January 28, 2011

Religious Life and Interior Charity

Over my time in religious life I have come to recognize that it is important for me to pray for my religious brothers, especially those with whom I am assigned in community. Perhaps this is something obvious to someone better formed or less distracted than me, but for me it's something I have to keep in mind. I don't mean praying for the brothers in a general way, but individually and by name. At the time of the preces or intercessions when I say Morning or Evening prayer on my own, or when I have time to recollect intentions before a Mass, I try to pray for each of the brothers in the house. This helps me to remember to be grateful for each in his own vocation and consecration, to recall the particular intentions or concerns of each, and to remember that some might have other intentions and struggles which I don't know about.

I have found this to be an important practice because it helps to establish my thoughts in what I call interior charity. This is to name a general, interior attitude of gratefulness for each brother and the desire for his happiness and the flourishing of his gifts and vocation.

Exterior charity, at least within the normal limits expected in religious life, is an easy thing relative to this. It is made up of exterior acts, and anyone can make himself do them. And this isn't a bad, or necessarily disingenuous thing; anyone who wants to give himself to the ascesis of common life has to learn how to love people he might not like, or be brother to those who might seem to be impeding fraternal life.

But this interior charity, this interior disposition of gratitude and appreciation for the other brothers in the thought and affect, it is for me that which--more than any other single thing--makes the difference for my day-to-day and moment-to-moment peace and relative undistraction in my own life of prayer and obedience. Because it makes such a difference for me, it is something that the devil is always trying to trick me into throwing away. Whatever the occasion is, whether it be my intellectual pride, rubrical or doctrinal righteousness, or any number of my petty vanities, the devil will always be trying to use such occasions as a means to get me to abandon interior charity and thus lose my own peace, thereby increasing my misery and reducing my attention to the work that the Holy Spirit has given me to do.

January 26, 2011

Fogs and Clouds

St. Augustine, he understands how hard it is to try to think about such things as we are supposed to in studying theology:

Noli quaerere quid sit veritas; statim enim se opponent caliginem imaginum corporalium et nubila phantasmatum... (De Trinitate VIII:3)

Don't ask what truth is; immediately there will be against you a fog of bodily images and clouds of funny ideas.

Trinitarian Theology

This morning I'm reading Lewis Ayres's account of Augustine's "tenative" and "cautious" exploration of the how and in what way the persons of the Trinity can be "understood as identical with the intra-divine acts that Scripture attributes to them."

I'm grateful for this, because it helps me to remember that when it comes to the work of offering an account of the Blessed Trinity, the starting point is not reason, concepts of ideal community or social utopia, or a meta-argument about theological 'starting points.' The beginning is Sacred Scripture, from which God the Trinity is revealed to us.

January 25, 2011

Lessons from Hansel and Gretel

Over the winter break I came across a little bilingual edition of selected stories from the Brothers Grimm. I've been using it for my subway reading as a way to try to learn to read some German. I started with Hansel and Gretel, as it's a familiar story. Or so I thought. Truth be told, it's a rather macabre and depressing business. Not the least trouble is my nagging suspicion that the stepmother and the witch might be the same person, given that mom is announced to be (conveniently) dead after the children return home from Gretel having cooked up the witch in the oven.

However, certain lessons are to be learned from the glorious maladventure of these poor children. For example:

Grownups are not be trusted.

Even the good ones can be nagged and convinced to do horrible things to you.

It's a good idea to eavesdrop on those who are discussing what to do about you.

Make sure nobody locks you in the house.

Faced with mortal crisis, it is important to encourage one another, pray to God, and not to lose heart.

Sometimes sweet things are a trap.

People don't give you pancakes with milk, sugar, and nuts for no reason.

Witches can be recognized by their red eyes. Remember also that they can't see very far, but have a heightened sense of smell, like an animal.

It's not only acceptable to trick and kill those who enslave and try to kill you, it's a moral imperative.

Passive aggression and playing dumb can be powerful weapons in the hands of oppressed persons.

Don't be afraid to ask for help, even if it seems like an unlikely source. (i.e. the duck at the river)

Money fixes problems.

Deaths in families necessitate the reconfiguration of all other relationships.

