April 29, 2011

On Missing Weddings

The marriage of William and Kate this morning had me thinking about weddings. Not that I watched it. In this regard, at least, I'm a real American; many of my forebears gave their lives in the Revolution so that I wouldn't have to care about royalty, and I appreciate the opportunity to respect their memory. On the other hand, of course I wish the newlyweds well. I hope that the idea of being queen one day balances the sufferings Kate will surely have; if it's one thing I've learned from doing marriage preparation and a little bit of couples counseling, it's that men carry their relationships with their mothers into their marriages, and I can't imagine that Will doesn't have some issues around the injustices of his mother's life and especially her untimely death.

Nevertheless, as we roll into this first wave of wedding season since I've been out of the parish, the whole business makes me realize that I miss them a little bit.

Of course there are many things I don't miss at all: nagging kids for baptismal certificates, trying to inspire them to seek and work for Confirmation before the marriage, losing time because of tardy rehearsals, discovering conditions attached to annulments at the last minute, dealing by phone with priests in other dioceses who need to tell me their whole 'theology of marriage' when all I need is assurance that documents will be sent, anxiously awaiting paperwork to arrive from the chancery on the last postal day before the wedding is supposed to happen, and managing and trying to limit the creeping featurism of unity candles, flower processions to the altar of the Blessed Mother, bell-ringing, sand mixing, processions that include dogs, cheesy bonus prayers, etc.

All of that little stuff aside, I still miss weddings. In the course of three years as a parish priest, I witnessed 26 marriages, and prepared several more to be witnessed by others. Praying for these folks--and I still do--I came to see their vocations as intensely encouraging and edifying.

Is it not remarkable that in this world with all of its violence, hopelessness, meaninglessness, and disregard for life, people still insist on falling in love with each other? Love, after all, is a maximally optimistic disposition of soul, which knows the presence and company of another as intrinsically worthwhile.

Love, in practice, is a sort of faith. Once in a while I see where a couple of kids have proclaimed their love in a piece of graffiti. "So-and-so and so-and-so, together for ever," it usually goes. How is it that a couple of kids, who know nothing of what 'for ever' means, much less eternity, can make such a claim? This dissonance is exactly the point. Love is the ordinary way that our souls imitate God and come into contact with the Mystery of Creativity and Hospitality that is the Ground and Source of all existence. To be in love, then, pushes the heart to a response that imitates this eternity in the best way it can in our temporal state, and this to say, 'for ever,' even though we might hardly know what it means.

That's why the love proclaimed in marriage is to me an awe-inspiring act of faith. A man and a woman proclaim to the world that what they have found in each other is so good and so powerful that they are willing to wager it against an unknown future. Whatever the future holds, they say, couldn't possibly overwhelm the Love that they have found. That's faith, and one of the most genuine confessions of God I have been privileged to encounter with some regularity. To find God is to know, even if we know obliquely or obscurely, that we have been found by Someone for whom nothing could be greater, and this is why engaged couples can get up and proclaim perpetual fidelity against an unknown future.

April 28, 2011

Homework and the Coincidence of Opposites

When you first start going to school, as a little kid, all the schoolwork is confined to the school. When you get out, you don't have to worry about it until you have to go back. However, you don't appreciate it because you don't understand that you will soon lose these reasonable boundaries.

Namely, as you start to get to be a big kid, the schoolwork starts to overflow into the time outside of school. They call this 'homework.' This is a miserable state of affairs and truly unhappy.

Finally, you get to the point that coincides with its opposite at the beginning, and the occasional trip to school becomes a break from schoolwork. The original and blessed boundaries are restored, if in reverse.

April 26, 2011

Overheard: Backgrounds

Friar 1: "What's your background?"

Friar 2: "Catholic."

Friar 1: "What do you mean?"

Friar 2: "It's a species of apostolic Christianity."

Friar 1: "I meant the background picture on your phone."

April 25, 2011

Easter Words

An old friend used to say that though he had heard that the devil was in the details, he suspected that God could be found there too.

In these early moments of the great season of Easter, it's the little changes in speech that remind me that we celebrate the greatest of shifts.

In the Hanc igitur, starting at the Easter Vigil:

Father, accept this offering from your whole family and from those born into the new life of water and the Holy Spirit, with all their sins forgiven.

And then, starting with Daytime Prayer* on Easter Sunday:

...as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Alleluia.

And then at the end of Night Prayer:

Regina caeli, laetare, alleluia...

And this morning, walking back from Mass at the Poor Clares, starting in on my rosary:

The first...Glorious Mystery, the Resurrection of the Lord.**

*Presuming that this this is the first time in the Easter Season that one would have said the "God, come to my assistance...," Night Prayer of Holy Saturday and the Office of Readings of Easter Sunday having been replaced by the Easter Vigil, and Morning Prayer of Easter Sunday thus having been begun with the invitatory.

**I say the rosary according to a seasonal plan. See this post.

April 24, 2011

Salty Ain't Enough

"Duty without piety is meat without salt, but piety without duty is salt without meat. Let pious gluttons look to it."

--Fr. F. X. Lasance, Prayer Book for Religious (Benziger, 1941)

April 23, 2011

This Is The Night

Tonight it all happens. This is the night, as we proclaim in the Exsultet.

