September 30, 2009

Names of Brides

As I have revealed in some past posts, I am always fascinated by the distribution of proper names in the populations I serve. For example, in performing infant baptisms, one gets a look into the names people are giving their babies.

In the ministry of marriage preparation one gets to see how people one generation removed from those babies were named. On my chart of weddings in production, I notice that nearly half (44%) of upcoming brides are named either Danielle or Amanda. Eccentric and verbose as I am, I have a special fondness for girls who have gerundives for names. No Mirandas yet.

The men reveal no pattern. In fact, there are no two with the same name.

Tam Rudes Erant

Yesterday, in looking forward to preaching today on the feast of St. Jerome, I was poking around in my Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft Vulgate looking for some gem from the great translator that I could turn into a homily. You see, Jerome didn't just translate the Sacred Scriptures into Latin, but he also wrote little prologues and introductions to various sections and books.

In his introduction to the letters of St. Paul he asks the question of the order of the letters in the canon: why should the letter to the Romans be first, when it is clearly not the first that was written? Though the principle of ontological economy would suggest that the letters are simply arranged in descending order of size (excepting Hebrews, of course, whose Pauline authorship was doubted even in antiquity), Jerome comes up with a novel solution: the letters are arranged according to an upward graded path, in ascending order of spiritual perfection.

The Romans were so backward and rude that the spiritual condition they represent has to be presented first. The Corinthians, who seem to have known something of grace at least, represent the next spiritual step, and so on, until we get to the persecuted strength of the Thessalonians and the lofty spiritual heights of the letter to the Hebrews. A grain of humility for us 'Romans,' no?

Now I couldn't bring myself to make the people suffer through a homily concocted out of these obscure points, but it does remind us that Sacred Scripture is not a collection of neutral information about God. Scripture--and all Divine Revelation--is presented in such a way that it is geared for what we need to set us on the path of salvation.

Vast Atheistic Conspiracy

For the feast of St. Jerome, a comment about one of his particular patronages, libraries and librarians:

Was it not some atheistic 'humanist' who decided that in the Library of Congress Classification, Sacred Scripture should be put under 'BS'?

UPDATE: a regular reader and real librarian--my mother--points out that in LC the Bible has no author. To the one who made this decision we might quote 2 Timothy 3:16--and why not in Jerome's translation for his feast day: omnis scriptura divinitus inspirata et utilis ad docendum ad arguendum ad corrigendum ad erudiendum in iustitia. "All scripture is divinely inspired and useful for teaching, for refuting, for correcting, and for training in righteousness."

September 29, 2009

Overheard in Church

Lines one just doesn't expect to hear in a eulogy at a funeral Mass:

So I went and got my gun, spun the chambers, and put it on the table.

N.B. The story was unrelated to the departure of the deceased from this life.

Standing Up for Real Health Care

One must rejoice a little when the secular press represents a Catholic position more or less well. From the New York Times this morning:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has lobbied for decades to persuade the government to provide universal health insurance, says it opposes the bill unless it bans the use of subsidies for plans that cover abortion.

The Catholic Church seeks to cooperate with grace in the development of the common good and a more just human society; public health--as an issue of both wellness and justice in our time--is a critical component of this vision. The problem here is that abortion is not health care, but in fact the opposite, both for its specific victims and for the deforming of our imagination around human life that it imposes on all of us.

Full article here. Thanks to the writer, David D. Kirkpatrick.

UPDATE: An old friend, who often does me the great favor of keeping me honest in these posts, reminds me that we should always keep in mind that federal funding for abortion has long been forbidden. So, just to clarify, my point is not to try to say anything about politics, funding, insurance plans or anything else about which I am unqualified to comment. What I do want to point out is that the debate in these days is a good moment to remind ourselves that what the world calls 'health care' is not the same thing as what we Catholics would call 'health care.' Since many of our so-called Catholic politicians do not seem to care about this distinction, I think it's important that we point it out when we can.

September 28, 2009

Punks Not Dead

You know you're still rock and roll when...

You stand outside church praying at the end of a funeral Mass, and as the piper gets a few bars into "Amazing Grace" you feel something stir inside. And it's only then you realize that you're waiting for the guitar and drums to roll in, because the version to which you are must accustomed is the arrangement by Dropkick Murphys:

Search Terms

One of the fun and interesting aspects of maintaining a blog is reviewing the search engine terms that bring visitors. Here are some of my recent favorite searches made by some soul that succeeded in drawing them to a minor friar:

following simple directions. One of my special talents!

interesting burial requests. I don't know if they are interesting, but I do have requests.

Capuchin friars horarium. I wish!

dangers of celibacy. Have I something to say, or am I myself the example?

six day hypocrite and Sunday morning saint. That's me! Except for the Sunday morning saint part.

Prayer Before Mass

In the course of my vocation there have been certain formal prayers I have come to use, having made them up not on purpose but just from repetition and refinement. One that is part of my regular life now is my prayer with ministers before Mass:

Loving God,
we pray that you pour out your Spirit on us
and make us into ministers after your own Heart.
Help us to offer this Mass to you and for your people
with gentleness and joy
so that we might be some small mirror of your Love for the world.
We make this prayer through Christ the Lord.

I never sat down and made up this prayer; it just formed itself over time in the course of wanting to pray with servers, lectors, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion before Sunday Mass.

Another example is my prayer to St. Joseph before driving.

September 26, 2009


Yesterday a 'perfect storm' of vacations, retreats, and random events left me home alone at the friary. So after saying vespers in the church, I went for Chinese take-out. After placing my order, I couldn't help but notice the other customer: a kid of maybe eleven or twelve years with crutches and a big cast on his foot. As we sat there waiting, me for my hot and sour soup and he for his double order of french fries, I just had to ask:

"How come you, with a broken foot, have to be the one sent to pick up the Chinese food?"

The kid pointed across the street and explained,

"That's my football team practicing there. I'm out for the season, but I can still do stuff like this for the team."

How about that? Out for the season and on crutches, this kid was not only still showing up for practice but was also finding other ways to serve. As I think from time to time, perhaps our catechesis of children has something to learn from football.


“Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!" exclaimed Moses. But in Christ, this is just what God has done. Follow this link for my homily for this weekend.

September 25, 2009

Disconnect with the Dead

This is a spiritual incongruity in my ministry on which I have been reflecting lately:

On the one hand, it is a commonplace to complain that funerals are not really funerals but 'celebrations of life.' There's some truth to the complaint; through the stations of a funeral liturgy, the 'mourners'--in my experience--often speak and behave as if guaranteed that the deceased is already enjoying the peace and joy of heaven. A disapproving glance sometimes comes when we pray for forgiveness of sins for the deceased, or for merciful judgment. "He's at peace now," and "She's with so-and-so in heaven" are the sort of little pieces of the script that illustrate the spiritual mood. I have never offered a funeral Mass in anything but Easter white; never in penitential violet and much less in the black of mourning!

