December 31, 2010

Ministry and Keeping the Blog

Thanks for all the responses, both in the public comments and in person, on my post about the possibility of quitting the blog in favor of another project. You have reminded me of something very important.

Ministry is the Lord's work, in which we are helpers, facilitators, and collaborators. Therefore, the idea of any particular ministry we might have is not the same thing as God's idea of it. Indeed, in any successful ministry, what God is up to is greater than either what we care to or even can imagine. Anyone who has ever preached has had a plain and amusing experience of this: after the service someone comes up to you and thanks you for having said some beautiful or insightful thing that you don't remember ever saying, or even meaning to say. The devout soul heard not what you thought you were saying, but what she needed to hear from God. Indeed, to pray for such graces is a humble and helpful way to pray before preaching.

In the same way, I must remember that this blog is a ministry greater than my idea of it. Because of the particularity of my own state in life and the questions and issues that preoccupy me in the current moment of my life, I may be more conscious of parts of the audience that share some of these characteristics. But that doesn't mean that the blog is only for them or even primarily for them. The blog is what God wants it to be. It's for whoever God inspires to visit. Any fruit that comes of my little rants and reflections is God's work, accomplished in the economies of grace so expansive and wonderful that they can even work through the meager and self-indulgent efforts of a lukewarm and distracted little religious priest like me.

So, enjoy the blog. Or better, appreciate and be grateful to the God who is so marvelously humble as to shine his gentle loving kindness through our little web-based communion.

December 29, 2010

The Solitude of Sunset

There's a solitude I sometimes know if I'm out walking around sunset; I've known it for a long time, or at least I can remember it back to when I was seventeen or so.

It's as if the whole world--and me in it--is at a grand hinge, and just might (if the moment is right) take the chance to become un-hinged. Not to fall into the dreaded abyss of non-being which we all imitate and flirt with in our sins, but to slip into the final Rest that is beyond becoming. And I know, or at least glimpse, that this Rest is the endless and smooth fullness of Activity that we clumsily give the un-name of 'God.'

It isn't like the solitude of being out walking at dawn, full as it is with freshness and promise and eager but peaceful energy. No, this solitude is one of resignation, a little melancholy but not really sad, as it lets go of the day that has been. What it was, for better or for worse, was what it was, and there's no changing it now.

Thus it's a solitude that imitates the moment and limit toward which all of our days and moments tend: that final limit when our little lives are no longer subject to any revision, when we have been who we were and for whom we were, because there's no more changing any of it, because we're dead. And we let ourselves go, grief, gratitude, distraction and all the rest of the be-blessed mess, out of the becoming into the Limit and Eternity out of which we all came in the first place, and which we kind of remember, but not quite.

Surviving Formation

Today I'm considering something hard: the possibility of quitting this blog. I doubt I will, but here's what I'm thinking:

Over Christmas an old friend reminded me that this is a ministry. As I've thought about it anew, I've noticed that some of my best and most fruitful writing here has been in the form of direct answers to questions or indirect responses to conversations from younger religious or those considering a religious or priestly vocation.

So I'm wondering if my incidental writing energies might be better spent in a more sustained and directed--and perhaps more anonymous--project toward a spiritual book on how deal with, and benefit most fruitfully from religious or seminary formation.

It seems to me that such a spiritual book is badly needed to make up for two lacks.

First, the generational differences in religious life and the priesthood can be debilitating for a new religious or seminarian. Formation programs are generally operated and controlled by older religious, so-called 'liberals' for whom the liberation of dismantling a previous, more constricting style of religious life has become a controlling norm and interpretive key. Younger religious, many of whom are converts or reverts to the faith, often emerge from a very different place: they are children of the relativistic vertigo and moral chaos of our age, seeking refuge in something solid to stand on. Form and structure are things they are liberated to, whereas their parents in religion found their freedom in liberation from them. Such is the impasse at the most basic level of spiritual attitude and vocation.

These differences have been rehearsed many times, and by those better at it than me. Each side has its virtues and dangers. My point here is that this can be very difficult world to navigate without being driven to distraction or losing one's mind, much less survive with faith, charity, and sense of humor intact (and all of these are critical to religious life.) As someone who has survived it, and continues to do so as finally professed and ordained, though not without sins and near-catastrophic falls along the way, I think I might be in a good position to share some wisdom about how one might succeed in the funny and conflicted world of religious life.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, entering religious life and trying daily to consent to the grace to be formed in religion requires many ordinary and expected spiritual trials. They aren't the interior struggles you imagine for yourself (in vanity) before you enter. But they are normal and are documented in the spiritual tradition. The trouble is, I don't think many formation programs say much about the interior life, and still less the temptations and trials required to grow in it. In religious life there is just as much--if not more--opportunity to medicate oneself against or distract oneself from these salutary struggles and trials. Unless you have a really good spiritual director--or someone else to help God dig you out from under your defenses--it's possible to miss all of this, especially if your own temperament and that of your community tends to an activist mentality that concentrates on 'doing.' The more I think about it, I think this is a serious deficit and, at the risk of being grandiose, I wonder if I am being called to do something about it.

So, should I quit the blog and try to write this book?