Tonight the darkness becomes Light. The night becomes the Day. The long history of sin, in its pointlessness, hurt, violence, and meaninglessness, is overwhelmed by a Joy so creative that it makes a New Creation and a Creativity so joyful that it has no room to remember the misery, anxiety, and depression we have insisted upon for ourselves with our own sins.

Tonight the end becomes the beginning, the omega and the alpha are drawn together into one: The Sabbath of rest which concludes the creation becomes the dawn of the first day resounding with the announcement of the Resurrection inaugurating the New Heavens and the New Earth: "Let there be Light."

April 21, 2011

When is the Triduum?

Just a little Holy Week post to indulge my inner rubrician against certain mistakes one sometimes encounters in these days.

The three days of the Paschal Triduum are not Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, but Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, provided we imagine these in the biblical sense of a day beginning with the evening.

Therefore, the Triduum begins with either the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper or Evening Prayer on Thursday evening, and ends three days later after Evening Prayer II of Easter Sunday.

The Mass of the Lord's Supper on Thursday and the celebration of the Lord's Passion on Friday take the place of Evening Prayer on these days.

The Easter Vigil takes the place of Night Prayer for Saturday and the Office of Readings for Sunday, giving some idea of when the Church imagines the Vigil to be celebrated, contrary to the usual pastoral practice. This means, against what one hears sometimes, that there is such a thing as Evening Prayer I of Easter Sunday, even for those who will participate in the Easter Vigil.

Happy Triduum, everyone, especially you Elect. I've been praying for you this whole Lent. It's a grand adventure you begin in these days.

Extreme Unction and the Spiritual Sweatpants

Some years back I spent some time working with a priest who was a former religious. He was a capable man, and had been entrusted with high responsibilities in his community. When I met him, after having left, he was still a hard-working and dedicated priest. He didn't, however, have anything encouraging to say about religious life.

He was convinced that mainstream religious life (in our cultural context) was dying, and that the spirituality of religious life needed to be that of a terminal patient. Like many religious and priests I've met over the years, the K├╝bler-Ross "Stages of Grief" was a primary spiritual schema in his pastoral imagination. He diagnosed mainstream religious life as having passed through 'denial' and 'anger', but being stuck in the 'bargaining' or 'depression' stages. What religious life needed, he would say, was to emerge into the 'acceptance' stage so that it could pass on its remaining gifts to others and die with whatever little dignity it had left.

I didn't reflect much on this at the time; I thought that perhaps it was just some of the bumps in Father's personal journey intruding as distraction in our relationship. He was otherwise a very kind and helpful man, so I just dismissed these things as a random negativity.

But lately I've been thinking about it again. The friary where I have been assigned since last summer is a new community. The house used to be a diocesan rectory until we took it over a few years ago. The chapel used to be the priests' dining room. Whoever set up the chapel had at his disposal some old stained glass windows, and someone chose one of them with an image of Christ crucified for the center of the space. The funny thing about it is that this window looks like it must of been part of a set illustrating the seven sacraments. The one we have is Extreme Unction. So each time I go to chapel and gaze briefly on Christ crucified, I notice the large "OI" jar of the oil of the sick next to him, and the words, "Extreme Unction" beneath.

Now I'm sure this is all an accident of decorating history. But I'm pretty sensitive to symbol. It gets into my reflection what it means for religious to pray in a chapel that seems to be dedicated to Last Rites.

Lately I've been wondering and reflecting on whether or not there are subtle ways we have given up, spiritual decadences we've permitted ourselves because we don't believe in a future for ourselves, zeals we've traded in for securities and comforts because we've let go of the missionary fire that burns for God's salvation to inflame the world. I'm not saying these are true, or in what ways, but I can't help but feel these questions entering into my prayer when I see that window.

April 20, 2011

Chrism Mass

I attended the Chrism Mass yesterday, and I was very happy that I did. In my three Holy Weeks as a parish priest in the archdiocese of New York I was only able to go once; in the other years I had to stay home to do afternoon wake services for folks sneaking in their funerals before the paschal triduum.

For me the Chrism Mass is one of those moments, especially now that I'm a priest, when I find myself lifted out of the details and dramas of daily life and into the larger picture of God's action and our vocation within it. I mean this both in the sense of the vocation of the universal and local Church within all of revelation and salvation history, but also in my individual story of vocation and salvation.

Praying within such a large assembly of priests (follow the link to to see how impressive the clergy turnout was) I was just struck by where I find myself in this life.

Who was I twenty years ago? A college student, a kid who thought himself clever and bright but without much motivation to make anything of it, a child of privilege in some senses, but ungrateful, an adolescent who related to others and to the world mostly as a source of bemusement or entertainment, self-centered in subtle but defining ways, not religious but not atheist or agnostic either, instead just someone whose frame of mind towards self, others, and the world did not admit of any way in which such ultimate questions could be personally interesting. And I wasn't special in any of this. There were tons of us, and we spent our days drinking and indulging our self-congratulating brightness through our conversations and our music, making amusement out of everything.

Fast forward twenty years and I find myself a religious priest, concelebrating the Chrism Mass with the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston. Why me? Why should I have the gift of this mercy, rather than any of other wandering souls with whom I grew up or went to college, of which not an insignificant number are already dead? I don't know. It's just mercy. When you first start off in a religious or priestly vocation, you think it's some kind of special privilege. You never admit this, of course, sometimes not even to yourself, but the idea is in there, lurking among many of the thoughts of the old Adam. But after a while you realize that such ideas are flimsy nonsense and that your vocation is just God expressing his merciful salvation in your particular case.