On the other hand, and seemingly incongruously, there is an unmanageable demand for Masses to be offered for these same dead! The intentions for our regularly scheduled Masses are filled at least six months in advance, and an intention for something besides and individual or group of the dead is so rare that sometimes, when one is about to occur, the one offering will call the day before just to make sure, 'Father doesn't say that I'm dead.'

So, how does it make sense to offer funerals with the apparent assurance that the deceased is already enjoying his place among the saints in the Church Triumphant, but then to anxiously schedule many further Masses as if he were ensconced in purgatory and in need of the Sacrifice to be offered to help him on his continued journey of purification? The saints do not need our Masses; it is they who should be praying for us, not the other way around.

Could it be that we are misguided on both counts? Could it be that, on the one hand, we have forgotten that the journey toward heaven continues after this life, and, on the other, that we are not offering all of these Masses for the dead for their sakes, but for our need to memorialize them on the natural level?

Vox Aquarum Multarum

I have been warned to expect to be back at school by this time next year, so I've been trying to get back into some serious reading each day. I almost forgot that there were texts like this to conquer:

On the second day the firmament was made and was called heaven, and it was placed so that it made a division between waters and waters, and the waters which first were waters were made waters, the waters which are under heaven and the waters which are above heaven. And heaven was made heaven and heaven; heaven above heaven and heaven under heaven. Even to this day also heaven is above heaven, and heaven under heaven, and the whole is from one heaven and is one heaven. But before this heaven, which is called the firmament, was made from that heaven, that heaven was not heaven and heaven, but only heaven. Nor were those waters waters and waters, but only waters. Both the waters and heaven were one heaven; and that heaven and those waters were neither above heaven nor under heaven, but above earth; and there was nothing between heaven and earth because there was nothing except heaven and earth. And yet there were waters, and there was darkness, and there was the abyss: the abyss in the earth, the darkness and the waters in heaven.

Hugh of Saint Victor, De Sacramentis, I,1,6, trans. Roy J. Deferrari

September 24, 2009

Godparents and Marriage Poll

One of the real surprises of my experience of priesthood is the ministry of infant baptism. I had imagined that this would be an enjoyable and lighthearted part of the job. Instead, it is one of the aspects of the parish ministry that I look forward to the least and contains the most headaches. Mostly it's about trying to help parents choose appropriate sponsors, i.e. godparents. Many parents seem to try to elect godparents based on their personal and familial allegiances, rather than on the criteria held up by the Church. This wouldn't be a problem in a world where the average Catholic practiced the faith, but unfortunately we find ourselves in the opposite situation.

So one of my routine and most dreaded jobs is the disqualification of proposed godparents, because they have not received Confirmation, are not even Christians ("...but Father, Muslims love Jesus and Mary!" or, "but Father, we Jews know a lot about keeping tradition!") or are simply not practicing the faith and have no intention of taking it up. The canned line I have developed is, "You can't sponsor someone for a journey that are not making yourself."

Nevertheless, I have encountered gray areas. One of them is marital status. What about someone who is otherwise eligible to be a godparent, but who has failed in their obligation to marry according to canonical form, i.e. someone who is married, but "outside the church." Canon law does not address this explicitly, but just says that an eligible sponsor should be living a life of faith in harmony with the sacraments they have received, and be able to give good example. Does this "harmony" and "good example" extend to marrying according to canonical form, i.e. "in church"?

I think that many priests practice a kind of 'don't ask, don't tell' with this sort of thing, and maybe that's why it seems like a gray area: "..but Father, my wife was a godparent for so-and-so, so why am I disqualified?"

So what do you think?

Can a Catholic who is married, but not according to canonical form (and not actively seeking convalidation) be admitted to the role of sponsor for baptism?

September 23, 2009

Pilgrimage to the Bronx

This morning I attended a funeral for one of the first friars I ever lived with in community. By his request, the funeral was celebrated at the church attached to that same friary.

I arrived early so that I could visit the old house. I can't believe it has only been fifteen years since I lived there as a postulant to the OFM; so much has happened in between: out of religious life and then back in again, four years of working at the group home and living the solitary, single life, re-investiture, temporary vows, two summers in Central America, perpetual vows, five years of theology, diaconate, priesthood, taking up the parish priest trade.

It was so good to set foot back in my first home in the Franciscan world. The place has a simplicity and spiritual cleanliness about it that everybody feels right away. I went to the chapel right away and remembered so much grace. I walked up to what was my room and remembered some of the excitements and doubts, and many conversations. I went to the community room and remembered a lot of faith sharing, parties, and laughs.

I have always found such personal pilgrimages to be helpful and encouraging, and so I try to make them when I can; to return prayerfully to a place where the Holy Spirit was once working hard on me. Wherever we find ourselves in life and work at some particular moment of life, it's easy to let it become the whole world. We can let the universe shrink down to our immediate surroundings. This is such a recipe for unhappiness, however, because it makes little things and passing troubles seem like everything. For me, to return to the places I have been in the past, and to remember the grace of God that I had there (whether it be happy or difficult or--more likely--both) helps me to remember that even the little world I inhabit in this life is much bigger than anything difficult I face in my current circumstance.

September 22, 2009

Overheard in the Sacristy

When I'm in purgatory being finally and gratefully purified of my various stupidities, I won't be able to say people didn't try to help.

Parish sacristan, upon seeing me in secular clothing for the first time:

"Did grunge come back?"

Mass Ordination

NLM has picked up this thread from the forum Ceremonia y rúbrica de la Iglesia española, on the topic of so-called simultaneous or synchronized Masses. Scroll down to see the pictures of the ordination of 842 priests at once, via 21 bishops offering Mass all at the same time.

Never again will I indulge the idea that my role as MC for friar funerals is a liturgical burden, for I can see that I have been spared much, indeed.

The post indicates that there was one Capuchin among them. I would love to hear about it from him, or any of these priests. They would probably be about eighty-three years old now.

September 21, 2009

Monty Python's Report Card for God

This was in a book of Monty Python stuff that was around the house when I was a kid. I still find it very, very funny. Once in a while I've looked for it on the web and the other day it turned up.

Pupils Name: God

(11%) Poor, handwriting weak.

(9%) Very poor.

(30%) Suprisingly poor. His knowledge appears somewhat dated. Interesting ideas about rock formation; keeps going around going Kerpow!

(28%) Weak, thinks he know it all. Constantly rude about Darwin

(14%) Poor, keeps disputing Biblical facts on the ground that he was "misquoted"

(100%) Quite the best student I've ever had

(87%) An excellent carpenter. Mary and I are still very fond of him

(54%) A useful little cook, the pillar of salt will come in handy for a long time.

(62%) Very creative, however he does keep claiming to have created everything, including myself, Mr Vidler and the organist.

Will not row, hates games and once parted the waters of the swimming pool during a match against the old boys which was both unsporting and dangerous. He can still do press ups.

I am afraid that I am severely disappointed in God's work. All three of him have shown no tendency to improve and He merely sits at the back of the class talking to Himselves. He has shown no interest in rugger, asked to be excused prayers and moves in a mysterious way.
What is more his omniprescence is beginning to cause some embarrasment in big school, since he is continually out of bounds and at the same time always in matron's bed.

