November 30, 2010

Document Religiosorum Institutio (1961)

I was recently alerted to a very interesting and telling document of which I had never known, Religiosorum Institutio of the Congregation for Religious, the "Instruction on the Careful Selection And Training Of Candidates For The States Of Perfection And Sacred Orders."

Check out the whole thing over on, EWTN, which (also) preserves a lot of rare and largely forgotten documents. (For example, for all of you traddy priests out there, when some dear soul tells you that your maniple is no longer permitted, you can send him over to Adoremus where he may read in Tres abhinc annos that it is only "no longer required." But I digress.)

Religiosorum Institutio is fascinating to me on a number of levels. Sometimes I think that those of us who grew up after the Council--and who perhaps seek to retrieve religious life from some of its twentieth century wanderings--can get this idea that everything was stable up until the time of the post-conciliar reforms, or worse, that everything was just fine until the reform wrecked everything. This document, among many others, shows that there were deep shifts going on before the time of the Council and its subsequent reforms. Religious life in particular was changing along with the world around it; how vocations came about was shifting along with the questions of the religious themselves.

The document is especially concerned with the responsible pastoral care of vocations and the selection of those who are admitted to clerical institutes in particular. Some parts of it are quite sad, such as this section on those who stay in religious life because they don't know what else to do:

At times such candidates, on the verge of Sacred Orders or perpetual profession and somewhat mature in age, finding themselves without academic degrees and untrained in any art or liberal profession, were afraid to leave the religious life, feeling deep down in their hearts that if they returned to the world, they could not make an upright living unless by manual labor, or would be obliged to make difficult and uncertain efforts to acquire a liberal profession. Therefore they regarded the decision to continue in the religious clerical life as a lesser evil.

(By "liberal profession" we may presume that the document means a career derived from a liberal education.)

Other sections strike prophetically at the condition of religious life, even fifty years later:

Lastly, not infrequently there is adduced as a cause the loss of the religious spirit either because, under the insidious impact of present-day naturalism, these priests become incapable of discipline and religious observance, or because, living in religious houses an indolent and unproductive life, deceived by the desire of life outside and ill-regulated pseudo-apostolic activism and neglecting the interior life, they fall victims to dangers of all kinds, which they do not avoid and do not even recognize.

Make of the document what you will, but it's certainly interesting not only as a glimpse into concerns just prior to the Council, but even on its own and in its wisdom for our own time.

November 29, 2010


I have come to love Advent more and more over the years. This year, with Christmas falling on a Saturday, we have the longest possible Advent season.

On the one hand, it's just such a sweet time of year to have a fresh start of things. You get out your volume one or pars prior breviary; for various reasons it is usually the Advent-Christmas volume of the Liturgy of the Hours that is in the best condition in any given set. Combine that with a new ordo, and it gives you the feeling of fresh start on the natural level, like when you had sharp crayons on the first day of school. The day-to-day liturgical texts and colors change for the first time in what seems like ages.

On a deeper level, though, I find Advent to be among the most mystical times in the year. It is a time for us who stand in between. On the one hand we celebrate as we recall with joy the first coming of Christ, a coming that was humble, and, as we sometimes forget, secret. On the other hand, we look forward with wonder to the second coming of Christ in full and public glory, when he will bring the whole creation to its final destiny.

What's mystical to me about the season is the way in which it seems to emphasize the two comings of Christ in the reverse of their logical and temporal order: The liturgy of the early days, especially the first Sunday, focuses us on the end times, but as we go forward, and certainly by the time we arrive at the 'pre-octave' of the Nativity on December 17, we are fully into a celebration of the first coming of Christ.

We begin at the end times and proceed backwards to the dawn of our salvation in the Nativity of the Lord. We then notice how our own lives are moving in the course of a return from this recollection: the secret intimacies of grace and prayer in our own lives, in which the presence of Christ is conceived and carried in our own hearts, are moving toward a full and public harvest in the communion of the saints in heaven. Christ's movement from his conception by the Virgin to his ministry and passion and final glorification is also the journey of each Christian soul con-formed to Christ by Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Each secret and humble moment of prayer we experience in this life is destined for the final joy of heaven. Prayer is the Lord's Nativity in us, and it will become our Resurrection in Him as well.

