June 29, 2011

Fun Size Paschal Candle

Somehow I think the symbol isn't quite functioning here. Oh well, it's only until the end of the Easter season. Uh...wait a sec...

June 28, 2011

Fleeing From Sodom

In religious life and ministry we're all familiar with the pejorative sense of 'pastoral.' It's when in the name of being nice or avoiding difficult conversations we compromise the orthodoxy of our teaching or fail to give real pastoral care. For example, if a parish priest provides sacraments and services to everyone who calls or comes to the door, no questions asked, he is not really the kind and 'pastoral' minister he thinks he is, but has avoided real pastoral relationship just as much as the mean priest who discourages and dismisses people with all kinds of conditions, demands, and paperwork.

I have to say that one of these 'pastoral' moments comes up in the lectionary in these days. Between yesterday and today the gentle editors of the lectionary have us skip over the first part of Genesis 19, the sin of the Sodomites. Yesterday Abraham was pleading for Sodom, and today Lot and his family are escaping its destruction. What happened in between is safely omitted.

What was the sin of the Sodomites? Was it homosexual acts as it is in the common cultural imagination? Or could it be more properly violence, rape, and an egregious failure in hospitality? The lectionary, by omitting the passage, relieves sacred ministers from having to preach on these questions, and gives the praying Church permission not to reflect on them and wonder what grace of new understanding God might desire to give us.

And how salutary such a reflection might be in a Church which needs to struggle with its own legacy of the sexualized abuse of power!

But thanks to the lectionary today, we have one more nice little way to excuse ourselves from that challenge. How pastoral.

June 27, 2011

Encouragement From Sodom

Today's first reading, Genesis 18:16-33, in which Abraham haggles with God for the sparing of Sodom, is one of my favorites in the daily Mass lectionary. I find it very encouraging and inspiring. I'll explain.

Even though we know that things didn't really work out for Sodom, it doesn't change the fact that God was willing to spare the whole city for the sake of ten innocent people, having been haggled down from fifty. I find this encouraging because it suggests that even though I'm a lukewarm religious and barely repentant for my sins, I could still be saved for the sake of the saints around in my in my friary, neighborhood, and world.

This means that it is in my best interest to help other people become saints, especially if it's not going so well for me. After all, it is the highest charity to assist others in coming to holiness, and this is what religious communities are meant to be at the most basic level: mutual associations for the sake of common and individual holiness.

God's oaths on the sparing of Sodom reveal that such charity, the giving of self for the sake of the holiness of others, is not just altruism. It is in my self-interest to give myself away for the sake of others arriving at holiness, because it may be because of their sanctity that a sinner and tepid religious like me could also come to salvation.

June 26, 2011

Theses on Holy Communion

For the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ today, I was just reflecting a little on Holy Communion. I was putting some theses on Twitter, but then I decided to make a blog post out of them:

1. Holy Communion is God's passionate desire to unite His divine life with us, not our reaching out to try to grasp some grace we might think we need.

2.. Holy Communion is not a reward for good behavior, but medicine for those striving to be converted from sin.

3. The words of the minister, "The Body/Blood of Christ" are a personal address. At this moment we are called by our deepest name, our most durable identity. This is why it's reducing and misguided to say, "So-and-so, the Body of Christ."

4. To receive Holy Communion is to consent to becoming the Body of Christ, a Body both broken for the healing of this world and glorified for its salvation.

5. Thus, receiving Holy Communion is both a consent to be converted and the very source of this willingness.

6. In Holy Communion we consent to take the sacrifice of the Cross into our bodies and thus become instruments of the divine humility which defeats all human violence and misery.

7. Holy Communion both signifies and accomplishes the unity of all the faithful, but it also displays to both the Church and the world the judgment between those who assent to revelation and those who do not. Sometimes we try to dismiss the sign of division that Holy Communion becomes, but this is to impoverish the real unity it accomplishes.

June 25, 2011

Motorcycle Blessing

This is a perfect example of the stuff I miss from being a parish priest. On my way to the provincial chapter last month I stayed a weekend with the friars at my old assignment. I asked the pastor if I could help out by taking one of the Sunday Masses. The Saturday was fairly busy--it's wedding season, after all--so he offered me the vigil Mass.

While we were in the back of the church getting ready for the procession, a couple came in and approached me. "After Mass, Father," they asked, "would you bless our new Harley?" Of course I would, I told them, and then instructed one of the altar girls to bring down the holy water bucket and aspergillum when we recessed out of the sanctuary at the end of Mass.