Finally, his attentions to the carpentry masters fiancee caused her to leave a term early and there are several nasty rumours flying around.

I am very sorry to be losing God's ability and friendliness from the house. We will never forget how he made the Model Railway Club layout in six days! It seems unlikely that he will now get into Oxford or Cambridge but I could recommend Him for a job at Unilever.

At Table on the Feast of St. Matthew

I'm fascinated by the Prayer After Communion for today:

Salutáris gáudii partíceps, Dómine,
quo lætus Salvatórem in domo sua convíviam
beátus Mattháeus excépit,
da, ut cibo semper reficiámur illíus,
qui non iustos sed peccatóres vocáre venit ad salútem.
Qui vivit et regnat in sáecula sæculórum.

which our current American English sacramentary renders as:

Father, in this eucharist we have shared the joy of salvation
which St. Matthew knew when he welcomed your Son.
May this food renew us in Christ,
who came to call not the just
but sinners to salvation in his kingdom
where he is Lord for ever and ever.

So many times we imagine the Eucharist as our approach to the Lord's table; but this prayer seems to invite us to imagine the Eucharist the other way around; as our expression of joy at Jesus' presence at our table. Here we are reminded that it is not us who have approached the Father through Jesus, but the Father who has reached out--and into--us through the humanity of Christ. Jesus has invited himself into our lives with that simple imperative, "Follow me," and it is up to us to consent to the grace of his presence as Guest at our table.

September 20, 2009

Through the Cycle

In a few weeks, I will have preached through the three years of the Sunday lectionary cycle. I started preaching on Sundays a week after I was ordained deacon three years ago this feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.

Lest this induce in me any vanity, this morning in the sacristy one of our best lectors shared that as of today she is beginning her twelfth journey through the cycle, having just completed her thirty-third year as a lector for Sunday Mass. I thanked her for her good example, to which she replied,

"It's nothing special, I just stuck with it."

"That's exactly what I meant," I said.

September 19, 2009

Humility Against Fear

If we desire God and holiness, we must make ourselves the servants of the humble and powerless. If we want to be his Presence for others, we must embrace our own spiritual poverty as well. Follow this link for my homily for this weekend.

September 18, 2009

RIP: Fr. Thaddeus Sapio, OFM

Tonight I hear that Fr. Thaddeus Sapio, OFM, died yesterday on the feast of the Stigmata. May he rest in peace. Fr. Thaddeus was a member of the first community of friars I ever lived in, at the former Holy Cross Friary on Soundview Ave. in the Bronx. He was to me such a good example of a friar minor: devoted to the people, plain and straightforward, and very funny.

Fr. Thaddeus was also the first confrere in community whom I ever approached to hear my confessions. I was two years baptized, and in those days I was full of convert zeal, a little bit scrupulous, and very worked up. Having such a gentle and humble confessor did a lot to help me relax and appreciate grace.

Somehow I came to have his copy of the 1992 Liturgy of the Hours Supplement. I don't remember how. Maybe I expressed anxiety about not having the proper prayers and he gave it to me. He had written his name in the front of the booklet, and I always kept and used it as a way to remember his good example. I had it for fourteen years until I gave it to a nun from the Dominican Republic who wanted the propers for Our Lady of Guadalupe and was moving to Rome the next day. I bought a new one for $2.95 at the Daughters of St. Paul, but it's not the same.

No problem, though, Fr. Thaddeus, I was only imitating you by giving away the booklet. I can keep your good example close without my third class relic.

Requiescat in pace.

Follow this link for the schedule of services.

From My Confessor

Some strong words today on prayer and renunciation:

When in the Our Father we pray, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, we must take the words on earth as first of all applying to ourselves. Even on the natural level we have enough incentive to reject our own will in favor of God's will--for we have spent enough time carrying our own selves as a burden to know that our own will is neither trustworthy nor directed to genuine joy, freedom, and perfection.

This is why it is critical for us to take advantage of as many of the small opportunities to renounce our own will in the course of a day. Not that these miserable little penances really matter--and we shouldn't dwell on them as it is too much an occasion of vainglory--but they are what can train our spoiled minds and intentionality. They are the little acts that tone our spirit for the greater renunciations, the ones that really matter.

Penance: the old 3, 3, and 3.

September 16, 2009

Funniest. Intercessions. Ever.

At their best, spontaneous intercessions can express the heart of a community and bring its deepest needs and concerns into public prayer. Sometimes, however, they don't work so well. Of all the wacky spontaneous intercessions I have ever heard, here are my top three favorites:

3. (ca. fall of 2000) "Let us pray for Darryl Strawberry...he seems to be back on the junk...that he might get it together, we pray to the Lord..."

2. "For more...and better vocations to the priesthood and religious life, we pray to the Lord..."

1. "For all of the poor souls unjustly condemned to purgatory, we pray to the Lord..."

And your own candidates in the comments!

Stuff For Trade

Stuff I have for which I would love to find a good home:

A copy of the Fonti Francescane, 1978 Franciscan 'omnibus of sources' in Italian. Good condition, with someone's personal dedication in the front flap.

A curious altar card set, with all three "cards" mounted on a single piece of wood, about 2 feet by 11 inches. Originally for use at sea, judging from seal on the back.

Stuff that I am looking for:

A Quaracchi edition Opera Omnia of St. Bonaventure. 10 volumes, 1882 and following. I am sure that there are many sets of these languishing unappreciated in friary libraries around the world.

A copy of the Franciscan Press edition of Bonaventure's Collations on the Six Days.

A copy, in any condition, of Olaus Wormius' Latin translation of the Necronomicon (preferably the 17th century Spanish printing)

Sets of black and/or non-offensive rose vestments, i.e. chasuble, stole, maniple, burse, and chalice veil. Either Roman or gothic chasuble.

September 15, 2009


Yesterday and today I have had the early Mass at 6:45 in the so-called "friars' chapel," which is adjacent to the left side of the sanctuary of the main church. It's a group of eighteen or so, and I enjoy it very much. I try to get the church open and everything set up by 6:15 or so, and then I get half vested and go to sit in the back of the church, which ends up being the quietest spot leading up to Mass.

Sitting back there trying to pray I have come to know the arrival of the regulars by sound. The first is always the quiet but quick feet of the old woman who has probably been doing this same devoted routine since before I was even baptized. I hear her stop for a moment before passing through the sanctuary into the chapel, and without even looking I know that she is kneeling on the sanctuary step, offering a prayer.

Then come the two early morning chatters, usually audible before they even come in but quieting down right away when they notice that it's me that day and I'm sitting out by the entrance. I hear them begin to make their way up to the sanctuary, after speaking the whispered script about whether Father remembered to bring some missallettes up to the small chapel. I turn my mind to gratitude for the example of their piety and constancy, grateful for the opportunity to mortify my annoyance at their little racket.

Then I hear the quick and purposeful steps of the Italian lady whose granddaughter's wedding is being prepared in Atlanta for celebration next Spring at our church. Her path is intermittent, the sound of her steps coming and going as she stops to pray at the shrine to Fr. Solanus and then again at St. Anthony's altar on her way to the chapel.

