyone's Lying.
2. Follow the Money.

Of course it's coarse for spiritual people to talk this way, but we do well to be suspicious, especially of ourselves and our own motives. As spiritual as we like to think we are, our little angers and jealousies reveal us for who we really are. And we have two choices of what to do with this realization. We can become bitter and angry with God, or admit our need and creatureliness and learn to give ourselves up to him.

September 11, 2006


Today we remember the tragedy of September 11, 2001. And I think we are wise to mourn the victims of that day, but we also pray for all of the further victims of the attendant "war on terror" and the grand disaster of our response to the attacks.

It makes me think that perhaps both the perpetrators of Islamic violence and we arrogant western crusaders might take a lesson from Francis in the Earlier Rule.

Francis writes that the brothers who are inspired to go among non-believers may do so in one of two ways. They may either keep themselves quiet and humble, not arguing or debating with anyone, and being subject to every human creature for God's sake (2 Peter 2:13), simply confessing that they are Christians. In this way they preach the poor and humble Christ without having to say anything. Or they may boldly preach the Trinity and the necessity of baptism for salvation, and gratefully suffer whatever consequences come.

We might note that neither of these paths involves killing or imprisoning anyone.

September 9, 2006

Cat Sitting

This week I am house and cat sitting for my traveling parents. I have another brother here with me and we're treating it as a vacation.

My mother's cat needs someone to take care of her. She's a little old and a lot deaf, and seems to get insecure and lost in the house sometimes. But perhaps looking after her is a little taste of what it's like for God to look upon us poor and short-sighted people of this world.

September 5, 2006


In these days when we are reading the prophet Jeremiah in the Office of Readings, I sometimes chuckle when I remember an assignment from college.

Our Old Testament teacher told us to write an essay on whether we thought Jeremiah suffered from a "hypertrophy of sympathy for God." Never mind that we poor college sophomores didn't even know what a "hypertrophy" was, the paper was hard enough.

Nevertheless, it's not a bad question to ask ourselves, whether or not we have sympathy for God. Do we share in God's pathos? Do we know, really know in our heart and gut, what God is going through, what God suffers? Do we make an effort to notice and to know the burning and perfectly diffusing love that God has for us? Do we pray so as to come in touch with the suffering and humble love that lies quietly behind everything as its Source and underneath everthing as its Ground?

I think that this kind of sympathy for God would be quite something. Perhaps that's what Paul meant when he spoke about being "con-crucified" with Christ. (Gal 2:20)

September 4, 2006


The other day I was sitting through the umpteenth Myers-Briggs workshop of my religious life. Though the presenter was pretty good, and was applying the types in interesting and pointed ways, I basically think such a thing is a tool of mystification and an excuse for going to purgatory, so my mind was wandering.

I started to think about metaphysics in general. Ancient people used to make metaphysical systems in an effort to understand the world around them: Heraclitus had the Flux, Plato had the Forms, and Aristotle had the Categories.

We late modern people, having given up on the mystical intelligibility of the macrocosm, and being succesfully turned in on ourselves (the so-called "turn to the subject") by Copernicus and Kant, look for metaphysical systems to explain our inner world. So we end up with the inner metaphysical system of Freud with his ego, super-ego, and id or Jung with his types and archetypes. From Jung we derive popular metaphysical systems like the Myers-Briggs Indicator.

It must be basic to our human nature to try to construct an ordered and logical system that makes sense of our experience. In a way it might be a way of imitating the creating act of God, who called the ordered and intelligible world out of the chaos of the original waters.

(By the way, I used to be an INFJ, but over the years I have become an INTJ, so you can cleverly tell me that my mind was wandering because I am of the NT temperament.)

September 1, 2006

The Bridegroom Arrives

Today's Gospel is Matthew's parable of the wise and foolish virgins. It's one of my favorites. The ten virgins wait for the bridegroom to arrive. As the night goes on, only those who have brought an extra supply of oil for their lamps are there when he finally comes. The others have to go shop for more, and they miss the bridegroom and the party.

Of course the Lord, the world's Bridegroom, is arriving at every moment. The presence of God we call grace is there in each encounter and each perception of the world around us. In the love and care of others we experience the love of God. In the suffering we inflict on our sisters and brothers, and on creation itself, we see Christ Crucified and know ourselves to be his torturers.

But we'll only see the Bridegroom in all these things if we have brought a supply of oil with us, and the oil is prayer. We pray not because prayer itself is much of an experience, but so that we might train our minds to see the Bridegroom when he comes. We practice quiet prayer because the Word of God was spoken in Silence, and it is in Silence that we hear It. We pray the Scriptures so as to bend our mind to the imagination that interprets the world through an experience of God.

If we don't build up our supply of oil in prayer, we will begin to lose the perception of God in the people and events around us. Like the foolish virgins, we miss out on the one thing that fulfills our nature completely, and for which we were created.

Incidentally, I think this is partly why my posts have been a little stale lately; I'm in a new house and haven't got my personal prayer practice down quite yet.