During the Canon, I prayed for my first priests. At the memento for the living, I remembered Fr. Larry, who dealt with me in the time of my first inquiries and again as a neophyte, always with more carefulness and pastoral sense than I ever knew about at the time. At the memento for the dead, I prayed for Fr. Leo, who was pastor of the parish where I was initiated. On August 30, 1992 he gave me my first Holy Communion. He also heard my first confession on the following Saturday, and many more thereafter until I graduated from college and ran off in foolhardy zeal to my first entrance into religious life.

Thank you, Lord, for the mercy of this vocation. I don't know why you have given it to me and not someone else, and I only pray to always rely only on You alone in my desire for faithfulness.

April 19, 2011

Talking The End Times on the Train

The other day a woman approached me as I was waiting for the subway. It wasn't the standard, 'are you a monk/Buddhist/ninja?' question. No indeed. "Can I ask you a theological question?" she began.

As it turned out, she was a tremendously earnest person, though perhaps a little troubled. She was entirely preoccupied with the End Times and how they might emerge and unfold. Her reflection was a thick and complex mass of Biblical details, all of which she was trying to put together with some kind of intelligible cohesion, but apparently without much success. The various time periods from Daniel, the millenia from Revelation, and the possible returns of Elijah, Enoch, Ezekiel, and Mary seemed to swirl around in her efforts to make sense of it all. Entirely missing from her reflections was any larger sense or sweep of the eschatological meaning of the Scriptures, or that eschatology could be anything else, or anything in addition to linear time as we perceive one discrete event following upon another. She had no way of understanding the Lord's Resurrection as a sign, inauguration, principle, or beginning of the Last Days. Overwhelmed in a sea of numbers and disconnected ideas, her sense of these things seemed to be a source of distracting and anxious confusion rather than eschatological confidence and hope in God.

She left the train before me, and as I continued my ride home I took some time to pray for her and pray through the encounter. My first prayer was one of gratitude for being a Catholic. The Sacred Scriptures were written within the People of God and can only be read from within the living faith of the Church as a historical communion on the pilgrimage of the these last days. Trying to understand the Bible from outside of the living, sacramental communion of the Church risks just what this woman was suffering: becoming lost in a morass of contradictory details with no larger understanding or sense of the scriptural trajectory, no interpretive keys to make sense of it all.

I imagine that there are a lot of people out there in this sort of spiritual situation. They know that the Bible is God's Word, and so look for the Truth in it, but because they do not know that the Scriptures have to be understood from within the living Tradition from which they emerged in the first place, they only come to confusion and anxiety. May the Wisdom of God guide their minds and hearts to the Church.

April 18, 2011


A significant proportion of conversations in my life center around diagnosis. They focus on claims about what's wrong with the Universal Church, the local Church, our province of the Order, or our formation program. The tone of conversations can range from the rigorously scientific or the devoutly spiritual to the silly and lighthearted, but the mode of conversation is the same: 'This is what's wrong.'

This framework rests on certain assumptions:

1. There is something (or some set of things) wrong, and it is serious or critical enough to command a lot of our attention.
2. It is, however, apparently difficult to name or define, as evidenced by the almost overwhelming diversity of opinions. In other words, there does not seem to be much consensus.
3. Describing what's wrong is the starting point for discerning the remedies to be applied.
4. Our ministerial and missionary decisions and commitments ought to derive from the remedies thus discerned.

Now I'm not posting in order to say that this is a wrong or bad way to proceed. If I should say, 'our problem is that we are committed to a discourse of diagnosis,' I would only make myself an example of my own assertion without saying anything further. I will, however, say that on this model, in which decisions about ministries and mission are supposed to derive from diagnosis, such decisions become almost impossible to make given the lack of diagnostic consensus.

All I wish to say in this post is that my theological and ecclesial conscience has been pushing me to notice this structure to many of the conversations I encounter and participate in, and to become willing to expose it to critique for myself. I'm not sure where that will go, if anywhere, but for a starting point from my own prayer on this today I just recall one of my favorite prayers from the Mass:

Quod ore sumpsimus, Domine, pura mente capiamus, et de munere temporali fiat nobis remedium sempiternum.

What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given us in time, may be our healing [remedium] for eternity. (new translation)

April 16, 2011

Benedict XVI and Me

For his 84th birthday today I was praying for our holy father Benedict XVI and reflecting a little on his ministry in my life. I remember that his election was on a Tuesday. I was cooking that day, and I remember having to leave the TV room several times to stir the sauce on the stove. When the election was announced, I was filled with dread. Why? The next day was the big school Mass for the week and for some reason I was in charge of composing the intercessions. In those days I was a Master of Divinity student at the former Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and some of the faculty were acquainted with the CDF, if you ascertain my meaning. Even beyond that, in those days one of the favorite 'love to hate' documents at school was Dominus Iesus, which had appeared from the CDF a few years before. So, as I finished seasoning my sauce and gave the brethren their supper, I felt as if I had been saddled with a task of impossible delicacy. I must have done it adequately, however. The newly elected Pope was prayed for the next day, and I don't remember getting in trouble.

