When it comes to God's will in your life, think of four levels:
There are, I hate to say it, religious who don't even try to seek God's will. At best they have never learned the difference between self-centered pious dreams and the living God.
A lot of religious manage to conform themselves to God's will in their daily lives more or less, but they complain about it to each other or to whatever other victim they can find. These get self-satisfied because of the good they do, and thus compound their sin.
Some get beyond this point, and do God's will will without complaining in their speech. They are still complaining in their thoughts, however, revealing that they haven't actually accepted God's will.
The goal is to not only do God's will but to accept it internally. To do the former is the easy part; to accomplish the latter is the real work.
October 31, 2008
From My Confessor
October 30, 2008
In a way it's a beautiful ministry and a privilege, to have the chance to see the original blessing of God shining through into the world in so many different ways and in the lives of people in so many different situations and moments in life. On the other hand, it's easy to get worn out and scattered in spirit.
It's also why it's so important to take some "sabbath" from time to time, for the threefold Biblical purpose of imitating the Creator, taking time to restore ourselves in prayer, and to acknowledge that even though we work hard and do so many things, the ministry does not depend on our work, but on God.
October 27, 2008
I really enjoy it, even with all of its ritual chaos and the depressing presence of those who are only "cultural Catholics." It's a beautiful ritual with a theology that, to me, is almost overwhelming in its implications.
On the other hand, preaching on baptism day is always a little jarring for me because most of my baptismal preaching is at funerals and wakes. So I am very accustomed to preaching the doctrine, theology, and Scriptural foundations of baptism, but not in the actual context of someone being baptized. In fact, the ratio in my ministry is about 25:1. That is, for each time I can preach on the actual occasion of baptism, I have about 25 opportunities to preach on baptism in the context of Christian death. (You can ask what this might mean demographically for the future of our parish, but that's another question.)
In the end (literally) the point is the same; being buried with Christ, united with his humanity, and becoming subject to the new life of the Resurrection. The eternal life given at baptism is not something that will be enjoyed at some future point; eternity is not subject to now and then. Jesus says, "you have eternal life," not "you will have eternal life." So whether we're at the beginning and end of our pilgrimage on this earth, the eternal life we have through the passing over of Christ is the same.
October 25, 2008
How To Read The Bible
October 24, 2008
Why I Don't Mind Weddings
Not that these things are always a terrible hassle, but in most cases you are doing them on behalf of young people with little more than a tangential relationship to their religion, much less to the parish. (There are shining exceptions.) Most, sadly, are "cultural Catholics" who probably won't be seen in church again until the next spiritual emergency, like when they have to baptize a baby. So I think that a lot of priests find it to be a sad situation and resent having to spend a lot of time on it.
I also find it sad, but I've also come to appreciate these young people. Even though they have not kept up with their faith--probably because it was never taught to them in a way that was relevant to their lives or portable into adulthood--I find them to be people of faith. It is an amazing act of faith to get married, after all; to bet that your own mutual love and regard is stronger than a future you can't even know. To me, that's almost the definition of faith.
In this world with its utter disregard for the creation and the gift of life within it, with its violence and morbid desire to see its own shipwreck, I find it very encouraging that people still insist on falling in love with each other. And they know at some level that love demands a complete commitment, even though we can't know what forever or complete is going to mean. But we do it anyway, because love is the way we touch Eternity and only eternity satisfies it.
October 23, 2008
Building The Tombs
But to celebrate these saints, to offer the beautiful prayers of their Masses and Offices frightens me a little too. For if I myself am doing nothing to reform and renew religious life, to shake it out of its obvious (to me) state of lassitude and decadence, then I am fulfilling Jesus' own condemnation of the hypocrites:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, "If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding their blood." Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out! (Matthew 23:29-32)
Sometimes I have an honest fear that mainstream religious life--as least as it is here in North America--is falling into this trap. We are very good at celebrating the courageous reformers of the past, but not so good at aiming their reforming vision at ourselves.
October 22, 2008
Getting A Beating
That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” Luke 12:47-48
I remember how in studies we arrived at this passage during the Luke course and the professor said, "Congratulations. If you have been paying attention during this course, you are no longer eligible to receive the lighter beating."
This made me happy because I have always felt that the pronunciation of the divine name in contemporary songs and alternative psalmodies was disrespectful not only to God but to the whole Scriptural tradition, kept alive by our Jewish brothers and sisters, of not pronouncing the name. A couple of times since this came out, though, I've gotten into conversations with people who don't approve.