November 28, 2010

Remembering Charity in Conflict

This post is meant as a continuation of what I wrote yesterday, and a reminder to myself that we have to remember charity and mutual understanding even within our conflicts in the Church in general and religious life in particular.

Yesterday afternoon I went somewhere offer a memorial Mass for a small group of nice people. It was perfectly pleasant and I tried to do my best for them. In the front of the small assembly was a woman, not old but perhaps in later middle age, who made all the responses and prayers loudly and strongly, with all of the standard adjustments and changes for so-called 'inclusive language.'

It would be easy for me simply to rant about it. I don't want to live in a relativistic world in which everyone is their own pope, and each of us has the right to alter the Church's prayer to suit his or her own concerns.

But to just rant is a failure in charity. Yes, we must stand up against the errors and misunderstandings of our time. But we also have to try to appreciate each other, and to recognize that those who do wrong-headed things often do them with the best intentions and with genuine values at stake. The woman in front of me perhaps grew up in a world in which she was made to feel like less, as someone with fewer opportunities in life than her male counterparts. Perhaps she grew up in a world with a lot of 'rules' which didn't seem to have a function or make any sense. So maybe, just maybe, for her to use this so-called 'inclusive language' in her own prayer at Mass represents and symbolizes for her an intense experience of liberation she has had over the course of her life.

I think that this can be hard for many of us younger Catholics and religious to understand. We grew up not with oppressive systems of rules, but in the relativistic, post-modern vertigo. We grew up oppressed not by rules but by their absence. Our grandparents in religious life (our parents are mostly missing) found in their vocations a liberation from a previously ossified and oppressive culture, a liberation from the rules. We have found in our vocations a liberation from relativism and moral anarchy, a liberation to the rules.

This isn't anything new, and it has been better written by others. I just mean to say that as we work to recover our Catholic identity from the errors and wanderings of those who have gone before us, let us remember that they too were children of their time, and that the Spirit of God spoke to them in their liberation as well. No doubt I have own pet myopias, and errors that will need to be corrected by those who come after me. If I want to be treated like a thoughtful and charitable person when that day comes, I need to do it for others now.

November 27, 2010

The Real Vocations Crisis?

I was alerted to the latest appearance the other day of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist on the Oprah show. Some of us who were home watched it together. Their ceremonies of religious profession were presented. It was quite beautiful and encouraging to see. On the same day I got a fund raising mailing from the Benedictines in Clear Creek.

These communities, and others, show that there is no shortage of vocations to religious life. Communities that embrace an unapologetic Catholic identity, are committed to a clear and Catholic mission, and center their lives on the ordinary and traditional means of holiness recommended by the Church have no shortage of young people wanting to enter.

So, could it be that there are many more potential religious vocations out there, but that they go unnoticed and under-nurtured because some of us religious are still resisting these 'signs of the times' and don't want to hear 'what the Spirit is saying to the Churches'?

November 23, 2010

XXXIV Per Annum

In one my classes this semester the professor remarked that the most recent reform had removed the Dies Irae from the liturgy. True, it disappeared as the sequence for funerals and some Masses for the dead, but it didn't go away altogether.

The Dies Irae persists as an optional hymn for the Liturgy of the Hours during this last week of Ordinary Time. If you look in your breviary this time of year, you will find it broken up for the various hours. In the typical edition it appears at the beginning of the proper for the week, starting on page 489. If you have the Catholic Book Publishing Company American English LoH, it's in an appendix, starting on page 2013.

But here's my question. I know this will be a surprise, but I can't find the rubric that permits the Dies Irae this week. Perhaps that's all it is, the note at the beginning of the proper for the week in the typical edition, conveniently omitted in the English version. Does this option appear anywhere else?