St. Hilary on Theological Education

Today I finally got around to starting in on my project of reading St. Hilary's De Trinitate. Only a few pages in, I've already found some beautiful doctrine. For example, as he reflects on the revelation of the Word made flesh in the Gospel of John, Hilary pauses to note one of the foundational delights of theological education:

Proficit mens ultra naturalis sensus intelligentiam et plus de Deo quam opinabatur docetur. (I:10)

"The mind goes beyond the understanding of its natural knowledge, and is taught more about God that it had imagined it could be."

To me, this is where prayer and theological study have their most compelling intersection. Without a genuine and sustained encounter with Sacred Scripture, God remains an abstract concept. So abstract, most of the time, as to be so thin an idea that there is hardly anything to say about it, much less any personal response. This is the state of our secular culture; it hasn't forgotten about God but only allowed the idea of God to become so faint and transparent as to make no demand and unable to enter into any conversation.

But when you begin to live with the Scripture, and then put yourself into prayerful conversation with those who have been reflecting and exerting themselves to understand its meaning over the centuries, the abstract concept begins to achieve a density that finally transcends everything else. Your soul is taught with a sort of knowing you didn't even know about before.

January 24, 2011

Beards and Perseverance

I have a theory about Capuchin beard-growing that I think all young friars should at least hear. My theory is largely dismissed, but to me the anecdotal evidence is convincing. In short, this is my theory: you can grow the traditional Capuchin beard if you wish, but if you do you can't cut it off. If you do, you will lose your vocation and you will leave the Order.

Allow me to elaborate.

The beard is, of course, traditional to the Capuchins. And not just any beard; by 'beard' in this sense is meant the natural, untrimmed beard that grows unchecked from your face and neck. Our first Constitutions prescribed the wearing of the beard because it was "manly, austere, natural, an imitation of Christ and the saints of our Order, and despised." The "despised" is usually left off in quotations of this precept. It's an odd omission; grow a traditional Capuchin beard and you will find that it is still despised, as the brothers themselves fulfill (somewhat ironically) the words of their fathers.

Nowadays the beard is optional, though many friars sport some form of facial hair as a nod to the tradition. Our current Constitutions say that the wearing of the beard is subject to the "norm of pluriformity." (pluriformitatis norma) When it's morning in Paris you can try to call a semiotician to make sense of that one. Good luck. Nevertheless, the beard still has a lot going for it, not the least because it serves to further distinguish us from the secular clergy of the Latin rite, who, good Romans that they are, tend to go about clean-shaven.

There are various tales about how it was that the traditional beard became optional. Some friars say that it was necessitated by the cultural shifts of the 1960s, when beards came to associated with hippies, homosexuals, and (gasp) social radicals. Another version (my favorite) says that when the brothers first came to New York City they found that when they went out in clerical attire (with Roman collars obscured by their beards) they were promptly mistaken for Rabbis.

In any case, it is now nobody's business but your own whether you have a beard of any sort or for whatever reason, religious or otherwise. Therefore, it sometimes gets into the head of a zealous young Capuchin, a novice or recently professed perhaps, that he would like to grow the big, traditional, Capuchin beard. Congratulations, I say, and good for you, but be warned.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that once you grow this traditional beard, if you then cut it off, you will lose your vocation and leave the Order. I have observed this several times, and have developed a theory to explain it: When a Capuchin, in his fervor for his particular vocation, decides to grow the traditional beard and succeeds, somehow the Capuchin-ness of his soul grows into and lodges in the beard. If the beard is then removed, the connection of the soul to the vocation is severed, the grace of perseverance is lost, and the brother goes back to the world.

UPDATE: For those who are trying to grow a beard, and don't have scruples about assimilating to the new syncretism of our age, I learn from City of God IV:11 that they should pray to the god Fortuna Barbata to bless them with success.

FURTHER UPDATE: As of late summer 2013, we are observing carefully a possible instance of counter-evidence to the theory.

Sick of Myself

I love St. Augustine for his ability to capture in a few words a deep sense of an interior spiritual condition:

non ego vita mea sim: male vixi ex me, mors mihi fui: in te revivesco.

"May I not be my life: I have lived badly my way and have been death to myself: in You I will grow to live again." (Confessions, XII:X)

I myself am the worst enemy of my peace and spiritual joy, and only by losing this false self in the best of friends, God, can I even begin to live.

"It is not that someone else is preventing you from living happily, you yourself do now know what you want. Rather than admit this, you pretend that someone is preventing you from exercising your liberty. Who is this? It is you yourself." ~Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 112.

Many are Cold...

...but few are frozen, said the Lord, or something to that effect.

