September 30, 2010

Donkeys and Serpents

The other night one of the brothers came into the recreation room and tried to test us with a "Final Jeopardy" question he had seen. There are two animals who speak in the Old Testament, went the setup. Between the two of them, how many legs did they have?

The answer that was alleged to be correct was four: Balaam's donkey in Numbers 22 had four legs,* and the serpent from Genesis 3 had none. So they had four between the two of them.

Of course I objected immediately, as it is my contention that the question is unanswerable. Consider the curse God imposes on the serpent: "Because you did this, more cursed shall you be than all cattle and all the wild beasts: On your belly you shall crawl and dirt you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel." (Genesis 3: 14-15, JPS)

Now we are accustomed to moving immediately to the Marian and christological senses of the curse, but we should also notice that the crawling, dirt-eating, and heel-striking are parts of it. Therefore it is my contention that the serpent had legs before being cursed, and God took them away as part of the punishment. If he was crawling about on the ground like a snake before, why should that have been part of the curse?

Therefore, we don't know how many legs there were on the two speaking animals in the Old Testament, because the serpent could have had two, four, six, or a hundred. We just don't know.

*Balaam's poor she-ass raises another curious question; that of the possibility of animals being able to see angels. But that's another topic.

September 29, 2010

From My Confessor

A good reminder against distractions in prayer:

Remember that we can sometimes get to the point where we are so accustomed to conversation with God that we can forget what an awesome thing it is. When we remember, in praying the Divine Office for example, that this is a many-layered conversation, that it is our calling out to God but also God's speaking to us, and ultimately the prayer of the Son of God united to our humanity and our human speech praying to the Father in the Holy Spirit, this awareness can help us to stand in awe at the very fact of the prayer God has worked within us, and no distraction can stand up to that.

September 28, 2010

Whose Fault?

So this morning everyone will be blogging and tweeting about the study released by the Pew Forum suggesting that atheists and agnostics are better educated on religion than religious people. In particular, the study is reported to suggest that a large proportion of Catholics either don't understand or believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation as a description of what happens in the liturgy of the Eucharist.

But if this is the case, whose fault is it? Is it simply a case of ignorance or faulty catechesis? No. The problem is much deeper. When I joined the Order, we had a couple years of internal classes on various topics. Most of these were very good, but in one of them a priest went to great lengths to teach us the doctrine of transignification, which the magisterium has judged to be inadequate. Never was it said that this wasn't what the Church taught, or that this was an experimental approach that never made it to magisterial approval. It was taught to us, whether we knew better or not, by someone presented to us as an authority.

Even more, the manner in which many priests and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion handle the sacred species reveals a lack of confidence in what the Church teaches about these most sacred things.

So if the clergy will neither teach the Church's doctrine nor behave as if what the Church teaches is the case, perhaps what is really surprising is not that some Catholics don't believe it, but that some still do.

Friars of the Primitive Observance

Since I've been back here in Boston I have begun to meet some of the brothers of the Franciscans of the Primitive Observance. The student friars among them attend St. John's Seminary, which shares a campus and a library with the Boston College School of Theology & Ministry which I am supposed to be attending. On my first visit to the school back in the spring I ran into one of them on the train and we had a delightful conversation about Franciscan and Capuchin topics. I call them our 'grandchildren;' the Primitive Observance is a reform that emerged out of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (the CFR), who themselves came to exist when some friars broke away from my province of the Capuchins just over twenty years ago.

Meeting these brothers makes me reflect on some of the basic dynamics of the Franciscan charism. Apart from their somewhat more rugged appearance and untrimmed beads ("manly, austere...and despised" as the Capuchin Constitutions of 1536 puts it), I realize that these friars are not so different from me, even though their religious lives are two reforms removed from mine. The Franciscan Rule almost seems to make such reforms and divisions inevitable; it seems sometimes to contain within itself the seeds of Franciscan fractiousness. It is not a moderate rule, as is said of that of St. Benedict, nor endlessly applicable, as is sometimes said of that of St. Augustine. Our Rule is stark and demanding, on the one hand leaving little room to interpret things away, but on the other hand imbued with a power to catch hearts and minds on fire with a desire to live it. No money. It may not even be touched. No property, neither individually or corporately. Two or three extended fasts a year. It's a radical imitation of the poverty of God himself in Christ, and it attracts radical hearts.

But as we have known from even the first years of the Franciscan movement, it is a hard Rule to put into practice 'without gloss' as Francis himself asked of us in his Testament, with anything but a very small group of brothers or sisters. And so comes the fractiousness of the Franciscan movement. There have always been brothers and sisters who break away from larger and more routinized communities out of a desire to follow the Rule more purely and strictly, attracted by the radical life the Rule describes and a desire to fulfill what seems like the command of Francis himself that we live it "without gloss." Some of these breaks turn into the great reform movements of the Order, like the Observants and the Capuchins. Most, like Mia Wallace's pilot for Fox Force Five, "become nothing."

