December 31, 2011

New Translation: Victimhood

In accord with my practice for the minimum use of Eucharistic Prayer I, I've been praying the Roman Canon through this whole week of the Christmas Octave. This has given me further opportunity to pray through and reflect upon the new translation.

One thing that strikes me with some intensity is the restoration of the triad at the end of the Unde et memores: offered to God is the hostiam puram, hostiam, sanctam, hostiam immaculatam.

The new translation renders this as it is in the Latin: this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim.

The old translation did away with the structure of the triad, replacing it with this holy and perfect sacrifice.

On the one hand, I like the restoration of the normative structure of the prayer. Now I just have to let go of the interior urge to make the signs of the cross that accompany this moment in the Extraordinary Form! On the other hand, I see the translation problem. In our time and place, victimhood and victimization have such a connotation of meaninglessness injustice. Jesus' victimhood was certainly an injustice, but one that was, in the paradox of the cross, superabundant in meaning. Can we hear this over and above our common connotations of 'victim'?

Even though hostia and victima may have been somewhat interchangeable in late antiquity when the Roman Canon came together, the meaning-history of hostia, with its general sense of sacrificial victim and technical use as such in ancient religion would seem to be lost to the average pray-er speaking it as 'victim' in twenty-first century English.

So it goes to some basic questions regarding liturgical translation. For example, what is the value of trying to bring out the sense of terms in our best guesses as to their original connotation and intent? On other hand, one of the values embedded in the new translation, and to which I consent easily, is that sacral language, such as that of the liturgy, is not supposed to be the same as or beholden to common speech.

So what do you think? Is it an o.k., good, or not-so-good thing to translate the hostia in hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam as 'victim'?

December 30, 2011

Some Questions from the Referrer Log

I love to review the internet searches that bring visitors to this little blog. Here are some recent search queries in the form of questions:

"My attitudes toward temptations?" Gratitude is the only good answer, and the best attitude for making the most of the gift of a temptation.

"Franciscan ordination of a priest--what color is the stole [?]" White. That is to say, liturgical white, which includes festive edgings toward decoration and gold, etc. Contrary to various nonsense one may be told or experience, Franciscanism is not a separate religion from Catholic Christianity.

(That being said, Franciscans do, however, enjoy some ancient rubrical privileges, such as that of saying Mass barefoot. But since the rubrics of the Ordinary Form do not explicitly demand that sacred ministers wear shoes, it doesn't mean much. We used to get to put St. Francis into the Confiteor, but I guess he went the way of John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul in the reform of the liturgy.)

"Who is friars in noli me tangere?" I get versions of this one from time to time, often enough to make me wonder. I have to say that I don't have any idea. Is there are a church dedicated to the noli me tangere where there are friars? Anybody know what this and similar queries might be about?

December 28, 2011

Learn some Latin

From Fr. Finigan's blog I learn today of a conference for the fiftieth anniversary of John XXIII's apostolic constitution Veterum sapientia, which urged the study of Latin as a requirement for priestly formation. The same requirement is echoed by the decree on priestly training of Vatican II, Optatam totius. My experience, however, at least where I studied for priesthood and where our men continue to do so, is that no Latin is required. So much for the spirit of Vatican II.

I had to get myself a little Latin because I took an extra year in studies for priesthood and completed an STL, and I have to say that it was one of the best things I ever did for myself as a Catholic Christian. Even a little bit of Latin opens up tremendous vistas in one's awareness of the traditions of western Christianity.

It's too bad that Latin gets so wound up with our factions and disagreements, as if the only reason a seminarian might learn Latin would be so that he could put on a maniple or black vestments or do some other, equally horrifying thing. Latin is a matter of our tradition, not of so-called traditionalism.

When I was at Weston Jesuit it was joked that, in the theological vision of the school, nothing of note had happened in Christianity between the death of St. Paul and the birth of Karl Rahner. Perhaps that wasn't quite fair, but the jab did get at something. But you have to say that without any Latin, those who would be Catholic priests and theologians do cut themselves off from their ancestors in a certain way.

And when it comes to the ministry of sacred orders and the practice of theology, ancestors aren't just ancestors, but the communion of saints. They are worth conversing with in their own words. So learn some Latin.

December 27, 2011

Christmas, Atheism, and Power

Reflecting on Christmas, and especially our Holy Father's Christmas homily in which St. Francis plays such a part, I've been thinking about contemporary disbelief in God and how maybe it relates to our wrong ideas of power.

Perhaps part of what makes it so hard for folks to believe in God--and even for us religious folks, sometimes, to act as if he exists--is that we are confused about power. God is the Almighty; he is the infinite creative power that made the heavens and the earth and sustains all things in being. And yet, when the Almighty God is revealed to us, what do we get? First, a baby born not only in an obscure place but away from home, to plain parents, and into an ethnic group that was--at least at that time--historically important by no accepted standard. Second, a tortured and convicted criminal being executed on the cross. Christ crucified could not even move his hands and feet, much less control anything or make anybody do anything. And yet these are the privileged revelations of the all-powerful, Almighty God.

Perhaps when we talk about power we are too often talking about what is really the abuse of power, the leverage or ability to manipulate and coerce, to make others conform to our will, to co-opt others into the disorders of our hearts and the futility of our sins.

In Jesus Christ the highest power is revealed as self-emptying humility. If we were to come to really understand and practice our own wills to power in this way, maybe it would be easier to believe in God. Indeed, perhaps God would become as self-evident as he necessarily must be.

Not that it's easy. To embrace the true power revealed in humility is hard on the flesh, which has lusted for the violent domination of others ever since Cain killed his own brother. The crown of thorns cuts and digs when we put it on. But is the crown of the true royalty of this world, of those who bear the real power that is the only source of peace.

December 26, 2011


I love the first preface of Christmas. I sing it all week during the octave.

...dum visibiliter Deum cognoscimus, per hunc in invisibilium amorem rapiamur.

" we recognize in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible."

Maybe I like the old translation better. We used to say that in Christ we see “our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”

It's the strength of the rapiamur that gets me. Somehow to me the English 'caught up' just doesn't grab the sense of an almost violent seizing in the verb rapio, rapere.

I was thinking about this today when it occurred to me that the same verb is at the root of the term 'rapture,' the idea, based on a certain readings of 1 Thessalonians and Revelation, that the end times will include the elect being snatched out of the world to leave those who remain to suffer a period of tribulation.

But the real bite and force of Christianity is that the end time isn't exactly a temporal event we await on some schedule. The end of time and of everything else has already appeared in the person of Jesus Christ. And, as the prayer of the preface reveals, it is his birth that initiates and makes available a rapture, and not just for a certain elect, for all humanity.

The Incarnation of the Son of God makes divinity available to our humanity. In him God becomes visible, indeed tangible. And by our surrender to having his divine humanity mingle with ours in Holy Communion, the invisible God makes a home in us as our own blessedness. The Incarnation of the Son of God, and the abiding Presence of his body in the Eucharist, offers us the chance to be caught up, to be raptured into the infinite joy, delight, and creativity that we call the Blessed Trinity.

December 24, 2011

Santa Runs on Dunkin

You can say what you want about my neighborhood, but it has its charms.

December 23, 2011

On Rules, Perspective, and Humility

Massachusetts is famous for its traffic rotaries. In other places these are more often called traffic circles or roundabouts, but here it's always a rotary.

I never knew this until one recent day when I saw the name on a map I was trying to interpret for some disoriented tourists, but the rotary in my neighborhood is called Murray Circle. It stands at the intersection of the Arborway/Jamaica Way and Centre St., as the latter snakes its way from Jamaica Plain to West Roxbury. Directly to the south of the rotary is the Arnold Arboretum.

On the part of Centre St. on the West Roxbury side of the rotary there are a couple of sets of traffic lights that are alternately red and flashing yellow. A sign next to each set indicates their purpose. It says that the signals are timed to require frequent stops, or something like that. Inevitably, some sarcastic soul will have affixed another adjective to these signs, indicating that the stops are 'needless' or 'pointless.'

To a motorist, perhaps the pauses do seem pointless and needless. But to me, it is very helpful that the drivers speeding into the rotary from the south-east are occasionally stopped.

At least once I a week I offer Mass at the Poor Clare monastery on the other side of the rotary from where I live. I would much rather walk there, as I love the early-morning quiet and solitude. If there is a place where I am most likely to leave this world quickly and decisively in the course of my ordinary daily life, it's trying to cross the rotary where the southbound Arborway leaves it. There's a crosswalk there, but very few drivers respect it. For a significant part of the year, it's not even quite light out yet when I'm trying to cross the rotary around 6:30 in the morning. It's only because of the so-called pointless and needless stops that I occasionally have a chance to cross the rotary and get to Mass, as these stops pause the speeding traffic entering at the closest point to where I need to cross. And lest anyone protest that the stops going the other way out of the rotary remain pointless, these are good too, in the way that they slow down the traffic altogether so that someone may cross.

So, before we call arbitrary or pointless some rule we are asked to follow, may we humbly remember that perhaps our particular situation does not reveal the whole picture.

