March 31, 2011

Cogency Against Mockery

Cum enim aliquis ad probandam fidem inducit rationes quae non sunt cogentes, cedit in irrisionem infidelium.

"When someone tries to prove the faith by introducing arguments that make no sense, he falls into the mockery of unbelievers." (Summa Theologiae, Ia, 32, 1)

One thing I've come to believe is that many people don't believe in God simply because they have never been introduced to a concept of God to which a reasonable adult could consent. In the same way, I think a lot of us Christians are merely so on the moral or cultural level for the same reason. Or if we do believe in God, we are functional unitarians because we have never been given a portable, reasonable account of the Trinity, or we are vague theists rather than Christians because we have never heard a cogent account of the incarnation or the union of God and man in Christ.

When was the last time you came out of Mass on Trinity Sunday, having heard something mystical and not just mystifying on the Blessed Trinity? Or on the incarnation at Christmas? Or even the Resurrection at Easter? It always makes me so sad when I hear from priests that they don't know how to preach during the Easter season. If we don't know how to preach the central confession of our faith, what are we preaching about in the first place?

March 30, 2011

quasi stillam parvam ad nos descendentem

"As Thomas sees it, the seat of his vocation as a theologian is to perform a 'contemplative' exercise, the purpose of which is to take a 'small sip' of the divine knowledge which is communicated in revelation."

--Gilles Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, 30. (trans. Francesca Aran Murphy)

March 29, 2011

Laetare Ierusalem, et Conventum Facite

By chance or Providence I have been called to offer Mass this coming Sunday for a weekend gathering of our candidates for the Order. I've had far too long to incubate this homily, and it's edging towards the outrageous in how I imagine it.

It includes, so far:

The story of my Dad imitating and mocking the homily given at my temporary profession of vows

A famous insult from one of our friars, which bitingly plays on the distinction between being a 'poor religious' in the sense of evangelical poverty and a 'poor religious' in the sense of having delusions of adequacy

An amusing and telling complaint of a former girlfriend about my entrance into religious life

Fortunately for readers of this blog, this isn't the kind of homily that gets written down, in the spirit of the sage advice of one of my Jesuit teachers:

"It's best not to think.

"If you think, don't speak.

"If you speak, don't write.

"If you write, don't be surprised."

March 28, 2011

Some Dis/Orienting Thoughts

Some recent events and conversations have had me thinking again about the ad orientem/versus populum debate.

First, someone reported to me that he had witnessed some folks offering a "Tridentine Mass." Given the circumstances, I had my doubts. I mentioned it to the priest and deacon involved and found out, just as I had suspected, that it wasn't a Mass in the Extraordinary Form at all, but a Mass in Ordinary Form, except in Latin and offered ad orientem.

Second, in a conversation with a priest some of these questions came up. He assured me that it was entirely forbidden to offer Mass ad orientem in the modern Roman rite. Not only was it forbidden, but also unimaginable.

Both of these conversations, in the mistake of recognition and the misunderstanding that they represent respectively, reveal what we all already know: the EF and the OF are principally distinguished by two things: in the former the Mass is offered ad orientem in Latin, and in the latter it is offered versus populum in the local language of the assembly (or some of the assembly, as the situation increasingly is.)

Now one can argue that this distinction is false and can point out the appropriate passages from Vatican II and the GIRM to show that it is not the case at all, but the fact remains that in the de facto and existential state of things, these are the differences between the two for the overwhelming majority of people, so much so that an EF OF Mass offered ad orientem in the ordinary language of the Roman rite is seen as a "Tridentine Mass."

The third event was a conversation about the practice of inviting everyone to stand around the altar during the liturgy of the Eucharist. For whatever reason, feelings seem to run strong around this practice. I have nothing against it in itself; my only objection would be that it seems fairly well tied to the forbidden practice of passing around the sacred species. But to those who are against gathering in a circle around the altar (and I don't like it either), I would only say that I think it follows logically from the whole sacramental ethos of the Mass celebrated versus populum. The tired line against the Mass in which all the worshipers are oriented together is that the priest 'has his back to the people.' In the turning about of altars, folks have found a liberation and a new experience of God in the lateral sacramental presence of people praying through each other, and there is a lot to be said for this. But why then should the assembly pray with their backs to each other? Isn't it a clearer expression of the presence of Christ in the assembly if we all get to see each other? I'm not saying that everyone should always be invited to gather around the altar, but if you really believe in the Mass versus populum on a theological level (that is to say, beyond its entertainment value, should it have any, and the cult of personality) then why not go all the way and embrace this practice too? I don't mean this in a sarcastic way; I'm just playing out implications in my mind.