Though this seems to be one of the creative drives of the Franciscan movement through history, it doesn't make such reforms and schisms any easier or any less personal for those who go through them. Communities and friendships get wounded. Generations go missing from provincial families. Nevertheless, though it is painful and wounding, in some sense to be Franciscan has to include an affirmation of the thrust toward creative reform that has served to renew the movement through its history.

September 27, 2010

Irreligious Life

Many of us who have come to religious life, myself included, have struggled with the impression that the life we have found doesn't seem very religious. We are bothered that our communities do not seem to be prayerful places, that we ourselves to do not feel as devout as we used to, and that our conversations about the pressures and problems upon us do not often turn to God.

Over almost twelve years of religious life (!) I have spent a good deal of thought and discernment on this question as a matter of the survival of my own Christianity. Guessing that there are others who may have similar experience, I offer any wisdom that God may have put into my own reflections on the question.

First, we must trust ourselves and our instincts. I failed to do this in my own early experiences of religious life and did myself a lot of harm. I arrived young and much more innocent than I thought I was, and much of what I found in my first try at religious life was confusing and scandalizing. When I expressed my concerns to my directors and superiors I was told to 'get over myself' or was given unfortunate labels: 'neo-con,' 'traddy,' someone who wants to 'go back' to the bad old days.

Such a response to me was unfair. Even if it were true, such treatment is a failure in charity and pastoral care. It's taken me a long time to admit this, to realize that it wasn't about my being right or wrong, but about not being given the pastoral care called for by my confusion and my innocence.

So, do not listen to those who tell you 'get over yourself' or dismiss you with labels. Trust your instincts. Religious life in our time--and here I can only speak to my own geographic and cultural context--is afflicted with various forms of decadence, moral confusion, and theological error. I thank God that he has led me, by the circuitous paths of grace, to a pretty solid community, but that doesn't mean we are exempt from the problems and errors of our time. We who are younger religious must trust our instincts and always be a little suspicious. When someone tells you the Church or your community or Vatican II teaches something and it doesn't sound right, look it up yourself. Be empowered.

In other words, when something doesn't seem right and they tell you the problem isn't the something amiss in the community but your own attitude or ignorance, don't be so quick to believe it.

On the other hand, there are caveats that need to be made and mitigating reflections that need to go into our prayer and discernment of such things. First, though on one hand we must trust ourselves to know what is right and wrong, what the Church teaches and what it doesn't, on the other hand we must always examine the interior motives of any righteous indignation we feel. We are all too good at tricking ourselves into displacing the blame for our own unhappiness. Often those things that we disdain in others are the same things we hate in ourselves. Many times we are tempted to blame our own failures in prayer and devotion on the community. 'I can't pray in this environment of irreverence,' 'I don't feel supported in my commitment to prayer,' etc. Such complaints may be true to one degree or another, but as spiritual approaches they are useless and dangerous. Some of the greatest pray-ers in the tradition of religious life lived their religious lives totally rejected by their confreres. John of the Cross was imprisoned by his brothers. The martyrs prayed through their imprisonments and tortures. So we must always regard as a temptation the inspiration to blame the deficiences of our religious lives on each other or on some alleged culture of our community. Our spiritual condition is our own responsibility. Because it is a life contra mundum, there is no place in this world in which the spiritual life is not a challenge. Any good that comes in our spiritual life is the grace of God we have been able to accept by our meager and half-hearted consent, and any failure in our spiritual life is our own distraction and sin and nobody else's. If we find ourselves in a community that seems irreligious, unrecollected, or even sacrilegious, the proper reflection for me is to blame myself for my own contribution to these things, and not to blame anyone else.

Second, in the spiritual life we must always be a little suspicious of feelings. It's true, I no longer feel as devout or religious as I did in those days when I was a solitary and anonymous catechumen seeking the newly discovered but oddly familiar Mystery of God in the dark churches I still love so much. I don't feel like I have the fervor or zeal that I used to have for observance or the things I decided, in my vanity, would be penances. If we want to judge how our spiritual life is progressing, we must look at our freedom and our behavior rather than how devout or even how recollected we think we feel. Am I more free from distraction and the overwhelmingness of temptations? Am I more free for prayer, charity, and generosity? If I can answer yes to these questions, God is drawing me in. If I don't feel religious or devout about it, it's probably because I have been given the grace of having been invited to move beyond having to be motivated by little consolations and spiritual warm and fuzzies. We must not pine for these things, wanting to give up the starkness of pure faith for the more comfy world of sensible consolation. We are grownups, and we no longer want to each jelly beans for supper. If religious life robs us of certain of the consolations we thought were spiritual, and which served to reinforce us as beginners in the spiritual life, religious life has done us a favor.

Forgive me that this has turned into a ramble, but it's a post I've been incubating for a while. To sum up: if anyone reading this is like me in the sense that the religious life you have found doesn't seem very religious, and is even downright scandalizing and confusing, trust your intelligence and your reasoned judgment, but be suspicious of your feelings and your temptations to blame.