December 22, 2011

Christmas Mass Dubia

The ordinary rule of the Church is that one priest should only offer one Mass each day. They may be given faculties for offer Mass twice on weekdays and thrice on Sundays, should there be a pastoral need in a certain place. In fact, such faculties are pretty much the norm nowadays.

There are two days a year when priests have the right to offer three Masses as a given: All Souls Day and Christmas. On All Souls, a stipend may be taken only for the first Mass, and it is also the only one for which the priest may decide upon or accept an intention. The second Mass is to be offered for all the faithful departed, and the third for the intentions of the pope. On Christmas, as far as I know, there is no such restriction on intentions, and stipends may be accepted for all of the Masses. Another difference is that the three Masses of All Souls, should a priest decide to celebrate all of them, could be offered in succession. The three Masses of Christmas must be offered at the times of day to which they are assigned.

The Christmas situation raises some questions for me, however.

1. From the missal it seems that the 'three Masses' begin after the vigil Mass, and therefore would be the Mass at night, the Mass at dawn, and the Mass during the day. These three are the 'traditional' Masses of Christmas, i.e. midnight, dawn, and day. So my first question is that it would seem a priest could celebrate the vigil Mass, and then still be able to celebrate the three Masses of Christmas Day proper. That would be four Masses over the whole of the liturgical day. Is that still o.k.? Would it be an abuse of the tradition?

2. Traditionally, the Mass during the night was the Mass at Midnight. Now, at least in the Ordinary Form, it is only the Mass in nocte, and can be celebrated during the night prior to midnight. So, would it be o.k. to celebrate the Mass in nocte as one of the 'three traditional Masses' even if this were before midnight? In other words, if someone were taking up the traditional practice of the 'three Masses, ' ought he also to follow the traditional rubric for the time?

3. For pastoral purposes, the different readings for the Masses of Christmas may be switched around. For example, if you attend Christmas Mass at 4 or 5 pm on Christmas eve, you probably won't hear the gospel for the vigil Mass, but the gospel for the night Mass. The angels and the shepherds from St. Luke, which everyone knows if only from A Charlie Brown Christmas, just says Christmas in a much more accessible way that St. Matthew's genealogy. So let's say you were going to celebrate the vigil Mass in a parish complete the readings for the night Mass. If you were going to offer the night Mass later on privately, should you use the night readings again, back-fill the liturgy with the vigil readings, or go ahead to the readings for dawn?

December 21, 2011

Broken Fingers and Foolishness to the World

My spiritual director often speaks to me about the Cross, which is good because I remain hesitant to embrace it.

Over time I've collected a few of these sayings. Here are three that I try to keep close:

"The more you find the Cross problematic, the more difficulty you will have finding peace. It's that simple."

"Just because you embrace the Cross doesn't always make it understandable. It's still foolishness to the world, and to the world that still lives inside you especially."

"Crucifixion is a messy business. On top of the nails, you're going to get a finger smashed when the hammer misses. It's an awful mess."

New Translation: Womb and Altar

The Prayer over the Offerings from this past Sunday has been sticking with me this week.

May the Holy Spirit, O Lord,
sanctify these gifts laid upon your altar,
just as he filled with his power the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
Through Christ our Lord.

The prayer brings out the relationship between the Eucharist and the mystery of the Incarnation.

It is the Holy Spirit who stretches forth the overflowing love of the Father such that this Beloved takes on our humanity in the womb of Mary. The prayer asks this same grace for the altar at the center of the Christian assembly. As St. Francis put it so simply, Mary is the virgo ecclesia facta, the Virgin made Church. In the Eucharist the Church takes up her Marian role, becoming once again the place where the Spirit conceives the Body of Christ.

Having become once again the Body of Christ in Holy Communion, the faithful go forth from the Eucharist as the Word-made-flesh born into the world, on his way to preach, heal, suffer, and give his life that the grace of his Passion and Resurrection may continue to flow over the world.

December 20, 2011

Party Like It's 5199

I'm a little bummed that the Christmas proclamation, i.e. the "Proclamation of the birth of Christ," which can be sung leading up to the Mass in nocte, doesn't seem to be included in the new Roman Missal in English. I guess it's just another symptom of the marginalization of the Martyrology in the reformed Roman rite.

CORRECTION: Thanks to my erudite friend cua guy, I have been corrected. A new version of the proclamation does appear in the new English Roman Missal, towards the end of the appendix, "Various chants for the Order of Mass."

Personally, I don't like this new version, and nor did I like the version that appeared in the 2004 Sacramentary Supplement. The latter is still available on the USCCB website, oddly enough.  I prefer the big numbers that date the creation, and a history that begins before Abraham. "When ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world" Boring. It's Christmas. Be a creationist for one night and party like it's 5199!

December 19, 2011

Born Again

I love how the Sunday and weekday readings intersect this week such that yesterday we had the scene of the Annunciation and today we have the angel Gabriel's announcement to Zechariah of the birth of John the Baptist.

At first glance, the parallelism of the scenes might seem to reveal an unfairness. Both Mary and Zechariah question the announcements they receive; Mary because, presumably, she knows where babies come from, and Zechariah because he knows that he and Elizabeth had been unable to have children and had grown too old by then anyway. In response to Mary's questioning, the angel gently describes what will happen. Zechariah, on the other hand, is struck mute in punishment for his questioning, and remains speechless until John is born and named.

What gives? Is the angel Gabriel just nice to young women and mean to old men?

On the contrary, this difference in the scenes reveals the good news of Christmas.

Zechariah, because he knew the scriptures, ought to have recognized what God was up to. Several times previously in the history of the people of God, a birth from parents who were previously unable to have children or too old, or both, had signaled the beginning of new moment of salvation. So it was with Samson, Samuel, and Isaac. What was announced to Zechariah was something God was known to do, and Zechariah should have known it.

With Mary the case is different. For her, in her conception of Jesus, God doesn't just stretch the capacity of nature but goes beyond it. The miraculous births of Samson, Samuel, and Isaac are new beginnings of what already was; the birth of Jesus, as a break in the cycles of ordinary human generation as it has occurred since Adam and Eve, is a new humanity. Because what Gabriel announces to Mary is a entirely new thing that God was doing, her questioning is forgiven.

In the Nativity of Jesus, humanity has a new birth. And this is good news for all of us who know the ennui and weariness of life in the old Adam, because this 'born again-ness' is available to us by baptism into Christ's death and Holy Communion with his broken and risen humanity.

December 18, 2011

Thoughts and Decisions about my Online Self

Recently I've made some decisions about my online self, mostly around levels of privacy. It's not that I've had any trouble, thank God, but that I want to clear some distraction and also better appreciate folks with whom I'm connected.

So here's my sense of it:

The blog. I've been blogging here at a minor friar for almost six years. It's become part of the fabric of my daily life, ongoing reflection, and even my prayer. It serves a lot of purposes for me, and on the balance it seems like a salutary project, so I keep going. Of course it's eminently public. There are a few hundred visitors each day. Anyone may leave comments, and I do my best to publish all of them. I only reject out of hand comments that are spammy, overly rude, or vulgar. I'm very grateful for all of the friends I have made through blogging, and for the chance to link to other fine and interesting blogs.

Twitter. The first time I was on Twitter I quit with some drama, having decided it was a distraction. I came back when some circumstances changed in my life and I thought micro-blogging might be fun and worthwhile again. I appreciate Twitter for a lot of reasons, and I use it for an array of purposes, from preaching and devout encouragement all the way to outright silliness. My tweets are set to public. Anyone may follow. Whether or not I follow you back is somewhat arbitrary, so don't take it personally either way. Just because I don't follow you back doesn't mean I don't approve of or like your tweets, and just because I do doesn't necessarily mean I agree with you.

Facebook. I guess by now I would be considered an early adopter. For years I have accepted almost every friend request I received. Lately, however, I began to ask myself why I should bother staying on Facebook. But then I decided that I did appreciate it for certain things, and I edited my list of friends toward this purpose. I don't want to use Facebook for Christian encouragement or to play games. I don't really see it for me as a tool for evangelization, like I sometimes see Twitter and the blog. I basically like Facebook as I way to keep connected and stay grateful for folks I have known in person along the way. You see, I'm really a very shy person, and not likely to stay in touch with people from childhood, college, jobs, earlier assignments, etc., by way of calling or visiting. Facebook lets me stay in touch and keep grateful for all those folks. When I 'unfriended' all the people I didn't really know, I was surprised that so many friends were left. So that's it. Facebook is now a sort of more private place for me, limited to interacting with people I actually know in 'real life' or with whom I have had a significant internet relationship across various social networks.

Google +. I'm not quite sure what to make of Google + yet, though I like it. This doesn't bother me, because I don't think Google + yet knows what to make of itself. It looks like Facebook, more or less, but the way users connect is something closer to Twitter. For now I'm treating it a something in between. That is to say I may share posts with 'extended circles' but I myself will probably only encircle those that I know in person or with whom I have a previous internet relationship.

foursquare. In some ways foursquare is going to be the most private social network of all for me, for obvious reasons.

December 17, 2011

Sapida Scientia

December 17 is one of those hinge days in the Church's prayer; the season of Advent turns from the mystical and second comings of Christ to the proximate preparation for the coming commemoration of the Lord's Nativity. The beloved 'O antiphons' appear in their traditional place around the Magnificat at Vespers and are also used as the alleluia verse at Mass. The second Advent preface, an option on the third Sunday, now takes over until the vigil Mass of Christmas.