And so on it goes until the last rush of folks arrive right before Mass begins. Over my time here I have noticed that I depend on these folks spiritually. The example of their stability and constancy holds up my own prayer, and reminds me to repent of how shallow and fragile is my own devotion. Each morning I am grateful for the grace of their stability and routine, and I pray that I might grow into something of their regularity in my own service to the Lord.

September 14, 2009

The Gift of Misinformation

I was a neophyte during the fall semester of my junior year in college. In those days I had just three pieces of Catholic equipment--my New American Bible, my rosary, and my red vinyl cover St. Joseph Sunday Missal--and I needed nothing more. For Sunday Mass on campus we had a Saturday vigil at 5pm with a wonderful priest who was a very good influence on me.

I soon developed a Saturday routine. After brunch in the late morning or early midday--that's when weekend days start for college students, or at least as it did for me and my buddies--I would take my missal and start to prepare for Mass. I would pray through the readings, sometimes using my Bible to look them up in context. I would review the proper prayers for the day and set up my ribbons for Mass. (Without ribbons Catholic life would cease to be possible, I'm sure of it.) After this I would take the walk to the local parish church for confession. I would examine my conscience, make my confession, pray my penance, and walk back to campus in time to retrieve my missal and go to Mass. It was a blessed and zealous time.

However, as I used my little missal to follow through the Mass, I would notice discrepancies from time to time. One of them was that we didn't pray the Creed. It was the style of the priest to blend his homily right into the intercessory prayers without the Creed coming between these two moments in the Mass. So once I asked him about it, just because I was confused. How come this Creed was in my missal but was not included in the Mass? Father responded that the Creed was optional, and being a neophyte without any knowledge of rubrics or general instructions, I believed him.

Of course this is false, but it was the beginning of a pattern. Over the years many priests and teachers of the faith who were otherwise very solicitous and kind in their care of my soul, have told me that all kinds of things were 'optional' when they weren't: Parts of the Mass, such as the lavabo, the Gloria on Sundays, feasts and solemnities, the second reading on Sundays, etc., the Hours apart from Morning and Evening Prayer (for clerics), etc. To be fair, there were other times when I have disbelieved someone who told me something was optional that turned out to be true upon closer inspection, such as the invitatory psalm with its antiphon if the invitatory precedes Morning Prayer.

All this is to say that being misinformed and confused has been a gift in my Catholic life, because this is the experience that has driven me over the years to read the actual teaching of the Church and not simply absorb someone else's idea of it. There are religious who have never read the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours. There are priests who have not studied the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, and even some who deride the very idea of doing so. There are lots of folks, cleric and lay, religious and secular who could not tell you the ordinary rights and obligations of their state in life from the Code of Canon Law, mostly because they don't know there is such a thing or never bothered to find out. Luckily for me, and this has been genuine Providence in my Catholic life, I never knew who to believe, so I looked it all up myself, and continue to do so.

I recommend this practice to everyone. How many times has someone called me or come into the parish office confused because one priest told them something and then another told them the opposite! One pastor has one policy and the next pastor has the opposite policy. One teacher of the faith says one thing and another gives a different doctrine. My answer is always the same: don't be a victim, or put yourself at the mercy of people who, though they might be charitable and pastoral to a fault, don't know what they are talking about. The Catechism, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, and the Code of Canon Law are all available online and easily obtainable in print. Use them, read them, and be empowered.

September 12, 2009

Holy Name of Mary

Today is the now restored (as of the 2002 Missale Romanum) feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary. Names are always important on the spiritual level, and especially in the Sacred Scripture. This morning I was reflecting on Mary through her Old Testament namesake, Miriam the sister of Moses.

Miriam and the Israelites sing of God's salvation:

I will sing to to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously.
Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my might;
He is become my deliverance.
This is my God and I will enshrine Him;
The God of my father, and I will exalt Him.
(Exodus 15: 1-2)

That is Mary's vocation as well, to exalt the Lord and to enshrine the Word of God in this world so fully and literally that she becomes the first home of the Word made flesh. The virgo facta ecclesia, the "Virgin made Church," as St. Francis puts it so beautifully.

September 11, 2009

Memory, Childhood, Humanae Vitae, and Satan

Seven months ago, the always encouraging and erudite Ben left this instructive point in a comment:

As a person in the pews, I will let you in on a secret. The number one issue that divides the so-called conservative catholics like...and myself from the left-of center ones is not Vatican II, it is not liturgy, it is not social justice, it is not the abortion issue, it is not war or foriegn policy; it is the acceptance of so-called liberal Pope Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae". This short document determines the factions in this church.

To which I responded, in part:

Thanks, Ben. Good to hear from you. I remembering reading Humanae vitae in studies (in a theological school without any Christian "symbols" in the classrooms, by the way) and being so impressed.

For all who only remember it as being about artificial birth control, go back and read it. Take note of the warnings listed therein, note how they have come true, and let us ask ourselves if we can do better.

At the time this conversation in the comment box gave me that feeling that there was something I had read once upon a time that spoke to it rather sharply, but I couldn't remember what it was. Today I recalled the text I was thinking of, given to me by an earnest yet troubled missionary all the way back in the seventh grade. It's from The Satanic Bible, by Anton LaVey, first published in 1969. It's amazing how a text can lie hidden and quiet in the mind for 25 years:

Past religions have always represented the spiritual nature of man, with little or no concern for his carnal or mundane needs. They have considered this life but transitory, and the flesh merely a shell; physical pleasure trivial, and pain a worthwhile preparation for the "Kingdom of God". How well the utter hypocrisy comes forth when the "righteous" make a change in their religion to keep up with man's natural change! The only way that Christianity can ever completely serve the needs of man is to become as Satanism is NOW.

It has become necessary for a NEW religion, based on man's natural instincts, to come forth. THEY have named it. It is called Satanism. It is that power condemned that has caused the religious controversy over birth-control measures - a disgruntled admission that sexual activity, for fun, is here to stay.

It is the "Devil" who caused women to show their legs, to titillate men - the same kind of legs, now socially acceptable to gaze upon, which are revealed by young nuns as they walk about in their shortened habits. What a delightful step in the right (or left) direction! Is it possible we will soon see "topless" nuns sensually throwing their bodies about to the "Missa Solemnis Rock"? Satan smiles and says he would like that fine - many nuns are very pretty girls with nice legs.

Now there's a lot for discussion! I'm not sure what it all means, and I'll leave that to you. Oh, and in your charity say a prayer for the kid who put this text in my hands at the tender age of twelve. I don't know what became of him. I think his name was Rich.

So Much for the Helpful Clergy

«Non invenies sacerdotum istum ubique,» ad semetipsum ait, « qui semper tibi talia subministret.»

"You won't find a priest like this everywhere," he said to himself, "who always cares for you like this."

--Francis of Assisi in Thomas of Celano's Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul (2 Celano)

So much for the availability and helpfulness of the clergy! Ha!

Better translations welcome in the comment box!