The fourth moment was when I attended a Mass in the Extraordinary Form the other day. I didn't think it was very well done. I don't mean that it wasn't done right, but that it wasn't done well. For a first class feast it was just a giant Low Mass with just a priest, a couple of servers, and a couple of priests sitting in choro. There was no sermon or homily, nor schola and not even a hymn before and after Mass. There was no music at all. Now I know that my active and conscious participation consists primarily in my offering of my own self-sacrifice offered in union with the Sacrifice of Christ on the altar, but at this Mass it was easy to see how someone could get the idea that he was cut off from what was really going on, and entirely incidental to the whole business.

I think it would be a good idea for all of us younger folks who are curious about exploring and even recovering things like prayer ad orientem and Latin as liturgical language to attend such a poorly done celebration of the EF. We need to feel, at some level, what a liberation it must have been for folks to have suddenly felt more involved, to make responses, and to speak prayers of the Mass themselves in a way didn't feel incidental. We all know the dangers and distortions of the Mass celebrated versus populum, when the Mass is made into a cooking show by some aspiring priest-celebrity, but we also need to feel, and not just know, the parallel dangers and spiritual dangers of ad orientem as well.

March 25, 2011

Ad Obj. 1

O.k.; this is when you know you've been reading too much scholastic theology.

This morning I go downstairs for breakfast and look in the bread box. When I see the package of 'Everything' bagels, something like this thought immediately comes to mind:

To the objection that it is impossible that a single bagel could subsume everything, we must say that 'everything' is understood in multiple ways.

Lessons from Cinderella

On the long ride to BC yesterday, I was able to finish Aschenputtel. (For German practice, I've been reading in a little bilingual edition of the Brothers Grimm.)

It's another rather gruesome story with a lot of mixed messages. Here's what I learned:

The advice of one's mother is worth heeding.

Fathers cannot be trusted to protect their children from abusers.

Sometimes the pretty ones are evil.

Sometimes you have to put with oppression, but nevertheless you must be on the lookout for a way out.

Prayerful grief at the graves of loved ones is dear to God.

Be modest in what you ask of other people, but bold in what you ask of Providence.

People sometimes make promises without any intention of keeping them.

Lentils are worth the trouble.

The natural world is on the side of the good.

Nice clothes matter for making a first impression, but after that not so much.

Playing 'hard to get' works.

Doing violence to yourself to fit in will backfire, and you will end up crippled and bloody.

Men prefer women with small feet.

Notions and Relations

Apart from Sunday Mass, the highlight of my week is the meeting of the medieval trinitarian theology seminar that I have with professor Coolman and four doctoral students from the theology department. The two hours go by so fast.

We've arrived at a kind of notional pause in the course, having spent three weeks with Bonaventure before we begin Thomas next week. Thinking about this on the way home last night, I realized that the course is having both welcome and challenging fruit for me.

On the positive side, I am more convinced than ever that the Trinity is an eminently reasonable doctrine of God. What's more, and to be honest, for the first time I am thoroughly convinced not only of the reasonableness of the filioque, but that it is somehow necessary for an intelligible, robust, and durable account of God.

On the more challenging side, I now suffer with a heightened awareness of problems. I'm starting to see shadings into modalism and subordinationism all the time when the Trinity is mentioned in casual speech or even in homilies. Sometimes I even worry about these things in what I read in the great doctors.

God the Father of Heaven, Have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world, Have mercy on us.
God the Holy Spirit, Have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, one God, Have mercy on us.

March 24, 2011

On Singing and Creating

Back on Ash Wednesday I remarked in a tweet how I had gone through the whole of the liturgical day without singing Tom Conry's "Ashes." I thought it notable because the song, at least in my catholic experience, is something of an anthem for the day.

Therefore I was quite amused with Fr. Guardian chose it for the hymn for Morning Prayer today; a Lent would not pass without it after all. I don't know why he pulled it out now in the second week of Lent; perhaps because it's snowing this morning here in Boston, giving the line "Though spring has turned to winter" a special poignancy.