December 28, 2010

Dominus ad Iudicium Veniet cum Senibus

For Christmas I went back to the parish where I was before coming here to Boston. It was a good time; I had a chance to check in with both the pastor and my successor in the parochial vicariate, and had some good time for prayer, quiet, and journaling. I concelebrated the vigil Mass and the night Mass at the parish. I greeted a lot of old friends among the parishioners, telling them that I was 'home from college.'

For the Mass of Christmas Day, I wanted to visit the adjacent residence for our senior brothers. When I asked if I could attend the Mass there, the guardian invited me to be the principal celebrant! I was anxious about how it would go, but everything was smooth, and I even got away with preaching (two sentences). I was also grateful that I didn't have to remind anyone to genuflect during the creed, since they all sit for the Mass anyway.

The gift of the moment really struck me during the Eucharistic Prayer. The voices accompanying mine in the great prayer represented almost five hundred years of religious life and four hundred of priesthood, of which my contribution was only about two and three percent, respectively. The next youngest friar in the chapel was nearly thirty years older than me, and the oldest was fifty years my senior.

In all of these things--years on earth, age in religion, and years of priesthood, I felt like an untested child with these men around me. But there I was, the principal celebrant at the beautiful Mass in aurora on Christmas morning. I felt in those voices the presence of my fathers in the spiritual order, begetting my priesthood through the communion of our sacrificial prayer.

Later on I thought, as I sometimes do, of the words of my formation director in a hallway on the morning of my ordination: "Remember the Communion of Saints. It's the only way this makes sense."

December 27, 2010

Thoughts at the Consecration

Once in a while a strong thought arises for me very suddenly at the time of the consecration. Sometimes it will be a certain spiritual insight, and other times a particularly outrageous temptation to distraction.

When I was first ordained, this used to annoy me very much, no matter what sort of thought it was. I was trying to concentrate, to speak the words of institution distincte et aperte and with a clearly formed intention to do what the Church intends, and I was bothered by the idea of being distracted at this most sacred moment. But as anyone who has tried to practice interior asceticism knows, we only make our situation worse when we add an emotional charge or self-conscious judgment to any sort of arising thought.

I've come to accept the phenomenon. If, as my ordaining bishop recently reminded us, my speaking of the words of consecration is the center of each of my days, why shouldn't this be the moment of special graces of spiritual insight? In the same way, why should this not be the moment when the devil sometimes attacks me with his most desperate tactics?

December 26, 2010

The Journey

As I was meditating on today's gospel--St. Matthew's account of the Flight into Egypt--an old and encouraging memory came up for me. For my graduation from college, my parents gave me the gift of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I went with a group, under the direction of Fr. Callistus Bamberg, OFM, (may he rest in peace.) It was a wondrous and formative trip for me as a fairly new Christian. The crucifix I bought there to carry on the Via Dolorosa--from a storekeeper who insisted on showing me photo albums of the successes of his relatives in New York, and with whom I shared bread and herbs with a Goldstar beer while he tried to find a crucifix to my liking--has been the first thing I bring into a new apartment or cell ever since. It was in the Lord's tomb in the church of the Holy Sepulchre that I first proclaimed a reading at Mass. Whenever I think of that moment, given what has come in the years since, I am so grateful, and a little scared.

There were several of us on the pilgrimage who were there at some kind of juncture in life, or in celebration of some particular moment. One devout couple was there in celebration of a wedding anniversary. For someone else it was retirement. There were a couple of religious celebrating jubilees, and one priest having an anniversary of ordination. Me, I was the kid of the trip, and my thing was that I was about to enter religious life. At the end of our trip, the group wanted to do something to recognize these moments in the lives of us various pilgrims--I think we were at Tiberias--and so there was a little prayer service, and there were souvenir gifts. I received an olive wood statue of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. When Father handed it to me he said, "Whenever you see this, remember that it's a journey."

"The journey" is such an apt metaphor for the spiritual life, and so deep and full of resonance and meaning that it hardly seems worthwhile to try to write about it per se. Nevertheless, one aspect of the journey of which I have become increasingly aware over the years is that the journey itself is formative. The places and people, the joys and the losses, and in some ways most of all the insults and misfortunes, the meaninglessnesses and apparent absences of God by which the Cross is revealed in our individual lives, all of these conspire together to make us who we are before God and one another as Christian souls, or at least souls who desire God through the only Way of cruciformity.

When I'm at my best, the suffering and emptiness of the Cross as it has been revealed to me in my own life has made me grow in patience, compassion, and the sort of true peace that comes from perspective, from wideness of ultimate horizon. At my worst, some of my sufferings have left me damaged, skittish, dismissive, and prejudiced. One of the deep challenges of the journey, at least as I have experienced it thus far, is to accept that these two aspects of who I have become, of how I have been both formed and deformed along the way, are like the wheat and weeds of the Lord's parable. They are so intertwined in their growth together that it would be impossible to uproot the weeds without also taking the wheat along with them. Therefore, in everything I do in my prayer and in my life with the brethren and everybody else, I must remember that I have been graced for prayer and service through my journey, but that I also have dark spots that can come out in hurtful and unhelpful ways.

So I make it my prayer, that as I journey on to the moment of my own death, and groan along with every other member of the Church Universal for the final fulfillment of the creation (and along with the world, which in some ways groans harder, but ignorant of why or for what), God will harvest from me all the good he has worked in me, and let the rest fall into the pointless non-being it imitates in me each day.