Requiescant in Pace

It is an honor and a privilege of which I am intensely unworthy to get up early on a dark and rainy day, to gather quietly with fourteen other Christian souls, and to offer together the sacrifice of the Mass for the eternal rest of the 343 of New York's Bravest who lost their lives eight years ago this morning.

Et Reverenter Sumit

Ordination into the priesthood shifts one's relationship to the Eucharist in a lot of ways. The shifts are graced and trustworthy, but jarring at times nonetheless.

One of them, which I am thinking about today, is that you lose the option of whether or not to receive Holy Communion when you attend Mass. I didn't attend daily Mass very much before I was a religious; except for one brief period (as a student at UC Galway) daily Mass was either unavailable or precluded by my work schedule.

Since entering religious life, however, daily Mass has been more or less the norm. Not that we were ever taught this, but religious are obliged to make every effort to assist at Mass each day. (CIC 663, 2) In those seven years of my religious life before being a priest, I had a choice about whether or not to receive Holy Communion at the Mass of each day. Of course I desired to receive, and usually did, but sometimes I would not if I felt catastrophically unrecollected that day or suspected that I might be in a state of mortal sin. I don't think anyone can ever say for sure if he is in a state of mortal sin or not, but it is important for us in our examinations to not only make informed guesses, but also to err on the side of caution. A director once asked me if I occasionally declined to receive because I was worried about germs; I responded that I was more worried about my sins.

As a priest offering the Mass, you don't have the option of choosing whether or not to receive Holy Communion. It is your Communion that ratifies the Sacrifice; without it no Mass occurs. So what do I do now about those days on which I feel dangerously unrecollected or fear I might be in a state of mortal sin, not having had a chance to go to confession?

Well, first of all, the duty of offering Mass publicly imposes on me that much more of a public burden to stay recollected and avoid occasions of sins that could become mortal. But I also try to remember that I offer Mass for the sake of the people who assist, those who have offered the intention, and indeed, for the whole world. God would not hold against them any sacrilege I might occasionally commit through my own negligence and stupidity. And I trust that my effort to love and forgive those for whom I offer the Sacrifice will be God's mercy for me.

September 10, 2009


Tonight I'm trying to read a book and I can't pay attention because I'm having a far-out reflection on the inner meaning of Friday.

Friday is, of course, the final day of the Creation, when God makes the land animals and the human beings. In his parting word, God explains to the human beings that they have all the botanical fruits for their food* while the other animals will have the green plants. Friday is the conclusion of the work of Creation.

And so it is with the Lord's Passion on Friday, because the suffering and death of the Lord are the last thing, the end of the story of this world, the end of human history. The Resurrection that inaugurates the New Creation on the First Day--the Deity having rested on the Sabbath according to the very structure of the Creation in which he became incarnate--is properly part of the Last Things and the End Time, Eternity now having invaded history in the Risen Lord.

*I would be very interested to read a theological study of the human diet according to Divine Revelation. On the face of it, it appears that it was only after the covenant with Noah that people started to eat meat (Genesis 9:3), while at the beginning they ate fruit (1:29.) So how was it that Abel offered meat to God, and why did God like it better than the crops offered by Cain?

Should I Fire My Spiritual Director?

Before we can speak of how to go about terminating a spiritual direction relationship, we must ask the prior question: should I fire my spiritual director?

The interior inspiration to get rid of one's spiritual director must be discerned closely. It can be an entirely legitimate invitation from the Holy Spirit; there are, after all, many demagogues, madmen, and creepy weirdos out there claiming to have good spiritual advice. On the other hand, we should not fire our spiritual director just because he or she makes suggestions that we don't want to hear or invites us into difficult but salutary discernments.

So, if we feel like ending a relationship with a particular spiritual director for any of the following reasons, we should treat this thought as a temptation against our spiritual progress:
  • Our denial about certain sins, attachments, or addictions is confronted, and we don't want to hear it.
  • We are invited to discern attachments to cherished religious practices, and we don't want to risk growth because we are comfortable with our current practice.
  • Our operative images of God are challenged, and we want to run from the interior panic and spiritual vertigo that necessarily ensues.
  • We are told that what we really need is not spiritual direction, but to see a doctor or psychologist.
On the other hand, there can be legitimate signs that the inspiration to fire our spiritual director is from the Holy Spirit:
  • He goes to sleep while you are speaking.
  • He does not remember your name.
  • He talks about fairies, imps, harpies, necromancy, or the city of Atlantis. Yes, these are all things I have either experienced or have been reported to me.
  • He spends more than a minimal amount of time talking about his own experience, or seems to relish talking about himself.
  • He is not at least as conversant with the spiritual tradition as you are. The director should be at least as well read in the tradition as the disciple.
  • He does not seem to take you seriously; e.g. 'that's not a (serious) sin, get over it,''That's not real prayer, get over it,' etc.
  • He has an observable negative emotional reaction to something you say. A spiritual director should be past the point when people can 'press our buttons' so easily.
  • He seems overly attached to certain patterns of practice, and wants to impose them on everyone; e.g. 'You must say three rosaries every day,' 'The first Saturdays devotion will fix you,' etc.
  • He makes suggestions that increase your dependence on him alone, especially if he is a priest; e.g. 'You should only go to confession to me,' 'I want you to attend my Sunday Mass each week,' etc. Some people want disciples for themselves, rather than for the Lord.
  • He does or suggests anything at all that is sexually suggestive or creepy. Yes, it happens. Trust your instincts.

September 9, 2009

Ad Populum Conversus

Today I have noticed the amusing and ironic fact that in the modern form of the Roman Rite Mass, for which one of the abiding marks in popular consciousness is the priest and assembly facing each other, the celebrant is actually directed to face the people fewer times than in the Tridentine Liturgy!

So, in the reformed Roman Rite, for which Mass versus populum must be possible but is not required, the priest must face the people at six moments:

* When giving the opening greeting (GIRM 124);
* When giving the invitation to pray, "Orate, fratres" (GIRM 146);
* When giving the greeting of peace, "Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum" (GIRM 154);
* When displaying the consecrated Host (or Host and Chalice) before Communion and saying: "Ecce Agnus Dei" (GIRM 157);
* When inviting to pray ("Oremus") before the postcommunion prayer (GIRM 165);
* When giving the final blessing (Ordo Missae 141).

But in the Tridentine Mass, celebrated according to the 1962 Missale Romanum, the priest is required to face the people at eight moments:

* When greeting the people ("Dominus vobiscum") before the collect (Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, V, 1);
* When greeting the people ("Dominus vobiscum") before the offertory rite (Ritus servandus, VII, 1);
* When giving the invitation to pray, "Orate, fratres" (Ritus servandus, VII, 7);
* Twice before giving Communion to others, first when saying the two prayers after the Confiteor, and again while displaying a consecrated Host and saying "Ecce Agnus Dei" (Ritus servandus, X, 6);
* When greeting the people ("Dominus vobiscum") before the postcommunion prayer (Ritus servandus, XI, 1);
* When saying "Ite, missa est" (Ritus servandus, XI, 1);
* When giving the last part of the final blessing (Ritus servandus, XII, 1).