November 22, 2010


There is a happy coincidence in the liturgy today: On the feast of St. Cecelia, one of the great patron saints of sacred music, we have arrived in our reading from Revelation at the scene of the saints singing the "new hymn" to God. (14:3)

We who desire to be devout people are regular singers. But sometimes I think we don't always remember to reflect on what a deep thing it is to sing a hymn to God. It's not just added ornamentation or solemnity, but something far more profound. Indeed, to sing a hymn to God is to imitate God himself and conform ourselves to Him.

What happens when we sing a hymn? A blend of truth and beauty emerges from our voice, from our body, mind, and heart. Thus, to sing draws us closer in con-formity to He Who Is Truth and Beauty Itself. In fact, God sings too. When a blended array of truth and beauty emerges from the Heart of God, we call this creation. So to sing a hymn or a text of the Sacred Scriptures is to imitate the creative Delight out of which everything is. That's why to sing automatically makes people joyous, or at least gives some relief from their misery.

November 21, 2010

The Latest Condom Business

The press and everyone else are having fun with this one.

Last night I heard (from a regular commenter on this blog, no less) a fine analogy to what Benedict seems to have said on the moral level: When robbing a bank, just don't shoot the teller.

In other words, the sort of case that the Pope seems to raise is already cut off from openness to new life and is already a case of compounded disorder, injustice, and misery. In such a case, perhaps using a condom to (perhaps) prevent the transmission of HIV could mitigate the tragedy of the whole business and be the beginning of a journey to real morality.

The problem with contraception is that it attempts to divide the unitive and life-giving powers of sexuality. The rotten fruit of this separation--which has been more or less accomplished in our culture--is in evidence all around us. In the sad and sinful case in which the Pope is speaking, neither of these powers is present in the first place, so there is nothing to frustrate through the use of a condom.

November 18, 2010

Faculties for Blessing Fashion Accessories

Sometimes I get asked to bless a rosary that I know will end up around the petitioner's neck. I don't have faculties to bless fashion accessories, but since it's a rosary I go ahead anyway. I have devised a special blessing for this occasion, and here it is:

Almighty God,
May your blessing be upon all who find in this rosary a means to prayer and devotion.
May the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary preserve them from all danger of superstition.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

The Lamb

The first reading for Mass today, the beginning of chapter 5 of Revelation:

I, John, saw a scroll in the right hand of the one who sat on the throne.
It had writing on both sides and was sealed with seven seals.
Then I saw a mighty angel who proclaimed in a loud voice,
“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”
But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth
was able to open the scroll or to examine it.
I shed many tears because no one was found worthy
to open the scroll or to examine it.
One of the elders said to me, “Do not weep.
The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed,
enabling him to open the scroll with its seven seals.”

Then I saw standing in the midst of the throne
and the four living creatures and the elders
a Lamb that seemed to have been slain.
He had seven horns and seven eyes;
these are the seven spirits of God sent out into the whole world.
He came and received the scroll from the right hand
of the one who sat on the throne.
When he took it,
the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders
fell down before the Lamb.
Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense,
which are the prayers of the holy ones.
They sang a new hymn:

“Worthy are you to receive the scroll
and break open its seals,
for you were slain and with your Blood you purchased for God
those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation.
You made them a kingdom and priests for our God,
and they will reign on earth.”

I hear in the anguish of the seer the spiritual condition of our world. In the scene in heaven, the story seems to have stalled; the revelation of God's destiny for creation cannot move forward until someone who is found who can break the seals and open the scroll. Likewise our world stumbles around not knowing how to move forward. We struggle to know how to move beyond the violence and ruthlessness embedded in our broken culture, in a world afflicted by war and poverty, in which human life is increasingly commodified or even worthless. The natural order is denied, and then we wonder why so many are alienated, miserable, and feeling unconnected. Who can help us? Who can be found to draw us out of the miseries we have created and cherished for ourselves?

We are not so broken and lost to have forgotten what we really want: a savior. Someone who can move the world forward. Who will our savior be?

The Republican Congress? Barack Obama? Catholic Traditionalists? Catholic Progressives? Saul Alinsky?

No, no, no, no, and no.

It is only the Lamb who was slain who can break the seals and get us in line with the destiny toward which the world is going anyway. Our mission of Christians is to make disciples of him, not of any of these other saviors.