December 24, 2010

In Nativitate Domini

Merry Christmas, friends.

May the dawn of the new creation draw us in and be the refreshment and renovation of our hearts and minds! I'm on the road for Christmas and Holy Family weekend, but I left this post to publish itself in my absence. I've posted this text before, but I remain happy with it. It's a homily for the Christmas Mass in nocte that I wrote as part of the final exam for a course on the Blessed Trinity:

Rejoice, friends, for the mystery of Christmas is the revelation of God’s loving plan for our salvation. “The grace of God has appeared,” as Paul tells us. The human birth of the Son of God reveals the mystery that God indeed has a son. Our God is a perfect love, and what is love that does not love someone? Therefore from all eternity there is lover and beloved in God, the Father and the Son.

Be assured that this Son of God whose human birth we adore tonight is God himself, “light from light,” and “true God from true God” as we shall soon pray in the creed. Paul himself calls him “our great God and savior.”

While contemplating the poor and simple birth of the Lord, let us pay attention to our attitude toward the mystery. Is it just that we have awe for the humility of the God who was willing to accept not only the poverty of our nature but to be born among simple parents in an obscure nation? Is Christmas here to teach us to be humble too? I assure you that the Son of God is much more than a role model, though he is surely that as well. Paul tells us that this appearance of the grace of God will, in fact, “deliver us from all lawlessness” and “cleanse” us, making us into God’s own people.

This is the great good news of Christmas: the Son of God is born in our human nature and thus provides our human nature a path to the divine life of God that he himself has been from all eternity. By becoming one of us, the infinite love that the Son has always received is now extended to us through the human nature of Jesus Christ.

The Incarnation connects the divine with the human, extending God’s life to us. This sacred exchange is voiced in the preface to tonight’s Eucharist prayer when it says that in Christ we see “our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.” This stretching forth, as it were, of the eternal love of Father and Son to us is what we call the Holy Spirit. The Incarnation of God establishes a path for our human nature to be brought back to God, and God’s Spirit draws us in. This is what we mean when we say that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit; the Spirit of God, God’s desire to be known, works in the Incarnation so that God’s saving plan may be known.

This is good news! The birth of Jesus Christ reveals the new availability of the infinitely beautiful and satisfying love that is the personal life of God himself. This is our adoption into the eternal Sonship of Christ himself, through which we become the true children of God. We rejoice tonight for, through the human birth of Christ, the Holy Spirit includes us in the eternal and perfect relationship of the Lover whom we call Father and the Beloved whom we call the Son. And this is the grand and mysterious reality that we call God.

December 20, 2010

A Liturgical Trilemma at Communion

I'm full of liturgical wonderings today, and this one is no abstract case.

Let's say I'm offering Mass. When it comes time for the communion of the faithful, in order to fulfill GIRM 281 and offer the "fuller form" of the sacramental sign (Formam ratione signi pleniorem) I want to offer communion under both kinds. To do this in a convenient way, I want to appoint someone to minister the Precious Blood. I have a choice of three persons assisting at the Mass:

1. A priest who is known to me but who, contra Redemptionis sacramentum 128,* is not concelebrating, but who chooses to assist "in the manner of the lay faithful."

2. A man whom I know is an instituted acolyte, but who is also not serving in his hierarchically ordered role. (Also, contra Redemptionis sacramentum 128, but more softly perhaps.)

3. Someone who is neither a cleric nor an instituted acolyte, but who could be impressed into competent service as an EMoHC for the occasion.

Which one is the correct choice to minister the Precious Blood? Why? What are the values at stake?

* Holy Mass and other liturgical celebrations, which are acts of Christ and of the people of God hierarchically constituted, are ordered in such a way that the sacred ministers and the lay faithful manifestly take part in them each according to his own condition. It is preferable therefore that “Priests who are present at a Eucharistic Celebration, unless excused for a good reason, should as a rule exercise the office proper to their Order and thus take part as concelebrants, wearing the sacred vestments. Otherwise, they wear their proper choir dress or a surplice over a cassock.” It is not fitting, except in rare and exceptional cases and with reasonable cause, for them to participate at Mass, as regards to externals, in the manner of the lay faithful.

Read the whole document here.

Sacerdos Sedem Petit: A Rubrical Dilemma

On Monday mornings I have been offering Mass at the local monastery of the Poor Clares. It's really a joy; I've enjoyed getting to know some of the sisters and consider it a privilege to offer Mass for them and their intentions.

The liturgical space, however, offers some challenges. One of them for me has been where to begin the Mass. When I arrive, the sacramentary is paged up and neatly arranged on the altar. A missalette with a ribbon at the collect for the day is at the chair. The chair and altar are on opposite sides of the sanctuary, with the ambo and tabernacle between them. There is no server.

Thus, a dilemma arises and a choice must be made about which rubric to abandon. The opening rites of the Mass, from the sign of the cross to the collect, are to be made from the chair. (GIRM 124 ff.) However, with no server, this means that one is not able to observe the proper gesture for presidential prayer, the manibus extensis or "orans," due to having to hold the book (and even worse, a missallete, though at least it has a cover) oneself.

