April 30, 2007

Faith and Death

Last night I was driving home from my weekend deacon gig, when Death Cab for Cutie's I will Follow You into the Dark came on the radio.

Now I generally find songs like this one overly light and precious, but it was a dreary night and it seemed to fit the mood, so I left it on.

It made me think about faith and death. I presume that the song is about dying--the whole going "into the dark" thing. Death is, after all, the final, mysterious limit of our experience and personality in this world. It is an unknown, a permanently veiled moment, a darkness.

But faith, both as a grace and an act, is a lot like that too. Faith is darkness to the intellect. It is the willingness to risk stepping into a cognitive obscurity that does not satisfy our normal standards of knowing anything, of "getting" it. The Light of God is so brilliant that our hearts and minds only perceive It as darkness--what John of the Cross called the rayos de oscuridad.

In this sense I was thinking about how faith is a remote preparation for death. We have already risked a step into the obscurity and darkness of faith. And we have found it trustworthy. So maybe that will help us to go into the final darkness of death with more peace and trust.

April 27, 2007


Do you believe that the earth revolves around the Sun, or the Sun around the earth?

The earth orbits the Sun, of course, everybody knows that.

And yet, every day you see the Sun rise from the east, travel across the sky, and set in the west. Therefore, based on ordinary sense experience, it's obvious that the Sun goes around the earth.

So why do we believe the opposite of our plain experience? Because somebody has told us that it is so. Because we trust that the astronomers and science teachers and textbooks we have read know what they are talking about. We trust them, and that's enough for us to discount our experience and believe the opposite, without even being bothered by the dissonance!

Well, then, why not believe in the apostles who assure us that Jesus is risen? Surely they also know what they are talking about.

April 26, 2007


It's too hard for me to reflect on a serious post the day after completing five years of theological education, so here's a silly video about redeeming the web for God. Note the not so subtle message that God uses a Mac and Satan uses a PC.

April 25, 2007

Deo Gratias

This morning I successfully defended my STL thesis. So two degrees and 10 semesters later, I'm done with school. (for now)

April 24, 2007

Fidelis of Sigmaringen

Today is also the feast of St. Fidelis, a seventeenth century Capuchin who was famously martyred when he was beaten to death by Calvinists.

One of my favorite memories of my perpetual profession of vows was hearing the cantor sing "Sigmaringen" correctly. Lying face down on the floor for the prostration, I took a little pride at having chosen the right friar to sing the litany of the saints.

The Australian Capuchins have a short biography you can check out here.

Also, despite being dead for almost 400 years, Fidelis maintains a lovely MySpace page, which you can check out here.


Today begins the second year of "a minor friar," and I just wanted to say how grateful I am to all of the perceptive and interesting people I have gotten to know through this ministry.

It has been a great way for me to practice both writing and preaching. Thanks to everyone who has taken a look over the past year.

April 23, 2007


At the church where I work on the weekends we recently recovered a beautiful stone statue of St. Anne and the Blessed Mother.

They are in a typical teaching and learning pose: Anne and Mary, who is perhaps eight or ten years old, are both looking at a scroll that Mary is holding. On the scroll are the Roman numerals I through VII. So the question has arisen among us: what do these numbers represent?

The first proposal was that St. Anne was teaching Mary about the Ten Commandments. But then why do the numbers only go up to seven? Well, maybe the rest are on the other side of the scroll. Seems unlikely to me.

The second suggestion was that Mary was learning about the seven deadly sins. Mary would have had to have learned about sins through "book learning," as the normal manner of learning about sin, through experience, was unavailable to her. Alas, though, there was no list of seven deadly sins when Mary was a little girl, so I think this proposal is out.

In a brilliant execution of the principle of ontological economy, one parishioner suggested that Mary was simply learning how to count to seven. Clever, but not religious enough, methinks.

My suggestion, which seems to me the most likely, is that the statue represents Mary and her mother contemplating the Seven Sorrows that the Blessed Mother will suffer in later life. I think that this is especially likely given that the statue was recovered from an Irish-American church.

Anyone who knows something about iconography want to solve this one for us?

April 21, 2007

Conrad of Parzham

Today is the feast of St. Conrad, one of our most loved Capuchin saints. He was a nineteenth century friar from Bavaria who spent most of his life as porter in the friary at Altötting.

Here's a beautiful paragraph from his Office of Readings:
Thus I always rejoice in the Lord having only this complaint that I do not love enough. If only I had the love of one of the Seraphim! I would like to compel all creation to help me love God above all things. Love never fails.
Believe it or not, despite being dead for over a century, Conrad has a very nice MySpace page, which you can check out here. If you know some German, his own brothers have several fine pages on him starting here.