September 26, 2010

Sapientia Multiformis

As I've settled down to celebrating Sunday Mass in Spanish, I've begun to appreciate some of the differences between the English and Spanish sacramentaries. Different languages have particular gifts as they express the mysteries their speakers hope to approach through human speech. Within this one also notices the choices of translators.

Today I prayed the eighth preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time, which is one of my favorites:

En verdad es justo y necesario, es nuestro deber y salvación, darte gracias siempre y en todo lugar, Señor, Padre Santo, Dios todopoderoso y eterno. Porque has querido reunir de nuevo, por la sangre de tu Hijo y la fuerza del Espíritu, a tus hijos dispersos por el pecado; de este modo tu Iglesia, unificada por virtud y a imagen de la Trinidad, aparece ante el mundo como cuerpo de Cristo y templo del Espíritu, para alabanza de tu infinita sabiduría. Por eso, unidos a los coros angélicos, te aclamamos llenos de alegría...

I am intrigued by the sense of the Church being formed into the image of the Trinity, so that it may appear to the world as the Body of Christ and temple of the Spirit. I'm not exactly sure how this makes theological sense, but perhaps that's why it draws me in. I also like the image of the children of God dispersos, 'scattered' or 'dispersed' by sin. I enjoy how that has an exterior and interior dimension.

Here's the soon-to-be-replaced English translation to which I have been previously accustomed:

When Your children sinned and wandered far from Your friendship, You reunited them with Yourself through the blood of Your Son and the power of the Holy Spirit. You gather them into Your church, to be one as You, Father, are one with Your Son and the Holy Spirit. You call them to be Your people, to praise Your wisdom in all Your works. You make them the body of Christ and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. Now, with the saints and all the angels we praise You for ever...

The differences are subtle, but real. In the English version the Church is called to imitate the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit, a somewhat more pointed assertion that the simple image of being united toward becoming an image of the Trinity as it says in the Spanish. I definitely prefer how the Spanish uses the word 'Trinity.' On the other hand, I like the idea of wandering from the friendship of God. Sin is an erring, a missing of the mark, a departure from the path.

Of course, as a good WDTPRSer, I had to check the Latin...

Vere dignum et iustum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere: Domine, sancte Pater, omnipotens aeterne Deus: Quia filios, quos longe peccati crimen abstulerat, per sanguinem Filii tui Spiritusque virtute, in unum ad te denuo congregare voluisti: ut plebs, de unitate Trinitatis adunata, in tuae laudem sapientiae multiformis Christi corpus templumque Spiritus nosceretur Ecclesia. Et ideo, choris angelicis sociati, te laudamus in gaudio confitentes...

So there's the Trinity. In the English we are 'gathered' into an imitation of the oneness of Father, Son, and Spirit rather than of the Trinity. What's the difference, you say? I am teasing, I know, but see the end of the post. So let's hope for an improvement when we first have a chance to hear the new version of this preface in the winter of 2012, should the general judgment not come first.

Behind some of this are the daydreams I've begun to have about the dissertation proposal I will be expected to produce within the next couple of years. One of the half serious and half bemused inspirations I have had is something called, "The Use and Abuse of the Social Trinity: A Proposal for Disciplining Our Speech and Imagination."

September 23, 2010

Justice, Pencils, and Academic Influence

Just over twenty years ago, when I was a senior in high school, I somehow managed to get invited into this program in which I could take a college course or two. I remember the whole experience very clearly. I got out of school a couple of periods early all week so that on just two days I could walk down to the university and attend Classical Civilization 252b: Plato's Republic. (Why is it that I can remember that course number from twenty years ago, but I can't remember the numbers of the courses I'm in now when I get to the library reserve desk?)

As time has gone by, I have come to realize the intense and abiding influence this course had on me. That I should have been exposed to the middle Plato at age seventeen or eighteen set me up to be a philosophy student in undergraduate, and I thus acquired, quite providentially, the classic preparation for the theology I was called to study later on. For the first time in my life I was taught something like a coherent way to think about a spiritual reality, and so I can't deny that this course formed a significant part of my proximate preparation to assent to Catholic Christianity two years later. (Perhaps Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr would be proud.)

I reflect on all of this sometimes when I notice one of the practical ways in which I was influenced by the course. During one of our first classes, the professor threw this funny little rant about highlighters. They were undignified, he said, and it made him sad to see venerable texts from the great achievements of human civilization all marked up with bright yellow or hot pink. The lowly and understated pencil was the instrument appropriate to the humble student, he explained. Underlining with a check mark or occasional asterisk in the margin was all we should need.

I absorbed the plea completely, both in its tone and its practice. As I start my tenth year of formal schooling since Classical Civilization 252b, I have never marked up a text with anything but a pencil, and with only underlining, check marks, and the occasional asterisk.

September 22, 2010

Ramblings on the devil

I was in a conversation yesterday in which someone asserted that he did not believe in the devil. Even though the Church clearly teaches the existence of Satan and the other fallen angels, (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 391 and following) I think it's not unusual for us Catholics to see such doctrine as imaginary.