On the other hand, the Mass can be begun from the altar, which must be approached for the veneration during the introit anyway (Ah, the joy of hearing the introit instead of substituting some song for it!) Because the sacramentary is arranged on the altar, the 'hands extended' posture of prayer is no problem. This possibility, however, slights the chair.

So...given that one rubric must be omitted, is it better to abandon the proper gesture for the collect, or its proper location?

(Since the Prayer after Communion may be made either from the chair or the altar (GIRM 165), the problem does not arise for the end of Mass.)

December 19, 2010

Edith Stein in Frankfurt

One of the greatest encouragements to my own vocation is to read something from one of the saints and find in it a confirmation of my own experience. Yesterday was a good example.

A couple of weeks ago I posted my inspiration to begin to read Edith Stein. One of my confreres, in his charity, saw the post and immediately sent me a copy of her edition in the Orbis Books "modern spiritual masters series." Yesterday I arrived at this autobiographical passage, about a visit to a friend in Frankfurt:

But the deepest impressions were made on me by things other than the Römerweg and the Hirschgraben. We stopped in a the cathedral for a few minutes: and, while we looked around in respectful silence, a woman carrying a market basket came in and knelt down in one of the pews to pray briefly. This was something entirely new to me. To the synagogues or to the Protestant churches which I had visited, one went only for services. But here was someone interrupting her everyday shopping errands to come into this church, although no other person was in it, as though she were here for an intimate conversation. I could never forget that. (89-90)

In my 'seeking' phase, in the school year before I became a catechumen, I visited a lot of different churches, sometimes for services but more often when nothing was going on. I was struck and then intrigued by the same sight described by Edith Stein. Only in the Catholic churches did I ever see people praying when nothing else was going on. There they would be, all sorts of people, sitting or kneeling in the darkness and quiet. They knew about something of which I was still ignorant. Or better, they had been given a way to understand something to which I had always been attracted, but without understanding my desire.

December 18, 2010

The Chaotic Evil Dishwasher

Warning: this is probably the nerdiest thing I have ever written. It's the semester break. I can relax a little and let my crazy mind wander.

When I was a kid we used to play Dungeons & Dragons, or at least we enjoyed playing and imagining in the fantasy of its world. This was in the olden days, before PC games and before the rules were re-written to be self-referentially coherent. These were the days of organically developed big books of 'rules' and procedures. One of the fun things about the D&D universe was that every sentient being had what was called an Alignment. It imagined the style of behavior of the character or other being, of how he, she, or it adventured through the world.

Alignment was a matrix of two axes, Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic and Good-Neutral-Evil. So there were nine alignments all together. Some sorts of characters were partially defined by an Alignment, e.g. Paladins had to be Lawful-Good, Druids had to be Neutral-Neutral, or 'True Neutral' as it was called, and Thieves were generally expected to be Chaotic-something. Supernatural beings were often defined by Alignment as well, e.g., devils were Lawful-Evil and demons were Chaotic-Evil.

When we were in high school, a friend and I used to sometimes sit in class and try to guess the Alignment of people we were studying. If it was a history class it would be the historical figures, if English, the characters in whatever book we were supposed to be reading.

I was thinking of this old friend as I did my chores this morning, and of our little game. Then, to distract myself during the repellent and annoying weekly task of cleaning out the refrigerator of long abandoned leftovers and salad dressing and condiment containers put back empty, I started to think about Alignment and religious life. What is the Alignment of the friars?

It's not an easy question, because it seems as if different aspects of our life display different Alignments. For example:

Divine worship. Here I judge the brethren, as a whole and for the most part individually, as Neutral-Good. They approach the liturgy with goodness in that they want it to be the worship of God and to thereby serve the pastoral care of its participants. They are neither Lawful nor Chaotic; rules are often a value, but not an absolute one. When rules seem to serve the greater purpose of goodness, they are followed, when they do not (in individual or corporate estimation) they may be abandoned. Some friars tend more toward the Lawful-Good in this area, holding up the value of 'say the black and do the red,' but they must always be careful not to allow themselves be driven to the pharisaic Lawful-Neutral, making an idol out of rubrics. Others tend more to the Chaotic-Good in this area, finding rules and structure at odds with goodness in a basic way. These must be careful, however, not to descend into the Chaotic-Neutral alignment of the narcissistic 'presider.'

Housekeeping. Here there is a great divide. Friars tend to the extremes in this area. Most are very neat and clean for the sake of others and good care of material goods, displaying a Lawful-Good stance. A few abandon goodness and become obsessed with neatness and cleanliness for their own sake, shading themselves to the Lawful-Neutral. A noteworthy minority, however, are Chaotic in this regard. There is the Chaotic-Good that claims not to even notice mess or dirt, and the Chaotic-Neutral that simply considers cleanliness and neatness not to be values. There is one general rule here, however. Almost all of the brethren--with a few famous exceptions--are entirely Chaotic-Evil when it comes to putting their dishes in the dishwasher. They tend to be placed not only with no regard for order, but in such a way that minimizes the capacity of the dishwasher, thus making poor use of water and energy.

December 17, 2010

Liturgical Ramble of Joy and Disappointment

This post on kneeling at Mass over at Fr. Z along with Br. Matt's lovely reflection on the act itself have conspired to bring up a memory for me this morning. It's not all the fault of the posts; every year around Christmas some of my attention turns with gratitude and wonder to these same days in 1995, when I was dismissed from my first experience of religious life.