You know it's cold out when you see (or more precisely, are surprised to touch) this: the slushy holy water stoup at the Poor Clare monastery.

January 23, 2011

Superangelic Evangelization

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, our bishop himself is preaching at Masses all over the archdiocese of Boston to kick off the Catholics Come Home outreach.

Facing the back of the television from my versus populum presidential chair (and with my sense of liturgical decorum keeping me from abandoning it) and without the best sound system in the world, I didn't catch everything in the Spanish version of the homily. So after Mass I was delighted to notice that not only were all the videos online, but that the initiative had its own website, which I linked above. Here is Cardinal Seán's homily in English, Spanish, and Portuguese:

2011 Catholics Come Home, Boston - ENGLISH from bostoncatholic on Vimeo.

2011 Catholics Come Home, Boston - SPANISH from bostoncatholic on Vimeofrom bostoncatholic on Vimeo..

2011 Catholics Come Home, Boston - PORTUGUESE

While the video was playing during Mass, the thought of the Cardinal preaching in various churches not only simultaneously but in various languages reminded me of this part of a talk from Marshall McLuhan:

Let us pray for Cardinal Seán and the success of Catholics Come Home in Boston!

January 20, 2011

Jesus Christ is Not (Just) a Moral Example

Sometimes I hear conversations or homilies and I get worried that we have a rather thin idea of our relationship to Jesus Christ. For example, it is said that we are called to imitate Christ, to 'follow in his footsteps' as St. Francis would say. Of course this is quite true, and the imitatio Christi is a venerable and indispensable part of Christian spirituality and practice. But again, sometimes I feel like it becomes theologically thin and impoverished.

Christ is not primarily a moral example. It's not as if he emptied himself, taught, healed, reconciled, and cast out demons all in a humble manner, finally going quietly to his death, entering into the depths of suffering and the alienation from God we have insisted upon for ourselves with our sins, just so that he could leave us an example of how to be a godly human being. It is all that, of course, but the revelation of God in Christ is much more.

We do not become humble and godly because we follow the example of Christ in the simple sense of moral example. We become humble and godly because we consent to have our own personalities transformed by and into the charity and humility of Christ. We are not just following an example; we are allowing the Exemplar Himself to become our own new and renovated selves. This is what it means to be baptized into the death of Christ, and to become his Body in the Eucharist.

It is precisely this theologically dense sense of Christ-ianity that I don't always hear in preaching or conversation. It's too bad; because this is the real good news. If the main thing is my having to imitate a Christ who is separate from ourselves, we are doomed. That's not good news, given my sins. We try to be godly not in order to achieve a salvation that is available to the good, but instead as an act of thanksgiving for a salvation already accomplished for the sake of the evil.

If our sense of our relationship to Jesus Christ is only one of moral example, then we have forgotten what Incarnation and Sacraments even mean.

January 19, 2011

Zero Understanding

So goes the traditional, humorous addendum to the celebrated "5, 4, 3, 2, 1" theology student's mnemonic for remembering trinitarian doctrine:

5 notions, 4 relations, 3 persons, 2 processions, 1 substance

So, in all of the obscurity of theological study, one should celebrate a moment when one of the great doctors admits that it ain't so easy to understand this stuff:

"The Greeks also have another word, hypostasis, but they make a distinction that is rather obscure to me between ousia and hypostasis..."

~Augustine, De trinitate, V:10, in Edmund Hill's translation in this edition from New City Press.

Obscure, indeed, not in the least because hypostasis transliterates to substantia, even though we Latins use persona to describe what the Greeks call hypostasis while they use ousia to indicate what we call substantia. That's way beyond terminological drift; it's quite literally confused.

January 18, 2011

Need to Know Basis

Sometimes there are hilarious conversations in friaries. For example:

Friar visiting kitchen: "Is there any hot water [in the electric tea pot]?"

Friar cooking supper: "Maybe. [Fr.] John as just here; he made some water."

"He made some water? I know he's talented, but he's not God."

"God didn't make water."

"Of course he did. Don't you believe in creation?"

"Yes. But the water was already there. Read Genesis."

"So where did it come from if God didn't make it?"

"I don't know. The Scripture doesn't say, so it must not be relevant to redemption."


"Divine Revelation only imparts what we need to know to be saved."

A Devout and Joyful Rebellion

My community has a provincial chapter in the spring. That means elections and the opportunity to make decisions about what we do and where we're going as a province. The conversations have started about how we can best serve the local churches in which we live. They're not easy.