Source: Wikipedia article "Versus Populum," used according to Creative Commons Attribution Licensing, which is what I also use on this blog. (Scroll all the way down.)

Acedic Community

Lately for my subway and bus reading I have been working through Sr. Mary Margaret Funk's Humility Matters for Practicing the Spiritual Life. Her books have been a real treasure for me over the years in my own spiritual practice, especially Thoughts Matter, and she is one of the contemporary writers on the Christian spiritual life whom I most hope to meet one day.

This midday, sneaking out for confession and tacos al pastor I arrived at this stinging passage on the recently popular topic of acedia:

...once this affliction has been detected, action must be taken before the whole community becomes infected. I've seen entire communities caught in these chronic acedic patterns. No one knows exactly what's wrong, but the virtuous or zealous newcomer is jeered, and any new leader that takes on the crowd is met with disdain... Zeal is loathed, deprecating talk saturates conversations, and expectations are low. Comfort-seeking replaces mission and self-seeking pleasures replace spiritual practice. (60-61)

Wow. When have I been patient zero in this scenario? Have I repented?

Click here for Sister's Amazon page, from which you should shop or add to your wish list, and which in the course of looking up I found also her blog!

Finding a Spiritual Director

I was asked to write a little more on finding a spiritual director. It's not easy. Over the years, both inside and out of religious life, I have tried various strategies, with varying results.

Prayer, of course, is the primary strategy. To have a good spiritual director for a certain moment in one's journey is pure Providence, so it makes sense to ask God to provide someone.

Before I was in religious life I tried a couple of things. Twice I asked my pastor to recommend someone. With one pastor this worked out well, and I connected with a director who was very helpful. It took me several years to accept his advice, but when I did I was grateful. With the other pastor, it didn't work so well. He sent me to a priest who talked constantly and incomprehensibly on obscure topics, e.g the lost city of Atlantis, and I never went for a second appointment.

Here in the archdiocese of New York we used to have a spiritual director referral service--we may indeed still have it, I don't know. It worked out of the Center for Spiritual Development, formerly in Rye, I think. I have tried to use this ministry twice. The first time it worked very well. It's like a matchmaking service; you go to visit Sister and tell her about your prayer and what you are into and working on, etc., and she prays over it and matches you with a spiritual director. I connected with one of my best directors this way. The second time I used this service, some years later, I never got a call back. Perhaps my case had grown too dire by then.

Whatever you do in trying to find a director, stick with it. If your gut tells you someone is a lunatic, untrustworthy, or really not concerned about your soul, dump him and start over. It's worth it.

Update: There is another post I could write, perhaps titled, "How to fire a spiritual director," a topic on which I have much experience. It would certainly be a "Ha ha, only serious" kind of post. Let me know if I should write it.

September 8, 2009

Two Years of Priesthood: Stats

I know this is silly and a little irreverent, but I thought it would be interesting. After two years in the priesthood, here are my stats:

Baptisms: 42

Confirmations: 1

Marriages witnessed: 19

Priests on whom I have laid hands at their ordination: 3

Committals: 54

Δ for the Church Militant under my watch (baptisms less committals): -12 :(

Grace and gratitude: overwhelming and endless, respectively.

Worthiness: Less each day.

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Among the perfections of the saints is to enjoy a perfect nine month gestation, so exactly nine months after the feast of the Immaculate Conception, we celebrate today the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This morning I was so struck by St. Andrew of Crete's sermon in the Office of Readings, that I threw out my own homily for Mass and just used the last two lines:

Today this created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.

That is the sublime dignity of Mary's vocation in the history of salvation, and it is our vocation too as those who are called to imitate her by conceiving the Word in our lives and bearing Him to the world.

September 7, 2009

Spiritual Direction and Mood

In a typical spiritual direction relationship, the director encounters me for about an hour each month. That's not much, and I've learned over the years that I need to be careful lest the particular mood I happen to be in that day give the wrong impression of my spiritual condition.

When I was a postulant I used to have my spiritual direction appointments on a Friday afternoon. Our postulancy program is pretty exhausting, and on Friday afternoons I was always at the low point of my weekly cycle of emotional and physical fatigue. That's just how I would show up for direction. To make things worse, Sister's office was right by Washington Square Park, so to get there I would have to wander through all of the students and young people enjoying themselves, full of the Friday afternoon giddiness and perhaps other substances, (apparently) unencumbered by all of the transcendental concerns that had got me into the mess of postulancy to a religious order. Because of this, my very walk to spiritual direction would require of me--already tired--a very rigorous 'guard of the heart' against indulging the emotions of self-pity, nostalgia, and resentment, all of which are very destructive in the spiritual life, especially for celibates, not to mention simpler and more superficial temptations like envy and lust. I didn't always succeed in all of this, and so Sister would often diagnose my spiritual state as much more negative than it really was, leading to a famous quote she offered to me and which I dutifully recorded in my spiritual direction notes: "Well, if that's how you feel, of course you should leave!"

I was thinking of all this the other day when I felt very tired and had my monthly spiritual direction that afternoon. Not feeling like I had time to nap, I decided to have a big cup of Starbuck's coffee. Well, by the time I got to my appointment I was talking a manic streak and full of insight, and I didn't get to any of the interior discernments with which I actually needed help and guidance.

This is part of the reason why I need to always take quiet time in prayer before spiritual direction. Yes, it's critical to pray for my director and for the Holy Spirit to come into the appointment, but it is also important to recollect myself so as to find the place that is below* the changes and vagaries of mood.

*In antiquity and the Middle Ages people would have said, 'above,' but the opposite metaphor seems to work better for us post-/late moderns. That really fascinates me.

September 6, 2009

New Schedule

This morning, for the first time in my life as a Catholic, I'm going through a change of parish Sunday Mass schedule. Today I've been praying for the people in any difficulties or inconveniences the change may present for them. We used to have four Masses on Sunday at 7, 8:30, 10, and 11:30 am. As of today we have only three: 8, 9:45, and 11:30 am. I secretly thought that a change like this would be a nice chance to introduce a Mass in the Extraordinary Form, but to be honest I'm not sure if we would have the musical will to do it well.

I'm about to go out to greet the people after what is now the early Mass. So far I notice that the day is starting a lot more slowly; this morning I have had time to pray the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer, as well as have breakfast and make my morning meditation, all before 'going to work.' That never happened before!

Update 1: I can't complain about the whole thing because I got what I asked for: more time in between Masses. We don't have a Sunday sacristan; all of that stuff is done by me and the pastor. So it was not unusual to have exactly thirty-five minutes or so to greet the people at the end of Mass, recover and pack away the collection, purify and clean vessels, set out new ones for the next Mass, light candles, do one's private preparation and get vested and pray with ministers for the next Mass. So the extra fifteen minutes we have now is very welcome.

Update 2: The new 9:45 Mass--they are at Holy Communion as I write--seems to be well attended, given that this a holiday weekend. Once Sunday school starts it will be much bigger. A devout woman, ninety-three years young, collapsed during the homily. EMTs arrived quickly and she was cared for well. It is not yet known whether the new Mass schedule or the homily in question had anything to do with her falling ill. In your charity offer a prayer for her peace and healing today.