I first remember singing "Ashes" in 1995 when I was working at St. Stephen of Hungary on 82nd St. in Manhattan (I can still see one of my good early influences, Fr. Greg, strumming his guitar in his gray chasuble.) I doubt that I sang it in 1996 when I would have gone to St. Mary's in New Haven, Connecticut on Ash Wednesday; they were using the GIA Worship hymnal, which doesn't include it, and it isn't the style there besides. Apart from that exception, I'm sure that I've sung "Ashes" on every Ash Wednesday up to--but not including--this one.

Generally speaking, I think it has a lot of musical virtues for congregational singing, and captures something of the spiritual mood of Ash Wednesday. I've heard it bashed theologically, but I think the case is a little overstated. Sure, the "create ourselves" line is a little troubling, but on the whole I think it's a good song, giving some depth to the central sacramental of the ashes and looking forward to Easter and the Resurrection off in the distance. The "we rise again" stuff, in my opinion, is just a way to accomplish this glimpse of the Resurrection, rather than any suggestion that our rising isn't a function of the Rising of Christ. Indeed, I'm happy with anyone who helps us to recall that the whole idea of Lent is our baptism into Christ's death and Resurrection, against all those well-meaning but misguided souls who try to give us 'themes' for Lent, some of which aren't even Christian.

The song is a good example of why we fight about liturgical music and the words that we sing: such words and images exert a powerful influence on the spiritual imagination. Speech--especially as song--is formative. That we can form words first mentally and then physically is one of the primary ways we exercise ourselves as created in the image and likeness of God, who speaks his Word from all eternity. What we say and sing forms--and can deform--that image. As one of my teachers likes to say, "Nobody walks out of church humming the homily."

March 23, 2011


There are days on which all I do is read. Just for my sanity, I try to get out for a walk when I can. I think about my life. How is that I find myself as a doctoral student in sacred theology? In a certain way it's obvious. The question at the root of it has been with me as long as I can remember, even though I haven't always paid attention to it.

Who is this God? What is meant by the utterance "God"?

It's not an easy question. God has names and definitions. God reveals himself, but in ways that seem to be apart from what we ordinarily call certainty and knowledge. He is somehow undeniable and exasperatingly subtle at the same time. He's isn't a thing, but he isn't nothing either. Somehow God is no-thing, and we say that He 'exists' because we don't know how to talk about Someone who is transcendent to, or the ground and principle of anything else that seems to exist.

He is always there, or to speak a little more precisely, He is always here. He is always now, but in such a way as to be both before and later in His singular now-ness. And yet, this endlessly robust Presence retreats from the grasp of our prayer and intellectual desire. Thus he draws us more deeply into the Light of Himself, but in such a way that it only feels like darkness.

"God is the infinitely rich and fecund mystery whose eternal being is a dynamic ecstasy of goodness and love." -Zachary Hayes, in his introduction to St. Bonaventure's Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity

If you believe, if you make a simple act of submission to the authority of God proposing some article of faith externally through His Church, you receive the gift of an interior light that is so simple that it baffles description and so pure that it would be coarse to call in an experience. But it is a true light, perfecting the intellect of man with a perfection far beyond knowledge." -Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 133.

March 22, 2011

On the Married Clergy

There is a front-page article in the New York Times this morning about an evangelical minister who is having trouble finding a job because of discrimination against the unmarried. The article rehearses all the folklore about the merits of the married clergy: how they have to set an example of family life, know how to counsel the married, be a sign of 'family values,' etc.

For a correction to this, we turn to one of my great Protestant teachers, Charles Merrill Smith:

"The real reasons why you should marry are, of course, not at all related to the folklore.

"First, a clergyman who remains unmarried for more than a year after graduation from seminary is suspected of being abnormal, immoral or chicken.

"Second, there will be those who will speculate that he has taken St. Paul on marriage too seriously, and has made a secret vow of celibacy. So far as your parishioners are concerned, you may be as celibate as a Cistercian monk, but they will insist that you practice it within the married state.

"Third, somewhat more than half of your congregation will be women, and all women — single, married or widowed (including grass widows) — resent a male eligible for marriage, who chooses to remain unwed.