Things seem dire. Even with parish closings, there are too few pastors. Priests are asked to pastor multiple parishes, and have to spend all their time in duplicated or triplicated meetings, and ministering to decaying buildings rather than people. Catholics continue to disappear from practicing the faith. Here in Boston it is said that something like fifteen percent of baptized Catholics ever go to Church. The wounds and legacy of sexual abuse still call out for penance and conversion. Even among those who have not explicitly rejected the faith, whole extended families and communities have reached a kind of critical mass of not having been catechized or sacramentally initiated, such that it is sometimes hard to find a single qualified sponsor for an infant baptism. And so it continues. The lack of catechesis comes to bear the rotten fruit of fights over the obligation to marry according to canonical form, to offer proper funerals and bury the dead, etc. Everywhere money is running out; much could be done in some parishes with more priests and lay ecclesial ministers, but there isn't any money for salaries. A few more cold days during the heating season can mean the difference between solvency and bankruptcy for a parish.

Who am I in all this? I know well the temptations to bitterness, anger, and despair. They used to weary me when I was a parish priest myself, having to argue with people about baptismal sponsors, absurd choices for wedding or funeral Mass music (a problem which we ourselves have sown by our normalizing of 'picking a song' to replace the ordinary chants of the Mass) or about their obligation to bury the cremated remains of their loved ones.

But you know what? I've decided that I won't let all of this take away my Catholic joy. I joined this religion, I believe that God has called me to be a religious and a priest within it, the whole business suits me very well on the natural level, and I intend to enjoy it. The Communion of Saints assures me that the historical and geographical moments in which my earthly life finds itself are but a part of my place in the Universal Church. I get up in the morning and I read the writings of the saints, and I know that they are just as present to me in Holy Communion as the other brothers in the chapel. I pray for the perseverance and courage of those baptized souls who will have the privilege of being on earth on the last day when the Lord returns. Even if the Church were to be completely falling apart in my own historical moment, that moment does not exhaust my location and so does not comprehend my Catholic life.

Is such an attitude a temptation? Is it an abdication of responsibility? It depends. If I do this in such a way as to lock myself away (either interiorly or exteriorly) with my own desire for God and a devout life, not paying any attention to the trials or sufferings of the larger Church, for sure it's a temptation. But if I do this in such a way that it is a rebellion against decadence, despair, and bitterness, and a devout and joyful rebellion with which I try to infect other souls that God puts in my path, then I think it is an answer to the fundamental Franciscan mission: "Go, Francis, and repair my Church."

January 17, 2011

Praying for Apologists

Yesterday afternoon I found myself inspired to pray for folks in the ministry of apologetics. It's a challenging and somewhat thankless ministry sometimes, and I'm grateful for those God has called and graced to do it, whether here in the Catholic blogging world or in any other way. I realize that what I do here isn't really apologetic in the sense that it presumes a lot, and is mostly for insiders or at least those who are interested in the Lord, the Catholic faith, or the Franciscan or Capuchin life.

I was led into this prayer because I had an encounter, as I do from time to time, that reminded me how hard it is to communicate Catholic teaching in our society and culture. The faith and the world are at odds at the most basic level of teachings and assumptions, those concerning the nature of the human person, the meaning of the world existing at all, and of being alive in it. Therefore, one can preach or describe that Church's teaching on topics like vocation, marriage, death and treatment of the dead, or even social questions like work and the nature of rights and the state, and get nowhere because these depend on more fundamental truths and assumptions about the human person and the world which are not in place in the conversation.

I don't feel like there is much mechanism in the Church to preach and teach such things either. When was the last time you heard a Sunday homily on the nature of the human person, the final destiny of the dead, or the beauty and meaning of sexuality in the created order? So it's no wonder that the Church's teaching on something like marriage doesn't make sense to people--even Catholics--because we have not taught them the fundamental truths that ground these teachings. The world, on the other hand, is constantly teaching its impoverished and erroneous version of these things through television and popular culture and everything else.

So I pray in thanksgiving to God for those who have taken up this challenging ministry, and ask Him to continue to grace them with wisdom and perseverance. Amen.

January 16, 2011

False Ideas of Catholic Teaching

I'm reading the Confessions for the third or fourth time to get warmed up for the directed reading course I'm doing in St. Augustine and St. Hilary this semester. I notice new things and am grateful for the book in new ways. This morning I arrived at a new favorite quote: in the midst of his proximate struggle to accept the Catholic faith, Augustine writes:

non docet catholica fides, quod putabamus et vani accusabamus.