It's a liturgical hinge not unlike the one between the fourth and fifth weeks of Lent. Though Passiontide isn't named as a season or moment in the modern Roman rite, you will notice that it's still there if you pay close attention to changes in the preface at Mass and to the cycles of texts in the Liturgy of the Hours.

It gets me praying as best as I can in the Advent spirit. The season speaks to me in a basic way, as one who has known God as just that: adventitious. God arrived in my life; he slowly appeared along the way as some sort of mysterious character. Mysterious and even so subtle as to be exasperating sometimes, but still compelling enough to make me want to organize my life around his advent.

I guess I've been thinking about some of this stuff as I approach some milestones in the coming year. This winter I'll be forty years old. In the summer I'll be twenty years baptized. Over these years my life has come to be consumed--and if it were only more consumed!--with this mysterious 'God' who has made this adventitious appearance in my life. The defining elements and contours of my life now,  my celibacy, my prayer, my Franciscanism, my priesthood, all of these cluster around my stumbling attempts to understand what has happened to me in this experience, and how I might learn to be both a good host for it and also mirror its goodness and trustworthiness to others.

At certain points in the journey I've been a pretty good host for this adventitious Guest. At other times I have avoided Him, or distracted myself from interior hospitality with all sorts of trifles, inanities and excuses. And sometimes these were even made out of religion. But the good news of Christmas is that the Word, proceeding forth from the Father from all eternity, is the tasty Wisdom who wills to become flesh precisely in the world where there is no room for Him.

December 16, 2011

On Jewishness

Yesterday I followed a link to this fascinating article: Rosalind Moss' Unexpected Journey, and it's been on my mind. Hers is an amazing story indeed; from a good Jewish home in Brooklyn to a meeting with messianic Jews, to Protestantism and then Catholicism, and now foundress of a "contemplative-active teaching and evangelistic community."

Her points of view are very interesting, from what it would mean to take the messianic promises of the scripture seriously to the no-brainer of ad orientem worship and the connection of Gregorian chant to the worship of the Old Covenants. Perhaps the most startling thing she says is this:

"I’ve said many times that the most Jewish thing a Jew can do is to become Catholic"

Read the article to get a sense of just what she means by that. Her sense reminded me of something that's been on my mind from reading the medievals. I can't help but notice that when the medieval theologians talk about Abraham or Moses or the prophets of Old Testament, they do not speak of them (as I think we would) as if they were members of a 'different religion' than themselves.

In fact, I am increasingly convinced that the common idea that there is some genus called 'religion' of which human phenomena like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc., are the various species is scripturally and theologically untenable, all your 'coexist' bumper stickers be damned. Nevertheless, I think this conceptual framework about 'religion' and 'religions' is generally presumed, even by religious people.

Rather, it seems to me that the basic issue in this regard is whether one is a Jew or a pagan. Either you are one of those to whom God has given the Promised Land, or not. The good news is that because of Jesus Christ, everyone is free to become the funny kind of eschatological Jew that has come to be called a 'Christian.'

December 15, 2011

New Translation: Femininity Restored

The other night I was talking with someone about the new translation and the many things we appreciated about it and how grateful we were for its appearance.

One thing that was mentioned, which I hadn't yet thought of myself, was the restoration of feminine pronouns for the Church. As one example among many that could be adduced, the intercession for the Church in the ever-popular Eucharistic Prayer II used to say, Lord, remember your Church throughout the world; make us grow in love...but now it says, Remember, Lord, your Church, spread throughout the world, and bring her to the fullness of charity...

My friend said that he was very grateful for this change, and that he thought it would have good spiritual effects.

So what do you think? What will the restoration of the femininity of the Church in the new translation do for us and our prayer? Will it help us amid the world's widespread confusions around sex and gender, many of which have crept into the Church?

December 14, 2011

Sustento del Alma

Many times in the first few years of my Christianity I tried to read John of the Cross but failed. Then, one day, as novice Capuchin friar on retreat in lovely Marathon, Wisconsin, I picked up The Ascent of Mount Carmel and read it freely. The moment had come for me to meet one of my great teachers. A few years later, having learned a little Spanish and finding myself as a student at the former Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I went over to Shoenhof's and spent a large portion of my monthly 'day off' money on his Obras Completas.

It is often said in the spiritual life that God sends us guides and teachers at the moments when we need them. I have found this to be the case in my own life, and I believe it is one of the graces of the communion of saints. It's not limited to the Church on earth, however. We are also given saints to read at the right moments. That's why John of the Cross didn't work for me until I was ready. My first desires to read him were vainglorious; I thought I would read him because he was supposed to be deep and I wanted to be deep as well. When I had stumbled along long enough trying to live a life of prayer such that I could understand what John was talking about, then I was given the grace of being able to read him.

In this spirit we should be attentive if we have an inspiration to take up a devotion to a certain saint or to read his writings. God can also speak to us through others who suggest to us what we might read or with whom we might pray. The communion of saints is a way to talk about larger economies of grace working through friends of God across time and space, and it is a communion that is on our side in our desire for prayer and sanctity.

"Por ninguna ocupación dejar la oración mental, que es sustento del alma." ~Juan de la Cruz, Grados de Perfección, 5.

December 13, 2011

Defiance and Repentance

I love the gospel for today, the parable of the two sons from Matthew 21. Both sons are asked by their father to 'go out and work in the vineyard today.' The first son is defiant and refuses to go, but afterwards changes his mind and does. The second says that he will go but then doesn't.

When Jesus asks which son did the will of his father, of course it is the first.

Thus, it is the first son whom we are given to imitate in our relationship with our heavenly Father.

Therefore, it seems to me that the first spiritual step is to pray to know or to become aware of the ways we have defiantly refused the command of God, that we might think again, change our minds, and repentantly go out and do what we're told.

As God draws us ever deeper into the mystery of himself, we will find that these acts of defiance and refusal become ever more subtle and tricky. That's why our prayer for self-knowledge and willingness must become ever more fervent.

December 12, 2011

What to do for Christmas

I love looking at the search terms that bring people to this blog. They are often funny and frequently fascinating. Here's one of my recent favorites: "What is Christmas to me as a Franciscan friar?"

Oh, dear brother, it is many things...

  • A good time to get some friends and some stinky animals to go up with you on some cold mountain where you proclaim the gospel of Christ's birth.
  • A chance to smear meat on the walls of your house.
  • A moment to stand in awe before the mystery of the sublime poverty of the Son of God, of which your whole life has become a grateful imitation.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

On my walk to the Poor Clares for Mass this morning, I was reflecting on Our Lady of Guadalupe, and what I might say by way of a homily for her feast day today.

I think she is a great encouragement for the Church and the world. That our Blessed Mother should have appeared from among the indigenous people of the Americas precisely as the eschatological Mary, the apocalyptic woman clothed with the sun from Revelation 12, is hope in the midst of the mess and ambivalence of human history.

Whatever the sins of history and the abiding injuries and injustices of Christianity coming to the 'New World,' our Lady of Guadalupe assures us that Babylon the great is already fallen, and that the king of the nations she bears has been preserved from the destructive dragon. The one she bears to the world is the Eternal Word who empties his divinity into the suffering humanity of this world, offering salvation to all of us who have insisted on such misery for ourselves and each other with our violence and sin.

December 10, 2011

Rolling the Gimel

I hate Christmas. Don't get me wrong. The mystery of the Incarnation, the celebration of the Lord's Nativity, its wonderful octave and whole liturgical season, crowned as it is with the mystic awakening of Epiphany and the hope of Jesus' baptism--I love all of that very much. But the world's 'holiday season,' with its sappy songs, so many shopping days left, Santa hats and antlers on cars, all of that y'all can have, because it ain't my bag.

So I'm always happy to have little experiences at this time of year, and I always do, that reveal the feebleness of the whole business.

On my walk today I saw an odd sight. A lady was assembling an artificial Christmas tree right there on the sidewalk. Next to the tree, lying there on the curb, was a big dreidel. And I mean silly big. The cuboid portion had to be at least four cubic feet.

With something like earnest exasperation she addressed me as I approached.

"Want a free Christmas tree?"

"No thank you," I responded.

"Oh well. I just thought I would ask and maybe save myself the trouble of making a 'free to take' sign to put on it."

"How about the giant dreidel?" I inquired.

"That's free too."

I didn't take it. So, if you feel like an artificial Christmas tree of medium height or a huge dreidel would make your holiday season, take your bad self down to Moraine St. in Jamaica Plain.

Pilgrimage to Providence

Yesterday I made a pilgrimage of sorts, to the place where I first took the Franciscan habit. Here it is:

When I lived there it was called St. Francis Chapel & City Ministry Center. Now it's a Hampton Inn & Suites. Where I once prayed before the Blessed Sacrament, which was exposed each weekday afternoon, folks now sit in a lobby with newspapers and coffee. So pass the glories of this world, even the pious ones.

I prayed None outside, and I prayed for my vocation.