"Fourth — and here is the overriding argument in the mind of the congregation — since the church owns a parsonage and already has arrived at a salary figure below which it cannot go and maintain its conviction, however illusory, that it is a humane institution; it is only sensible to get two employees for the price of one. Therefore, it boils down to a business proposition. It would be damaging and vulgar to admit to this, however, so the tradition and the folklore was manufactured to mask it.

"Actually it is very good business from the church's point of view. Most girls are piano players of sorts, and anyone can learn to operate a typewriter or mimeograph. Add to these accomplishments the intellectually-untaxing duties of Sunday School teaching, choir singing, ladies' aid work and a miscellany of other small parish chores all of which your wife will be expected in your first small churches to perform (it's part of the tradition), and you have a job analysis which, were it filled by a salaried employee, would require no small addition to the annual budget. Hence the tradition of a married clergy.

"If you want to be a preacher and a bachelor, be prepared for a dismal future and renounce now — the hope for status, prestige, emolument, luxury and all of the spiritual joys which accompany a plush suburban pastorate. The author does not question the preacher's right to take a vow of chastity, but he'd better darn well understand that a vow of poverty goes along with it."

(From How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious, chapter 2, "Selecting the Clerical Wife.")

March 21, 2011

Bad Coffee and Catholic Wisdom

Today I'm visiting our friary in Yonkers, New York, where I was assigned as parish priest for three years. I'm on the provincial "liturgy commission," and today we are planning liturgies for our upcoming provincial chapter. The coffee here is terrible, and it reminds me of some wisdom I received as a catechumen.

The parish where I became a Catholic didn't seem to have heard of the restored catechumenate or the RCIA. Instead, they put me in the care of the permanent deacon, a very kind man, who was to give me 'convert instructions.' After going through these instructions on Thursday evenings through the summer of 1993, I asked if I could be baptized before the fall semester began.

The deacon agreed that it was a good time, but explained to me that I would have to be examined by the pastor first. Of course I had no idea what this meant, and I studied everything I could think of the night before. I was to be examined after the morning Mass. I had never been in a rectory before. The deacon and his wife waited outside.

The old pastor invited me to sit at the dining room table. He gave me buttered toast and a cup of coffee. David McCullough's Truman sat on the table, along with the local newspaper, the New London Day. The examination consisted of me being asked if I really wanted to be baptized. That's all. And I was all ready to name the sacraments, the commandments, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the mysteries of the rosary, etc. When I responded that yes indeed I wanted to be baptized, he gave his congratulations, presented me a baptismal certificate (a day early) and showed me out. I was relieved and very surprised that there had been nothing to it.

The deacon and his wife asked me how it had gone. I told them everything.

"How was the coffee?" asked the deacon.

"It was awful," I replied.

"That's a good lesson about the Catholic Church," he went on, "the coffee is usually pretty bad."

March 19, 2011

Baby Priests

One of my colleagues at school was ordained priest last weekend. I've been praying for him. He's a baby priest. That's what they call you. I've always experienced it as a term of endearment; the baby priest is innocent, unruined, full of possibility and promise, and inspires care-giving.

The baby priest also has certain special 'powers.' Asking for his 'first blessing' is a venerable tradition, and the blessing itself is said to contain great graces. As one of the old friars said to me around the time of my own priestly ordination, getting the blessing of a new priest "is worth wearing out two horses." I was ordained by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, whose practice it is to conclude the Mass by kneeling down and asking for himself the blessing of the newly ordained. I'll never forget that moment, as I tried to remember what I had practiced saying about his ministry as teacher and shepherd, and how he kissed my chrismated hands.

Today I visited a parish to give a pro-life talk. I was there a little early, and I ran into one of the parish priests. As we were introducing ourselves, he asked me what I was doing in Boston. I explained that after three years as a parish priest after ordination, I had been asked to return to studies. "Oh," he said, "a baby priest." I was a little surprised to hear it, as I've been a priest for over three years. Besides, he looked pretty young himself. Nevertheless, you never know, for reasons that require further study, certain sorts of priests go through life very well preserved.

So, the question arises: at one point does a priest cease to be a baby priest? I don't know. Given that this language is obviously meant to be analogous to babyhood in human life, I hardly know how to make an assertion, because I don't know when people stop being babies and turn into something else. It would also seem somewhat culturally bound; I have remarked many times that among some ethnic groups, children are still called babies when they would have long been considered something else in another group.