"The Catholic faith does not teach that which we supposed or that which we vainly accused it [of teaching.]"

As it was true then, so it is now. False ideas about Catholic doctrine are a great hindrance to evangelization. One even sometimes hears such errors from otherwise educated people, or sees them in otherwise responsible newspapers.

Some of the most common: that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are physically changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, that Mary is to be worshiped, that the Pope is infallible in a general way, that divorce is a sin, etc.

Because of such misrepresentations of Catholic doctrine, we all need to speak and preach our teaching clearly and coherently if we hope to demonstrate well the beauty of its reasonableness.

January 14, 2011

Being a Friend

Today's gospel, St. Mark's account of Jesus healing the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof of the house by his four friends, is for me a beautiful image of Christian friendship. In the Franciscan context, it's an image of evangelical fraternity.

In order to get their friend into the healing presence of Jesus, the friends climb onto the roof, break through it, and lower their friend on his mat. They are willing to do something strenuous, even outrageous and impolite (to the homeowner), to get their friend in front of the Lord. That's the faith that Jesus sees.

If we love someone, if we want to be a friend or gospel brother, what greater charity could there be than to do the same? How much effort am I willing to make in helping others get into the Lord's presence? Do I will anything as strenuous and outrageous as the friends in the gospel?

January 13, 2011

Little Opportunities

One of the mistakes I made in the early years of my efforts to live a spiritual life was to dismiss minor temptations and humiliations as unimportant. If a humiliation was easily laughed off, it couldn't have spiritual significance, and if a temptation was easily dismissed, it couldn't have much ascetical purpose.

This was very wrong. In fact, the small temptations and humiliations of everyday life are critically important in the spiritual life, for they are the opportunities to train and exercise ourselves into the interior strength and sense we will need for the harder spiritual challenges we face.

This morning provided a good example. After Morning Prayer one of our student brothers whispered me a question: "Do you have the parish Mass today?" I responded that I did, and then looked forward to my confrere assisting at the Mass. Surely he had asked me this question because he would want to come to my Mass.

Therefore it was a small humiliation when I began the Mass and noticed that he wasn't there. "He asked because he didn't want to come if it was me!" arose the thought. (Never mind that this interpretation of things was incorrect; indeed, apprehending appearance instead of reality is the ordinary source of spiritual problems and dis-ease.) So what to do with this thought, this logismos arising from the conflict between appearances, my lack of humility, and the attack on my vanity?

When I was younger I would have just laughed off and dismissed such a thing. But now I know better. I know that my spiritual condition is too fragile and my devotion too shallow to ignore an opportunity to exercise my soul and build up some strength. So, after giving the invitation Let us pray at the beginning of Mass, allowing time for everyone to recollect themselves and form the intentions they wished to bring to the Sacrifice today, I did the same. I thanked God for the grace of the little humiliation. I made an act of thanksgiving for the mercy of my vocation, by which I have the gift of brothers that God can use to chip away at my vanity and inanity. I pray for the gift of real humility, and for God to be with me, and to help me use well the next time I am given a real humiliation.

The spiritual life is made of little, unglamorous things and momentary opportunities. Vanity dismisses them, but humility receives them gratefully.

January 11, 2011

Augustine on Miracles

"A 'miracle' for Augustine was just such a reminder of the bounds imposed on the mind by habit. In a universe in which all processes happen by the will of God, there need be nothing less remarkable in the slow, habitual processes of nature. We take for granted the slow miracle by which water in the irrigation of a vineyard becomes wine: it is only when Christ turns water into wine, 'in a quick motion' as it were, that we are amazed."

~Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (newer edition, 2000, p. 420)

Aperiat ei Dominus Paradisi Ianuam

One of the graces of this winter break has been time to reflect and journal for myself on my transition from parish ministry back into full-time study, along with my move back into the world of the student brothers still completing their initial formation in the Order.

Some of the interior challenges and struggles have been pretty intense. I'm still not at peace with how I am managing all of them. Thus, I have tried to make sure I remember and pray gratefully for all of the blessings and freedoms that my new situation has also brought. One of them is the ability to promptly offer Mass for our brethren who are recently deceased.