November 15, 2010

Catholic Teaching

While we were at our recent provincial assembly, one of the brothers let me look at a newly published book of theology which he had brought to read. "This is a very important book, of which we should all take note," he advised me as I looked over one of the middle chapters.

Just now I read a review in which the same book is described as an example of an "intellectual dead end."

This is why you have to keep your wits about you as a Catholic, not to mention a student of theology.

Sometimes people think being a Catholic Christian absolves someone from having to think for himself. In the words of one of my childhood friends, such a position "couldn't be wronger." From the moment I came into the Church, I have found myself in a maze of divergent opinion and conflicting claims. Though it was a disappointment with which I was scandalized at first, I've been grateful for it in the sense that it has always driven me to study and make up my own mind as best I can.

My New Friends

How much my life has changed in recent months! A year ago I might have spent a Monday morning at a funeral Mass and burial or in the office receiving wedding and baptism inquiries.

Now, instead of giving my attention to the newly engaged or deceased, I give it to Peter Lombard, Anselm, and Alexander of Hales:

St. Albert's Collects

The Collect for St. Albert the Great is one of my favorites. I preached on it at Mass this morning.

As it comes to us in our current English translation:

God our Father,
you endowed Saint Albert with the talent
of combining (componenda) human wisdom with divine faith.
Keep us true to his teachings
that the advance of human knowledge
may deepen our knowledge and love of you.
Grant this through...

This is something of a shift from the same prayer as it was prior to the reform of the liturgy. As it appears in the 1962 Missale Romanum:

Deus, qui beatum Albertum, pontificem tuum atque Doctorem,in humana sapientia divinae fidei subiicienda magnum efficisti: da nobis, quaesumus; ita eius magisterii inhaerere vestigiis, ut luce perfecta fruamur in caelis. Per Dominum...

God, who made St. Albert, your bishop and doctor, great in subjecting human wisdom to divine faith, grant us, we ask, that by holding fast to to the teaching he has left, we might enjoy perfect light in heaven. Through our Lord...

So, good old St. Albert, who used to subject human wisdom to divine faith, now only combines the two. Thus is revealed the uneasy relationship between the sciences and the Science for people of our time. So often I hear something like, 'There is no conflict between faith and reason, between theology and the natural sciences, because they ask different questions.'

No. It's true that they ask different sorts of questions, but this approach is finally inadequate because it suggests that there are different fields of knowledge, whereas there are only really different aspects of the one Truth to be known. It's true that there is no conflict between theology and the other sciences, but it is rather because all human questions and every inquiry of the human mind have God as an ultimate end. (Or, as we late moderns would say, 'horizon.') God, after, all, is the originary Principle from which everything is, as well as the Principle of and Ground of all knowing.

November 12, 2010

Assembly of the Brothers

I'm in Esopus, New York, at this big place, for a couple days of assembly of my province of the friars. It's preparatory stuff for our provincial chapter next spring as well as the celebration of religious and sacerdotal jubilees. Not much signal here, nor time to blog, so more later.

November 10, 2010

Between Slovenliness and Affectation

So I'm finally getting around to reading Fortescue. (Thanks to the kind parishioners of Sacred Heart in Yonkers for all of the Barnes & Noble gift cards!) It's been my fun reading, in the TV room at night or when I otherwise can't make myself read any more of Peter Lombard or Alexander of Hales.

One of my confreres calls me a 'church nerd,' which I guess one has to accept when he reads rubric commentaries for fun.

Last night I arrived at the section on the deportment of altar servers, which made me laugh:

"Considerable tact and good taste are needed in the priest or MC who trains the boys, to find the right mean between slovenliness and affectation."

By "affectation" is meant what Martinucci calls a "too punctilious a uniformity" such that the "sacred functions look theatrical."

As devoted and long-suffering as they were, punctiliousness and uniformity were not an issue for the altar servers with whom I had the privilege of working for part of time at the parish. May God bless them and may they forgive me for not being the kind of priest who had considerable enough tact to find the right mean between slovenliness and affectation.

Where Would I Be?