Following those two days, my journey with Benedict XVI has been one of increasing appreciation. I mention just four moments: First, upon his election, I decided that I should get to know the man a little better. So I went to the library and borrowed Introduction to Christianity. I was amazed by the clarity of the writing. After a couple of years of reading some of Ratzinger's peers among German Catholic theologians of the twentieth century (who will remain nameless) the book was a breath of fresh--and clear--air.

Second, the chance to concelebrate Mass with Benedict XVI at St. Patrick's Cathedral during the first Easter season of my priesthood was one of the greatest moments of my whole Christian life. Spiritually, it was right up there with visiting the Holy Land in the sense that it left me with a deepened connection with the real and concrete of salvation history.

Third, Summorum pontificum changed my life. The document appeared during the months in which I was preparing for my priestly ordination. When I read it, I learned that the people of God were given the right to ask for the older form of Mass. From this I gathered that it was professional obligation to learn it. Such began my own journey with the Extraordinary Form, which I have chronicled at length in this blog. I wouldn't say that I have become a 'traddy,' but that my explorations have helped me to appreciate both forms better. Having become familiar with the older form of Mass, I think I understand better what was at stake in the reform, and hence I believe that I'm able to celebrate the modern form with more confidence and continuity.

Finally, Benedict has given me a deeper understanding of my own Franciscanism. When I finally got around to reading his Habilitationsschrift on the theology of history of St. Bonaventure, I was tremendously grateful for insights like this one:
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'...it is understandable only as...eschatological confidence... (Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, trans. Zachary Hayes, 40)
It is almost a commonplace these days to say that consecrated life needs to recover its eschatological edge. Well, there's our invitation. Happy birthday, Benedict XVI. Thank you for your ministry to the universal Church and to me within her. Be assured of my daily prayer for you. Ad multos annos.

April 15, 2011

Prayer and Tasty Wisdom

After three weeks of studying St. Thomas in the Trinity seminar, we ended up at this beautiful passage:

The soul is made like to God by grace. Hence for a divine person to be sent to anyone by grace, there must needs be a likening of the soul to the divine person Who is sent, by some gift of grace. Because the Holy Ghost is Love, the soul is assimilated to the Holy Ghost by the gift of charity: hence the mission of the Holy Ghost is according to the mode of charity. Whereas the Son is the Word, not any sort of word, but one Who breathes forth Love. Hence Augustine says (De Trin. ix 10): "The Word we speak of is knowledge with love." Thus the Son is sent not in accordance with every and any kind of intellectual perfection, but according to the intellectual illumination, which breaks forth into the affection of love, as is said (John 6:45): "Everyone that hath heard from the Father and hath learned, cometh to Me," and (Psalm 38:4): "In my meditation a fire shall flame forth." Thus Augustine plainly says (De Trin. iv, 20): "The Son is sent, whenever He is known and perceived by anyone." Now perception implies a certain experimental knowledge; and this is properly called wisdom [sapientia], as it were a sweet knowledge [sapida scientia], according to Sirach 6:23: "The wisdom of doctrine is according to her name." (Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 43, a. 5, ad 2. Trans. English Dominicans)

The soul is assimilated--made similar--to the Holy Spirit by charity, and made similar to the Son by "the intellectual illumination which breaks forth into the affection of love." The true perception of God--we would probably say 'experience' where Thomas says "experimental knowledge"--is thus a con-formity to the processions of the Word and Spirit in God, a loving knowledge or a recognizing love according to the Son and the Spirit Who are missisoned to the soul.

As the Word of God proceeds in God as God's own perfect self-knowledge and self-illumination, and as the Spirit proceeds as the Love that is the shared principle of these two moments, so the soul is assimilated to God by a loving Knowledge, a recognizing Love.

Today I was just reflecting on how prayer could be simply defined as a making of space, both inside and out, so that this 'experimental knowledge' can be noticed. We find a quiet time of the day. We seek a prayerful place. We practice whatever works for us in the letting go of the stream of thoughts and emotional charges that we superficially think of as our selves. All of this ascesis serves the simple purpose of helping us to notice the loving desire for God within. To notice it is to know it, and we find ourselves touching our true happiness and destiny: the loving knowledge of God.

St. Thomas reminds us that this experience of noticing the loving desire for God within is not something we are 'doing,' as if prayer were one more task during the day. In fact, to notice the loving desire for God is to become aware of the Son and the Spirit having become newly present in us, assimilating our minds and hearts to the perfectly delighted love and knowledge we call God. In other words, the loving knowledge of God within us, no matter how obscure and incomplete, is the Son of God having been missioned into our soul.

This loving Knowledge we call Wisdom, and prayer is our chance to taste the Tasty Wisdom that is the mission of the divine persons in us.

April 14, 2011

Confession Video

Everyone is posting this video, and I couldn't resist it either. I'm not sure I'm completely comfortable with it, but it certainly captures something real in the experience of the grace of the sacrament.

For me, it's the finger in the holy water that strikes the deepest. Maybe I'm misinterpreting it, but to me it spoke to that moment when I realized that the still-festering injuries of original sin remaining in me can infect even what seems to be otherwise devout behavior. For me, that's the experience that began to teach me the nature of real compunction, and helped me at least begin to taste the surrender of repentance.