Mostly they mourn the loss of Dan Schutte's beloved setting of Psalm 139, "You Are Near." This I understand. It's a laudably Scriptural song, people love it, and it's catchy. Maybe the words can be changed, but otherwise this is a genuine loss. Other alternative liturgical texts, more spurious in origin, will also have to be scrapped, and good riddance.
In any case, when I've been in conversations about this point, I've noticed a real lack of good sense about the nature of the words we use to refer to God, and what sort of words they are. Someone will say, for example, "How come we can say 'Lord' or 'God' but we can't use this particular name for God?"
The reason is, I think, because "Lord" and "God" are not names. To say "Lord," or Adonai or Kyrios for that matter, is to pronounce a title, not a name. These are titles for God that replace the divine name in the case of the Old Testament, and titles that migrate to the Risen Lord in the case of the New.
To say "God" is not to pronounce someone's name, but to point to a concept, an idea. To say "God" is not to address someone by name but to attempt to signify the Deity. This is why it is misguided for missionaries to replace the word "God" in the Scriptures with the proper name of the local deity.
Even to say "The Father" or "The Son," using the signifiers that Jesus reveals for the Holy Trinity is not really to use a name but a description of a relationship. There isn't really such a person as "God the Father," but the relation of Source and paternity within God.
In the end we have to recognize that most of our efforts to refer to the divine Mystery take the form of titles and descriptions, not names. There are really only two proper names for God, the divine name revealed to Moses, which no one may pronounce, and Jesus Christ, the name of the Word of God become human, whom we may and must address by name precisely because of his Incarnation.
October 21, 2008
First, what to wear? I have always gone to the cemetery in just my habit, doing committal services in just my "street clothes" without any vesture. However, in the introduction to the rite it says that the minister should vest according to "local custom." I've asked a few of the undertakers what the local custom might be, but they are so trained to flatter and coddle the clergy that they don't want to say anything. (In this they are not be faulted, for in many or perhaps most cases, (to our shame) coddling and flattery are the most productive way to deal the clergy.)
So, what should I be wearing at committals? What is your good and catholic sensibility? Habit and stole? Habit, surplice, and stole? Don't bother?
Second, where should the military rite of committal fit into the liturgy? The tendency seems to do this part after the conclusion of the religious liturgy. Thus, after I dismiss the people, the soldiers or sailors play their automated bugle (or tape player, without any pretense), fold the flag and present it to the bereaved. It's actually quite successful as a rite and I've always found those who do these services to be exceedingly gracious and reverent.
Doing the military honors after the religious committal seems to work in some ways, e.g. the liturgy is not interrupted. On the other hand, I always have the nagging feeling that God should come at the very end. Doing the military honors before the final, religious committal would have certain advantages. For one thing, I'm not comfortable sprinkling the flag with holy water, and some of the soldiers and sailors aren't either. Removing the flag before the final committal would allow the coffin to be sprinkled during the rite. (This isn't in the rite itself, but seems to be customary and expected.) It would also allow the final "go in peace" to actually make some sense. What do you think?
October 20, 2008
As I drove up to the church, I looked at the sidewalk and remembered how it was the last walk I took as an unbaptized seeker. The permanent deacon who baptized me assisted with the Mass, and among those present were his wife and my godfather, who is a captain in the Coast Guard and a professor at their academy. It was almost overwhelming to pronounce the Lord's words of consecration at the same altar from which I received my first Holy Communion.
So today, with two funerals on deck and trying to recover from a being absent from my regular ministry for a day, I am trying to remember to be grateful for my vocation. Gratitude saves us from so much misery.
October 18, 2008
Repaying To God What Belongs To God
October 16, 2008
"Physical light," responded their teacher. So I went on to ask them,
"Is light a wave or a particle?" A lot of umms and half-raised hands followed. So I continued,
"Maybe light is a partic-ular kind of wave. How about that?"
Then there were a lot of "whoas" and cries of "that's neat!"
But then I had to say, "Children, many times in life people will try to tell you things, and a lot of things they say will sound neat and clever. But like what I just said to you, these things often don't have any meaning. The truth is that I'm good at playing with words but I don't know the first thing about the wave-particle duality. So, be suspicious. Now, who wants to be an altar server?"