I'm introducing a new tag which I've been considering for a while. It's called "Music Captures Prayer" and marks posts about songs that sometimes seem to express how I feel or what I am going through in prayer.

November 9, 2010

Some Things I Miss

I've been here in Boston for three months now, and I'm starting to feel adjusted into the assignment. Term papers are starting to take shape and I'm thinking about what to do next semester. Off in the distance of imagination are the first thoughts about my reading list for comprehensive exams, and--dare I say it--dreams for a dissertation proposal.

Settling down into this new kind of student life reminds me of some of the things I miss from parish life. I was just thinking about some of them this morning:

A regular and stable liturgical matrix. At the parish, liturgy had an intense regularity; every day the same chapel, the same church, the same altar. Liturgical time cycled through days, weeks, seasons, and years. The linear time imposed by the steps, grades, and goals of something like school or religious formation starts to fade away. Cycles replace time-lines. In the cycles of prayer, the Now of eternity starts to peek through. I miss that. Here in the student house, liturgical life is very different. I offer Mass at four or five different altars in the course of a week. Not that this isn't without its gifts; I'm really enjoying my weekly visit to the Poor Clare monastery, for example. But it can feel scattering. Here in the house, in the morning we sometimes have Morning Prayer in common and sometimes have Mass, a practice which feels choppy and scattering to me. I like to have a regular early-morning routine, but I can't really because sometimes I have to pray Morning Prayer in private and sometimes I don't. So I miss the regularity and stability of Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours in the parish.

Days off. The parish is always going. It's active seven days a week from early morning until the middle of the evening. For a priest, the only way to get a break is to leave, so that's what they do. They 'go on their day off.' I look over my posts labeled 'Day Off Adventures' and I see a certain lightheartedness and freedom from care that I no longer have. When you are a student the books are always there, and the papers always need to get composed. This isn't to say that I never take any time with friends or a day just to relax, but somehow there just isn't the same ability to leave the whole business behind and get away for a little while.

People. The parish priesthood is a personal service kind of job. From the parlor to the confessional, from running meetings to praying with folks at the funeral home, you are always with the people. It's one of the greatest blessings of the parish ministry; the people keep you sane and are very encouraging for the most part. The job is so social that you have to be careful about getting the solitude that you need; it becomes a treasure, really. Here I think of some of my 'Sunday Afternoon' posts. In the doctoral student life, the situation is quite different. It's a solitary life for the most part. Yes, I have new friends at school and I spend time with the brothers here at home, but most of my days are just me and text. I read text, I struggle over text, I try to make text about text. So here I must take the opposite care, of making sure I find some social time. Such is far harder for me than making sure I find time for solitude, so I miss being in the opposite situation in the parish.

November 7, 2010

For Whom Shall We Pray?

Today I'm working on my term paper on St. Bonaventure's Tract on Preparing for Mass. I'm just finishing an exposition of the first chapter, which concludes with advice on forming the proper intentions for prayer.

For whom should we pray at the altar? Bonaventure offers a little list to help us remember:

"Propose to pray for the Pope, the cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, doctors, rectors, priests, clerics, monks, religious, monasteries and all of Christ’s servants; for kings, generals, princes and all the nobility; for virgins, widows, orphans, pilgrims, prisoners, the afflicted, the crippled, the sick and for all the people of God; also for the pagans, schismatics and heretics, that they may return to the true God and to the unity of the holy Church."

I guess that's everybody.

The Moral Complexity of Friary Cooking

Cooking for the brothers can be a daunting task, as can be eating their cooking at times. The moral excellence of friary cooking is a complex judgment, but I believe it can be narrowed to a function of four interacting values:

1. How talented and/or knowledgeable of a cook a brother happens to be,
2. How conscious and aware he is of 1., above,
3. Whether he puts effort into the meal, and
4. Whether he makes an inordinate mess, depending on local community standards.

Therefore, the best case scenario for friary dinner is when the brother cooking that day knows how to cook, knows that he knows how to cook, makes an effort at it, and cleans 'as he goes' so as not to make a big mess.