When a friar dies in my province of the Capuchin Order, each priest left on earth is supposed to offer a Mass for the deceased brother. This is easily accomplished by concelebrating at his funeral, but one can't always get to funerals. The parish where I worked was the same church in which our brothers' funerals were celebrated, but since I usually served as MC, I couldn't concelebrate.

As a parish priest, I found it somewhat difficult to find a time to offer these Masses for our deceased brothers. The parish had a very strong culture of individual Mass intentions, and there was never a scheduled Mass without one. Sometimes it would take me quite a while to find a day on which I was free to offer these Masses for deceased friars. I remember one spell when a few of our friars died not far apart from each other (we do everything as a group) when it took me about six months to clear out my queue of outstanding Mass intentions.

This is all different in my current assignment. I have scheduled Mass obligations on just three days a week, so I have plenty of opportunity to offer Mass for other intentions. So it's a beautiful blessing to have a morning like this one, a ferial day in Ordinary Time (a feria of the iv class, as they used to say) when I can not only offer Mass for one of our recently deceased brothers, but put on violet (we don't have black) and do so with a proper Mass for the dead.

The deceased was Fr. Ellis Zimmer, one of those friars whom you meet and just know he has found the secret to spiritual peace and joy. Requiescat in pace.

January 10, 2011

A Challege to Both Sides

Via the always interesting Lee Hamilton, I arrived this morning at a blog post at once witty, biting, and deeply challenging to both sides of our tired 'left' and 'right' Catholic polarities. Let us check out and examine our consciences over at Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity and read "Notes on religious discourse - left and right."

January 9, 2011

The Partying God

Praying over the texts for Mass today, I was struck especially by the beginning of the preface:

Father, all-powerful and ever living God,
we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks.

You celebrated your new gift of baptism
by signs and wonders at the Jordan

It's a beautiful and brilliant image, to think of God celebrating. Perhaps we don't often think of God as joyful or happy, but of course He is, and infinitely so. And perhaps we don't often entertain an image of God as the host of a party, but there is a lot in the Scripture to justify such an idea. Jesus was infamous for his attendance at dinners, and he described the final fulfillment of creation in terms of a wedding reception.

At the Lord's baptism the Blessed Trinity celebrates the accomplishment of God's single purpose in creation and redemption alike: the inclusion of the creature in the flourishing communion of divine Love between Lover and Beloved, the Father and the Son.

(It seems that this vocabulary of celebration in today's preface is particular to the American English Sacramentary. It does not read quite that way in the 2002 Missale Romanum or in any other translations I have.)

January 8, 2011

In Defense of Social Justice

In the course of my internet ministry I have noticed something disturbing: sometimes so-called conservative or 'traditionalist'-leaning Catholics dismiss social justice as if it were an error altogether or at least something outside of Christian concern. This is a serious distortion of Christianity and Catholic teaching. Our Lord himself, with the whole prophetic tradition leading up to him, (not to mention the ordinary magisterium of the Church) reveals that social injustice is one of the most serious sins against God's sovereignty, and that the struggle for justice in the world is integral to genuine religion.

I've been reflecting on where this error comes from, and I've arrived at two ideas. First, sometimes folks are distracted by the errors of the 'social justice type' Catholics themselves. For example, sometimes these ignore certain pressing issues of social justice which are not considered such by secular liberals, like abortion or homosexual "marriage" for example, and thus reveal a certain confused assimilation to the world. But if religious conservatives allow such mistakes to make them reject the idea of social justice altogether, they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater and permitting the devil a great victory.

Second, I think there is, among us Catholics at least, a false separation between social justice and evangelization. There is a sense that we have our faith, we celebrate it at the Eucharist, and then we are called to go out into the world and work for justice. This is true as far as it goes, but I think we sometimes forget that the love of God and the Eucharist are themselves the social program par excellence. Yes, goods like a living wage, honest work, and access to health care and education are all things we should work for on behalf of those who need them, but in the end the old cliche holds: Jesus is the answer. In other words, we are good at remembering that we are called to struggle against social injustice, but because the world tells us to keep our religion to ourselves, we conveniently forget that God himself is the remedy for the ills of society.