So, when does someone stop being a baby priest?

March 16, 2011

Brother Bonaventure to the Nurse's Office Please

Cleanliness is a common point of tension and contention in religious life. The brothers tend to have divergent ideas about what constitutes its ordinary standards, on both the personal and domestic levels.

But let us give thanks that, apparently, Franciscan life is a little cleaner than it used to be. Consider, for example, this lovely counter-example used by St. Bonaventure in his discussion of the relations of the Trinity:

Homo enim dicitur generare pediculos, non tamen dicitur pater eorum.

"A man is said to generate lice, though he is not said to be their father."

(From his commentary on The Sentences, 1, 27, 1, 1)

March 15, 2011

My Spiritual Fathers

Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives.

They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint. For many absurd reasons they are convinced that they are obliged to become somebody else who died two hundred years ago and who lived in circumstances utterly alien to their own.

Thomas Merton, "Integrity" in New Seeds of Contemplation, 98.

From Ben's comment yesterday I was thinking about Seraphim Rose. He's one of a handful of people, along with Thomas Merton, Francis of Assisi, and Augustine, to name the most influential, who have had a deep impact on how I understand myself as a Christian, and especially as a convert.

It's a very delicate business, these influences. On the one hand, these men were my formators in the faith and in my religious life. In important ways, I came to understand myself through their language and grasp the meanings of my own experience through their accounts of understanding theirs. In the midst of my crisis of conscience around the first war in Iraq I met Francis in a history class, and his renunciation of privilege became my desire. It was only years later (see this post) that I realized how much Thomas Merton's account of his purchase of breviaries (after his first dream of religious life didn't work out) became a model for me when I was dismissed from my first try at being a friar, and the whole business accounts somewhat for the grace of fierce devotion to the Liturgy of the Hours I have even now. The conversions of St. Augustine and Fr. Seraphim from philosophy to prayer became means for me to understand what had happened to me in the course of college, which I entered without a thought of God as a student of philosophy and mathematics, and left four years later as a zealous convert on his way to religious life.

On the other hand, Merton's words quoted above are real wisdom. Our spiritual parents give us the language by which we can grow up and understand ourselves, God, and the world, but the circumstances of our lives are different than theirs. Our sanctity will not be the same. Grace builds on nature, and as each human person is a unique and unrepeatable creation, so each is a unique and unrepeatable locus for grace, a grace that will be individual and particular. I understand myself through these men I have named, but it is a temptation to want to grasp for their experiences.

The balance is delicate. We must find ourselves as the children of our parents, but we must also find ourselves therein as our own selves.

As he was dying, Francis said to the brothers, "I have done what was mine; may Christ teach you yours."

March 13, 2011


It seems like every Sunday I come back from Mass with a post to write about a conversation with some child or other. It helps me to notice that one of the things I miss from parish ministry is the presence of children in my daily life: the chance to work with altar servers so as to build their confidence and pride in doing something well, the natural desire for goodness in my young catechumens, the challenge and privilege of preaching to the schoolchildren, the funny little boy who liked to imitate the gestures of the priest at Mass, the very proper little girl who would politely present her gluten-free altar bread before Mass and then wait patiently for her little personal pyx to be returned to her afterward.

But on to today's edification from the young. In the sacristy before Mass, one of the altar children showed up and placed a folder on the vesting table. "What's in the folder?" I asked.

"Stuff for CCD,*" she answered.

"Oh yes," I continued, "and what are you learning about?"

"Different stuff...but mainly about Jesus."


*I never cease to be amazed by the sticking power of the term "CCD" for programs of childrens' religious education in general. As Fr. Kselman, who taught us Old Testament and was one of our favorite teachers, always liked to remind us, sacred language is conservative in nature and tends to preserve itself.

March 12, 2011

Theology of History

Providence has given me a number of reasons of late to examine more closely my fundamental theological ideas. Among not the least of these reasons is my obedience to obtain a doctorate in sacred theology and my desire to be a responsible catholic blogger.

In this project I have begun to try to articulate a certain theological sense of modern history that I seem to hold, and which seems to frame a lot of my thinking. This being the case, I need to get these ideas out in the open so I can examine them better and submit myself to critique.

In that spirit, here are the outlines of the theology of history that I seem to have fallen into over the years. I don't present this as a set of theological claims, but as an attempt at self-examination.