Update 3: The new schedule seems to have been implemented without any (expressed) misery or other problems. So today I am praying in thanksgiving for the folks we serve here. As I once heard a priest say at a day of recollection, riffing on St. Paul, "In the end there are three gifts that last: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is flexibility." It sure made for a less strenuous day from the parish priest's point of view, especially with the extra time in between Masses. I had enough zeal in me after it all to go hear a Missa Cantata in the afternoon!

September 5, 2009

Entering the Fray

As folks have no doubt appreciated, I have kept quiet on the burning Catholic issue of Senator Kennedy's funeral last weekend. However, I was asked in another capacity to produce a short opinion on the matter, so I thought I would reproduce it here:

The real problem is that we as a Catholic culture have lost the sense that a funeral Mass is a prayer and sacrifice offered for the continuing journey and salvation of a sinner like the rest of us. As long as a funeral is executed as if it were a beatification, or 'celebration of life' as regular folks like to say, then those who object to beatifying the life in question will be offended, and sometimes rightly so. The funeral liturgy--Vigil, Mass, Committal--is meant to be prayers offered for the deceased as he continues his journey through purification on the way to the beatific vision. It thus is meant to have at least something of a penitential character. Let us not forget that priests were traditionally buried in the penitential color of violet! (Roman Ritual, De Exsequiis, 13.) Had Senator Kennedy's funeral Mass been offered in something closer to this spirit, instead of as a civil canonization, I'm sure many fewer good and faithful Catholics would have been offended.

But don't mind me, I turned it off after they failed to sing the Alleluia.

Speech Impediments

I can't think of a blurb this morning, except to say that you can follow this link for my homily for this weekend.

September 4, 2009

The Elusive Feast of St. Rose

In my early adolescence I wasted a colossal amount of time studying the books of rules for Dungeons & Dragons. I did gain, however, a facility in navigating complex, jargon-laden logical systems, which is a big help as a practitioner of the Catholic Christian religion. Today is a good example, the feast of dear St. Rose of Viterbo, a Franciscan tertiary who died in the odor of sanctity in 1252 at the ripe of old age of eighteen.

We friars of the First Order of St. Francis in the English speaking world do not get to celebrate her feast day, as it is an "optional memorial" that pertains only to the sisters and brothers of the Third Order regular and secular. (In the Italian speaking world, Rose rates a little higher, as an optional memorial for all Franciscans. I don't know about other places.)

Of course, if we make use of permissions and faculties that seem to be granted by Summorum pontificum we can celebrate St. Rose if we shift into the Extraordinary Form. In the 1962 Missale Romano-Seraphicum her day isn't even a iv class feast, but only a commemoratio. This means--and here I'm less sure of myself, so correct me if I'm wrong--the given Oratio, Secreta, and Postcommunio would be used to commemorate her at some other Low Mass to be offered today. But since in this particular year today is a ferial day of the iv class with nothing else going on, it would seem to be an option to fill out Rose's commemoratio with the Mass Dilexisti from the Common of Virgins and give her a complete celebration of her own.

But whatever we decide to do, let us make sure it leads our hearts to also glorify the Lord whom St. Rose also adored.

I Don't Get It

Sometimes I feel like I don't understand what's going on in the Catholic Church here in the U.S.A. From certain points of view, things look healthy and encouraging. From other angles, though, it looks like things are falling apart in a catastrophic way.

On the one hand certain things I see and hear make me think the Catholic Church is full of life and zeal: the pastoral visit of Benedict XVI, the installation of Archbishop Dolan here in New York, religious orders growing because they are willing to reject indifferentism and relativism and embrace the values of traditional religious life, Catholic blogs and internet evangelization full of zeal and erudition, converts entering the Church from separated ecclesial communities and even from godlessness, martyrdom increasing in the world, etc.

But from other points of view the state of the Church can seem pretty dire: There are general problems, such as church closings and their attendant troubles here in the Northeast and the Midwest, our continuing embrace of denial about the root cultural problems of clergy sexual abuse, a lack of zeal for souls and pastoral answers as populations shift and economic problems become spiritual dangers to individuals and families, etc. There are also very disturbing aspects of my own individual experience, such as presiding at funerals time after time in which it is clear that few of the mourners have been to Mass any time recently--and for which I sometimes receive the most discouraging comment I can imagine, "Mom (or whoever) would have loved that." *sigh*--as well as "eulogies" that make a mockery of the Lord's sanctuary with foul language and drinking stories, how only a very small proportion of families with whom I celebrate infant baptism are ever seen again, practicing Catholics whom, when you actually get to know them, seem to lack even the most basic catechesis, etc.

So sometimes I feel like I have one foot in a devout and energetic Church and the other in a Church in a tailspin of decadence and decline. Would the real Catholic Church in the United States please stand up?

September 3, 2009

Acedia and Distraction

After yesterday's post and some clarifying comments, it seemed like a good idea to me to continue on the topic of acedia, especially in its distinction from ordinary distraction and other troubles and challenges in the spiritual life.

Acedia is a slippery term, for sure. In the monastic tradition it refers to a kind of spiritual sickness by which we lose our taste for spiritual things and thus become spiritually lazy or find ourselves in a spiritual torpor--here we can see the relationship by which acedia gets transformed into sloth in standard lists of "deadly" sins. Acedia leaves us joyless in--or even disgusted with--the things of God and our spiritual practice, even though we might be dutifully fulfilling them all the same. This is very dangerous for anyone, but especially for those who preach the Word of God and minister the Church's sacraments, for they may be 'going through the motions' or simply acting as a technician who lacks any genuine savor or spiritual unction.

It is critical, in our own discernment or in spiritual direction, that ordinary sadness or even depression not be confounded with spiritual acedia. Acedia must also be distinguished from certain positive movements in the spiritual life that may bear some resemblance to it, like an invitation into John of the Cross's "Night of Sense."

Acedia must also be distinguished from the ordinary experience of distraction, both in prayer itself but also in our desire to be recollected in God during the rest of our day. While acedia is a dangerous passion, a 'bad thought' or a 'demon' as our monastic fathers and mothers call it, distraction is a normal part of human experience flowing from the mutability of our wills and bodies. In fact, distraction--when used properly--is no danger to the spiritual life at all, but is actually one of its most important helps. By using our distractions well, we refine and purify our intention toward God and become more durable in our recollection. In other words, distractions are the daily workout and exercise of our souls; they are always an opportunity to strengthen our intention and attention to the God Who is the true Desire of our hearts and Delight of our minds.

Nevertheless, there are dynamics that occur between acedia and distraction, and we should be aware of them in our daily practice. On the one hand, if we are not vigilant in our guard of our hearts and do not use our distractions well, instead allowing our hearts and minds to rest in whatever random thing arouses their interest, we will eventually discover ourselves to be slaves of concupiscence and sensual appetite. This is one way that the poor use of the opportunity of distractions can help us 'catch' the spiritual disease of acedia. If we follow every distraction and take worldly delight in every curiosity that invites our attention, we will find that when we do try to return to our piety we have lost some of the savor and joy we used to have in spiritual things. We will discover to our horror that even our desire for spirituality is selfish and sensual and that God no longer delights us in the way we had previously imagined.