I have mixed feelings about this. Certainly we ought to believe in the devil and the fallen angels, not only because it is an article of the faith, but because it is the devil's will that we don't. On the other hand, our concepts of faith and belief are so fragile in our time that perhaps sometimes we're better off not believing in the devil, or at least not having any excuse to advert to his existence. Let me try to explain what I mean.

I think that most people believe in God in some fashion. People easily say that they believe or assent to the idea of a 'supreme being' or an 'intelligent designer' or some other human description of deity. What we fail to do is to believe God, that is to say assent to and believe what this God has said about himself through divine revelation. If God is indeed God, then his communication is primary by definition and demands our total and complete attention and response. Our failure at this, as individual Christians, as Church, and as humanity in general is what reveals our lack of genuine belief.

In fact, then, our society's manner of believing in God is often the way in which we ought to believe in the devil. We 'believe in God' but we do not always 'believe God.' Likewise, we should believe in the devil, but not believe him. For everything the devil says is a lie. Even when it contains something like the truth, is is framed in such a way to mislead us and introduce further misery into the world. Therefore I think the devil rejoices somewhat in the civil faith that posits supreme beings and intelligent designers, for such a faith allows us to think of ourselves as theists while simultaneously absolving us of the duty of religion. It gets us to the old assertion, 'I'm spiritual, but not religious.' That is to say that I am comforted and supported somewhat by something transcendent, spiritual, or supernatural, but am not challenged in any difficult way by what it demands. I am comforted but not converted.

On the other hand, my experience in the care of souls has convinced me that it can sometimes be quite unhelpful to give attention or thought to the devil. Classically, our temptations and difficulties arise from three sources: the world, the flesh, and the devil. My experience leads me to believe that diabolical temptations are the rarest. Indeed, I think it is one of the devil's standard victories to have us blame our worldly and fleshly temptations on him in such a way as to avoid our own responsibility to them. E.g. 'the devil made me do it.' No. I did it. Yes, my thoughts are confused and my will is wounded, but most of my temptations are from the occasions of sin that arise through my own fault, distraction, and spiritual torpor. So many times it turns out that blaming the devil for our temptations and sins is actually a distraction in itself and thus an oblique victory for the devil. This is not to say that there aren't actual diabolical temptations, but I think that they are rare. We are very good at displacing the source of our troubles when it comes to our spiritual life. 'Father, my husband has a drinking problem so I need you to put holy water on the house.' 'The brothers in this community keep me from having the prayer life I want.' 'How can someone be chaste in this culture.' There is no end to such examples.

So let's believe in the devil, but not believe him. Let us be quick to acknowledge his danger and influence, but recognize as a temptation the ease of allowing it to relieve us of our responsibility for ourselves.

September 21, 2010

Ramblings on Penances

Being a priest shifts one's relationship to the sacraments in ways that go way beyond simply coming into a new role or function in the sacramental encounter. (Some of those who talk about priests as "presiders" at Mass wish to flatten this sacramental reality by making the priesthood into a mere function or the priest into a facilitator.) Even though these graces have come to be revealed to me in mysterious and sometimes unexpected ways, I have found them to be consistently encouraging and confirming of my vocation.

One of the most practical set of shifts comes in confession. I have found that trying to be a thoughtful and thorough penitent is the best way to try to become a thoughtful and attentive confessor. Being a confessor, in turn, has helped me to become a better penitent.

I was thinking about this yesterday after I received a simple but challenging penance. The priest gave me a decade of the rosary. There's nothing unusual about that. But then he said that I should reflect on which of the mysteries of the rosary suited my spiritual condition, or which one best spoke to the graces I was seeking. I was then to offer that particular decade of the rosary as my penance.

I liked the idea, so now I will probably use it myself. Not that you can give every penitent a whole decade of the rosary, but some would really appreciate it. That's another of the funny things about imposing penances; sometimes people think that the "size" of the penance corresponds to the gravity of the confession. Therefore, when I say that the biggest penance I ever received was to 'say fifteen Our Fathers and then go home and say Evening Prayer with great devotion' those to whom I tell this story presume that my confession must have been pretty serious. But this is not always the case. I think that the most objectively grave confession I ever made got me a single Hail Mary.

For me, the amount of penance I give to a penitent depends on what I can guess about his or her spiritual condition. Sometimes I give the most religious people the smallest penances as an opportunity to combat spiritual pride or Pelagianism. Sometimes I give the least devout a larger penance so as to get them to sit still for a moment and perhaps listen to the Holy Spirit. I often ask penitents not just to say prayers, but to offer them for someone. Many times I ask them to pray for the victims of the sort of sin they have confessed, particularly in the cases of sins that are wrongly viewed by the world as victimless. In this, though, one has to be careful. For example, someone who confesses to having procured or performed an abortion may not be emotionally ready to pray for the dead child, particularly if the penitent is the mother. In other cases such an invitation may be exactly what the penitent needs to release emotion and hurt and begin to repair the relationship with the deceased. So you have to be careful. But as every penitent knows, the inspired confessor who gives us just the right penance is a great spiritual gift, so I pray for the graces I need to be that guy when I can.