Beneath this best case scenario the situation grows far more complex. For example, the moral judgment on messiness depends somewhat on the other factors; brothers who make a great meal are often forgiven their messes, while those who prepare average or yucky meals are not. Conversely, an average cook is helped much by being clean.

The talent and knowledge that make a brother a good cook are not absolute either. A brother who doesn't know much about cooking but who masters one or two plain suppers will be appreciated far more than the good cook who doesn't make much effort to please.

The most dangerous friary cook is the brother who thinks he knows how to cook but in fact does not.

November 4, 2010

Kitchen Rules

People are full of rules. Sometimes they are aware of it and sometimes not. No area has such intense rules as around food, and hence the kitchen. Thus, the kitchen is the location of a great many little cold wars and quiet but strenuous struggles in community life. For example:

One brother thinks that there always has to be a box of plain crackers on the counter. Crackers are akin to cookies, right? The cookie jar is on the counter, so the crackers should be there too. Another brother thinks that crackers belong in a cool dry place like the cupboard. So the crackers are constantly about this round trip from counter to cupboard.

A similar pattern emerges with the dish soap. One brother thinks that dish soap is like hand soap; it belongs next to the sink. Another thinks that dish soap is more at home with the other cleaning products, which everyone knows go under the sink. So the dish soap is always about an analogous cyclical journey.

One brother thinks that the butter belongs outside of the refrigerator, another one in.

One brother believes that the sink rag must be folded square and laid over the divider between the two sides of the sink. Another one is convinced that it must be left in a triangle shape draping over the front. Still another is convinced that it is gross to use a rag more than once, and so rejects both options and puts all wet rags into the laundry basket.

One brother thinks that the dish drain rack is where you put clean dishes to dry. Another brother thinks that it's where you put dirty dishes that can't be put immediately in the dishwasher. Still other brothers, when they get to be superiors, avoid this whole ugly debate by forbidding dish drain racks altogether.

Another question is the nature of kitchen counters. One brother imagines that light food preparation can be done on the counter without the mediation of any other surface, e.g. you can put the two pieces of bread that will anchor your sandwich right on the counter and proceed to dress them. Another brother believes that the counter is the place where you have to put another surface, like a cutting board or a plate, whereupon you may then prepare food. The latter sort of brother comes to be tempted to indulge disdain for the former, thinking him gross. The same issue goes, similarly, on the question of whether you can leave directly on a counter the spoon or fork you had used to put something into a bowl before putting it the microwave, retrieving it afterward for eating purposes.

Me at BC: An Examination of Conscience

Apparently, it's no secret that I'm not having an easy time with my interior consent to being at Boston College. On the one hand, it's been going very well; my professors have been helpful and very encouraging, I have found my fellow students to be interesting and friendly, and the libraries and their staffs have been great. But there's still a certain resistance inside; I notice it in little ways. For example, I find myself arranging my commute in ways that minimize my time on the campus and its buses. I take the long way so as to arrive at the edge of the campus where my class is held, and then leave the same way.

So what's going on with me? I've been trying to puzzle it out. Of course some it is the standard worry about Catholic colleges having given up on their Catholic identity. The mother of a prospective undergraduate recently told me about how she was totally turned off by the admissions office, which was, according to her, constantly apologizing for the Catholic nature of the school, and assuring her son that he was in no way expected to live a Catholic life while a student. Mom was horrified.

This sort of thing is old news. It concerns me, but I don't think it's quite the thing that gets to me. So I've been praying for some insight. Yesterday, while I was walking to the Chestnut Hill T station, I think my prayer was answered.

I'm a college convert. The immediate roots of my own conversion to Christianity and sacramental initiation in the Catholic Church were in the college campus, undergraduate life. And here's the trouble: I got to be a Christian, on the natural level, largely as a reaction against the experience of college. The atmosphere of material affluence was a real culture shock at the time. Yes, I had grown up with educational and cultural privilege, but without a sense or experience of the material wealth that seemed to surround me when I got to college. In the midst of it I used to think about the poor of the world or those suffering in the first war in Iraq (which was going on at the time), and I felt the sting of conscience and I began to desire a life of responsibility.