By the end of Mass it was pouring rain. But I said I would bless this motorcycle and I was going to do it. So I took off the chasuble and went out. I told the altar girl that she didn't have to come, but she seemed to want to. (She's dedicated, and always remind me that she served at my first Mass.) So there I was, standing the rain, vested in alb, cincture, and stole, accompanied by my acolyte and the two proud new Harley owners, praying over the new motorcycle. This was witnessed by a large number of parishioners who were waiting out the rain on the portico.

One always feels a little funny sprinkling holy water in the rain.

That's just the sort of prayerful adventure that I miss from being a parish priest. I don't think I even knew the couple, but somehow they found out who I am, because they managed to deliver to me this glass as a thank-you present.

June 23, 2011

Heavy Metal Cloister

One of the little spiritual boundaries I try to keep for myself is not looking at any social or news media before I've said my prayers and done my spiritual exercises in the morning. One of the funny side effects of this is that sometimes on days when I go to offer morning Mass at the Poor Clares, I first hear about big news stories from them. Today it was Whitey Bulger. Some weeks ago it was Osama bin Laden. It gives a friar a shot of goofy vanity in the morning, to think that he is so unworldly as to get his news of current events from cloistered nuns.

It reminds me of the great graces of my life, and one of the periods when God was working very hard on me. Not that I knew it at the time; in fact, I was almost totally ignorant. I was like an anesthetized patient; grace was operating on me and I was unaware of it.

At some point in early 1987 I had a dramatic conversion that was to have far-reaching effects in my life. Around the time I turned fifteen, I became a metalhead. I grew my hair long, I took up the uniform, I turned the radio dial all the way to left, from the popular music stations down to WNHU from the University of New Haven, which had an all-day Heavy Metal show every Saturday. Distracted by the noise and macabre mood of it all, I was distracted from the grace God was working in me: the experience had firmly rooted me in a critical turn with regard to tastes and values; I had discovered that the things everybody did, liked, and believed were not necessarily the right or best things.

From this my ongoing conversion proceeded in stages: to thrash, crossover, second wave hardcore, punk, Oi!, anarcho-punk, spirituality, Christianity, Catholicism, Franciscanism.

I rehearse all of this personal mythology just to make another point. When I first fell into the metal subculture, I became separated from popular culture. From early 1987 or so, I became almost totally unaware of popular songs, television, and movies. In fact, I didn't come to be aware of these things again until I entered religious life the first time in the fall of 1994. This was one of the things that made my adjustment to religious life so hard the first time I tried it; I was surprised to find televisions in friaries, and even more shocked to see things like People magazine. For years, it hadn't even occurred to me to watch television or pay any attention to the vapid popular culture of the world. At the time I thought of my entrance into religious life as a kind of culmination of a conversion process; how was it that I found therein a culture that seemed more entwined with the world's inanities?

All of that is another story and another complaint. I only bring it all up because I want to thank God for inspiring the flight from the world that was my 'cloistered' period. That awareness helps me to remember to keep good boundaries with this world's media.

June 21, 2011

Anatomy of a Temptation

Vanity and pride are among the most insidious temptations. They try to trick you into thinking you have greater virtue than you really do, and you end up not having much virtue at all because you've been fooled into thinking only of yourself.

We should be grateful for such temptations when they are obvious and we see them clearly; such experiences can help us to know our particular sorts of spiritual undoing. Examining them can help us to understand ourselves and the pitfalls that are particular to our temperament and thus help us to avoid them in the future.

This morning was a good example for me. The morning is the best time for me to write, and what I really need to be doing in these days is working on my leftover term paper from the spring semester. But instead of getting a good start on the writing today, I got sidetracked. I had to clean up the broken vigil lamp from the previous post. Then a visiting classmate wanted to catch up. Then I had to make another friar's breakfast. He's recovering from surgery and only has use of one arm.

So now when I finally get back to my desk it's already going on ten o'clock and I know right away that I'm not going to make any progress with Alexander of Hales today. The disappointment gets mixed in with the general frustration, difficulty, vocational anxiety and self-doubt that surrounds the whole project.

Into this moment of slight emotional depression comes the temptation, inviting me to think of myself as virtuous: after all, I gave up my own will, cleaning house, listening attentively, and then serving the sick. Look what a good and selfless religious I am, abandoning my own will in humble service to the brothers! Vanity tries to make these little good deeds into a big deal, even though they were demanded by the minimum of ordinary charity. The temptation invites me not to think of all the people in the neighborhood and the world whose charity, patience, and self-sacrificing care for their children and sick family members go far beyond anything I do or will to do.