This second trouble leads to two distortions in our Catholic life. First, if someone encourages others to the devout life, or to return to prayer or the sacraments, or practices the liturgy in such a way that it produces communities of devotion and fervor, this is generally not viewed as a ministry of social justice, when in fact it is so, and preeminently. Helping the greatest number of people to come into the deepest experiential contact with the mystery of Justifying Charity Himself in divine worship makes them into a justifying leaven in the world. On the other hand, if our faith leads us to agitate for social change or to join those who try to compel worldly governments to take better care of the poor, we should not imagine that we have accomplished a great victory if we have not also given people a way to God in Whom they can know the truth about themselves in the world as an alternative to the errors about creation, life, and humanity which are at the root of social problems in the first place. This goes for both the powerful and the poor of this world. It is a failure to properly acknowledge the sovereignty of God that is at the root of social injustice, and to fail to include this in our social works is to only address symptoms rather than the disease itself.

January 7, 2011


I was touched by this anonymous comment: I had gone to Reconciliation and had been feeling somewhat disconsolate afterwards. I wished I had a spiritual director.

The spiritual life isn't easy. Prayer, as is said, is an 'uninteresting wilderness.'

A spiritual director is a good thing, but only a help. Not everyone who thinks he needs a spiritual director really does, and not every who tries to engage in directing souls is competent to do so.

In the early years of my baptism I was often preoccupied with a certain interior struggle that was made much worse by my inability to really understand it or articulate it well. A significant part of my journals from those years is taken up with my struggle to find an understanding of this trouble. I remember trying to explain it in confession without much success. One time a priest just admitted that he didn't know what I was trying to explain. It was very frustrating because I felt like my spiritual progress was being impeded by something, but I couldn't quite describe what it was; I couldn't name the demon, as it were. I was also scandalized to find that priests were little help; I had presumed (in my innocence) that one of the ordinary works of priests was the diagnosis of spiritual maladies and prescription of appropriate remedies.

I began to arrive at some resolution in this issue when I read John Cassian. I realized that I was struggling with a subtle form of kenodoxia or vainglory. Cassian taught me how to recognize and name the particular thoughts and interior movements that were at the root of the affliction.

This is why I say that in the pursuit of a spiritual life, the best thing that someone can do is read. Through the ages, the life of prayer and the call to holiness have been lived by all kinds of different people with all sort of personalities, gifts, and faults. The Holy Spirit arranged for many of them to write about their experiences and what they had learned, so that their wisdom might be available to us.

For any individual soul, personality, and temperament, there is some spiritual writer out there who will speak to you from the communion of saints. Pay attention to cues you receive in prayer or through spiritual friends, and God will lead you to someone with whom you resonate. Find the spiritual writers who speak to your particular condition, and you will find that your own spiritual life begins to enter into the communion of saints. The saints will give you language and conceptual frameworks to understand your own experience, and you will also find your own sense of your journey comes to be informed by those who have gone before you. This is what I mean by the communion of saints in this regard. For example, my sense of my own prayer has ben strongly patterned by John of the Cross and John Cassian. My understanding of the narrative of my own conversion has received much from Augustine, Francis, and Thomas Merton.

To anyone who would live a spiritual life, make such friends. It is for you that God made them write.

January 6, 2011

Charles's Razor

It would be my great joy to leave the world an eponymous adage. I think I have a candidate.

Today another friar and I were discussing how a community could be misinterpreted upon visiting. For example, if a friary seems too cold, one might guess that the brethren there were embracing the celebrated austerity of the first friars of our reform. It's more likely, though, that someone isn't paying attention to the thermostat, or that the boiler has been allowed to run out of oil, etc. For another example, if you find that there isn't much to eat in the house, you might be tempted to guess that the brethren there were fasting. It's more likely, though, that someone has not looked after the grocery shopping.

Therefore, I propose for review and criticism the following rule, which I tentatively call Charles's Razor:

Among religious, do not attribute to piety that which is adequately accounted for by negligence.

January 4, 2011

Growing in Sin

For those praying the Liturgy of the Hours in American English today, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is striking in the Office of Readings:

But we lack courage to keep a continual watch over nature, and therefore, year after year, with our thousand graces, multiplied resolutions, and fair promises, we run around in a circle of misery and imperfections. After a long time in the service of God, we come nearly to the point from whence we set out, and perhaps with even less ardor for penance and mortification than when we began our consecration to him.

Most anyone who has tried or even just desired to live a spiritual life for some years has had this experience. We struggle with the same faults and sins and sometimes don't seem to make any progress at all in virtue. We wonder, because we feel as if we have lost our former fervor and zeal, if we are actually in a worse spiritual condition than when we started. I think this experiences requires delicate reflection and discernment.