Right after college, not even baptized two years, I went off in my zealous first fervor and joined the formation program of another mainstream Franciscan community. I had a fine and growthful postulancy, but trouble came in the novitiate. I wasn't ready; I lacked spiritual roots and maturity in prayer. Worst of all, I did not understand or realize that I had these deficits. The novitiate didn't work out, and I was dismissed from the program. God bless my novice master and his assistant. It must have been hard for them, but it was some of the best pastoral care I ever received. I left on Christmas morning (after having said my breviary, of course.) It was a deeply destablizing and confusing experience, but in my prayer in those days it became the occasion for a new and much stronger spiritual foundation and attitude. The blessings and new spiritual beginnings given to me in the stark wilderness of those days became the spiritual foundation on which I stand even now.

Today, thanks to Fr. Z's post, I'm thinking of one the particularly difficult, but ultimately formative, moments in those days. On one of the days following Christmas I went to Mass. Perhaps it was St. Stephen or Holy Innocents. One of my parish priests stopped to talk to me, and asked me why I wasn't in my habit. I had to tell him of my dismissal. He didn't even stop to say anything about it, but immediately invited me to become an altar server. This parish was a little on the traditional side with regard to liturgy, and only used older adolescents or grown men as servers. Someone who had spent some time in religious life was an asset to the parish in this regard, Father explained.

Still very confused about my religious life not working out, I was very grateful for the invitation to serve Mass at the parish. It was something, at least, that I could do for God. So, on what must have been the feast of the Holy Family, I showed up in the sacristy before Mass and put on alb and cincture. I was assigned as cross-bearer. I was nervous but happy. But in the end it didn't go well. During the consecration I got a strong tap on the shoulder from the lector behind me. "Young man, kneel," she commanded with some aggravation in her whisper. After a year and a half in religious life, I had forgotten about kneeling at Mass. We never did. Why I wasn't reminded by seeing the assembly I don't know.

After the Mass, Father had a word with me. Didn't I know how to serve Mass? How could someone who lived in a novitiate not know when he was supposed to kneel? The invitation to serve Mass was rescinded. Father didn't say it, but it was clear to me that he was wondering if my inability to go to Mass properly had something to do with my dismissal from the novitiate. It didn't, of course, but the idea still hurt.

My experience on that Holy Family morning further added to my confusion. Over the years and as I have grown up as a friar, my experience that day has become emblematic for me of an abiding tension in my religious life. I have had a wonderful and blessed experience as a religious. I have met and lived with saints and characters. I have had the blessing of real friendship. The trust of the brothers and the generosity of our benefactors have allowed me to give the majority of my religious life thus far to the leisure of obtaining a theological education. I have lived in wonderful communities and spent two summers in Central America. Most of all, I have found among the brothers a place where God can work on me through my obedience to the fraternity to bring out some of my gifts for the sake of the Church. For all of these blessings I am exceedingly grateful to God and to the friars who accept me each day as a brother. But within all of this, in the area of divine worship, I have often found religious life to be confused and confusing, deformed and deforming. I rant about such things often enough, as readers know, and I don't want this post to be another rant. It's just to say that within the intense goodness of God and the tremendous blessings of my religious life, this one aspect has been confusing to me, and the sweet old lector having to hit me during the consecration has become a symbol of all of it for me.

The priest in the story has moved on to some other ministry, though from his Facebook profile I can't figure out exactly what it is. The lector has gone to her reward. Her funeral was the day after Thanksgiving. Requiescat in pace.

December 16, 2010

Privacy and the Communion Fast

One of my professors, a solid priest but by no means a traditionalist, made an interesting point about the communion fast. The one-hour fast as it is in the current practice of Latin Catholics is pretty negligible; for Sunday Mass all one really has to do is make sure not to eat or drink in church or on the way.

When the fast was longer, either the three hours prescribed by Pius XII or from midnight before that, it could account for those who did not receive Holy Communion. In other words, if someone didn't receive, one might presume that he or she had not kept the fast for whatever reason. Nowadays, offered my professor, there is only one reason for someone to abstain from Holy Communion after having been previously admitted to the sacrament: the state of serious sin.

Thus, he opined, reinstating a longer communion fast could be a great pastoral kindness by providing (as it once did) a pretext for abstaining from Holy Communion for those who were actually unable to receive due to struggles with serious sin or other habitual troubles in their state of life, and thereby give them the dignity of some privacy.

December 15, 2010

Overheard in the Friary: Love and Form

Friar with doctorate in theology opening Christmas cards and pausing on one in particular: "I like to see how the kids have grown, but I wish they could send something a little more religious."

Student friar: "It says 'love.' God is love. That's kind of religious."

Friar with doctorate in theology: "Yes, brother. God is love. But at Christmas God is love in a particular form. Go upstairs."

The Mandatum for Theologians

As a Catholic student of Catholic theology, once in a while I think about the mandate prescribed for professors by Ex corde ecclesiae.

Do any of my teachers or mentors have one? All of them? None of them?

Is there a way, of which I am ignorant, that I am supposed to know?

Would someone admit to having one? Would I be willing to ask?