September 19, 2010

Money Talks, Ecclesiology Walks

In one of my classes this past week we were studying the moment when (in the Roman church) it became necessary to begin to multiply Sunday Masses. Of course the liturgical and ecclesiological value--'as we have always taught'--is not to multiply Masses, but (ideally) to have one Mass on one altar in one cathedral in one local church on a Sunday.

In making his point against the abuses that have attended the normalization of multiplication of Masses in the western Churches, the professor gave the illustration of a parish in which "there's a 7:15 Mass for just ten people." How could such a thing be maintained, asked the professor, rhetorically.

Because I enjoy being a pain the classroom and because I enjoy answering rhetorical questions at inappropriate moments, I said, "It depends on the envelopes from the 7:15 Mass."

What I meant was that a pastor, even if we could see the absurdity of having a whole other early Mass for just ten people, (though in some cases his objections might have less to do with liturgy and more to do with how early he had to get up or how early the heat would have to go on) would be unlikely to cancel such a celebration if it happened to be that it was the material contributions of the 7:15 massgoers that allowed him to pay the light bill.

"You were in the parish too long, Charles. Don't let reality intrude on this," responded my professor, with a mixture of amusement and annoyance.

September 18, 2010

Dark and Dazzled

This semester I'm having my first sustained reading of some of St. Anselm, and I am really enjoying it.

This is from the Proslogion, chapter fourteen:

Lord my God, You who have formed and reformed me, tell my desiring soul what You are besides what it has seen so that it may see clearly that which it desires. It strives so that it may see more, and it sees nothing beyond what it has seen save darkness. Or rather it does not see darkness, which is not in You in any way; but it sees that it cannot see more because of its own darkness. Why is this, Lord, why is this? Is its eye darkened by its weakness, or is it dazzled by Your splendour? In truth it is both darkened in itself and dazzled by You.

(trans. M.J. Charlesworth, in this edition)

Is that not a fitting description of the spiritual life? We have an experience of God; an experience that is somehow subtle and obscure on the one hand, but demanding and complete on the other. We are left with a disposition of faith somehow certain and fragile at the same time. We are filled but still unsatisfied. We have spiritual rest, but are also restless as the Mystery continues to draw us into Himself. We have a powerful experience of God, strong enough to have no sensible choice but to surrender the course of our days and our lives to it, but somehow we we also feel as if we have not experienced Him at all. Why should this odd situation be? As Anselm says, the answer is twofold. First, it is our own darkness. The distraction and confusion of our thoughts, our failure to see things as they really are, and the disorderliness of our affections and bodies keep us from experiencing the God who is the fullness of Love and Order. Second, we are dazzled. Like the physical eye which is blinded when it look straight into the sun, so is our intellect and affection when they turn their gaze directly to God.

September 17, 2010

September 15, 2010

Darkness Until (Half-Past) the Ninth Hour

One of the sights I noticed at school today:

There are so many easy gags, it almost seems unfair.

September 14, 2010

Bonaventure on Holy Communion

So today I'm prowling around the library looking for fun stuff to explore for term papers, and I come across Bonaventure's Tractatus de Praeparatione ad Missam, which turns out to be just what it says it is, a little tract on preparing oneself for Mass. It's even a little more than that though, as it also contains advice on how to pray the Canon and an examination for after Holy Communion. I don't even know if this is a legitimate work, but it's interesting nonetheless. Here's a very challenging word for a post-communion meditation:

After communion if you do not feel some spiritual nourishment, this is a sign of spiritual infirmity or spiritual death. The fire has been put in your breast, but you have not felt the heat. The honey has been placed in your mouth, but you have not tasted the sweetness.

But if you do feel some consolation, it is no credit to you, but to His immense goodness, which reaches out to the bad and consoles the ungrateful, and so you say in your heart: I have detested your mercy and cursed your gifts. If God has done such good to me, a sinner, what would He do, if I were to correct my life? Thus of all people I want to change myself and come close to You forever.

On Lacks of Utility

For those who (1) have ever suffered through pointless or fruitless theological wrangling and (2) can read a little Latin, there is a very funny post over at The Smithy.

September 13, 2010

Amice, Ascende Superius

Yesterday, at a completely unexpected moment and in a somewhat irregular fashion, I had my first public ministry in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite.

I had the early Spanish Mass here at the parish where we live, which left me free later in the morning to grab my Liber usualis, head down to the lower church at the cathedral, and sing along with the schola at the EF Mass. I enjoy the chance to sing. Also, I have become convinced that I will never learn how to read the chant notation by studying it in a book; for me at least, it seems like a 'learn by doing' kind of thing.