October 15, 2008
Then one of the scholars of the law said to him in reply, “Teacher, by saying this you are insulting us too.” And he said, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them.” Luke 11:45-46
It's disturbing to think that people who must have spent much of their lives studying the Sacred Scriptures and reflecting on the will of God ended up missing the point. And yet we know this from our own time, when many priests who, I presume, preached and taught and prayed each day have been found to have been involved in terrible crimes.
It just drives home to me the need to be somewhat ruthless in our examination of conscience and motives. Not that anyone should be so hard on themselves because of their sins--like those who do not seem to believe in the forgiveness of God, but that we should always be a little suspect of our own thoughts and excuses.
October 14, 2008
Breviarium Romanum vs. Liturgy of the Hours
Matins/Office of Readings. The Liturgy of the Hours (LH) has fewer but longer readings. The structure is much simpler than the Matins of the Breviarium Romanum ( BR.) The longer readings seem to lend themselves more readily to the atmosphere of lectio and spiritual reading. The BR, however, has a much better sense of "progressive solemnity" in it; the number of nocturns varies according to the solemnity of the day.
Decision: split. I think that the LH would be the better prayer in the case of individual recitation, but the Matins of the BR would be better for celebration in common. The longer readings of the LH are suited especially to individual reflection, while the interwoven rhythm of psalms, readings, blessings, and absolutions of the BR Matins would seem better suited to praying in choir.
Lauds/Morning Prayer.* It seems to me that the LH is the superior prayer. The inclusion of the Old Testament canticles in the psalmody expands the range of Sacred Scripture that is prayed, and the 4-week psalter makes for a wider varity of brief readings. The universal inclusion of reponsorial intercessions allows for greater participation when the hour is prayed with the faithful.
Prime: nolo contendere says the LH, which has no prime.
Terce, Sext, None/Mid-Morning, Mid-Day, Mid-Afternoon Prayer. For the small hours, the BR seems superior to me. The LH gives only one cycle of psalmody for prayer "during the day," making the presumption that most of the time you are only going to pray the one mandated hour. For the other hours, a set group of "gradual psalms" are used, which also double as the festal psalms. Though the readings are more varied in the LH due to the 4-week psalter, the short readings in the BR are spot-on inspirations for the spiritual trials and effort that go with a working day.
Vespers/Evening Prayer. My observations are the same, mutatis mutandis, as for Morning Prayer.
Compline/Night Prayer. The compline of the BR has much to recommend it, such as a fuller psalmody and a greater variation between Sunday and weekdays. However, it seems to me that the simpler structure--especially the option to use either of the Sunday psalmodies on any day if you want to pray from memory--makes the LH the superior version of this prayer. When it's dark and you're tired, my guess is that the LH compline is more likely to actually get prayed than its BR predecessor.
Psalter. The idea of praying through the whole of the psalter each week is the beautiful foundation of the BR. The BR is to be further praised for its willingness to include all the psalms, in contrast to the LH, which omits a few deemed to be disturbing. (It is amazing on Sunday to suddenly be praying the full version of psalm 110; its easy to forget that the LH skips the part about heads being strewn about.) On the other hand, the 4-week psalter of the LH allows for a much richer cycle of readings, as well as making room for the OT and NT canticles at the hinge hours.
Decision: undecided. Despite all the benefits of the 4-week psalter, the ideal of praying through all 150 psalms each week is very attractive.
Portablity. Here the BR wins with no contest. One of its volumes is less than half of the size of any edition of the LH I have ever seen. Portability might not seem like a big deal, but the willingness of someone to take their prayers along to work or when they travel depends on it in many cases.
*Though the typical edition of the LH maintains the traditional names for the hours, I am using the American English translated names for clarity.
October 13, 2008
Against the Politicians
They are usually playing the pro-life angle and, well, God bless them. Unfortunately, when I quiz them a little on their pro-life credentials, their ethic often turns out to be incomplete at best if not utterly inconsistent.
The basic issue for me is that I don't want their secular campaign materials littered about the church. I find it totally unseemly, not to mention bordering on illegal. It is especially disturbing because the politicians claim to represent the Catholic point of view, which they do not. (Or have not so far.)
The ensuing conflict is highly scripted, thanks be to God, so it can be executed without too much stress or even attention. At first they are asked to leave, which sometimes works. If they are dumb enough to not discern the border between public and parish property, removing them is as easy as a call to the police. They usually aren't that dumb, however.
If none of this works, you can try to strike a deal, asking the politicians to only distribute their propaganda to folks on their way home rather than their way into church. This sometimes works, but politicians are clever people and they know this strategy hurts them; people arrive at church at different times, but tend to leave all at once.