Plus, I also realize that the confessional in the video reminds me a little of the one in which I made my first confession, only a week and two hours after I was baptized. I was exceedingly nervous and ashamed for having made such a mess of my grand experiment in such a short time. The old priest was so kind. That moment has been an enduring image of God for me over the years.

On Bad Pastors

For reasons too obscure to rehearse, I was thinking yesterday of Pope Boniface VIII. Boniface usually makes it onto lists of worst popes both serious and humorous. He was said to enjoy dressing up as an emperor, and had so many statues of himself made that he was accused of idolatry. I think I once read that he even passed out statues of himself to his guests, kind of like a perpetual, papal bobblehead day. Therefore, if you ever find your pastor arrogant or full of himself, remember that it's all relative.

Thinking then of bad pastors, I was reminded of one of my favorite friar stories. Riffing on Jerry Seinfeld's accusation against his dentist Dr. Whatley, that he had converted to Judaism "just for the jokes," one of my classmates once accused me of entering religious life "just for the stories."

A friar went on a visit to a parish where he had once been pastor. He was having a pleasant and peaceful time until a lady approached him after Mass and began to talk to him about the current pastor.

"This man," she said, "is the worst pastor we've ever had."

"I'm very disappointed to hear that," began the former pastor. "When I was here, you told me that I was the worst pastor you had ever had."

"Well," she went on, not missing a beat, "up until then you were!"

April 13, 2011

Two of Nine, If I Remember Rightly

This conversation goes in the "I came not to serve but to be served, and to give my life as an aggravation for many" file.

Annoyed friar: "It will be a cold day in hell."

Me: "Some parts of hell are cold, you know."

Even more annoyed friar: "How do you know?"

Me: "I have a licentiate in sacred theology."

April 12, 2011

Fortescue's Crypto-Catholics

As reading for relaxation (yes, I'm odd) I've been making my slow way through The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described.

I'm up to the 'reception of converts.' It's an interesting section to me personally, because Fortescue's description of how to receive unbaptized converts sounds a lot like what I went through in my own case, the parish near college not having heard (apparently) of the restored catechumenate through the RCIA. Amusingly, he only recognizes three species of the unbaptized adult: the Jew, the Muslim, and the Unitarian.

It's the section on receiving previously baptized converts, however, that is really interesting:

The case of a convert already baptised differs entirely in principle. He has once been a Catholic. He became so when he was baptised, no matter who baptised him or where. But since then he may have incurred excommunication for frequenting the conventicle of an heretical sect. All that is needed then, in principle, is that he now be absolved from that excommunication. (433)

Now I'm not sure this sense of things stands up to a more current magisterial ecclesiology, but the theological assumptions in it beg some other questions.

For example, it's not uncommon to meet someone who was baptized as an infant by a priest or deacon, but who was never brought back to church again, and not raised as a Catholic. Such persons may not even know that they are Catholic, or might self-describe as without religious affiliation, but the Church considers them Catholic Christians nonetheless.

So what about those in the same situation who were baptized in non-Catholic ceremonies? Such a person might think that he was 'baptized Lutheran' or what have you, but since he was never taken to church again and thereby made excommunicate, in fact he is a Catholic in fairly good standing.

Therefore, on Fortescue's logic, if you were baptized as an infant in a protestant ceremony, but never went to church after that, you are in fact a Catholic. So, for your weekend planning, confessions are usually on Saturday.

Before the Mirror of Eternity

In today's gospel (John 8:21-30), Jesus is asked, "Who are you?" It fascinates me that he answers by talking about the Father. In the mysterious divine unity, Jesus cannot talk about who he is without speaking of the Father.

I've been spending a lot of time this semester reading on the Blessed Trinity. Much of it is very beautiful and inspiring, but none of it is easy.

But as I was praying through the passage yesterday, I began to think that the study and contemplation of the Blessed Trinity is a fulfillment of the beautiful advice of St. Clare to St. Agnes of Prague: "Place your mind before the mirror of eternity."

For the divine economy by which we are saved is the processions of the Blessed Trinity, in mirror image, as it were.

In eternity, the Father generates the Son, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

God's passionate desire for our beatitude, our salvation revealed in time, works a 'recession' that goes the other way: The Spirit conceives the humanity of Christ, which becomes the Way for us to enter into the delighted unity of the Father and the Son, 'filiated' to the Father as sons and daughters in the Son.

Our contemplation, then, is the placing of our minds and hearts before the mirror of eternity, for the eternal processions and relations of the Blessed Trinity are the mirror image of their revelation to us as our salvation.

April 11, 2011

Jesus, Pornography, and Beautiful Sunsets

St. John's scene of the woman caught in adultery comes up in the lectionary today. (John 8:1-11) As I said to the sisters this morning, it's so full of encouragement and beautiful teaching that one almost feels ashamed to say anything after it by way of homily.

As I was praying through the passage last night, I started to reflect on chastity. Who is it, really, who is unchaste in the story? The woman, of course, was guilty of some kind of unchastity to one degree or another. But as I prayed I began to realize that is the men in the story, the scribes and Pharisees, who are the most unchaste. Their heinous unchastity consists in how they instrumentalize this woman, using her even to the point of her fate of life or execution, just to try to impose an impossible dilemma on Jesus and thus have something with which to charge him.