So there I was, sitting in the pew minding my own business and paging up the proper chants for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, trying to decide if I had enough time to offer the midday hour of prayer before Mass began, when one of the coordinators of the little community appeared and asked for my help. The priest who was to offer the Mass was older and not so steady on his feet, she explained, so my help would be appreciated when it came time for the communion of the faithful. I wasn't so comfortable with the request, not being sure of everything that might be involved, but I couldn't say no. So they gave me a stole to put on when the moment arrived. They offered me a chance to sit in choro in the sanctuary, which I probably should have accepted on the liturgical level, but since what I really wanted to do was sing and study my chants, I declined.

Once Mass began I was happy for my willingness to help. Father was indeed unsteady on his feet; it took the support of two servers and his shillelagh to get him up to the altar. (The latter leaned imposingly against the altar through the Mass.) Nevertheless, Father managed to preach on the stark and dire spiritual condition of our time in a tender and encouraging way, and for this and his willingness to suffer any embarrassment that might come from his missteps I came to respect him very much during the Mass.

As the servers began their Confiteor I made my way into the sanctuary. Father gave the Misereatur vestri... and the one of the servers motioned for me to come up to the center of the altar. I took the ciborium, turned around, and all of a sudden I was a priest in the EF as I said to the people, Ecce Agnus Dei qui tollit peccata mundi. (I forgot the second ecce, but I didn't feel too bad because I was just happy that I didn't say Esto es el cordero de Dios que quita el pecado del mundo. Dichosos los invitados a la cena del Señor, which was the first utterance that came to mind. I gave Holy Communion to the servers, and then to the people at the rail, remembering to start on the epistle side and not going back from the gospel side boustrophedonically, as it were.

After all the communicants were taken care of, I returned the ciborium to the tabernacle, purified my fingers, and replaced the center altar card. Then Father finished the Mass.

I'm not sure I have a completed reflection on what this development means for me in my ongoing project of trying to find a way to make sense of my own obedience to the Holy Father's call for a "mutual enrichment" of the two forms of the Roman rite called for in the cover letter to Summorum pontificum, but I'll keep thinking and praying on it. I will say this: it is quite a different thing to give Holy Communion with the "cool media," simple, and somewhat multivalent proclamation "The Body of Christ" than to do so with the much more directed prayer,Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.

September 11, 2010


I have written a lot lately about the difficulties and interior trials of my transition from parish ministry back to full-time study. Indeed, these have occupied a lot of my prayer in these days. On the other hand, in light of this, I have also found it to be an important spiritual practice to recall and meditate on some of the good and sweet aspects of the transition.

For one thing, the change in lifestyle has permitted me to recover my natural daily rhythm. The hours were one of the hardest aspects of the parish for me. It's basically a bi-phasic job; most of the work clusters around early to mid-morning and early to mid-evening. In the morning you have regular Masses, funerals, and attendant chores to take care of. Evening brings committee meetings, work with couples preparing for marriage, etc. Religion in our culture is an elective activity, and so those who form its customer service must be available to the customers at the times when ordinary folks have free time, namely early morning, evenings, and weekends. I know that the analogy is a little crass, but it carries some truth. Of course I didn't begrudge any of this, and the blessings and graces of the saints with whom it was my privilege to work more than made up for any temptations to laziness I had to suffer. But the parish did upset for me the fundamental model of prayer on which I had always built my spiritual practice previously: get up early and pray before the day begins and anyone or anything exterior has to be dealt with. It's just the time at which my mind is least distracted and the spirit and body are most willing. At the parish this just wasn't possible in the way to which I had become accustomed; you just couldn't end the day early enough to start it again a couple hours before you had to open the church again.

So it's good to be back getting up early and having my core prayer time at the time of day at which it seems to occur naturally for me. The other day I laughed to myself when I realized that I was well into my reading and note-taking when I had to pause to go offer the parish Mass at 9 am.

Another aspect of the transition I have been enjoying is cooking for the brothers. In the parish we had a cook each day, and one who didn't really appreciate the brothers cooking in her kitchen when she wasn't there. I enjoy trying to cook and learning new things, but most of all I find it to be a spiritually healthy act of charity and nurturance in community life. It's also an act of healthy vulnerability.

There are lots more examples, but all this is just to say that, as I go through this transition, it is good for me to notice the easy and the sweet as well as praying through the difficult and the challenging.

September 9, 2010

Half of a Priest Host

Yesterday was my third anniversary of priestly ordination. I have always considered it a special privilege to have been ordained on Our Lady's birthday. (I was also ordained deacon on Our Lady of the Rosary, a feast not without its own resonances for our time.)

I had no obligation for Mass yesterday (the life of a student!) so I went next door to the parish chapel and concelebrated with the pastor. While the people sang Cordero de Dios... the pastor brought the paten over for me to take the Host. He indicated that I should take half of the priest host. As I held It in my hands while we prayed the Lord, I am not worthy... I saw again the Body of Christ I received at my first Holy Communion, just over eighteen years ago. On that day the pastor called me up after the regular communion procession, explained to the people that I was Charles, that I was a student 'up-at-the-college,' and that I had been baptized the day before. He then gave me a half of the priest host for my first Holy Communion.