If the deal doesn't work you threaten to call their opponent--who is, of course, being portrayed by the politicians as un-Catholic--in case he or she wants to send someone down for counterpoint. At this point they tell you that you are a rotten priest who is set against God, and they threaten to reveal this to all of your parishioners, or call your diocese, or whatever. You then encourage them to do so, so that you might be crowned with the glory of fulfilling Matthew's final beatitude.
Having succeeded or not in your quest to eject those who would make the Lord's temple into a marketplace, at whatever point you need to get recollected for other things, you leave the prepared script, ask God to clear your mind of the whole thing, and get back to the Lord.
October 11, 2008
October 10, 2008
But for the rest of the day, better responses have been occurring to me, such as:
"I am an heir to the promises made to Abraham and the royal covenant of David."
"I am of the nations whom Isaiah the prophet saw streaming to the Lord's Temple."
"I belong to what your brother Saul of Tarsus called 'the Israel of God.'"
And the best one, "That's my favorite line from Pulp Fiction!"
October 8, 2008
A painter may work for what the burning of his picture, or an accident of death to the admirer, may wholly destroy...The only just literary critic is Christ, who admires more than does any man the gifts he Himself has bestowed.
From a letter of J. R. R. Tolkien to C. S. Lewis, paraphrasing Gerard Manley Hopkins.
And going from the deep to the silly, here's one from the content of last night's meeting:
What's that thing you get on Sunday...I mean besides grace...that paper...oh yeah, the bulletin!
Going even further afield, a quote from Federico Fellini from a few seconds of something, I know not what, I caught on TV. For whatever reason this one really speaks to me:
After a certain age, the idea of dying becomes more and more present… And yet, I’m endowed with a particular psychological mechanism whereby all disagreeable things like old age and physical decay, obligations or money worries become material for a story which then becomes a film.
October 7, 2008
Why Doesn't God Intervene?
Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her." Luke 10:38-42
This is one of those passages from Sacred Scripture that has such an intense exegetical history that it can be hard to see it in another way; we are trained to concentrate on the distinction between the sisters and to decide what it means for us. So this morning I've been reflecting not on Martha and Mary, but on the image of our Lord in the story.
Jesus refuses to intervene; he will not get involved in the personal drama of the two sisters. Where Martha sees an injustice outside of herself--and who is to say that Mary should have perhaps been helping--Jesus responds by pointing out that Martha's problem is inside herself.
It makes me think of the question that alleged atheists always ask: if there is a God, why does he allow people to suffer so horribly? Why doesn't God just destroy or otherwise rid the world of evil and suffering? It seems to me that such thinking imagines the power or almightiness of God in a human way. It's the same thing as when people joke that someone will be struck by lightning for doing something bad. The power and Lordship of God are just not expressed by control and coercion of the creation or the human heart. Rather, the Incarnation of the Word reveals the God who "takes the form of a slave," placing himself below us as servant.
Forcible intervention, coercion, and disregard for each other's freedom to flourish are at the root of our own suffering in the first place; thus, to imagine that God would act that way is only to create a god in our own image. Instead, just like Jesus does with Martha, God's response to suffering takes the form of invitation rather than intervention. And the invitation is to look at ourselves; to examine the many ways we cause our own suffering and pass that suffering on to others. To refuse to pass our suffering on to another is to embrace the saving power of the Cross. To return to others a blessing instead is to accept the gift of the Resurrection.
October 5, 2008
Blessing of Animals
October 4, 2008
October 3, 2008
Happy Feast Day From My Confessor
I just don't see how you can like everybody, but you have to love them, to desire their good. With the mob of guys we have, sometimes I wonder what boat they came in on...and I just don't see how you can like everyone. But you have to love them, and you have to try to order your life in accordance with loving them, washing their feet and making up for their faults and shortcomings--though not their sins. Doing that is what nails you to the Cross each day. That's the cross of fraternity. Find your joy in it and have a happy feast of St. Francis.
These are the words of a wise old friar during my confession before beginning the vigil of the feast of our holy father Francis.
October 2, 2008
If you want to believe Pseudo-Dionysius, the guardian angels come from the plain old "angels," as distinguished from the higher orders of Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and finally Seraphim (who are closest to God's throne.)
In my experience much of the talk or preaching we do about angels is pretty confused, and rarely takes seriously their entirely spiritual nature. Nevertheless, this feast day affirms what we say straight away about God in the creed, that he is the Creator of both a seen and an unseen world. This feast reminds us that, contrary to what we might believe if we took all of our religious instruction from the movies, the unseen world is on our side.