On the one hand, St. Elizabeth is quite right in saying that we fail to make progress in piety and virtue because we lack the courage to apply the required vigilance to ourselves. We fail to discipline our minds and to work ascetically with our thoughts and afflictive emotions. We simply try not to sin or we make a content-free resolution not to fall back into our bad habits and interior and exterior occasions of sin. But without having applied any ascesis to the sources of sin in our internal distraction and selfishness, we should not be surprised to find that our will is tossed this way and that, and we remain devout servants of our maladaptive behaviors. We are happy to make resolutions and plans about getting rid of the rotten fruits of our sinfulness, but we lack the courage and vigilance to go after the roots of these things in our thoughts, emotions, and assumptions.

On the other hand, we are who we are. No matter how much we grow in faith and the spiritual life, we will always be ourselves. Just as the "geographical cure" usually fails on the physical level, so on the spiritual as well. Wherever we go, and into our out of whatever states of life we travel, we will always find ourselves there. Our struggles and faults are based in our personalities and are inalienable for all but the holiest of the saints. We will always struggle with our own particular sins and faults. We may come to struggle with them on ever deeper levels, closer to the miserable heart of our own selfishness and the mystery of the wound left by original sin in each of us, but struggle we will. Nevertheless, I think there is a spiritual gift in this too. The selfishness of sin can sometimes seep into our spiritual reflection on our sinfulness. We come to give our sinfulness too much place and power in our spiritual life. If our spiritual life is only about our own holiness and desire to be a saint, personal sin can seem like a catastrophe. But the answer isn't to try harder not to sin, but to forget about ourselves altogether and to notice that God is far more compelling, interesting, and lovable than our own prayer and piety.

That is to say that the happiness of my spiritual life lies not in the knowledge of my holiness, but that God's saving purpose and loving kindness are not thwarted in the least by my sinfulness.

January 2, 2011

Three Theses on Epiphany

Epiphany is one of my favorite days of the year. This morning I was thinking about general doctrines that arise from the scripture today:

The natural world, properly interpreted, leads us to its logical center in the incarnate Word. (The star)

Our deepest human vocation (and happiness) is found in the adoration of Jesus Christ, and in giving him the best of ourselves and our resources. (The homage and gifts of the magi)

Worldly power exists in a tense--and often directly opposed--relationship to the Kingdom of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. (Herod)

January 1, 2011

Spent and Tired Bureaucracies

So I'm through about half of Light of the World, Peter Seewald's latest book of interviews with (now) Benedict XVI. As usual, the most interesting, surprising, and even provocative material is quite other than the bits picked up and celebrated by the secular media. Here's one part that struck me strongly in what I have read thus far:

Benedict is speaking on the decline in Catholic observance and identity in Europe and the United States, in relation to the new vitality the Church is experiencing in other parts other world:

Less clearly but nevertheless unmistakably, we find here in the West, too, a revival of new Catholic initiatives that are not ordered by a structure or a bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is spent and tired. These initiatives come from within, from the joy of young people.*

What is meant by 'bureaucracy' here? Is it the structures of dioceses? That would seem to be the obvious guess. If so, I think the Pope's words raise an important reflection for us religious, and especially religious of institutes that are largely clerical.

Historically, here in North America, the ministerial resources and priestly energies of religious have often gone into supporting and assisting the diocesan structure and its parishes. This was a tremendous good work at one time, and built a network of parishes, schools, hospitals and many other Catholic institutions that accomplished the greatest work of social uplift the world has ever seen.

But where are we now, if the bureaucracy is "spent and tired"? Often we religious of clerical or largely clerical communities justify and eagerly go about the work of parish priesthood because we want to respond to what is called "the needs of the Church." But I think Benedict's words beg for us the question: are the 'needs of the Church' the same thing as the needs of bishops and the needs of diocesan structures, which may be 'spent and tired.'?

This is a difficult and delicate question. Many religious communities have tried to better proclaim the Gospel by moving outside of the traditional structures of the Church, but some have only succeeded in stepping outside of the Church--and sometimes even Christianity--altogether. So, to me, the question is not whether or not to work within the structures of the Church--because we all form that structure, and to deny it is to deny ourselves and our baptism--but how it is we can best serve the needs of the Church conceived in the broadest possible way, and perhaps this means seeking out and supporting the new and joyful energies of which Benedict speaks.

*I don't know the page number, because I am reading the Kindle edition. It's 'location' 870.