1. Modern man, as Nietzsche famously diagnosed, killed God and thereby emancipated himself from religion (and yes, often even we religious people want to enjoy this emancipation for ourselves, wanting to have it both ways) and from both the desire for and responsibility to any supernatural destiny.

2. Because people want purpose, direction, and meaning more than anything else, purely rational substitutes for God as the purpose and goal of human history began to emerge thanks to Hegel, Marx, etc. Historical dialectics replaced the eschatological Kingdom of God. On the other hand, thanks to Freud, the ascent of the mind to God was replaced with an inward, therapeutic journey of personal archaeology.

3. As the twentieth century passed, these replacements for the dead God came to destroy themselves. National Socialism scarred the whole world. Communism caused tremendous suffering and then imploded. The inward, therapeutic journey which was supposed to be so liberating came to yield a rotten fruit of narcissism and entitlement.

4. With both God and Marx dead--that is to say without either a natural or supernatural meaning or destiny--modern man had become, by the middle of the twentieth century, adrift. He began to call his state of being adrift his 'post-modernity.' In this condition he has nothing left to do but argue about the right way to conduct the modern liberal state (and sorry, the 'modern liberal state' embraces both 'liberals' and 'conservatives' in the political sense of the terms.) But even in this project he has no criteria for doing so, being without any durable values, shared ultimate concern, or absolute truth. So the criteria for conducting the modern liberal state come to be based on personal feelings and personal convenience on the animal level--both having been given some sense of 'absolute' value by the therapeutic journey. Thus, we end up in a situation where various tragedies and absurdities, e.g. state-sanctioned abortion and homosexual "marriage" respectively, become to people obvious, 'no-brainers.'

5. Into this state of affairs, the Catholic Church, in the wake of Vatican II, tried to finally embrace the ideas of modernity, like someone who comes to a party just as it is ending. So we get a certain 'Spirit of Vatican II' that wants to talk about historical progress in the sense of the European Enlightenment, just as the rest of the thoughtful world--having witnessed the first half of the twentieth century--is just about ready to reject it. Thus, we end up with a kind of misplaced focus in our ministry and preaching, in which the 'progress of peoples' is seen in an overly this-worldly way. Works of material charity and social justice are very worthwhile, and even necessary, but even more than these, what modern "society" (if it can be called that) really needs is eschatology, a sense of where it is going, an idea of the Destiny from which derives the meaning of the present and the person within it.

So there it is. As I try to dig out my theological assumptions, I realize that this sense of history is a big part of it. In some ways, it's mixed up with my unconsciously abstracting a theology from my own experience of conversion.

March 9, 2011

My Uncle Tim

Today has been a remarkable Ash Wednesday for me. For the first time in recent memory, it's been a quiet day of prayer and reflection. As a parish priest, it was one of the busiest days of the year. Now, as a student again, it's a very different sort of day.

As I took a walk I was reflecting on how the ashes of Ash Wednesday were probably my first explicit experience of the Catholic faith.

My Aunt Virginia, may she rest in peace, who was my maternal grandfather's baby sister, got married later in life to a Catholic widower. He thus became my 'Uncle' Timothy. When we were little they would often visit us around the time of my birthday at the end of February and the birthday of my two brothers at the beginning of March. (They are twins, and so have the same birthday, you see.)

Ash Wednesday fell within the nine or ten days between the two birthdays several times during my childhood, (i.e. 1976, 1979, 1981, 1984 (thank you, helpful chart in my 1962 Missale Romanum!)) and that explains why I remember seeing Uncle Tim with the ashes imposed on his forehead. I don't remember thinking anything of it, but the visual memory is quite vivid. There he is, sitting by one of the front windows, reading the paper, ashes on his head.

My Uncle Tim was a quiet and rather mysterious figure in my childhood, but always patient and gentle with everyone. By the time I joined him in the Catholic faith he was already quite sick with final illness and probably didn't even know. But I was able to assist at his funeral Mass as a Catholic Christian, and receive Holy Communion.

Requiescat in pace.

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.

Posts for Ash Wednesday

Some good old posts for Ash Wednesday:

Ash Wednesday, a feast day for all of us not-so-good Catholics

The stinging irony of the Ash Wednesday ritual

Theses on choosing what to do for Lent

March 8, 2011

Sacristy Goes Both Ways

Sometimes religious life is just too cool.