In his Testament St. Francis said simply that when what had bitter was changed into "sweetness of soul and body" after his time with the lepers, he paused for a moment and then "left the world." But here's the thing about leaving the world: pious vainglory tells you that you can leave the world in a big, dramatic, single step. The truth is, the world still lives inside. It will fight to get you back at every step. The world is a possessive, unchaste, jealous lover. And the world would rather have you dead than let you belong to someone else.

Leaving the world means doing so anew each day.

December 8, 2011

Eschaton Made Flesh

I love the feast of the Immaculate Conception because I think it's one of the most explicitly and plainly eschatological liturgical observances of the whole year, and because we are so badly in need of recovering our eschatological sense. I think this is especially true for us Franciscans. As the young Benedict XVI wrote of the Franciscan Rule in his Habilitationsschrift, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure:

The unsophisticated and unrealistic way in which Francis tried to make the Sermon on the Mount the rule of his 'new People' is not understood properly if we designate it as 'idealism' is understandable only as...eschatological confidence..

A couple of common-sense objections to the Immaculate Conception help us to understand the eschatological nature of this dogma. First, it is asked how Mary could have benefited from the salvation Christ won by his Passion and Resurrection before these things happened. Second, if Mary was free of both the guilt and the effects of original sin from the first moment of her conception, what need did she have of the redemption Christ was to win for us?

These objections reveal an overly temporal and mechanical imagination surrounding the Resurrection of Christ and the salvation that it is for us. The Resurrection matters precisely because it is an eschatological event; it is the end and destiny of the creation made historical by revelation.

This is why Paul, in Romans 4, is able to suggest that Abraham's faith that God could bring forth descendants from the bodies of himself and Sarah, which were 'as good as dead,' is a sort of occult faith in the Resurrection. Abraham believed that God could bring a fresh and new life from a creation that had become old and dead in the corruption inherited from our first parents, and that God would do just that through his body and that of his wife.

Isaac, is then, the first visible light of the dawn of Resurrection faith. As the power of this eschaton-made-history rolls through time, it prepares Mary to be the new and final Ark in which the full inauguration of the End will come into the world.

December 5, 2011

New Translation: Similitudini Mortis

On a rainy Tuesday in Ordinary Time--that was my first, and very formative, liturgy teacher's shorthand for a liturgical day of low solemnity--I have a tendency to use Eucharistic Prayer II. If the Mass is being offered for a deceased person or persons, and I have not the liturgical or pastoral option to offer Mass in one of the full formularies for the dead, I tend to add the embolism for the deceased during the prayer.

This little prayer is one of many improvements in the new translation. Here's the old version:

Remember N., whom you have called from this life. In baptism he (she) died with Christ: may he (she) also share his resurrection.

And the new one:

Remember your servant N., whom you have called (today) from this world to yourself. Grant that he (she) who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection.

It is the conformity of our death to the death of Christ which is saving, a conformity that God has accomplished in the Son by emptying himself into the misery of our death-bound condition in Christ. Of course the 'death like his' language comes from St. Paul and refers most specifically to our baptism. The translators of the older version were surely trying to bring out this baptismal connection. Our baptism is our dying into the death of Christ, passing mystically into the new life of the Resurrection. The whole of our post-baptismal, eucharistic life is the working out and flowering of this Resurrection mystery, culminating in the final letting-go into God that is our bodily death. But bodily death means little to the Christian; after all, we have already died in baptism.

Nevertheless, in having prayed this prayer a couple times now in the new translation, I'm led to pray for all of those in this world who die a death like the Lord's in a more plain and immediate way: lonely, humiliated, in physical torment, abandoned by friends and even feeling abandoned by God. Offering the Mass that is the memorial and re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross, I remember that is for such that the Compassion of God stretches forth from the Blessedness of the Trinity to live and die in us.

December 2, 2011

New Translation: Sinning Toward Christmas

You can certainly say this about the transition of praying in the new translation: one feels more like a sinner. It starts with the change in the Confiteor: it used to be that I had sinned. Now I have greatly sinned. It used to be through my fault. Now it's through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. And in many other ways, too, the new translation is marked by a greater and more explicit language of the tragedy of sin.

There are those who have and will object to this, protesting that 'we are an Easter people' and such things, and reminding us that an obsession with sin is terribly unhealthy. I have no argument with that; as a confessor I have witnessed many times the miserable trap of so-called spiritual lives becoming about nothing but sin and the failure of our struggles against it.

On the other hand, I have to say that the renewed--some might say 'restored'--emphasis on sin speaks better to my own experience. How today's Collect resonates with the supplications of own journey in prayer!

Stir up your power, we pray, O Lord, and come,
that with you to protect us,
we may find rescue
from the pressing dangers of our sins,
and with you to set us free,
we may be found worthy of salvation.
Who live and reign...

That's something like the compunction I have found at my own most authentic moments of prayer. The realization that the roots of sin in myself are a pressing danger, revealing even my pious desires as vainglorious fantasies and my seemingly good deeds as the 'polluted rags' spoken of in these days by the prophet Isaiah. Over the course of my life as a Christian, I have found myself over and over shaken from denial about the depth, insidiousness, and rottenness of sin. From sensuality to vainglory, tricks of the mind and denial, rationalization and jadedness, I'm always discovering that I thought I was taking sin seriously when in fact I had hardly even begun.

In that spirit the new translation reminds me of an early experience in my own journey. At the beginning of my Christian life I tried to read books about prayer and the spiritual life. But I didn't get them, or maybe they didn't get me. All of their happy doctrine about 'experiences of God' and fruitful and nourishing experiences of prayer just didn't resonate with my own experience of trying to pray and find the grace of living a spiritual life. Then one day I read John Cassian on the eight principal vices and John of the Cross on the errors of beginners and the spiritual analogues of the capital sins. It was like meeting real friends for the first time. These men got me; they knew what I was going through, and their writings gave me hope.

So I am glad to have a new translation of the Mass that suits me as the miserable and grievous sinner that I am. But it's not that confessing and growing honest about the depths of our sinfulness is the end of the spiritual life. The good news of the coming great feast of the incarnation is that it is precisely in places that are dark, rejected, cold, and dirty that the Lord wills to be born. If my heart is such a place, then I have that much more hope in the ancient prayer: Come, Lord Jesus.

November 30, 2011

New Translation: My Opinions on Editions

It's only been a few days, but I've already had chances to use both standard sizes of the three different editions of the new missal one is most likely to encounter here in the States: those of Magnificat, Liturgy Training Publications, and the Catholic Book Publishing Company.

I have formed some clear and distinct opinions.

The Magnificat edition is my least favorite. The art is magnificent, for sure, but is so eclectic as to make the book seem awfully busy. There are only tabs for the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayers rather than for each page turn therein. Even in the larger missal the print isn't very big. The thing feels like a coffee table book rather than a liturgical tool. All that being said, Magnificat wins for the best ribbons. As anybody who knows me will say, I do love proper ribbons in my liturgical books.

Catholic Book Publishing Co. has a long history of producing liturgical books that are durable and clear, but painfully plain and homely. Your breviary from them won't fall apart. Despite the baptismal water in your infant baptism ritual and the rain water in your funeral ritual, they still serve time after time. That being said, they aren't much to look at. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to see that CBPC's editions of the new missal are quite lovely as well as pretty usable. Not they didn't fall prey to a little bit of creeping elegance as well; the fancy capitals are pointless and not very readable.

My favorite, though, are the new missals from LTP. I've appreciated much of their work for a long time. I think they make the best lectionaries, and their English-Spanish facing-page edition of Pastoral Care of the Sick is one of the most practically useful priestly go-to books out there. Their new missal is boxy and plain, but eminently readable. There are clearly labeled tabs for every page turn in the Eucharistic Prayers and the Communion Rite, and in different colors, which is very helpful. There's not much art, and what is there not everyone will like, but again, this is a missal, not a coffee table book. The only thing that bugs me a little on the topic of art is the blank left-hand page at the beginning of the Roman Canon. Really? There ought to be an image of Christ crucified there, como Dios manda. Maybe I'll have someone draw one in.

New Translation: My First Stumble

Today being the feast of St. Andrew, according to my Plan for the Minimum Use of Eucharistic Prayer I, it was my first time praying the Roman Canon in the new translation. It was the occasion of my first real stumble over what some folks are calling the awkwardness of the English.

It was right in the middle of the memento for the living:

Remember, Lord, your servants N. and N.
and all gathered here,
whose faith and devotion are known to you.
For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise
or they offer it for themselves
and all who are dear to them.

I stumbled right on the "or" and lost the thread, as my dad would say.

Here's the Latin:

Memento, Domine, famulorum famularumque tuarum N. et N.
et omnium circumstantium,
quorum tibi fides cognita est et nota devotio,
pro quibus tibi offerimus:
vel qui tibi offerunt hoc sacrificium laudis,
pro suisque omnibus.

I'm no liturgist or liturgical historian, but my sense of the prayer has always been that everyone present is gathered into the Eucharistic Prayer as well as those named or recalled. It is for them that the sacrifice is offered, as they also are offer to God their sacrifice of praise. That's my sense of the vel; it joins the sacrifice of praise offered by those named and those present to the sacrifice the priest offers to God. In that sense I don't get the "or" in the translation. I think it should say 'and.'