April 20, 2007

Barley Loaves

Today in the Liturgy we begin John chapter 6, the famous "Bread of Life" discourse that informs so much of our readings during this early part of the Easter season.

It begins with the feeding of the five thousand, one of those rare gospel traditions that appears in all four canonical gospels. But only John reports the detail that the five loaves used to feed five thousand people were made of barley.

Scripture scholars assure us that barley bread was the food of the poor. It is the food of the poor that becomes the bread offered for the life of the world.

In the same way it is out of our own poverty that grace happens. When we are willing to be poor and vulnerable with each other, we allow these moments to be transformed into the grace and blessing that will feed and heal our violent and tired world.

It is when we can admit and accept our brokenness that we allow God to make us the bread that is broken for the life of the world.

April 19, 2007

War is the Health of the State

So said Randolph Bourne, famously.

The only people who consistently benefit from war are the weapons industry and the bankers. So as long as these people have any say in government, we will be at war.

Rich Kids

I've been tuning out the massacre news, but I did hear that one of Cho Seung-hui's motives was his hatred of and bitterness toward the "rich kids." When I heard that, it gave me a chill because it is something like my own experience of college.

For me as well, college was when I first became really aware of North American wealth and class privilege. It was like a paradise, honestly. Somebody cooked for us and washed our dishes. Somebody cleaned our bathrooms and cut our grass. The place was beautiful and safe. We had just enough intellectual stimulation to allow us the rotten pleasure of thinking ourselves superior and enlightened, but not so much that it amounted to anything even approaching full-time work.

And so, freed from every care, we could spend all of our time drinking an endless supply of beer, consuming an endless and varied supply of drugs, and chasing an endless supply of girls. During the day we congratulated ourselves on being so smart, so punk, so alternative, and at night we indulged in the ersatz religious ecstasy of moshing at the concerts of campus bands.

But then the first war in Iraq happened, and from this haze I started to wonder if how we were living wasn't in bad taste given all of the suffering in the world. One day I saw a beer truck going down the street, and I thought about the people who were dying in Iraq so that we could have oil to run beer trucks so that us college students could be drunk all day.

My reaction, the solution I found, was to turn to Christianity. Cho Seung-hi's was to kill everyone he could. But that I should find myself today blessed with a vocation to religious life, and blessed with the ministry of ordination, and Cho Seung-hui should find himself dead and a mass-murderer, how should I take that? I'm lucky.

April 18, 2007


When I look back at them, I always remark to myself on the intense formative influence that The Seven Story Mountain, The Sign of Jonas, and New Seeds of Contemplation had on my sense of Christianity and religious life.

I was looking through the Sign of Jonas and I noticed a passage I had underlined many years ago. Speaking of the question of whether we deny ourselves for love of God or for love of ourselves, Merton writes:
It is when we are angry at our own mistakes that we tend most of all to deny ourselves for love of ourselves. We want to shake off the hateful thing that has humbled us. In our rush to escape the humiliation of our own mistakes, we run head first into the opposite error, seeking comfort and compensation. And so we spend our lives running back and forth from one attachment to another.
Shame at our failures to live up to the spiritual life we desire may be a sign that what we really want to worship isn't God at all, but an image of ourself as a holy person.

April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech

It's sad and frightening for me to think of how the school shooting is becoming part of our culture. Charles Whitman invented this crime, Columbine brought it to a new level of meaninglessness, and now at Virginia Tech we have the worst civilian massacre in the history of these United States.

We must pray for the eternal rest of the victims, including the perpetrator(s), and for the consolation of their families. We must be a support for families and parents who send their children to school each day in the midst of this culture of death.

But if we want to be faithful to the memory of these victims, we must allow this to shock us into a critique of our culture. We must find the compunction that admits that such a massacre is not really shocking in a world where life is so cheap in many other ways.

Old people can get expensive health care but poor children can't, revealing that we care more about money than life. The ongoing normalization of pornography reveals our view that human persons are commodities for consumerized sexuality. Abortion and capital punishment reveal that we understand human life as a relative value against convenience and revenge. Wars are fought amidst tremendous civilian abuse and suffering and loss of life and culture for the benefit of businessmen.

If this is our world, it's hardly surprising that shooting one's peers becomes a mode of self-expression.

We need a revolution in order to change this, and you won't hear about it on CNN. We must change ourselves. As Gil Scott-Heron put it, "the first revolution is when you change your mind, about how you look at things."

April 12, 2007

The Risen One

I love the Scriptural accounts of the Risen Lord. I love them because they don't make anything very clear, and it seems like they keep us guessing on purpose.