I saw that the Host I took in my hands yesterday on my third anniversary of priesthood was the same Host I received in my hands on the second day of my baptism. The Body of Christ is a single sacrifice, the Word of God spoken from all eternity sacrificed into our fallen human condition in order to draw us back into the peace and delight of the Blessed Trinity Himself. All of our Holy Communions are one. Each is our first Holy Communion, each is our viaticum.

As I stood there and prayed ...but only say the word, and I shall be healed I was deeply grateful. My first Holy Communion all the way back at the beginning of my junior year of college contained all of the graces and sufferings that were to come: religious life, vows, priesthood. In all of this I am very grateful and have a very real consciousness of having been saved, or at least being daily offered the opportunity for salvation.

September 8, 2010

People and Place

Yesterday was the first day of classes. I didn't have any, but I went to school anyway to explore the library and to find someone to help me register for courses (I couldn't figure out how to do it online.) Everyone was very helpful and it was a good day. The midday Mass at St. Mary's Hall was as devout and peaceful as I remembered; one feels almost hidden in prayer there and I love it.

But here's what was funny about it all: The Boston College School of Theology & Ministry is partly what used to be the Weston Jesuit School of Theology across the river in Cambridge. I spent ten semesters there. So as I wander around this totally new geography, I meet all the same people I used to know from Weston. I walk into an unknown library and the head librarian calls me by first name. I go to the new and shiny school office and I meet the same receptionist I knew from the old place.

All of this is striking because it is the opposite of how it is here at home in the friary. I lived in this neighborhood for five years when I was in studies for priesthood, and so I know the area and the friaries pretty well. But things are quite changed because it's a whole different set of friars. Most of all, the friaries have new guardians. (The guardian (i.e. superior) of a house makes a big difference regarding the mood of the place.)

So I'm grateful this morning to notice that I have something familiar and encouraging in both the school and fraternal aspects of my new assignment.

September 7, 2010

Brother Ass

"The devil sent into him a grave temptation to luxuria. So the holy Father, seeing it right away, took off his clothes and beat himself with cords saying, 'So, Brother Ass, thus should you remain, under the whip! The habit is of religion and you can't steal it; if you want to go away, go!'" (Thomas of Celano's second Life, chapter 82)

We often quote St. Francis's nickname for his body, Brother Ass, in the sense that the body is stubborn and often unwilling to cooperate with our spiritual aims. But as I've thought about it over the years, I think there is a positive side as well. Like an ass, the body is capable of bearing tremendous burdens and getting a lot of work done when trained properly. We have all seen this in hard-working Christians.

September 6, 2010

A Dream for the First Day of School

So I wake up on Labor Day, the last day before the real first day of school. (The days of so-called orientation don't count.) I am anxious, for sure, but I also had an encouraging dream.

I am anxious because I am not confident that I can manage the doctoral program. I learned well certain school-going habits as a small child that will have to be unlearned if I'm going to make it to the STD. These were a matter of survival at the time, and so I don't have any grudge against myself about them, but like many survival strategies we learn along the way, they have become maladaptive in later circumstances.

In the midst of this worry I've been having some rich dreams, full of people and places and teachers and schools from the past. As I was praying through some of it this morning, one moment seemed particularly revealing. I was with one of the professors whose disciple I hope to become this year. He had a son with him, maybe four or five years old. The child was babbling like an infant, full of syllables and seeming just on the edge of true speech. "He can almost talk," I said to the professor. It was the joy of the dream to announce it.

In my prayer I realized that the kid was probably me. By the discernment of the friars and the generosity of our benefactors, the transformation to speech is offered to me. If I can overcome what keeps me from working as hard as I can and if I can make myself a fruitful disciple of my professors, perhaps I can become a bearer of coherent theological speech, a doctor.

September 5, 2010

More on Sunday Mass in Spanish

Today I celebrated Sunday Mass in Spanish for the second time. A funny thing happens.

Before my first assignment, I had been assisting at Sunday Mass in Spanish for almost my entire time of formation in the Order. For a year or two right before diaconate, I was even a lector. Over the years I learned and even half-memorized a lot of songs and settings for parts of the Mass.

So now that I am a priest at Sunday Mass in Spanish, an odd unevenness is revealed. I know all this music and can sing it freely, but I still have to be deliberate and careful with the prayers, even though they are usually simpler in grammar and vocabulary. For example, I work tensely through the preface, trying to pronounce everything properly while still maintaining my recollection and right intention. The comes the Sanctus, set into more complicated constructions and sung much faster, but since I've been singing one or another of them for years, I sing it right out easily and freely.

September 4, 2010

Donkeys Who Give Homilies and Play the Zither

I have various systems for taking notes in class. One thing I do is reserve the margins of my filler paper for items that are apart from the point of the course. They might be odd or funny quotes from the teacher or one of the students, things I recall because of something mentioned in the lecture, or something funny that happened in the classroom. It's like how I write irrelevant things on baseball scorecards, e.g. whether the ceremonial first pitch was a strike, comments on the aim of the guy who tosses bags of peanuts, the price of beer, etc.