October 1, 2008
Of Eucharistic Miracles and Stigmata
There are multiple questions here. First, what is the theological relationship between stigmata and Eucharistic miracles? The phenomena are similar in some sense, but how? And how do they differ? Second, why does my gut tell me one is worthy of reverence and the other a distraction? Can I give an account of what I allege to be my intuition?
Both phenomena are a case of the usually invisible Presence of Christ becoming miraculously visible. In the stigmata the usually mystical and spiritual identification of Christ with suffering humanity becomes visible in some analogue of the wounds of the Passion appearing on the individual Christian. In a Eucharistic miracle it is alleged that the "substance of the body of Christ" or the "substance of his blood," (1) become sensible as themselves, rather than retaining the accidents of bread and wine under which they usually appear.
The great gift of the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ is the identification of God with human suffering. In Christ, God descends into and identifies himself with the suffering, alienation, and pain we have brought upon ourselves and each other with our sins. In Christ, God means to save us from the inside, identifying himself with our pain so as to offer our humanity a means of escape and freedom. In his Passion, the humanity of Christ identifies with our suffering, even to the final suffering of being alienated from God: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." By the divinity joined hypostatically to his humanity, the death he endures cannot hold him and a path through suffering and death to New Life is opened up.
This gift is available to all Christians. In Christ, God's passionate desire is to humbly identify with our suffering so as to redeem and liberate us from its power, influence, and misery. All we have to do is allow God to identify with us through faith, through prayer, and especially through the communion he gives us with his humanity in the Eucharist. To me, the stigmata marks an individual case in which a Christian has accomplished this consent to God in a way so exceptional that the identification becomes visible in his or her own flesh. So I guess to me the stigmata is a joyful and miraculous sign of heroic human consent to God's own desire to save us.
Now the Eucharist is also a humble identification of God with the physical world. By identifying himself with the bread and wine offered as the sacrifice of the Eucharist, Jesus Christ gives us both a memorial of the one sacrifice of the Cross and a means to continuously "augment" (2) the union of his humanity with ours. In the sacred species the body and blood of Christ, born of Mary, dying on the Cross, and raised up in glory are truly and really present, but retains the sensible appearance, feel, smell, and taste of bread and wine after the consecration. In a Eucharistic miracle this ordinary situation, which God has presumably ordained, seems to be suspended and the accidents of the bread and wine give way to the visible and sensible presence of the Body and Blood of Christ.
I have two basic problems with these miracles on a theological level. First, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in the presence of the whole Christ. Each host and each sip of the Precious Blood all over the world each day is the presence not of a part of the Christ, but of the whole Christ. In trying to teach this truth, St. Thomas uses what I think is a delightful image: he says that the Eucharist is like a broken mirror, in which the whole reflection becomes visible in each little piece.(3) In a so-called Eucharistic miracle, this truth of the faith seems to be lost. What allegedly becomes sensible is a piece of the flesh of Christ or a portion of his Precious Blood. It's not the whole Christ that our faith tells us is present.
Second, it seems to me that the "hiddenness" of the revelation of Christ in the Eucharist is an essential part of its meaning. To me the humility of the Lord who is willing to become a little piece of bread is one of the most spiritually overwhelming and deep aspects of the Eucharist. But perhaps this is a Franciscan prejudice. (4)
So, as the beginning of a reflection, I guess this is why I feel like stigmata is something to be reverenced but Eucharistic miracles are a distraction, because the former represents for me a heroic consent to God's desire on the part of one human being, while the latter obscures for me both the teaching of the Church on the Eucharist and its meaning as I have come to appreciate it.
Finally, let me say by way of disclaimer that I would never want to belittle the faith of those for whom Eucharistic miracles seem to mean a lot. For me, the "by their fruits you shall know them" certainly applies, and if the worship and celebration of these phenomena produces faith and devotion to the Eucharistic on the part of the faithful who appreciate them, then I'm all for it.
1. Council of Trent, 1551, quoted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1376.
2. Catechism, 1391.
3. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 76, a. 3.
4. "“O admirable heights and sublime lowliness! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under the little form of bread! Look, brothers, at the humility of God and pour out your hearts before Him! Humble yourselves, as well, that you may be exalted by Him. Therefore, hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves so that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally” Francis of Assisi, Letter to the Entire Order.