Also, the punctuation of the typical edition would have suggested a helpful colon after "praise."

Not that I'm making excuses for my stumbling and failure to study hard enough before offering the prayer.

November 29, 2011

New Translation: The Healing Remedy

Journeying through these first days of the new translation, I keep finding new appreciations. Today I'm thinking of two of the private prayers of priest, each of which restores somewhat the sense of Holy Communion as a sort of medicine, a healing remedy.

The first is the second option for the private preparation of the priest, which concludes by asking that the priest's communion be a "healing remedy," translating the Latin medela. The second is the prayer at the purification of the vessels which concludes by asking that the communion just made be a "healing for eternity," translating the Latin remedium sempiternum.

These prayers really speak to my heart at this moment in my journey as a Christian. When I was first trying to live the faith, I think I looked on the sacraments as if they were sources of power for living the agonistic, counter-cultural life I wanted to admire in myself. That was my vainglory. Going on twenty years later, I realize that I am very far from surrendering to any devout energy to become heroically virtuous. Rather, I need the healing touch of the divine Physician just to begin to learn how to be a repentant sinner.

May the sacred mysteries of which God has made me an awkward and negligent custodian be for me--and for those I am unworthy to serve--a healing remedy, now and into eternity. Amen.

November 28, 2011

New Translation: Supplicants

Reflecting a little more on my first experiences of praying the Mass in the new translation, I have to say that the translation is a shift on the spiritual level. The best I can do in naming it right now is to say that the Mass feels more supplicative. With all of the appearances of humbly and graciously in the various petitions, the restored intensity of the Confiteor, as well as many other and various aspects, the new translation locates the pray-er somewhat differently before God.

New Translation: First 24 Hours

Well, the big day has come and gone. In the past twenty-four hours, I've celebrated three Masses with the new translation. What I notice the most is that I don't feel like I have that much to say. In some ways it felt like when I was first ordained priest; I didn't feel like I was praying that deeply because I was just trying to do and say everything properly.

Certain little things I appreciated. For the two Sunday Masses yesterday I used Eucharistic Prayer III. I loved praying from the rising of the sun to its setting, so much closer as it is to the image from the scriptures, and removing as it does the temptation of those who added a 'north to south' to the old 'east to west' in their missing of the metaphor.

I certainly notice how I hear the Latin behind the English (is that the right metaphor?) I hear the mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa in the new English Confiteor, the double dicens before the words of consecration in the way we now say 'saying' instead of 'said.' And of course I hear the calix sanguinis mei and the pro multis. Does this mean anything that I should hear the Latin under the English? I guess that goes to some of the hard questions at hand. What does Latin mean for western Christianity? Is it a historical accident? Or does God mean for it be that way? I think most folks I know would subscribe to the former theological assumption. For a sort of sed contra on a similar question on the history of human language and revelation, go read the Pope's infamous Regensburg speech, not the part that caused all the trouble, but the part about the Septuagint.

And also with you. It sure is stuck in the voice. The seminarian who served the Mass that was my first with the new translation said it straight away at the greeting, and right into my microphone. Despite looking forward to the change for so long, I said it myself to the deacon before he proclaimed the gospel at the next Mass. Just to be funny, at the Sign of Peace, when the deacon said to me, peace be with you, I said, and also with you.

Tomorrow there will be a new trouble as a fresh liturgical dubium arises for us English-speaking Franciscans. Tomorrow, you see, is the feast of All Franciscan Saints. The proper prayers for this Mass are in our proper sacramentary, which is, of course, embedded in the translation that is now suppressed. We don't have a new one according to the 3rd edition Roman Missal. So what to do? My best guess is that we take the proper prayers from the old book and the rest of the Mass from the new.

November 23, 2011

Gossip, Detraction, etc.

One of my disappointments with religious life as I have found it is that in some ways we seem to have abandoned the classic concerns of the spirituality of our state. Not that I think old-fashioned ideas about spirituality are good just because they are old, but sometimes I feel that common life is very much in need of listening to our spiritual fathers and mothers from the past.

One area where I think this is especially true is in the use of speech. Writing from the tradition of religious life is full of admonitions, warnings, and invitations to ascetical practice (we would say 'spiritual practice') in the use of speech. The dangers of gossip, detraction, and idle chatter have long been recognized. And yet, in the course of my own training and formation in religious life, I have never heard anyone recommend examination of conscience on these sorts of things, nor indeed much concern for their harmfulness at all.

I was thinking about this and confessing to God my own sins in this area as I said my prayers this morning. In the Office of Readings today, St. Columban reveals that he knew well these temptations and dangers: "Men like nothing better than discussing and minding the business of others, passing superfluous comments at random and criticizing people behind their backs."

It's a very destructive business, and not only rampant but more or less uncriticized in religious life as I have experienced it. Here's a real-life example: Apparently two brothers had a tense and unsuccessful conversation. This conversation was reported to me several times by various other brothers. In each case, the details, setting, and motivations presented were different in such ways as to present one of the brothers at fault and the other innocent. In one telling one of them was totally open and good, and the other dismissive and cruel. In another the analysis was reversed. What really happened? I don't know. But what I do know is that in the reporting of the incident it got to be about blaming rather than anything spiritually useful. The devil is quite happy to make use of our idea of right and wrong, so long as it convinces us that what is wrong with our communities is someone else's fault.

Thus we never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 115-116)

Beyond all of the well-known negative effects of gossip, detraction, and calumny, the ultimate spiritual problem is that we become to one another not the persons created by God, but the narratives that are told about us. We begin to treat each other according to this constructed identity, because it's easier than getting to know each other in all of our complexity. At worst, we can begin to act ourselves either in conformity or reaction to this false and shallow caricature of our true self. If we do this long enough, we can even forget who we really are. Because this false self is also unknown to God, we will also always feel like there is something fundamentally amiss with our prayer life, but not be able to name it.

Let us rather accept the admonition of our holy father Francis: "Blessed is that religious who takes no pleasure and joy except in the most holy words and deeds of the Lord and with these leads people to the love of God in joy and gladness." (Admonition XX)

November 21, 2011

Marian Community

Having written some hard things about the vocation of the common life as well as having had some other conversations on the stark gravity of its challenges, I was thinking that I should write something encouraging about community. I guess this was somewhere in my heart as I was reflecting on the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary this morning.

As St. Augustine reminds us in the Office of Readings today, a true Marian spirituality means that each Christian disciple is given the work of doing spiritually and ministerially what our Blessed Mother did historically. We are to open ourselves to hearing the Word of God, consent to conceiving the him in our lives, give the Word flesh from ourselves, and bear him to the world he burns with desire to save.

But we also keep in mind that the mystery of the Lord's Nativity teaches us that the incarnate Word is born as a vulnerable infant. He is recognizable as the Word made flesh, for sure, but will have to be nurtured and grow before he heals, teaches, proclaims the Kingdom of God, and finally gives himself up to death that the Spirit may be handed over as the living principle of Christ's faithfulness at work in the world.

In this sense, the vocation of Christian family or common life is something like that of the Holy Family. As grace builds on the unique and unrepeatable creation that is each member, a unique and unrepeatable revealing of the Word made flesh is born into the world. Each new moment in this ongoing work of grace is just as vulnerable and in need of care as the infant Jesus Christ. In community we are given the work of nurturing, protecting, and caring for the graced gift to the world that God desires to make out of each individual member.

November 20, 2011

Bonaventure's Examination of Conscience

The other day I was reflecting on St. Bonaventure's instructions for novices and the model for confession he provides in them. These are the things on which the conscience should be examined and confession made:

  • Offenses against the Rule, especially as regards obedience, poverty, and chastity
  • Negligence or irreverence in the Liturgy of the Hours
  • Ingratitude for all God's spiritual and temporal gifts and blessings
  • Inadequate love of God and neighbor
  • Wasting of time, idleness, and listening to and engaging in empty, useless, harmful, and laugh-provoking talk
  • Failure to vigorously resist improper, harmful, and peevish thoughts
  • Over-eager eating and drinking
  • Procrastination regarding the carrying out of good resolutions God has inspired
  • Rash judgment of others
  • Futile rejoicing and sorrowing
  • Lack of sorrow for sins

November 19, 2011

Chastity in Community

Many times in my life as a Christian a comment or conversation that didn't strike me much at the time will come back to me later as helpful and important. I believe this is one of the many ways the Holy Spirit tutors our thoughts. Lately a word from my academic adviser from over a year ago has been coming back into my reflection.

I was just beginning the doctoral program and discerning which courses to take. In my shallowness I was doing so by thinking about networking and allegiances and that sort of thing. My adviser cut through my false discernment with this comment: "Professors so-and-so and I have as our only concern your salvation." I had been thinking about developing relationships with my teachers in worldly terms, without realizing that they saw their care for me as Christian ministry.