What, exactly, do they mean by this Risen Lord who appears to disciples, apostles, five hundred brothers at once, etc.?

First of all, the extremes are thrown out. He's clearly not exactly a physical person like ourselves, or a resuscitated corpse like Lazarus. He didn't return to the same existence he had before. He goes through walls, appears and disappears out of and into thin air. He's purposely visible to some but not to others.

On the other hand, he's not a ghost. He eats with his disciples, breathes on people, allows himself to be touched.

The Resurrection is an eschatological event. In the traditions of Israel it was to be part of the end of time. For the disciples of Jesus, this end of time (in the sense of both purpose and terminus) came breaking forth backwards into history. And they experienced this event as utterly continuous with the human being Jesus Christ whom they had known personally.

As if an utterance like that make things more clear.

April 11, 2007


Yesterday a friend told me about a Holy Week "Eucharist" he attended. The various parts of the Mass were done out of order, according to the tastes of the participants, and the presider's prayers were shared by everyone.

The institution narrative, i.e. "Take this, all of you, and eat it...Take this, all of you, and drink from it," was done by the priest, of course.

My greatest problem with this sort of thing is that it reinforces a magical approach to the sacraments. It's as if you don't need a priest for some parts of the Mass, but you do for this particular part, because it's the part that requires magical powers. Thus the sacrament of Order is not about leadership or speaking on behalf of the body of Christ, in persona Christi capitis, as it were, but about a cultic, magical power.

Thus in all their efforts to appear "liberal" and "progressive," folks who do this sort of thing only succeed in putting their shallow sense of sacraments and church on display.

April 10, 2007


There doesn't seem to be anything in the news today but Don Imus's racist insults against the women of Rutgers.

Why should a stupid insult about racial stereotypes be such a big deal? After all, it seems like half of the comedy on TV is the same thing.

Is racism so shocking? I live in a non-white neighborhood. I ride the buses and the subways with mostly non-white folks. In fact, the only time of my life in which I lived with mostly white people was college-and that was so culturally jarring to me I was driven to seek refuge in Christianity.

What I mean to say is that the racist structures and attitudes of our world are fully intact. Racism is a constant ambient in the world, at least the world in which I live. Maybe a stupid, racist remark like this one is difficult for us precisely because it makes us face the reality and ugliness of our racist society. It comes too close to home, as it were. Whether we suffer from racial prejudice or enjoy white privilege, we see too much of ourselves in it.

The saddest thing is that this boor has robbed these women of a proud and beautiful moment of their lives.

April 9, 2007


The way we did the Good Friday service in my parish was quite striking. Each language group proclaimed John's Passion and prayed the intercessions in a different place. The English, Spanish, and Vietnamese speaking communities each had their own cleric, so I went with the Africans. Arabic isn't their native language, but they use it as an inter-tribal lingua franca.

It was really something to follow along in the Arabic Passion. Soon I was able to pick out some proper names: Peter, "Butrus," Pilate, "Pilatus." Other words I recognized from other well-known Arabic phrases, e.g. "Akbar" for the "high" in "high priest." Still other names and words were close to the pieces of Hebrew vocabulary I had learned in Scripture classes: Jesus, Jews, king.

As I stood there with the Africans, I was thinking about how different I was from them in every way, in language, history, experience, even in shape and color and appearance. And yet, in Christ we were one body because of our baptism into his death, and because of our communion in the Body and Blood of the Lord, risen into the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

For the Veneration of the Cross and Holy Communion, all the groups came together in the main church, and all I could think of was Isaiah's joyful vision of the various nations streaming to the Temple of the Lord.

April 7, 2007

Holy Saturday

God, the living God who called Abraham, created a people in the Exodus, and who spoke through the Prophets, this God is a good Jew.

So also God the Son incarnate in Jesus Christ is a good Jew. Thus, Jesus rests on this most holy Sabbath day. The great work of the Resurrection, of re-creating and renovating creation, will have to wait until the first day begins, after the Sun goes down tonight.

April 6, 2007

Good Friday

In his new apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum caritatis, Benedict XVI reminds us of the heart of Good Friday prayer: "A contemplative gaze 'upon him whom they have pierced.'" (John 19:37)

Today we mourn the Christ whom we have handed over to be tortured and executed with such brutality. One of my teachers once said, "People like to argue about who killed Christ. The only real answer is you and me."

If we are realistic enough to admit the anger, pride, and selfishness in ourselves, we begin to learn in our heart that we are a little contributor to our world's immense systems of violence, fear, danger, and oppression. If we are humble enough to admit our sin, our self-centeredness, and our rotten joy at pretending to be the center of the universe, then we can begin to see Jesus Christ whom we have pierced in every victim of war and economic injustice, in every abandoned old person and in every starving child.