I offered Mass this morning at the local Poor Clare monastery. After I had washed my hands--Da Domine, virtutem manibus meis...--but before I reached for my alb, I was startled when one of the drawers in the vesting table began to retreat mysteriously:

I told Sr. Sacristan that I thought something was funny about her sacristy drawers. She laughed and explained to me that they were two-sided, and could be opened from the other side as well, in another room. That way, the vesting table drawers could be accessed without anyone having to wander outside of cloister.

By the way, don't I have a neat method of folding my alb and tying it up with my cincture? I'm very proud of that.

March 6, 2011

Eggs and Charity

Several times in my religious life I have observed a version of the following funny phenomenon around the preparation of breakfast.

On a weekend morning, after Sunday Mass perhaps, a friar decides to make himself some eggs. Often it's an omelet, but sometimes the eggs might be fried or scrambled. It doesn't matter. While he is cooking away, another friar appears and says something to the effect of, 'That looks good!' The first friar, being a kind soul, of course, asks him if he would like to have some too. When the second friar eagerly consents, the first simply finishes cooking the eggs and gives them to him. Why would he let his sit and get cold while he prepares another batch for someone else? He is better off just giving the second friar what he was preparing for himself, and then starting over.

The funny part is that this can go on indefinitely, with further friars appearing one by one. In fact, I once watched in great amusement as a confrere was not able to sit down to his Sunday breakfast until he had used up an entire loaf of bread in the production of french toast for friars who kept appearing one after another.

Email Revelations

Well, now I've arrived.

Local Celebrity

I love when someone meets a celebrity but doesn't realize it for the ignorance of unworldliness. It happened to me once when I was first meeting the Capuchins and I met Jason Patric. When I mentioned it to the young women at work, they were all excited and scolded me for not realizing what a privilege I had been given.

Well, it happened again. Remember my recent 'examination of conscience' post prompted by the little girl who gave me a picture she had drawn of the Sunday gospel?

I didn't know that I had met a celebrity. It turns out that she's the poster child for this year's Catholic Appeal here in the archdiocese of Boston:

Click the poster to support the Appeal!

March 5, 2011

Theses on Choosing Lenten Observances

I wrote these up a couple of Lents ago, but I think they are still helpful in our discernment of how we may enter into this 'joyful season.'

1. The classic practices of fasting, praying, and giving alms are the best starting point. Concentrate on one or do something for each.

2. Make it too challenging and be set up for failure; make it too easy and lose interest.

3. All spiritual practices can be misused to focus on self rather than God. Be careful.

4. 'Giving up' something that is already objectively sinful doesn't count; ascetical effort at reorganizing our lives to eliminate occasions of sin does.

5. Spiritual practice and prayerful ascesis that also serves physical health is nothing to be ashamed of.

6. Everyone knows that Sundays don't count, but don't make the Sunday relaxation an occasion of backsliding.

7. Doing something is easier than not doing something.

8. Doing something for others is more blessed than doing something for yourself. But if you have a tendency to neglect spiritual self-care, this principle isn't an excuse to continue.

9. Pelagianism is a heresy, but the idea of it is not an excuse for laziness.

10. The engineering principle known as the 'airplane rule' is useful here: complexity increases the rate of failure. Conversely, simplicity increases robustness.

11. Secret practices are better than ones that will be obvious to everyone. Secret saves us from both vainglory in success and embarrassment in failure.

12. Succeeding in observing a practice does not mean it was a spiritual success, and failing does not necessarily mean spiritual failure. Successes used poorly can be spiritually ruinous, and failures used well can be providential occasions for learning humility and honesty.

13. Concrete is better than vague.

14. This is not about our doing or accomplishing something, as if salvation were another thing for us to do or get. It is about surrendering and responding to grace. As Paul says, "God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work." (Philippians 2:13)

March 3, 2011

Using the Prayer to St. Michael

Here's another one of my infamous little liturgical dilemmas.

The parish priest for whom I substitute for Mass on Thursday mornings--so that he can have an overnight caring for his elderly mother--is a very gentle man, and would never presume to tell me how to celebrate Mass. He's just grateful for the regular and reliable help, and I'm happy to do it.