So I laugh at myself instead, and ask God to continue to deliver me from my selfishness. As a sign of my desire for such a grace, I pray in thanksgiving for all of the folks doing secret, heroic charity out there in the world, and ask God to make me their servant.

Bad Sign

Our Sanctuary Lamp jumped to its death during the night. It looked so sad, all mangled and crumpled. This means something. Nevertheless, on the good side, the friary didn't burn down.

June 18, 2011

(Fr.) Corapi

In my prayer last night and this morning, the developing situation with Fr. Corapi intruded into my thoughts. So I've been praying for him as best I can. He's never been my sort of thing, but that doesn't mean he didn't reach and inspire many people to seek the Lord and get excited about their Catholic faith.

But the statement that appeared from him yesterday struck me as very strange and somewhat disturbing on several levels. I suspect that this is the situation for which Corapi's ordination day classmate Fr. Z has been asking prayers in these days.

So today I just pray for him, for his community, the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, and for those who found inspiration in his priestly ministry.

June 17, 2011

Religion Fail, Salvation Success

I remember the moment in the first years of my conversion when I noticed the following negligence in my prayer. How many times had I been at Mass and had folks ask me to pray for them in the Confiteor:

...and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God

All around me people made this request of me, and yet it hadn't crossed my mind to fulfill it. I was very bothered by this when I first noticed it. Had I not been listening? Did I not consider myself, or at least desire to be brother to those with whom I was praying?

Confession presented a similar problem. How many times did I proclaim in my act of contrition my 'firm resolution' 'to amend my life,' knowing that I had made little or no effort to do any such thing since my last confession?

I was a liar and a hypocrite before God. At first this threw me into a panic which lasted, with varying intensity, for some years. Praying through it all, however--and by the grace of God alone--I came to realize that all of this was precisely the point.

The glaring gap between the high piety of our prayers and the lowliness of our actual spiritual condition makes all of our prayers a sort of confession of our mediocrity and failure. This is the realization that the saints called compunction. As Thomas Merton puts it:

But when...you see that your nature is still twisted and disfigured by selfishness and by the disorder of sin, and that you are cramped and warped by a way of living that turns you incessantly back upon your own pleasure and your own interest, and that you cannot escape this distortion: that you cannot even deserve to escape it, by your own power, what will your sorrow be? This is the root of what the saints called compunction: the grief, the anguish of being helpless to be anything but what you were not meant to be. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 263)

The negligences and lies of my prayers revealed this truth to me in the course of my efforts at Christianity, and made me realize how much I was 'trusting in the flesh,' as St. Paul puts it. Religion, as a human project, has no power to save us; its virtue is not itself saving, but in helping us get to the place where we notice the depth of our need for salvation.

I don't pray because I think that by praying I should make myself holy or worthy of God's grace (though sometimes folks mistake the peace received from prayer on the natural level for these things; hence the popularity of spirituality without religion.) I pray in order to be made aware of the dire condition of my soul and my need for God. It's like the bathroom floor; as I walk through the bathroom during the day, often without my glasses, it doesn't look like it needs to be cleaned. But when I get on my hands and knees and really look, it is then that I see how filthy it is.

This is part of the reason I am increasingly uncomfortable with Christianity being placed in the genus 'religion.' If religion is considered as a human activity, or as an aspect of human culture or set of human values and intellectual propositions (and this is what the world thinks, it seems to me), then Christianity is a religion in only a very ironic sense. In fact, it is a sort of unreligion.

June 16, 2011

The Trials of Web Celebrity

I admit it; I enjoy playing foursquare. And I think I'm pretty good at it too; after about a year of playing I have eighteen badges and am currently holding down twenty-four mayorships. I would be even more of a success if someone would invent the Catholic badges I proposed back in this post.

One of pizza shops in my neighborhood has a large LCD monitor that cycles through news headlines, special offers, and best of all, a congratulations to the current mayor on foursquare, paired with a taunt inviting viewers to "check in" in an effort to oust him.

Having recently recovered the mayorship myself, I was up at the counter picking up my gyro when I came up on the display. "That's me!" I announced to the guys working there. Amid various cries of "Aha!" and "You're that guy?" as well as a couple of other less repeatable interjections, I realized that my self-revelation had resolved a minor mystery.

They congratulated me on my mayorship, but made a little request: could I please switch out my profile picture for something less bizarre, thank you very much.

So as soon as the site boots itself up from the casters-up mode it seems to be in this afternoon, I'll switch out my current profile picture:

For this one:


June 15, 2011

Theology and Unspeech

In trying to write the paper that will finally persolve the spring semester for me, I'm reviewing some old notes from a most brilliant course I took back in the fall of 2005 on the development of trinitarian doctrine.