Time to Find These Library Books

By accident, in trying to download a statement in which Boston College alleges that I owe $3,547 for the beloved privilege of continuing my current association with her, I discovered a link that displays a list of the books one has on loan from the various BC libraries. This will be very helpful in not forgetting to return them. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I have only ten outstanding loans:

Cur deus homo : atti del Congresso anselmiano internazionale, Roma, 21-23 maggio 1998 / a cura di Pa

The love of learning and the desire for God; a study of monastic culture. Translated by Catharine Mi

Magistri Alexandri de Hales Glossa in quatuor libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi, nunc demum reperta

Alexander of Hales' Theology of the Hypostatic Union

The city of God / translated by Marcus Dods ; with an introduction by Thomas Merton.

Doctoris irrefragabilis Alexandri de Hales Ordinis minorum Summa theologica iussu et auctoritate rmi

Proslogion / Anselm von Canterbury ; Untersuchungen lateinisch-deutsche Ausg. von P. Franciscus Sale

Monologion. Lateinisch-deutsche Ausgabe von P. Franciscus Salesius Schmitt.

Pourquoi Dieu s'est fait homme / Anselme de Cantorbéry ; texte latin ; introduction, bibliographie,

Decem opuscula ad theologiam mysticam spectantia / seraphici doctoris S. Bonaventurae ; in textu cor

What is Contemplation?

I tend to avoid the terms 'contemplative prayer' and 'contemplation' because I have so often heard them used as value judgments rather than descriptive terms. Sometimes--especially in religious life--certain forms of prayer (e.g. devotional prayer) are looked down upon as less advanced. My experience along the way in my own journey as well as working with other pray-ers has convinced me that prayer is so intimately bound up with temperament and condition of life that the best form of prayer is the one that fits, not the one that anyone says is more 'advanced.'

For me, I've always found a quiet form of prayer to be a good fit. Early on along the way God provided me with a spiritual friend who introduced me to the writings of Thomas Keating and the Centering Prayer method. After sixteen years of practice I would hesitate to call my prayer by that name; it has become something else. I have also come to regard some of Keating's writing as eccentric, though I still think the practical doctrine is of great value.

So, given all of that, lately I have been playing with a definition of contemplative prayer and contemplation:

Contemplative prayer is the practice of consenting to let our desire attend exclusively to its Ultimate and Final object, Who is God. In this practice we come to know ourselves in our own deepest identity, as fruits and expressions of the Love who desires us into being, and Who restores us to beautiful being by emptying Himself into our humanity in Christ. Contemplation is the obscure knowledge that these two loving desires are ultimately identical. Christ, then, in the perfect union of his two distinct natures, is perfect contemplation itself. The person of Christ is thus both the model and the object of contemplative prayer.

December 14, 2010

John of the Cross on Religious Life

Sometimes I think we religious make an error in the pastoral care of vocations by trying to sell our life as one of mutual care and support. Not that life in religious community isn't supposed to be these things; the common life is, of course, meant to be one of mutual charity and care. But sometimes I think we try to sell it in such a way that candidates get the idea that community life will satisfy all of their emotional needs and longing for intimacy. For us male religious sometimes this theme gets set up in a false distinction between religious life and the diocesan priesthood, e.g. why go the seminary and be lonely when you can enter religious life and have brothers?

Imagining, perhaps not entirely consciously, that religious life would fulfill his emotional needs, and then finding the experience frustrating in this regard, troubles and boundary problems for a brother in ministry are the next pitfall that comes along.

Such distortions and false dichotomies are therefore very dangerous, and I have always been grateful to St. John of the Cross for giving us a salutary corrective. Consider, for example, some bits from his Counsels to a Religious:

To practice the second counsel, which concerns mortification, and profit by it, you should engrave this truth on your heart. And it is that you have not come to the monastery for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue; you are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building.

Thus you should understand that those who are in the monastery are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you.

Trials will never be lacking in religious life, nor does God want them to be.

The translation is from the ICS edition of John's collected works. He is very much worth reading in his own Spanish if you are able. Some can be found online, and his Obras Completas is published by the Editorial de Espiritualidad in Madrid. I found a copy at Schoenhof's up in Cambridge.

December 13, 2010

Lessons From a Lame Dog

This morning it's not so cold for once, and there seems to be a pause in the rain, so I decided to walk to my little Monday-morning Mass at the Poor Clare monastery. It's about a half-hour at a contemplative pace, and I really enjoy the quiet and the light of early morning.

By the time I begin to walk back home at 7:30 or so, the rest of the world is awake. Today I saw a curious sight. A man was walking his dog. The dog, to make up for back legs that were useless and lame, was in a harness that had two wheels. He was like a funny little cart, with legs instead of front wheels.

At first it struck me as quite the pitiful sight. But then I observed the dog's expression; he seemed perfectly delighted to be out for his morning walk, and was eager to notice and smell everything in the world.

As I continued to walk, it struck me that there is a similar choice in the spiritual life. We're all broken at some level. Our ability to walk freely and naturally with God is hampered by our disordered attachments, maladaptive idiosyncrasies, persistent weaknesses, and chronic patterns of sin. So what do we do? We can spend all of our time and reflection and prayer wringing our hands over these things, obsessing about them (which usually makes them worse) or even fetishizing them so as to make sin the primary subject of our spiritual life, or we can simply be grateful for the grace of God that has lifted us up and enabled us to walk above our debility and even in spite of our attachment to it.