The consequence-free playground of alcohol, drugs, sex, and rock and roll soon seemed to be a false and empty liberation, especially as I became aware of its darker sides: poisonings, rapes, abortions.

Having become a metaphysical optimist through the course in Plato I took when I was still in high school, I was scandalized by a search for truth and devotion to learning that ignored or even denied the Truth Itself. Even philosophy fell short. In Philosophy 101 the professor consented, with triumphal glee, to the students' conclusion that there was no 'meaning of life,' but only 'meanings in life.' It wasn't good enough for me. I turned to religion.

From all this, then, it's easy to see how it was that I found in Catholic Christianity (and it's Franciscan expression) a suitable means for rejecting and reacting against my surroundings. I think this is the real reason I feel uncomfortable at BC; at the root of everything I've done with my adult life is an attempt to reject and find an alternative to the world of 'college.' So to be on the campus with all of the kids feels very wrong to me.

So, I beg the question. What in all this is important for me to own and protect, and what am I called to let go of? Surely I don't need to be determined by who I was when I was nineteen or twenty. On the other hand, though, I need to be true to myself. What should be kept, and what should be left? These questions must be the next, careful discernment.

November 3, 2010

Theses on Getting Along in Community

(A collection in progress)

1. Pray for the other members of the community every day. Not only is this the right thing to do before God, but it practices the disposition of charity toward them.

2. Presume the best motives in others.

3. Presume that others are quietly putting up with your awkwardness, idiosyncrasies and annoying behaviors that you aren't even aware of. Try to do the same thing for them.

4. Do not avoid conversations that tend toward gossip or detraction. Instead, by your own speech, try to turn them positive.

5. Do not take responsibility for the feelings of others, nor try to make anyone else responsible for yours. Do not surrender your moods and emotional states to the control of others.

6. Commit to some form of prayer or spiritual practice that helps you transcend moodiness and dis-identify with the flux of your own thoughts and feelings.

7. Seek always ways to be helpful around the house, but also be careful of enabling anyone's learned helplessness or negligence.

8. Be free to challenge anyone who is having trouble accepting help or kindness. Be humble enough yourself to ask for help when you need it. Be humble enough to accept compliments and kind words. Those who refuse to accept love deny others the chance to practice charity.

9. Use humor wisely. It can be a powerful too for speaking difficult things in a safe way, but it can also be used to belittle or to prevent what needs to be said from coming out.

10. When you cook, pay attention not to what they say at table, but to whether anyone eats the leftovers. That's what indicates whether they liked it or not.

11. Be approachable and available. If nobody ever asks you for help or if they can talk something over, it might be because you seem unapproachable.

November 2, 2010

Against Presumption and Pelagianism

All Souls' Day, or as we now call it in English, the Commemoration of the All the Faithful Departed, is the Church's great day of prayer for the dead. The Office of the Dead is prayed in the Liturgy of the Hours, and all priests have the privilege of offering the three traditional Masses according to the apostolic constitution Incruentum altaris sacrificium of Benedict XV. One Mass may be offered for a particular intention, but the second and third have to be offered for all the faithful departed and for the intentions of the Pope, respectively.

To pray for the dead at all is to affirm the Church's doctrine of purgatory, or at least something akin to it. For, if one of the faithful departed finds himself already among the saints in heaven enjoying the perfectly delightful and satisfying vision of God, what sense could it make to pray for such a one? It is rather he who should be praying for us. And if the dead find themselves--God forbid--in hell, there is no point praying for them anyway.

Thus, to pray for the dead presumes some kind of continuing journey after our earthly death, some kind of sense in which the dead can still be 'on the way' to God. The Church expresses this in the doctrine of Purgatory. So often Purgatory is looked upon as a gloomy and morbid concept, but the case is precisely the opposite. Purgatory is an exceedingly positive and encouraging doctrine, and an expression of the near, but not quite overwhelming, goodness and gentleness of God.

To explore this a little, we can see how Purgatory is a good corrective against two dangerous errors of our time: Presumption, on the one hand, and a kind of Pelagian deism on the other.