My academic adviser, who is far more optimistic about my potential than I am, has paved my way into a teaching assistant gig in a course I took some years ago when I was last in school. So today I have retrieved my notes and started to go over them, presuming that the professor will assume that I have learned what I was previously taught. I notice some particularly good marginalia from the course, some of which I thought I would share:

On accomplishment: "They might have done it wrongly, but they did it."

Mmm...spiritual horse ["Mmm" idiom is via Homer Simpson]

Meet the nominalist twins

Set bogon filter to high

Signal to noise ratio

Amo, amis, amit

Boethius: was exaggerating

The unseemliness of shrill violins

'Pickin' Up Change' is not a dance in classical musical proportion

Acrimonious debate on the Proslogion

The modern suffocating with theoretical possibility

Party foul: using starvation as an example on Ash Wednesday

Anastasius the librarian

"This morning I was reading Ecclesiastes..."

On objects: "That which throws itself against you."

The problem of inappropriate delight

Mmm...apex mentis

The deist football

On Cherry Garcia: "It is necessary to finish the whole pint and Pelagianism is made real"

"If you don't believe in the power of concupiscence, go get hooked on heroin and then come talk to me."

"I would rather starve than pay someone $11 to change euros."

S[acred] S[cripture]: the poor man's Aristotle

donkeys who give homilies and play the zither


I got into a conversation the other day on the question of whether or not some of us Catholics, especially some religious and clergy, have absorbed (perhaps unwittingly) or even embraced a post-Christian theological mood.

It's a tough question, I think. I have written before about how I sometimes see religious relativism and indifferentism creeping into our Catholic life and discourse, especially in the form of the comfortable and civil theology of 'many paths to one (alleged) truth.' I have argued before that this must be resisted. For one thing, it doesn't stand up to sacred scripture. It also suggests that God is an incompetent revealer; what God reveals about himself cannot be understood on its own, because (for example) it is irreducibly bound into culture, patriarchy, language, etc. In the end then, because all "religions" (the problem of what counts as a religion is not asked) aim at some truth or transcendence which is imagined as a unity, God is ultimately unknowable. So we end up with a funny kind of relativistic, post-modern gnosticism which is so vague as to have almost no spiritual utility apart from helping us get along and avoid arguments while we strive to build up the kingdom of man.

But that's enough ranting. To get back to the original question raised by my friend, I think we have to be attentive to the language we use. Does our religious speech affirm the scandalous particularly of Christianity or does it slyly water it all down into generic terms? Do we say 'faith communities' instead of 'churches' so that we can hold up the political correctness of 'inclusivity?' When we say 'churches' are we saying what the Catholic Church means by this term, or are we also speaking (uncarefully) about Christian bodies that are properly not churches but 'ecclesial communities?' Do we use terms like 'minster' and 'ministry,' which have specific meanings in Catholic Christianity, in the generic sense of any religious service or work? Do we use generic spiritual language like 'growing in faith' and 'making meaning' rather than talk about holiness in Christ and proclaiming the Kingdom of God? Has Jesus Christ Himself begun to slip out of our speech, in favor of a generic 'god' or a 'spirit' which is whatever anybody wants him or her to be?

Let us discipline our speech, and resist the forces of relativism and indifferentism.

September 3, 2010

Mystical Moments

Ever since I was little I've had what I have come to call, somewhat clumsily, 'mystical moments.' Over the past couple of years I have become convinced that these moments form a part of what God has been up to with me, both as a remote preparation for my conversion to Christianity and as an ongoing support and encouragement within it.

I had one of these moments tonight. I left the subway station. It was dark and rainy. I began to walk through the park pathway that forms part of the way back to the friary from the train. I suddenly became very mindful of the moment. I felt the hardness of the path beneath my steps. I felt the thickness of the air as I breathed it in. I noticed the curtain of rain falling around the edges of my half-broken umbrella. (No thought or judgment of the umbrella at this moment; it just was as it was. To say that I accepted its brokenness (how correct in our ministerial parlance!) is too coarse; the question doesn't even arise. Here is the model of freedom.) I see a yellow pencil on the path. It is very yellow. That's its joy in the world, and to notice it is mine. For a second or a minute I am utterly mindful of where I am and what is around me and nothing intrudes from within. I am in the now, the nunc stans that was the image of eternity for the medievals. And in this mindfulness I get a glimpse of what is behind, or below, and above it all. (Pick your metaphor; it doesn't really matter.) It is there, subtle and quiet, but nonetheless insistent: the 'Why' in the most basic of all metaphysical questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? And I get a sense, a hunch, a suspicion that this Why, this Reason behind the fact of being itself is gentle, and benevolent, and wise, and forms what He forms with and as Love.

And this is what I have tried to follow, and the experience to which I have tried to be faithful.