December 12, 2010

A Sheep

This morning at Mass the time of the childrens' Christmas play was announced. While further announcements were being made, I inquired with the two altar children if they were in the play. They said no. So then I asked, if they were in the play, who would they want to be? The little boy shrugged his shoulders as if to say he didn't know or was indifferent to it. The little girl, however, answered directly. She would be one of the sheep.

Her answer took me a little by surprise; I guess I was thinking of the human roles when I asked and expected her to say that she would be a shepherd or even Mary herself. No, she was going to be a sheep.

I was reminded of St. Francis and his own desire to celebrate with a live nativity scene at the famous Christmas at Greccio in 1223. As related by Thomas of Celano, Francis desired to contemplate and behold with his bodily eyes, as much as was possible (utcumque corporeis oculis pervidere) the humble circumstances of the Lord's birth. It was important to him that things be real. Real hay, real cold, real animals, and real people. The animals, provided by Francis's mysterious friend John, with all of their noise and probably even their smells, mattered to Francis because it all spoke to the humility of the incarnation, and to see this humility as much as he could was Francis's great desire.

So, as my young friend reminded me this morning, the animals who witnessed the Lord's birth were not there accidentally, and nor are they there just to make our own nativity scenes look cute and fun. The animals have christological signifance, and speak to the humility of the incarnation and the renovation of the whole creation which it brings.

December 11, 2010


Classes are over for the semester. I have one more term paper to go through, fixing and editing, and then it will be time to return library books, recycle and straighten up. It's really one of the joys of the school-based life; that sense of being finished.

One never gets to enjoy that feeling in the parish ministry. A parish is always running. There are individual projects that arrive at completion, but most of the work is continuous and never-ending. It slows down at certain times of the year, like in the middle of the summer and in the last few days before Christmas, but the thing itself never really pauses. It's also true that one gets to feel a little sense of rest and doneness at the end of principal celebrations, but it doesn't last. After the Paschal Triduum there's a great sense of gratitude and relief, but there is almost always a funeral to do on Easter Monday, having been set aside from Saturday or Friday (or even Thursday, when funerals are permitted, but not funeral Masses.) Christmas is a similar thing; the afternoon of Christmas Day is a blessed quiet and relief, but as soon as the office opens on the next first weekday, the new wedding engagements start calling in. (I didn't know this before I was a parish priest, but a lot of people get engaged at Christmas.)

So right now I'm just appreciating the sensation of having finished the semester, and am enjoying all of the little rituals of recycling, filing, and clearing that go with it. Not that there won't be more work to do after another day or two: I've left several mundane projects and errands for the time of the semester break, I have a presentation to prepare for January and a directed reading course for next semester to plan in more detail. And off in the not-so-remote distance is my reading list for comprehensive examination, and (dare I say it) a dissertation proposal to be made.

December 8, 2010

What to Wear?

An interesting question came up in our house chapter (i.e. community meeting) last night: does it matter what we wear for Mass and Liturgy of the Hours? My province of the Order is pretty casual on this point; there is no expectation that a brother would wear his habit to chapel when we pray in the house. Most would put it on for liturgies in public, though not all.

We were questioning ourselves on this point. Does the relative neatness and formality of someone's external appearance reflect his internal spiritual condition? It's not an easy question, and the answer is both yes and no.

Soul and body are distinct, but in a deep and mysterious relationship. Together they constitute the person who has a vocation in this world and an eternal destiny in the next. We believe in the bodily resurrection, and though it might be difficult to articulate exactly what this might mean, we know that the whole person will go into eternity. As one of my favorite teachers liked to say, "eschatologically speaking, the human being is not a two-stage rocket."

Thus, the exterior does have significance for the interior, and vice versa. When we desire to express our reverence for sacred spaces and times, a neatness or formality in our external appearance is a natural and obvious means. With our more serious and formal clothes on, we then behave in a more serious and reverent manner.

When I first began attending a Mass in the Extraordinary Form, one of the things that immediately edified me was the care the people seemed to have taken with their dress and appearance. As I have written about many times, what hooked me into an interest in the EF was the discovery of a reverence and recollection among the people that I had been missing in some other parts of my liturgical life. No doubt the practice of dressing in a particular or formal way for Mass was formative for them as well.

On the other hand, I think that care must always be taken not to push such reflections and claims too far. I suspect that some of the most sincere prayers in this world come from people who both feel and look a mess. Some religious will say that the relative neatness and cleanliness of one's room or appearance is indicative of the state of soul and vocation within, but this is not always the case. Along the way I have met very spiritual brothers who were quite slovenly and even dirty. On the other hand, sometimes someone will try to deal with internal chaos by controlling the neatness of his external world.

December 6, 2010

What Time is Midnight Mass?

This is the time of year when rectory phones begin to ring with the great question titled above. Even though it might sound funny, it's a darn good question, as evidenced by this Mass schedule from one of the places I celebrate these days:

After all, the rubric only says, "at night," so at the end of December in the northern hemisphere, 7:00 pm certainly qualifies.