However, I get the feeling that Father would like me to add the Prayer to St. Michael at the end of Mass. I know that he appends his daily Masses with the prayer. He leaves a laminated copy (in English and Spanish) prominently placed on the altar.

Nevertheless, I don't do it, and nobody else in the assembly starts it spontaneously either. For one thing, I don't like adding things to the Mass, as I feel that such things detract from the 'noble simplicity' of the Roman rite. (Not that I'm not guilty of a handful of tridentine accretions in my practice of the Ordinary Form; but I'm careful only to permit myself such things at moments when nothing else is provided in the current rubrics. I feel like I'm in the spirit of the "mutual enrichment" of the two forms of the Roman rite which the Holy Father called for in his cover letter to Summorum pontificum.)

Also, because I have a psychological tendency towards a certain rigorism--I'm 'precise,' as my mother would say--I would want to pray the whole of the Leonine Prayers if I'm going to add the Prayer to St. Michael. But, as is clear, the Leonine Prayers were suppressed in 1964 by the instruction Inter oecumenici.

So, what should I do?

Continue to not add the Prayer to St. Michael, as I have been doing? Add the prayer at the end of Mass, in support of my host, and for the sake of prayerful continuity for the people? Go all the way and lead the whole of the Leonine Prayers, telling myself that the spirit of the liturgical vision of Benedict XVI trumps the prescriptions of the famous consilium for implementing Sacrosanctum Concilium?

Anybody have any other qualifications for the question? Any other documents that I don't know about?

Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio, contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium. Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur: tuque, Princeps militiae caelestis, Satanam aliosque spiritus malignos, qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo, divina virtute, in infernum detrude. Amen.

March 2, 2011


The more years pass in my ongoing, bumbling attempt at Christianity, I realize that for me discernment means the adoption of my best guesses at God's perspective on things.

The iconic moment in this movement came when one of my professors helped me to know how to discern whether or not to present myself as a candidate for Holy Orders. I went back and forth on this question when I was in the formation program, mostly because I didn't know how to discern it. I didn't join the Order with the idea of becoming a priest; I only knew that I wanted to be a Franciscan. The discernment experience from the religious call didn't seem to apply to discerning the clerical call, and I was kind of at a loss.

Did I feel called to be a priest? Did I desire it? My professor turned my perspective around for me: 'The question isn't whether or not you feel called to be a priest, or whether you want it, but in what way is the priesthood of Jesus Christ trying to take shape in your life.'

It's not about what I want or how I feel--though the presence of attraction and giftedness on the natural level is an important confirmation--but about reading the signs of what God is up to in one's life.

The other night one of our guys asked me if I thought he was ready to be ordained deacon. I said no, and he was a little shocked. What human being is ready to approach the altar as servant of the sacred mysteries? Who of us even deserves the privilege of serving another human being? But I explained my point: the 'am I ready?' question is the wrong approach. The real question is to look at the graces and circumstances of life up to this point, and ask if the next step seems like where God is directing one's life. So, I said to this brother, has God not given you the graces you needed to survive many years of religious formation and theological education? Do you feel the desire to preach and serve that he has put into your heart?

It's important for me to continue to apply this model to myself in these days. I have a lot of doubts about my capacity to fulfill my obedience of obtaining the doctorate. Can I finally unlearn certain bad study habits I fell into as a child? Is my vocation mature enough to be able to spend so much time alone with just the great doctors and my dictionaries? Can I live my religious life well enough here in a formation house, and still be able to give good example to the brothers in formation on a number of levels?

Such questions are important in the sense that they come up in the process of discernment, but I need to keep in mind that they are not the heart of discernment for me. My discernment question is simply this: has God not been pointing me in the direction of this project in many ways and for a long time? When I was a teenager, did He not first begin to call me to Himself through an intoxicating mix of mathematics and Platonic mysticism, inspiring a sort of wonder that I sometimes perceive again as I read the medievals now? Did God not give me the desire to complete the STL degree back when I was in my diaconate year, arranging many other things to make sure it got done? Did God not give me the inspiration, when I was a parish priest, to spend the occasional day off in the library of St. Joseph's Seminary reading Bonaventure's commentary on the Sentences? Who does that?

Again, I think that is the sort of thing that discernment means for me; the attempt to adopt God's perspective and to make our best guess at where God is pointing us. Like all good spiritual practice, it relieves us of the tyranny of ourselves and our feelings.