I've been thinking lately about how good it is to adopt such a practice of trying to look upon others in terms of their salvation. Specifically, I've been thinking about how it could be a means to learning chastity in community. To arrive at bodily chastity according to one's state in life is nothing to be discounted; it can be very difficult and requires much prayer and concerted ascesis. Nevertheless, such is only the beginning of chastity as a positive virtue. Chastity is the virtue by which we are able to perceive and interact with other persons as the discrete, unique, and unrepeatable creations that they are, with all of the dignity thus implied. Chastity is the means by which we are able to let go of all possessiveness, manipulation, the over-investment of our own fears and frustrations in others, and all of the many ways, both subtle and glaring, that we treat others not as persons in their own right, but as the dramatis personae in the drama of our own interior issues, anxieties, and disordered preoccupations. Chastity frees us from the instrumentalizing and commodification of others that derives from our own fears and interior injuries.

By trying to consider the salvation of others as the end of our relationships with them, we can free ourselves for chaste relationships. Here is the place where chastity and charity coincide; by trying to conform my relating to another to the unique and unrepeatable grace built on nature that God wills for him or her, I come to be truly loving because I am willing only the best happiness for him or her.

November 18, 2011

Meta Art and Environment

St. Lucy prays with her mom at the tomb of St. Agatha. I love how there are stained glass windows in the stained glass window.

(Gate of Heaven church, South Boston)

Religious Life, the Cross, and Humility

Sometimes in religious life we get the dangerous idea that community life is supposed to be a devout and supportive 'home base' from which we become energized to go out and embrace the Cross and work for the Kingdom of God. In fact, this is not exactly the case. Religious life itself is supposed to be an embrace of the Cross. If you want there to be some kind of 'Miller Time' at the end of a long day of carrying the Cross and living the life of a disciple, you're still in the world.

At least in male religious life, I think we sometimes exacerbate this trouble by selling a false dilemma between the secular priesthood and religious life. 'Why be a lonely and overworked diocesan priest when you can enjoy the support and care of brothers living in community?' Too quickly this becomes an invitation to think that religious life will meet my emotional needs and desire for intimacy. It might in some places and during some times, but I will also find myself feeling very lonely sooner or later.

Religious life itself is supposed to be an invitation to embrace the Cross. The great saints of the common religious life knew this well. As Francis put it in the Letter to a Minister:

"You should accept as a grace all those things which deter you from loving the Lord God and whoever has become an impediment to you, whether they are brothers or others, even if they lay hands on you."

That's the depths of evangelical minority. To thank God even for those around us who seem to make it hard for us to love God and live the religious life we think we want. Why? Because at the heart of it we love ourselves more than we love God, and the flesh is always inviting us to love prayerfulness and the idea of ourselves as devout and observant more than we love Him. But we came to religious life not to seek conviviality or peace, or emotional intimacy or safety, or even prayerfulness or the natural joys of devotion, but to seek Jesus Christ and him crucified.

John of the Cross was also quite astute on this point. As he writes in his Cautelas:

"you should engrave this truth on your heart: you have come to the monastery for no other reason than to be worked on and tried in virtue; you are like a 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 on you and chiseling at you."

But note also that this is an invitation to humility, when we realize that God has perhaps made us annoying and challenging to those around us for the sake of their salvation. When we keep this in mind, we can notice how much others forgive us and wash our feet on a daily basis.

This final observation is one of the most reliable roads to a blessed humility.

November 17, 2011

Overheard in the Sacristy

The sacristan was at the end of one jug of wine and didn't want to open a new one. There was only a little for the cruet.

"Is this enough for you, Father?" she asked.

"Plenty," the priest replied.

"I don't want to mix the old wine with the new," she continued.

To which the priest affirmed, "The Lord himself forbids it."

November 15, 2011

For Better Or For Worse

Sometimes I hear the complaint that the Church is more likely to canonize priests and religious than lay people, and that this somehow displays a discriminatory tendency.

But I think it's an important counterpoint to keep in mind that there is also probably a greater proportion of priests and religious in hell. So it goes both ways.

God gave me my religious and priestly vocation not because I was special, but as an act of mercy. This was God's best bet for saving me. It's the best way for me to become a saint. But I also know that if I become worse on account of religious life and the priesthood, I will be far worse than I could have ever become without them.

As the variously attributed quote goes, 'the path into hell is paved with the skulls of priests, with bishops as the sign-posts.'

November 14, 2011


My early-morning walk to the Poor Clare monastery for Mass on Mondays is one of my favorite moments of my week. The peace and quiet, the slow progress and regress of the dawn over the course of the year, the contemplative mood of the early morning, the summo mane as the rubrics of the Liturgy of the Hours call it, I find it all deeply refreshing.

This morning as I was walking down one particular street I started to look at the walls of a building off in the distance. The rightness of the right angles, the straight flatness of the outer wall, all of it spoke to my mind of the reasonableness of what exists, the benevolence of the ultimate Order and Reason that grounds it and from which it came, and the affinity of the created, reasonable minds of the builders and architects, along with mine as an observer, to the Word that is the Wisdom and Eternal Art of God.

It reminded me of one of the important moments of preparation the Holy Spirit worked on me before I came finally to confess Christianity: for a brief period, in my later teen years, I got really into math. I had always struggled with arithmetic as a child. I still have trouble adding and subtracting. (Years later, to my delight, when I became interested in mathematical logic and, I have to admit, computer folklore, I discovered that the mental and logical errors I had been making since the first grade were well known and even had names.) It was a great liberation, as I made my way through high school, to arrive at geometry, higher algebra, and the calculus. I started to love it. The math spoke to me in an obscure way of some unadorned but orderly beauty at the Heart of everything. I even went to college with the half thought of becoming a math major. For better or for worse, as my religious quest became more explicit in college I got sidetracked into philosophy and religious studies, and ended up majoring in them instead.

Nevertheless, today I am grateful to be reminded that one of the first ways that I began to love the God who was loving me and calling me all along was through the mysterious and stark beauty of number.

November 10, 2011

Benedict XVI on Suppressed Guilt

Over the last two days covering parish-priest duty as part of my new found employment, I had the chance to do a lot of random reading. One of the things I read was this volume of Benedict XVI's catechetical talks on creation and the fall, which one of the brothers lent me so long ago that I have forgotten whom it was.

Here's one of my favorite parts:

"Thus sin has become a suppressed subject, but everywhere we can see that, although it is suppressed, it has nonetheless remained real. What is remarkable to me is the aggressiveness, always on the verge of pouncing, which we experience openly in our society--the lurking readiness to demean the other person, to hold others guilty whenever misfortune occurs to them, to accuse society, and to want to change the world by violence. It seems to me that all of this can be understood only as an expression of the suppressed reality of guilt, which people do not want to admit." (63)

So, if I want to become more charitable and less aggressive, more peaceable and less violent, the first step is to confess my own guilt and surrender to the forgiveness of sin we have in Christ. If I don't let God heal me of the hatefulness of sin, my self-hate will only come out in further disregard and contempt for others. It is by the experience of the God who loves the sinner in Christ that I can learn to love my fellow sinner.

Do You Really Want to Hurt Me

O.k. It's been noticed and noted that I sometimes start singing "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" for no (apparent) reason. I just need the world to know that it's this version in particular--which is quite apart from the original--that is permanently wedged in my imagination.

November 9, 2011

Poverty and Priesthood

Maybe this isn't a big thing, but maybe it is. Maybe it's a little edge of a big thing. Not sure yet. I'll keep praying.

Three things which seem to me to be given:

1. My sense of what it means to be Franciscan (and to be a Franciscan is my first desire as a Christian) centers around something Francis called 'most high poverty.' The Franciscan charism is not first of all about serving the poor, helping the poor, or advocating for the poor, but about becoming poor oneself. It is not just about adopting a lifestyle of material poverty or an interior disposition of spiritual poverty, but an evangelical synthesis of both. It does not demand living among and working with other poor people in an absolute way, but such has something of a normative force ever since Francis found that it was among the lepers that the bitterness of this world could be changed into 'sweetness of soul and body.' I too want this sweetness which Francis famously tasted, and I believe that the shortest route to it is to find my poverty with other poor people.

2. My sense of myself as a priest is that I am a steward of the sacred mysteries of our faith. This means for me that when these mysteries and the liturgy that celebrates them happen to be in my custody, I do whatever I can to see that they are celebrated as the Church asks and expects. This leads me into traits that are seen as 'conservative' and even 'traditionalist.'

3. Pastors of parishes that serve poorer areas and poor folks tend to be on the more 'liberal' and 'progressive' side, and this tends to include their approach to the sacraments and the liturgy.

In this current little funny moment of my life, expecting to take on a totally new assignment in Rome in the spring, I have been asked to seek part-time, temporary work in the meantime as something good to do and for the support of the brothers. Since the priesthood is my only real professional competence or credential, I have been seeking priestly work from local pastors.

But here's the thing. Because of the (2) and (3) above, I am more comfortable seeking such work in parishes that are not in the poorest places, and so my examinations of conscience are sometimes asking me if I am failing in (1). In other words, my conscience is asking me whether my faithfulness to my priesthood is coming into a tension with my faithfulness to my Franciscanism. Maybe it's a creative tension. Maybe it's an invitation to a new sort of synthesis or sense of my vocation. Maybe God is telling me to let of something, or grab onto something else. We'll see. I'm at a liminal moment in my vocation after all, and God is all about liminal moments.

And maybe it's no big deal, but maybe this is pointing to something the Holy Spirit is asking me to adjust inside about how I desire Christianity in my particular state of life as a friar-priest. It's a ragged reflection, both inside and in this post, but it's the edge where my heart and conscience and prayer are right now.