On the other hand, for one who is already sick with acedia, distractions from prayer or from our recollection in general become that much more dangerous. This is because, according to Evagrius and Cassian at least, the remedy for acedia is to get to our spiritual work as diligently as we can, especially if we don't feel like it. Once I told one of my first spiritual directors that I had not prayed one day because I didn't feel like it. He told me that such a time was the most important time to pray. To pray when we want to and when we are full of the taste for the things of God is always to risk praying in order to have these delights. To pray when we don't feel like it, and when--as the world says--we don't 'get anything out of it' is the real ascesis of the spiritual life. So, distractions and temptations that would be the plain, ordinary tools of spiritual growth become that much more dangerous to the one afflicted with acedia, because of the risk of failing to do the one thing that needs to be done: getting back to work.

September 2, 2009

Acedia on the Web

When I was on retreat recently, the monk who heard my confession suggested to me that I pay attention to struggles with the vice of acedia. As I have tried to do so, one thing that has occurred to me over and over in my examinations is that the internet is a very dangerous tool in the hands of this particular 'bad thought.'

The great Evagrius Ponticus describes the struggle with this most dangerous passion:

The demon of acedia, also called the noonday demon, [see Psalm 91:6] is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk towards the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. He begins by giving the impression that the sun is hardly moving, or not moving at all, and that the day has at least forty hours. After this, he continually draws the monk to his window; he forces him to go out of his cell to look at the sun and calculate how much time still separates him from the ninth hour (the hour of Vespers and the meal), and finally to look about here and there to see if some brother is not coming to see him...

This resonates very much with my own experience of struggles with this particular passion. The beginning of the attack of acedia comes as an invitation to divert one's attention from the prayer, work, or charity at hand and to pay attention to something else, which might be entirely innocent or even useful in itself. This is what Evagrius is talking about when he says that acedia urges the monk to look at the window to see if anything is going on, and finally to gaze about to see if anyone is coming to visit him.

It's very easy to let one's web browser become one of Evagrius's windows out of the cell. Even though I know that there are prayers to be made, things to do, people and projects to look after and books to read, something inside suggests that it would be good to open up some Firefox tabs and check the tropical storm activity out in the Atlantic one more time, check for Roman-Seraphic liturgical books on Ebay, or read another Wikipedia article about some entirely random topic, like the history of Dr. Pepper, the Gregorian calendar reform, or the geology of the moon.

Then, just as Evagrius outlines, the next thing you know is that you find yourself distracted and spiritually dissipated. And if you're anything like me, it's difficult to get a day back on track once this happens. This is why acedia has to be discerned quickly through a practice of vigilant guard of the heart, so that it may be cut off at its seemingly innocent beginning.

September 1, 2009


In these days in which I am studying the Mexican bishops' marriage ritual in preparation for a wedding in Spanish in two weeks, working through the 1962 Missale Romano-Seraphicum, and saying some of my Office from my Liturgia delle Ore Romano-Serafico each day for Italian practice, I'm starting to feel like Salvatore from The Name of the Rose:
Penitenziagite! watch out for the draco who cometh in futurum to gnaw your anima! death is super nos! pray the santo pater come to liberar nos a malo and all our sin! ha ha, you like this negromanzia de domini nostri jesu christi! et anco jois m'es dols e plazer m'es dolors...cave el diabolo! semper lying in wait for me in some angulum to snap at my heels. but salvatore is not stupidus! bonum monsasterium, and aqui refectorium and pray to dominum nostrum. and the resto is not worth merda. amen. no?
Or as he says in Ron Perlman's immensely entertaining portrayal:
Penitenziagite! Watch out for the draco who cometh in futurum to gnaw on your anima! La mort e supremos! You contemplata me apocalypsum, eh? La bas! Nous avons il diabolo! Ugly cum Salvatore, eh? My little brother! Penitenziagite!

SVILUPPO: Two years after this silly post, I find myself trying to read the book in Italian. So, arriving at this same section, how could I resist posting it?
Penitenziagite! Vide quando draco venturus est a rodegarla l'anima tua! La mortz est super nos! Prega che vene lo papa santo a liberar nos a malo de todas le peccata! Ah ah, ve piase ista negromanzia de Domini Nostri Iesu Christi! Et anco jois m'es dols a plazer m'es dolors...Cave el diabolo! Semper m'aguaita in qualche canto per adentarme le carcagna. Ma Salvatore non est insipiens! Bonum monasterium, et aqui se magna et se priega dominum nostrum. Et el resto valet un figo seco. Et Amen. No?


I once went to the first Mass of a new priest by accident. My best guess is that it was in the Easter season of 1996. I went to the noon Mass at St. Mary's in New Haven, only to discover upon arriving that it would the first Mass of a newly ordained Dominican friar. I remember a little internal panic at first, suddenly becoming aware that I was in for more than I had planned, but soon I surrendered to this act of Providence and offered my prayer for and with the new priest.

He was very nervous. I remember that he flubbed the consecration, and I felt so bad for him. "This is my blood," he said before catching himself and quickly backing up to rush out the correct words, This is the cup of my blood.

It's frustrating to make mistakes in public prayer. I think I'm not unlike a lot of my contemporary adult converts and reverts to Catholic Christianity in the sense that we appreciate very much the richness of structure and instructions that come with the Catholic religion, and have found in them something to stand upon and a refuge from the vagueness, confusion, indifferentism, and relativism of our late modern world. Therefore, for me as someone who has made my practice of the Christian faith a public property by my religious profession, and have become a public steward of its mysteries by ordination, it is my joy and desire to follow the rubrics and speak the words of our public worship as exactly as I can; to 'Say the Black and Do the Red,' as Fr. Z's famous slogan goes.

Since it's so disappointing and distracting for me to mess up, then, I have a spiritual practice to help me when I do. Whenever I make a mistake in the offering of Mass or the Divine Office, I immediately offer a quick internal thanksgiving to God. I thank God for the grace of my mistake, for the invitation to humility it offers, and for the protection from vanity and any tendency to Pharisaism it provides. This practice works well for me, and lets me leave mistakes behind right away, and I usually suffer no further distraction on account of my error.

I'm thinking about all of this today because I was really off this morning for some reason. I first noticed it when I couldn't remember the beginning of the prayer that concludes the Angelus, "Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord..." Then, for the first time ever, I flubbed the consecration. Only moments before I had to adjudicate a small conflict over who was going to bring up the gifts, and finita praefatione, when I came to the institution narrative, I took the bread and began to speak the dominical word for the chalice. I caught myself right away, made my standard internal act of thanksgiving, returned to the beginning of the words, and corrected myself.

I remembered after Mass to pray for that priest whose first Mass I attended by accident. I pray that he is still a priest and a religious and that he is well in life and ministry. A significant proportion of priests leave within five years of ordination, so its important to pray this way.