Jesus, in contrast, cleverly refuses the dilemma and protects the woman. To him she isn't someone to be used for some purpose apart from her own salvation--we see this in how Jesus addresses her personally and then commands her to leave sin behind.

My reflection reminded me of a conversation I once had when I was in the parish. A young man asked me if I could think of any spiritual strategies or practices that could help in a struggle with the use of pornography. Without really thinking, I said, "When you see a pornographic image of a young woman, wonder if she has received her Confirmation, and then pray for her safety."

We both laughed, partly because the thing about Confirmation is so 'parish priest'; when you spend a lot of time dealing with marriage preparation and baptismal sponsorship, the confirmed/unconfirmed distinction is the principal way young adults are distinguished. But as time goes by, I've come to think that my spontaneous advice was inspired. It's a little way that someone could begin to develop a chaste attitude toward his neighbor, reminding himself that it is her salvation and happiness in God that really matter, rather than anything she might be for his selfish purposes. The ascesis of chastity consists in training our hearts and eyes to see other people as God sees them: as unique and unrepeatable creations whose flourishing, happiness, and salvation are desired for their own sake.

So, I continued to the young man once we were finished laughing, "Desire God for them, instead of desiring them for yourself. That's love against lust."

I remember once when I was young in religious life I went to a talk that some wise old priest was to give on the subject of chastity. When he got to dealing with the 'lust of the eyes,' he made this observation, which I wrote down: 'When you see a beautiful tree or a beautiful sunset, you just appreciate it for itself, and for God who has made the creation so full of delight. You don't immediately get distracted by any dumb idea that the beauty of the tree or the sunset is supposed to do anything for you or be some kind of possession that you can grab for greedily. You begin to see through the physical beauty to the perfect loveliness of God and so are drawn into an attitude of contemplation. And yet, this happens in such a way that you are not taken away from the particular, concrete moment and your full attention to what is before you. When you can be like that when you encounter some pretty woman to whom you are sexually attracted, that's chastity. But when you get to that point, it won't even matter to you whether or not someone is pretty, because everyone will be beautiful.'

April 10, 2011

Loving Precision

At the parish where I went for Mass this morning, I was simultaneously edified and amused by the altar servers. A team of brother and sister, self-reporting to be nine and ten years old respectively, they were, as my mother sometimes says of me, somewhat 'precise.' As I say, I was impressed and amused by the precision of their service.

I got to church before anyone else (that's how I like it) and saw that the altar sacramentary was set up on the credence, open in the Order of Mass to the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Knowing those prayers by heart (and being in the practice of saying them in Latin anyway when there's an offertory hymn--the new translation won't bother me here!) I turned the page over to the orations for the day.

When the servers set up the altar, the kid who brought over the missal stand (with the sacramentary on it) noticed my adjustment and corrected it, turning the page back to where it was. Not wanting to dismiss his effort to correct the situation, I read the prayers from the book. A lot of ministry is hospitality, after all, and it goes both ways; being a good guest is important too.

The next funny bump in the road came at the end of Holy Communion. For the Communion procession, there were four ministers: me and an extraordinary minister with the Host and two others with the Precious Blood. Thus, when I returned to the altar after the procession, I had some work to do. I had to consume what remained of the Precious Blood from two chalices, purify them, and then combine two ciboria into one for returning the Sacrament to the tabernacle (which is some distance away in this church.) All the while I was doing this, praying quietly my Quod ore sumpsimus...the two servers stood patiently at the corner of the altar, waiting to take things away. Since they seemed eager for something to do, I re-dressed the two chalices with their purificators, and the principal one also with the paten and pall (I didn't have a veil or burse.) I didn't fold the corporal and put it on top of the pall, because the Sacrament was still resting on the altar. As I turned to take the ciborium to the tabernacle, I saw that the servers quickly took the two chalices to return them to the credence.

I figured that I would return to the altar from the tabernacle, fold the corporal, and then either leave it on the corner of the altar or return it to the credence myself on my way back to the chair for the Prayer After Communion and the end of Mass. (This happened often enough when I was a parish priest.) The servers, however, seeing me going back to the altar, jumped up and took the re-dressed chalices off the credence and brought them back to the altar, so that I could put the folded corporal on the chalice pall, como Dios manda, as they say. Then they re-removed them to the credence.

As I say, I found this all very funny, but I was edified by their attention and effort at the same time. In the practice of our faith, the boundary between loving attention to detail and scrupulosity sometimes gets very blurry. These kids were certainly on the former side, and I pray that their example keeps me there too.

April 9, 2011

A Kludge for Passiontide

"In the dioceses of the United States, crosses in the church may be covered from the conclusion of the Mass for the Saturday of the fourth week of Lent until the end of the Celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday."

In this devout spirit, I veiled the crucifix in my room with my violet maniple.

April 8, 2011

On The Various Forms of Prass

General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours 93-98 describes the particulars of how to combine Mass with one of the Hours. Mass may be "more closely joined" with Evening Prayer, Morning Prayer, or one of the Daytime hours. Except for the option of an extended vigil of Christmas Eve that includes the Mass in nocte, Mass can't ordinarily be combined with the Office of Readings. The GILH doesn't even address the idea of combining Mass with Night Prayer.