November 7, 2011

In Praise of the Sick Call Crucifix

In one of the parishes where I have been helping out, confessions are heard in a little room that probably used to be sacristy storage or a flower room or something like that. Sitting in there the other day (there were no customers) I was looking at the crucifix on the opposite wall. I noticed that it looked like one of those old-fashioned 'sick call' crucifixes. I had only seen them in pictures, so with all of my convert curiosity (may I never lose it, Lord!), I took it off the wall to investigate.

Sure enough, the crucifix proper slid up to reveal the cruciform base with holes for candles on the arms and a slot to display the crucifix on top. In the middle cavity were the two little candles and a tiny bottle that I supposed was for holy water (I couldn't tell if there was anything in it.) These were wrapped in cellophane with some folded paper. I was very curious to know what was on the paper, but I didn't want to open the little package.

I put the thing back together and returned it to the wall. As I continued to sit there, I just reflected on it as an object. (There still weren't any customers.) I began to think about how intense and effective a symbol this sick call crucifix could be in someone's home--the rituals and prayers for the occasion of death being contained within the image of the Lord's own passion and death.

Indeed, it is our sanctification and our salvation that our own death--whether we are talking about the death we live in because of sin or the bodily death to which it all tends--is gathered into the death of Jesus Christ. As an object of practical devotion, the sick call crucifix held this fundamental good news of our faith within its own practical design. The moment of prayer and sacrament offered at our death is contained in his. The sick call crucifix displayed reminds us that our bodily death, whenever it comes, is nothing to fear, because we already died in Christ at our baptism. Like the little candles hidden in the crucifix, our death has been hidden in Christ since that day.

November 4, 2011

Passion for Salvation

Traveling last weekend I was caught in the snowstorm and took refuge at our friary in Middletown, Connecticut. It was good to see the friars, and to enjoy the peace of the empty, found time. One of the things I did while I was there was read some of a book on the lives of the North American martyrs.

One scene struck me especially. In the midst of torture, one of the priests wrung a few drops of water from his wet clothes in order to baptize another victim who was ready to accept Christianity. That's just one of many moments that illustrate how driven these missionaries were, how convinced they were that the eternal salvation of souls was at stake in their ministry.

How far we have come from such zeal! Yes, of course it's a good thing that we have removed superstition and magical thinking from the practice of the sacraments. But on the other hand, do we really believe them necessary? I once heard a homily at an infant baptism in which the priest said that the baptism was simply an outward celebration of the divine adoption that the child had already received. Is this what the Church teaches?

One of the friars I live with suggests that we should examine our consciences on whether or not we have a 'passion for salvation.' Perhaps that's something like what used to be called a 'zeal for souls.' Do we really believe, as ministers of the gospel and priests of Jesus Christ, that the eternal salvation God desires for every person has some dependence on our faithfulness to our own call, to our finding the energy and motivation to become the holy religious and priests we have promised to be?

Or have we accepted, either consciously or in subtle, uncritical ways, the creeping universalism of our time, in all of its power to absolve everyone from responsibility? How many funerals have you been to in which the immediate, beatific destiny of the deceased is beyond question, and there is no sense in which the Mass is an offering for his or her continuing salvation? If everyone (and their dogs and cats) automatically 'go to heaven,' then what zeal could there be for the baptism with which the Risen Lord sends forth his disciples to all nations?

Or how much have we accepted the comfortable, civil theology of 'many paths to one divine something-or-other' as we stick our 'Coexist' bumper stickers on our cars and congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment? Never mind the fact that this 'theology' implies that God is an incompetent self-revealer; many of us have let it into our heads so that we don't have to say that anybody else might be wrong, the cardinal sin of our relativistic world.

Let us cast off these glittering errors of the world and allow grace to cultivate within us the direct imitation of God which is a zeal for souls and a passion for salvation.

November 3, 2011

habere potuerunt breviaria

I love breviaries. Yesterday I was thinking about how I have a lot of them. Not that I make any apology for this, because it's one of the only things a friar is allowed to have according to the Rule. I counted mine up, and realized I have something like twenty volumes of different sorts of breviaries:

3 4-volume sets of the Liturgy of the Hours:

typical edition (Latin)
Roman-Franciscan (English)
Romano-Serafico (Italian)

I also have:

1962 Breviarium Romano-Seraphicum in the Capuchin use (2 volumes)

Roman-Franciscan Christian Prayer (This is what we were given to use when I was in formation with the OFM)

Daily Prayer (This is the Commonwealth English version of the Christian Prayer we have here in the USA. I picked it up and used it when I was a student in Ireland.)

Shorter Christian Prayer (my first breviary!)

Daytime Prayer (Great for keeping the clerical book bag light!)

The Ordinary Time volume of the Kleines Stundenbuch, which is sort of like Shorter Christian Prayer in German.

Liturgia de Las Horas para los fieles, which is like the Shorter Christian Prayer in Spanish.

I'm not sure where iBreviary fits into this.

November 2, 2011

The Gentle and Hopeful Doctrine of Purgatory

This is a homily for All Souls Day that I wrote a few years ago:

The observance we make today goes by many names. In English we usually call it All Souls Day, but it’s also known as the Day of the Dead, El Día de Los Muertos, or as it’s officially called, the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. Whatever we call it, today is a day that the Church sets aside in a particular way to pray and offer Masses for our beloved dead.

When we reflect on our laudable practice of praying for the dead, we can’t get away from talking about purgatory. This is because if our beloved dead have completed their journey to God and find themselves in the fullness of his presence—in the ultimate destiny we call heaven—then their feast day was yesterday on All Saints Day, and it is they who should be praying for us! And if, God forbid, someone finds themselves in hell, then there isn’t any use praying for them anyway. Keep in mind, though, that though the Church has always affirmed hell as a kind of logical possibility for the final destiny of human freedom, she has never claimed or affirmed that any human soul actually went there. Apart from the devil and his angels, hell might be empty.

In the midst of the two final destinies of heaven and hell we affirm the process of purgatory. We are not talking about a place, but a process. Sometimes we have this idea that purgatory is some kind of awful thing with fire and torments and all that. I’m not sure that this is the right approach. I’ll tell you right now, if I die today and I find myself in purgatory, I’ll be overjoyed! Why? Because, brothers and sisters, purgatory has only one exit, and that exit is the eternal joy and peace of the perfect vision of God, the blessed destiny of heaven. To be in purgatory is to be on the way to heaven, and there is nothing more anyone could ever want.

In fact, my friends, purgatory is not about punishment for sinners, but about God’s mercy on those who have already been saved and destined for heaven by their baptism into Christ’s death and Resurrection. The process begins at our baptism. We are freed from sin and configured to the perfect humanity of Christ. In the course of our life from that day on, we are called to grow in faith and holiness. Though we are free from sin by baptism, the wounds and injuries of sin remain in our hearts, minds, and bodies. That’s why we still struggle with selfishness and sin over the course of our baptized life. Now, if at the end of our life, whenever it comes, we have not yet fully freed ourselves from our attachment to the selfishness and sin, God provides a means for us to continue our purification after death. This final process of purification we call purgatory. See how gentle and merciful God is to us! God passionately desires the salvation of every human soul, and even if we don’t succeed in letting God make us perfectly good and holy in this life, he will purify and prepare us for heaven in the life to come.

That’s why I would be overjoyed to find myself in purgatory. I find it very comforting. With all of my sins, I know that even if I don’t succeed in becoming a saint in this life, God will make me one in the life to come. Purgatory is one more sign to us that God’s love and desire to bring us to the perfect joy of himself is stronger than sin. God’s desire to save the world will not be thwarted by something as stupid as my sins.

We don’t know what this process of purification will be like. We don’t know if it takes time—as we know it—or if it happens in an instant awareness of God. But today is a day to pray for those who are in the midst of this final, purifying journey to heaven, that through the communion of saints our prayers might speed them on the way to the final destiny we all look forward to: the eternal joy and peace, the perfectly satisfying vision of God we call heaven.

November 1, 2011

Advice to Theology Students

Here's how it goes in one of your courses: You are assigned a textbook or two and a bunch of articles to read. If you're lucky, you are also made to read some primary sources. Then you hear some lectures and participate in some discussions, which might or might not be illuminating.

Then you have to write papers or even give a presentation. But here's the thing, if the papers you write or the presentations you give only serve to reproduce the lines of argument and theological assertions of the textbooks and articles you were assigned, or the lectures you heard, you are not receiving an education. You are only allowing yourself to be socialized.

The textbooks you are assigned often do a marvelous job of summarizing and serving up centuries of theological reflection on divine revelation and reasoned reflection of God's action in the world. But in doing so they all have embedded in them very certain choices of theological opinion. This is even more the case with articles. Even the primary sources you are assigned have been selected from various possibilities.

This isn't about the tedious old divisions of liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional, etc. Being socialized into learning to utter the slogans and pet concerns associated with any of these labels is boring and beneath your intellectual dignity when you can have a real theological education instead.