At the parish where I was most recently assigned, the pastor moved the Christmas Mass in nocte to 10 pm, taking his lead from no less a brother pastor than His Holiness Benedict XVI.

Some of the parishioners were horrified. Knowing that I can sometimes have traditionalist leanings, they tried to make an ally out of me in their campaign to restore the Mass in nocte at midnight. I tried to make a deal with them: I would support their efforts, if they would support me in agitating for the Easter Vigil to be celebrated also at the most traditional time, i.e. such that it would end right before dawn on Easter Sunday. They did not accept my offer.

December 5, 2010


In my experience of trying, or at least desiring to live a spiritual life, it has been my experience that pride is among the sneakiest and most insidious of the passions. Not that this is anything new; as John Cassian--my great teacher--writes, "There is no other vice, then, which so reduces to naught every virtue and so despoils and impoverishes a human being of all righteousness and holiness as does the evil of pride."

Today I was reflecting on an example from my own experience. It was a Sunday after Mass. I thought I had said an attentive and devout Mass, sung well, and preached a homily both entertaining and illuminating. I had a wonderful feeling of having found my niche in the world and gratitude to God for having got me where I was meant to be. People told me it was one of the best homilies that they had ever heard.

Then one man came up to me and pointed out how I had missed an obvious and homiletically useful point. He made me realize that my homily had been clever, but had not really engaged the Scripture. Through this man's little bit of advice, God had accomplished in me a twofold humiliation of my intellectual pride; not only did it cut through my self-congratulation at my preaching, but pointed out that my own cleverness had interfered with my preparation and made shallow my own prayer through the Sunday readings.

As I made my prayer of thanksgiving after greeting the people, I thanked God for the grace of the humiliation and correction, and prayed for the willingness to surrender to true humility.

Then came the next and even more insidious temptation, a thought rising as one of the logismoi if there ever was one: "Wow, I have accepted this humiliation of intellectual pride pretty easily. It feels good to be able to let go of myself so easily. I must be more spiritually advanced than I thought!"

Pride does not give up so easily. Such is the insidiousness of the worst of the passions.

December 3, 2010

What is Charity?

For the feast of St. Francis Xavier today, the Office of Readings offers us some a letter he wrote to St. Ignatius Loyola. St. Francis writes:

Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: "What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!"

Charity is when someone organizes his behavior according to the missionary desire for the salvation of his neighbor in Christ.

Everything else that charity might be, like the corporal works of mercy for example, or even simple kindness on the natural level, derives from this original definition and focus, and is subordinated to it.

December 2, 2010

Socks and Secret

There's a woman who sits outside one of the subway stations I often use on my way back and forth from school. She asks people for spare change. I suppose that she is homeless, but I don't know. I usually say hi.

One day several weeks ago she asked me if I had any socks. Not being in the habit of carrying any socks apart from those on my feet, I had to say no. Later on in the day, though, I remembered that I had an unopened package of socks back in my room at home. So I put it in my school bag for the next time I saw her.

Some more of the semester went by. I don't always take the same route to or from school, and when I did go through this particular station, my friend wasn't there. Finally, after several weeks I ran into her again, and thought that I would finally get rid of the package of socks from my bag.

"Do you still need socks?" I asked.

"No, I have plenty of socks, thank you," she responded.

So, when I got home I put the package of socks back in my room where it started.

I find in all this a helpful reflection for myself. I carried those socks around for several weeks, thinking that I would be able to do a little act of kindness. It didn't turn out that way. It reminds me that the charity and kindness we actually receive from others is only a small subset of what others are willing to do or even of what they have intended to do.

In other words, since I can never know how kind others have been to me--since the love that is actually expressed in action is conditioned by circumstances and my freedom to accept it--I should always consider others as even kinder and more loving than they appear.

December 1, 2010

Great Responses in Ministry

When I worked at the parish I was known for my one-liner responses to various inquiries. I was thinking about some of them today:

Caller: "How do I baptize my baby?"
Me: "You put some water on it and invoke the Blessed Trinity."

Caller: "Can I be buried in any cemetery I want?"
Me: "Not until you are deceased."

Caller: "What do you mean we can't have a funeral [Mass] on [Holy] Thursday? Which one of you down there made up that little rule?"
Me: "Pius XII."*

Man who came into the office alone: "I'd like to schedule a wedding."
Me: "Do you have a woman? We only supply the priest, organist, and cantor."**

Upset lady who said she wanted to hug the tabernacle: "Why are you telling me all these things?"
Me: "Because you asked."

*Any rubricians want to check me on this?
**In my experience as a parish priest, it was exceedingly rare for the male party to initiate wedding planning in the first place, much less come alone.

Edith Stein

All of a sudden it feels like the end of the semester. Next week is the last of classes. All of my term work is in draft. It's rather uneven, and I'm not even sure how good some of it is, but it all represents a kind of groping and clumsy start at finding some direction in the obedience of this doctorate.

So as time opens up, I can get back to other things I either set aside because of the course work or left for later. But it also means I can find some time for personal reading. Various evidence suggests to me that it might be time for me to read Edith Stein. Does anybody who is better acquainted with her work have any advice? Because of the John of the Cross connection I'm curious about the Kreuzeswissenschaft/Science of the Cross, but I don't know if this is the right place to start.

Thanks in advance!