April 5, 2007

Holy Thursday

Tonight we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, the sacrament at the center of our lives.

The Lord says, "Take, and eat. This is my body, which is broken for you."

Our bodies are going to break. We will get sick and die. God saves us from death, but not from dying. So since we are doomed to breakdown anyway, we may as well break our bodies in service and sacrifice to one another. That's the life of Communion, of the Eucharist.

The Lord says, "Take, and drink. This is the cup of my blood, poured out so that sins may be forgiven."

Our hearts will break too. It's inevitable if we allow ourselves to notice the suffering of the world, and the especially the suffering we bring upon those we love. You can do one of two things with your broken heart. You can get bitter, or you can let the brokenness turn into openness, and end up with a heart broken open to a hurting world. That's learning gentleness and forgiveness, of imitating Jesus by pouring out our own blood for the forgiveness of sins.


Well, my first assignment has become public knowledge. After graduation I'll be moving to our parish dedicated to the Sacred Heart in Yonkers, New York. The brothers have ministered there for 116 years.

The church was dedicated on November 15, 1891 by Archbishop Corrigan, the sixth bishop of New York. The land had been acquired by Bonaventure Frey, one of the two Swiss priests who founded the Detroit province of the Capuchins, of which my own is a daughter province.

Sacred Heart was also the sometime assignment of Venerable Solanus Casey, whom we hope will be the first American-born man to be canonized.

April 4, 2007

Spy Wednesday

Holy Wednesday, Spy Wednesday, or Ugly Wednesday; whatever you call it, today is the day we recall the conspiracy instigated by Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus into the custody of the priestly authorities.

He's definitely one of the most mysterious characters in the Scriptures. One the one hand, via the criterion of embarrassment, that Jesus was betrayed to the authorities by one of his own disciples is probably one of the most sure things in the New Testament we can claim really happened. But why did he do it?

Was it really just malice or greed? Did he believe he was accelerating the process of the kingdom of God by precipitating a confrontation between Jesus and the Romans? Given that it was Jesus' destiny to suffer his Passion, was Judas just doing a dirty job that only he was strong enough to do, as in Kazantzakis' Last Temptation of Christ? Was he just a mediator in a prisoner exchange that was supposed to take place anyway, given the incident with the money-changers and the purification of the Temple? And, finally, if the arrest, Passion, and ignoble death of Jesus was his divine destiny from the beginning, how can Judas be faulted?

There are no anti-canonizations. That is to say, though the Church proclaims saints definitively, those whom we can be sure are in heaven with God, the Church has never claimed that anybody at all went to hell for sure. So there's hope that even Judas is in heaven with the saints. And if it's so, he's one of the first people I look forward to talking to.

April 3, 2007

Holy Tuesday

Tuesday of Holy Week brings us to the beginning of of Judas' betrayal. He leaves the table, and, in John's account, receives the instruction to do things quickly.

In contrast, Peter boasts to the Lord that he will lay down his life for Jesus. And Jesus tells Peter that that very night, he will deny him three times.

Both are an invitation to mourn. We must never boast, to ourselves or others, in even the most subtle ways, that we are doing great things for the Lord and his Kingdom. For one thing, we aren't. Even if we are doing something, it is God's work, not ours. A healthy sense of holy poverty demands that we not appropriate the graces that God works in the world to ourselves, as if they were some kind of commodity or possession.

Many times we have been Judas, bringing suffering upon even the ones we love because of our attachments and fascinations with of our own agendas and selves. And many times we have been Peter, boasting to our own hearts about the glamorous things we do for God, only to find that, as soon as things become difficult and risky, we don't really want any part of it.

April 2, 2007

Holy Monday

Monday of Holy Week brings us to the anointing of Jesus at Bethany. He must be anointed, because he is to be a king and will soon reign from the throne of the Cross. Recall the charge against him, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."

The kings of Israel, and of the ancient near east generally, were always anointed with oil. But there are two aspects of Jesus' anointing that make it special. First, in every account we have, he is anointed by a woman. Typically, the kings of Israel were anointed by someone with authority, like a prophet or priest. In contrast, Jesus' royal anointing comes from someone without authority, with a lesser place in society. It is the poor and oppressed who can recognize the Lord in the world, and everyone else when they can at least admit of their inner poverty and vulnerability.

Second, at least in Luke and John's versions, Jesus is anointed on his feet. Kings were anointed on their heads. The kingdom of Jesus will be one of service and humility, not power and authority.