I offered about seventy funeral Masses in my three years as a parish priest. The typical (expressed) attitude of the mourners was that the deceased was already at peace in Heaven. Now I don't claim that this a strictly theological assertion; much of it is a justifiable attempt to find some comfort in an expressed faith in God. But, on the other hand, sometimes I felt a little presumption in all of it and a failure to accept the possibility that the deceased might not have been ready for the brilliance of heaven and perhaps could use of our prayers wherever he found himself on the continuing journey. Against the presumption of Heaven (not to mention the fear of hell), Purgatory stands as an expression of the mercy and gentleness of God. Even if we have not succeeded in surrendering to the grace to become saints in this life, even if we have not managed to become good before we die, God provides a time or a means (we don't know, and the Church doesn't define it) by which we may continue this journey, already solidly begun, after our earthly death.

This brings us to the second error for which Purgatory is a sound corrective, what I'm calling Pelagian deism. Sometimes people express this idea in which this life is construed as a kind of test. We have this time on earth, by which we are free to make choices that shape our final destiny in the life to come. This is true as far as it goes, but it often contains a very impoverished concept of salvation. God is not an impartial actor in this scenario! He doesn't set up this life and then leave us alone to choose either Heaven or hell. Against this view, I quote (as I often do) the beginning of Hilaire Belloc's Pelagian Drinking Song:

Pelagius lived at Kardanoel
And taught a doctrine there
How, whether you went to heaven or hell
It was your own affair.
It had nothing to do with the Church, my boy,
But was your own affair.

Not at all. God chooses Heaven for all of us. It's not about whether we end up with more goodness and badness in the ledger by the time we die, but about how we find the humility to accept the grace of salvation. God wants to give all of us the infinite blessing of the beatific vision. He is, quite literally, dying to give us Heaven. The only way to go to hell is to obstinately refuse to accept the gift. God is so passionate about our salvation that, even if we have not succeeding in fully accepting the happiness and sanctity He wants to give us in this life, God provides a further purification after death in order to bring us to the destiny He desires for us.

So, just a we pray for each other to become saints in this life, we pray for the dead who continue--by the gentleness of God--on this same journey to the life of the saints in heaven.

November 1, 2010

Et Erigens Se Iungit Manus

My three years as a parish priest convinced me of many things. One of them is that extraordinary spiritual phenomena are not as rare as we often think. Many people have experiences akin to visions, locutions, the voice of God giving consolation or direction in dreams, among many other sorts of things. Folks just don't talk about such things that much, either because we have been taught to disbelieve them, or because we don't want to be made fun of or labeled. On the positive side, such experiences represent a kind of intimacy with God, and intimacies are always secret in one way or another.

Extraordinary experiences can be a great encouragement or consolation, but they can also be the occasion of certain temptations and dangers.

Here's one that has arisen in my own life in recent months: when I receive the Host at Mass, I often bring my joined hands to my face for the moment of meditation (per the older rubric). Sometimes, just for a instant, I notice on my fingers the smell of the Sacred Chrism. Of course the anointing of my hands from my ordination is long washed away--on the natural level--but once in a while, there's the smell.

Why should this happen? The anointing is still there on the spiritual level. As I once heard in a humorous but perhaps helpful analogy, the anointings with Sacred Chrism which we receive in Baptism, Confirmation, and priestly ordination penetrate the surface and end up on the bones, as in the case of Wolverine's adamantium-bonded skeleton. (Perhaps it seem silly, but this is an image young people can get.) Sacraments are outward signs of interior grace, after all, but the interior and exterior are mysteriously joined in the mystery of the Incarnation itself. Why am I given this little gift of seeming to notice, on the natural level, the supernatural grace of the sacrament signified through the anointing of my hands? Perhaps it's an encouragement.

But we can't let such encouragements turn into distractions. I can't be thinking about all this during Mass, apart from momentary interior acts of faith or gratitude. Most of all, I can't look forward to such a thing or become disappointed if I don't get it. Grace, when grabbed for, disappears. God refuses to be a commodity, and resists any way that we try to come at the spiritual life with a consumer mentality.