Even though I've been going to Mass for almost nineteen years, and have been saying at least some of the Hours for seventeen, I had not experienced this liturgical option until very recently.

It's curious, or at least it is to me, that the liturgical services that result from the 'more close joining' of Mass with one of the Hours do not seem to have their own names. Our friars sometimes use the general term 'Prass,' a contraction of 'Prayer and Mass.'

Playing around with this on Twitter yesterday, I learned some other names:

Evening Prayer combined with Mass is called "Masspers."

Morning Prayer combined with Mass is called "Mauds."

I still don't know what Mid-Morning, Midday, or Mid-Afternoon Prayer are called when combined with Mass. Perhaps Tass, Sass, and Nass, or Merce, Mext, and Mone? I'm not sure about those.

Thanks to @caesius and @mikewgossett

April 7, 2011

Ut Melius Catholice Observemus

This passage from St. Thomas' commentary on John appeared in my reading for class today:

As Augustine says, the statements and precepts of sacred Scripture can be interpreted and understood from the actions of the saints, since the same Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets and the other sacred authors is the Spirit who drives the actions of the saints. As we read, Moved by the Holy Spirit holy men of God spoke (2 Pet. 1.21); and For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Rom 8.14). Thus, sacred Scripture should be understood according to the way Christ and the other saints observed it in their practice.

(Quoted in Gilles Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Francesca Aran Murphy, 261)

In a simple and clear way, I think this passage explains what we mean as Catholics by 'Scripture and Tradition', and especially what Dei Verbum is getting at when it says that these form "a single deposit of the Word of God" whose life in the world is a mutual interconnection and intercommunication. (9-10)

This is why the Bible can only be properly interpreted from within the Church; to try to do so outside of her--as many do--is to divide God's single act of self-revelation and thus to arrive at conclusions that are incomplete and impoverished. Tradition interprets Scripture. This is not to say that 'traditional interpretations' are normative, in the sense of tradition as a species of human conservatism, but to say that the lives of the saints in the broadest sense of the revelation of the Holy Spirit in the concrete, historical sanctification of the baptized down through the ages is the interpretive key to the Scriptures which in turn are normative for the Church.

For us Franciscans, this helps us to understand that the statements of Francis at the beginning of the Rule and at the end of the Testament go together in a fruitful dialectic. "The rule and life of the Friars Minor is this: to observe the holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ," which we then strive "to observe in a more catholic manner."

April 6, 2011

Padre Pio's Many Gestures

Our friary has a statue of St. Pio of Pietrelcina, which is no surprise given that we are Capuchins. What's funny about it is that his right hand attaches to his forearm with a square peg. Because of this, the friars being the friars, poor Pio might be found with his hand in any one of four positions:

The "nice to meet you"

The epiclesis

The collection

And finally, a favorite of somebody in this house, "The screwball"

April 5, 2011

What is Contemplation?

(This is a remix of an old post, which I have had occasion to clarify.)

Contemplation is the obscure knowledge that God has united the divine desire for our beatitude with our human desire for God. The ultimate identity of these two desires is the mystery we call the 'hypostatic union.'

Christ, then, in the perfect union of his two distinct natures, is perfect contemplation itself. The person of Christ is thus both the model and the object of contemplative prayer.

Baptized Into His Death

One time I asked a spiritual director where God was when I would fall into sin. He looked at me like I had missed some basic point along the way.

"He's suffering with you on the cross."

Sanctity is our vocation, because our happiness and beatitude consists in imitating the holiness of the Creator from Whom we have come and in Whom we live and move and have our being. But if we imagine (in a spiritually reduced and binary way) that God is with us in the joy of holiness and not with us in the misery of sin, we have missed the point of Christianity.

The good news of our faith is precisely that God has entered into the misery and unhappiness we have brought upon ourselves with our sins in order to blaze a trail out of it for humanity. That trail is called the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So in a state of sin we feel unhappy because we have touched, to some degree, the alienation from God that is the final and complete human suffering. But for us who have been baptized into the death and Resurrection of Christ, our liberation is the knowledge that this is just that, a feeling that does not accurately reflect our spiritual condition. For God in Christ has joined us in the suffering of our miserable alienation, and this knowledge is the faith that saves precisely because it reveals the path that Christ has walked from the death of sin to the new life of the Resurrection.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as the final impenitence that leads to hell or the possibility of truly unrepentant mortal sin that cuts off the soul from grace, but only to say that the basic question of the spiritual life is not whether to be good or bad, to be a sinner or a saint (that is, in the way the world thinks of saints.) The basic question of the spiritual life is to ask ourselves what sort of sinner we want to be. We can follow the wisdom of this world and become the sort of sinner who lets his sin make him ever more bitter and selfish, or let the tragedy of sin in our lives and the world break our hearts open into humility for ourselves and compassion for others.

That's how suffering and alienation come to be transformed into kindness and communion, and that's what the death and Resurrection looks like when its Mystery comes to make a home in our hearts.

April 4, 2011

Praying For Vocations

On Monday mornings I have the joy and privilege of offering Mass at the local monastery of Poor Clare nuns. When I arrive at the sacristy, stole and chasuble are laid out on the vesting table. They have a funny way of folding the stole so that it provides a little bump whereupon sits a little slip of paper that indicates the intention for the Mass. Today, as it does once in a while, it said, "for vocations."