So, do your homework. Read the things assigned to you. But when it comes to a chance to reflect upon theological questions yourself, go further and deeper. First, pick up your Bible. What do the Scriptures say about the question or topic at hand? Second, read your Catechism. Or better, read your Catechism alongside your Denzinger. Don't have one of those? Click here and order one. Not later, now.

Don't settle for being socialized into the 'theological imagination' of your school or the 'correct' opinions of the authorities in your life, whatever camp these fall into among the factions of this tired world. Stay close to the Scriptures, stay close to the living tradition of the Church's teaching. Be empowered, and be educated.

October 26, 2011

Born Out of Order

I was just looking over an article that one of the student brothers is working on for school, on a classic problem with the sacraments of initiation: If the ordinary means of intiating new Christians is as it is presented in the restored catechumentate of the RCIA, namely catechumenate, election, sacramental initiation through baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist (in that order), and mystagogy, then why do most come to be initiated in a seemingly contrary pattern of infant baptism, preparation for first Holy Communion, and then confirmation, perhaps with a 'first confession' thrown in somewhere as well?

Reading an earnest effort to say something about this little dissonance and what might be done to apply a pastoral remedy reminds me of how random and out of order my own sacramental initiation was: baptism according to the rite for the baptism of infants at age twenty on a random Saturday afternoon in Ordinary Time, first Holy Communion at the regular parish Mass the next day, and confirmation some months later by getting on the end of the line of the current batch of kids. The funniest part of the whole business is that anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I would have insisted on every formality had I known any better at the time. But it was a blessed time nevertheless, in which I was trying to do my best to by faithful to a call from God, and in which those who helped me were doing their best to help me with every charity and kindness. To be honest, I wouldn't trade it for anything.

It all reminds me that the economies of God's grace in the creation are broader than the ordering and discipline of sacramental grace (in the broad sense) at any historical moment. As the Catechism proclaims, making this point in all of its holy mystery: "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments." (1257) The Church is and carries within herself the saving mission of Jesus Christ, but the Church is not just what we can see, what we can put into pastoral procedures, or what we can write an article about. As we edge toward November and all the Masses for the Holy Souls in which we are reminded of the Church expectant, we find an eminent moment to remember that the visible Church on earth is only a small segment of the Church as she is in her whole mystery extended through time and space and into eternity.

October 24, 2011

Quod fratres non recipiant pecuniam

The other day I was out taking care of the friary banking. At the bank I ran into one of my teachers, and not just any teacher, but the one who had helped me very much with the portions of my licentiate thesis that concerned Franciscan history.

She had some complaints about the practices and fees of the particular bank, so I joined in with my own annoyances.

In protest against all the various aggravation, I eventually proclaimed, "I am going to invent a form of religious life marked by the renunciation of the use of money!"

She laughed.

October 23, 2011

Theses on Love of Neighbor

To love means to will the best for the beloved, that the beloved might enjoy the best in happiness and flourishing.

God is the best 'thing' there is.

God, in giving himself to his creatures by adopting us in the Spirit into his own blessed life by the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son, is the perfect practitioner of love of neighbor.

Therefore, if we wish to love our neighbor, our desire must be that our neighbor have God.

But since God has already given himself to our neighbor in Christ, we must not think that it is our job to give God to our neighbor.

Instead, both love of self and love of neighbor mean the facilitation and encouragement of the acceptance of and surrender to the Gift already given in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, we who are Christians much ask ourselves each day how we may live our lives such that those around us will desire what it is we have come to have in Christ. If the joy, peace, and confidence in God we have in the Spirit attracts someone else to the acceptance of the Gift who is Jesus Christ, then we have loved our neighbor in the most supreme way.

October 21, 2011


"You should accept as grace all those things which deter you from loving the Lord God." (Francis of Assisi, Letter to a Minister)

That's a hard teaching. At first it might seem to make no sense.

So why should we thank God for whatever impedes us from loving Him? Because this is the surest path to humility, to confessing before God that we do not yet love him as we ought.

This humility is the way to the holiness of life in which nothing will deter us from the love of God; not our joys and the goodness around us, because all of it will speak of God without any danger of distraction, and not our sufferings and rejections, because even these we will gratefully receive as sharings in the sufferings of Christ of which we have been found worthy, in communion with Christ crucified in the salvation he is for the world.

October 19, 2011

RIP: Fr. Charles Repole, OFM Cap.

Last night the second-most senior friar of our province, Fr. Charles Repole, departed this life at age 96. He was one of two brothers from the same mother who entered the Order. His brother, known in religion as Fr. Celsus, died when I was a novice. Charlie seemed to miss him terribly. Or better, he seemed to find it somehow awkward and wrong to be in this world without his brother. I think Fr. Charles once told me that they were from St. Francis Xavier parish in Manhattan. Daniel, as he was born, entered the Order in 1936.

As a young priest, in the days before Skype, email, and probably the telephone in most places he was, he went off the missions of Nicaragua. He was immensely proud of his work in editing a trilingual translation dictionary in Spanish, English, and Miskito.

I first got to know Fr. Charles in my first assignment, when he was living at our residence for senior friars adjacent to the parish where I was working. He used to call me mi tocayo, which means, "my namesake." In order to avoid confusion around the friaries, I quickly became 'Charles junior' which another of the senior friars soon shortened to 'CJ.' He had his own anxieties and interior demons, but they never kept him from his natural gregariousness and earnest interest in people. For that I was always grateful for his good example. Descansa en paz, tocayo.

Follow this link for the full obituary.

Against Personal Holiness

Each year on this feast of the North American Martyrs I read in the Office of Readings the selection from the diaries of St. Jean de Brébeuf and I'm cut to the heart as I hear him express his desire for the martyrdom and horrible sufferings he certainly received.

Still bumbling along, now in the twentieth year of my baptism, how far I am from that! On a good day I can thank Jesus Christ for having found me worthy of the little sufferings of my easy life, but that's on a good day. A lot of the time I still resist, and am still the miserable plaything of the world, the flesh, and devil. Still seeking comfort rather than the Cross, status and esteem rather than the poverty of being nobody for this world, security and a cool dry place to take my walks and sit and read instead of the anxiety of the poor and the dependence on God that only comes from interior poverty.

But what to do with this experience is perhaps the real spiritual question. To be disappointed about it, to let myself feel let down by the fact that I find myself not yet a saint, is also from the flesh. It leads to subtle resentments against God for not fulfilling the vainglorious desires that go all the way back to my first fervor, my love for the idea of being holy, to breathe a purer and more rarefied atmosphere than the rest of humanity mired in its confusion and sin. There is anger in the half-conscious thought that surely I would be a saint by now, surely I would be able to look at myself and see an excellent soul rather than a miserable sinner.

Against such disappointment and resentment, the better response is humility. To forget about my stupid self altogether and its selfish longing to look on itself as holy--this is the path to real sanctity. When I am no longer concerned with myself, it is then that there will no longer be any hooks for the temptations of the world, the flesh, and devil and still less room for the tedious distractions and dramas by which we conspire to hobble each other in the mission to which we are called.

This is why I'm sometimes troubled by talk of 'personal holiness' as a work of the spiritual life. It's all to easy to start to imagine holiness as some sort of commodity or credential that we are supposed to obtain, purchasing bits of it with what effort we can afford. Of course this is an easy way to imagine things, even unconsciously, in a commercial world.

But the way to become holy is not to desire holiness but to desire God. Since God has been our desire all along, it's not even really about doing something at all but about letting go of the distractions that keep us from being who we are in the first place.

October 18, 2011

What Eric Thunk

For a 'music captures prayer' post, mutatis mutandis, "I saw a hippie girl on 8th Ave." by Jeffrey Lewis

Priesthood and Praise

On my way to the Poor Clare monastery for Mass yesterday, I remembered that it had been a year since I started going there on Mondays. So at the end of Mass I mentioned it, intending to thank the sisters and the people who assist there for the opportunity to pray with them. As I tried to do so, I was interrupted by applause. I felt funny. I didn't announce that I had been going there for a year in order to be praised, but to express my own gratitude.

There's a lot of praise to be had in the priesthood. On the one hand, there's nothing wrong with it; people are grateful for your work and your sacrifices on behalf of the Church and the world and want to express it. Folks want to support their priests, and the priest must also remember that the unwillingness to accept thanks and praise is also a failure in humility.

On the other hand, there are dangers. It's easy to begin, in subtle ways, to start working for the praise and recognition, seeking ministerial moments and making pastoral decisions to vainglorious purposes. It's not a negligible proportion of the clergy who have a touch of narcissism, and sometimes people have learned to manipulate their priests by making use of it to get what they think they want. It always amazes me, given the obvious fact that God doesn't just give us whatever we think we want, that people on all sides still think that this is how ministry is supposed to work.

These dangers are less present in religious life as such. Most people, including many Catholics, don't really know what a religious is, so they don't know what to say about it. Out in public in my habit, I have been called or asked if I am any number of things: a Buddhist, a Mormon, a Lutheran, a Jedi, a member of the KKK, even a ninja.

For me, the praise gets to feel funny. The longer I go in my religious life and priesthood the more I realize that my vocation is an expression of God's mercy for me, rather than any sort of extraordinary grace or special privilege. This life was God's best opportunity to save me from misery and damnation, and so here I am, a religious and a priest, a not a very good one at that.