I guess I never reflected much on what it might mean to pray for vocations. In the past I think I just prayed that God would inspire young women with a desire for this particular expression of the Franciscan life. But as I prepared for Mass today and formed my intention, I noticed that this isn't the only way one could think about it. Perhaps it's not that I should pray for God to inspire vocations, but that God has already done so, and I need to pray for those who already have a vocation, that they might be aware of it and have the courage to follow. It's a different way of thinking about praying for vocations, and it goes to some basic theological questions about how we understand the will of God for the individual human life.

I adduce two other examples of this latter way of thinking. When I was in the parish, there was one priest who wouldn't accept that there might not be someone to proclaim the first reading at a weekday Mass. If nobody got up to do it, he would just sit there and wait. Everyone would get annoyed and uncomfortable, and finally someone, not being able to take it, would get up and do the reading. Father was confident that if God had called us together to offer the Eucharist, he would also provide ministers for the assembly. Therefore, it must be that someone was resisting or failing to be aware of God's call to the ministry of lector. (Now I know that this behavior doesn't stand up to the GIRM, but you see my point.)

Another example is a young woman I once met who often prayed for a husband. She wasn't praying for just any old husband, however, but for the specific man whom she was meant to marry. She was convinced that God was calling her to the vocation of motherhood, and so it must be that God had also given some guy out there the vocation of being the father of her children. God would arrange for them to meet, she imagined, and she made sure she prayed for him, whoever he was to turn out to be. (Just a caveat on this procedure: I have heard of a couple cases of young women who prayed for a good husband and ended up 'brides of Christ,' as it were.)

It also raises questions for the so-called shortage of priests. When we pray for vocations to the priesthood, for what are we praying? Is it like my friend and the first reading? Could it be that God has provided the Church with all of the priestly vocations she requires, but the young men in question are perhaps unaware of it, or distracted, or hesitant? Could it be that we are praying for specific men already called when we pray for priestly vocations? Could we perhaps be praying and working for an environment that provides the conditions wherein such vocations are noticed and encouraged?

Sometimes I get into conversations with people in which they express annoyance that the Church hasn't provided a priest for their parish. I ask them why they think of the Church as someone else. Doesn't everyone bear the responsibility to encourage vocations? I remember once when a lady in the parish office was yelling at the poor kid who answered the phone later in the day because there weren't enough free Mass intentions available. I asked her if she had any sons. She said that she had three fine sons. "Did you ever encourage any of them to think about the priesthood? I asked. She replied that she hadn't, and with such a tone as to dismiss even the idea. "That's why there are fewer and fewer Mass intentions available."

So today at Mass I tried on this other way of thinking about praying for vocations. I prayed for the young women out there who had vocations to be Poor Clare nuns, those who were aware of it and those who weren't. I even prayed for the little girls to whom God willed to give this vocation one day, and even for the unborn. I prayed that all of them would have the graced people and situations they needed to become aware of and accept their vocations.

Nevertheless, I'm not sure about all this; as I say it goes to some basic claims and theological imagination around God's will and relationship to individual human lives. It's an interesting question, though.

April 2, 2011

Catholic Rules For Twitter

Such goes a hash tag with which folks have been having a lot of fun on Twitter in recent days. When I saw it, I couldn't help but think of the ninth chapter of the Rule.

"I also admonish and exhort these brothers that, in their preaching, their words be well chosen and chaste, for the instruction and edification of the people, speaking to them of virtues and vices, punishment and glory in a discourse that is brief, because it was in few words that the Lord preached while on earth." (trans. Armstrong and Brady)

140 characters certainly qualifies, and so it would seem that Twitter would be an eminently appropriate means for a Franciscan to preach. It's also a quote you can use on any friar you know who suffers from temptations to prolixity.

April 1, 2011

It's Just a Symbol

For some reason that I have never grasped, people think that just because something in the Bible might have a metaphorical or spiritual meaning, this automatically means that it can't also be a historical fact. Just because Adam and Eve, or Mud and Mom as I sometimes like to call them, are a symbol in various senses, doesn't mean they weren't real people. Just because the Lord's miracles have a spiritual meaning for us, and intended for us by the evangelists, doesn't mean that they 'didn't really happen.'

Finally I read where someone with some authority has made this point for me:

Hence some people interpret symbolically the entire episode of paradise itself, where, according to the truthful account of holy Scripture, the first human beings, parents of the human race, dwelt, and they turn those trees and fruit-bearing plants into virtues and ways of life. They assume that those details were not visible and material objects but were described as such in speech or writing for purpose of illustrating symbolically spiritual realities.

How absurd to maintain that there could not have been a material paradise because it can be understood also in a spiritual sense; as if it were an argument that Abraham did not have two wives, Hagar and Sarah, and from them two sons, one by the slave and the other by a free woman, just because the Apostle says that in them the covenants were illustrated; or, again, that there was no rock from which water flowed forth when Moses struck it because it can also be interpreted as a symbol of Christ in that passage, for, in the words of the same Apostle, 'The Rock, moreover, was Christ.'

(Augustine, City of God, XIII, 21, trans. Philip Levine)

It's all of one fabric, friends, because the the whole business, the natural world, history, revelation and everything else, are spoken into existence through the one Word of God.