This passage from my notes says a lot about the nature of theological speech:

"Begotten, not made"...note that this distinction is totally made up, to protect, theologically, what we need to say...the distinction is invented, in an apophatic way, simply opposed not to something we grasp, but to another proposition. The same goes for homoousious--we don't know exactly what it means, but we use it to to protect, precisely, what we don't mean.

June 14, 2011

From Confusion to Understanding and Back

It's a funny thing about the Trinity. Before you study any theology, it's a pretty confusing idea. After you study a little, you think you get it. But after you study a little more, you're confused again.

Without solid catechesis or serious study, the Trinity is hard to understand. He's three, He's one. How can that make any sense? A lot of preaching on the Trinity doesn't help much either. My experience of Trinity Sunday homilies is that they take something of this form: 'God is one, God is three, it's a mystery, please stand for the creed.' Too often mystery becomes an excuse for mystification. But that's another rant.

A lot of folks keep themselves from these troubles and cognitive dissonances by being functional unitarians, modalists, or Arians, often unknowingly. And it's usually not their fault; such departures from Christian orthodoxy are sometimes taught by our catechists and theology teachers. I've done it myself. As a volunteer religious education teacher I once gave some kids a lovely and catchy analogy for understanding the Trinity. Trouble was, it was very modalist in implication.

So, if you were in the multi-parish Confirmation prep program that met at St. Lawrence in West Haven, CT in the late 90s, where you had the young, cool teacher, and you now find that your prayer life is inexplicably confusing, or you find yourself in marriage preparation (the kids would be about the typical age now) with a priest with whom you seem to have theological differences that you can't put your finger on, feel free to blame me.

When you study a little theology you are delivered from all of this confusion, emerging into the clarity of claims about the self-diffusive nature of goodness, the necessity of the social Trinity, or the necessity of opposition and comparison for any distinction in being. You are comforted as your pious mind swims in the clear, living water of 'it's all about the overflowing nature of goodness' or 'it's all about the self-diffusion of love' or 'it's all about relationship, in a perfect communion of persons without coercion or domination' or 'it's all about the opposed relations which we imitate by the creative tension of human community life.' Your reflections wax sublime as you realize how original and mutual generativity structure the whole of both created and uncreated being, and so realize how happiness lies in making our own relationships and generativity imitate God himself.

But then you keep going, drilling deeper into the sources of these reflections and the theologians and other sources from which they have come. Cracks start to appear. You start to notice that each effort at a theological articulation of the great Mystery succeeds in taking some of the data of revelation and some of the orthodox confession of faith seriously, but not all of it. Each approach succeeds in avoiding modalism on one side and Arianism on the other, but you realize that this feat alone doesn't mean every problem and question has been resolved.

So you're back where you started, wondering and confused. But perhaps with a greater and more prayerful appreciation of the Mystery Himself. And maybe that's the point.

June 13, 2011

St. Anthony: Savior of Vases

Anyone who has prayed the Divine Office with either the American English Roman-Franciscan Christian Prayer or Roman-Franciscan Liturgy of the Hours knows that the 1975 propers for Franciscan saints and blesseds therein are not one of the great works of liturgical language. In fact, they're often pretty bad.

The hymns especially aren't too hot. They tend to be random, opaque, and generally unsingable. Often they almost fall into a meter of 9-8-9-8 for which the well-known tune Rendez à Dieu could be supplied (i.e. "Father we thank Thee, Who hast Planted") but there's almost always some fatal metrical error that would cause the effort to end in choral confusion and fraternal chuckles.

Today, the feast of St. Anthony, is no exception. Consider the third stanza of the hymn provided for the Office of Readings. Though it's one of the rare ones that just about works out metrically, it's still pretty random:

His miracles the unbelievers
Unto the light of faith recall;
A fragile vase that tumbles headlong
No damage suffers from its fall.

Really? Of all the beautiful doctrine and wonderful miracles of St. Anthony, you want me to sing about how he saved some vase? Give me a break. However, I have to ask, anybody know the story behind this?

St. Anthony, pray for us.

June 11, 2011

Teasing and Charity

In Capuchin Spirit and Life, Fr. John of Meerle discusses charity of speech:

Charity should at all times govern our speech so that we avoid such faults as slander, detraction, quarrels, harsh and unfriendly criticism, rude and short answers, complaints when asked to do a service, excessive teasing and ridicule. (134, my emphasis)

Apparently only excessive teasing is against charity. Fr. John goes on:

Excessive teasing also fails against brotherly love. You might say that some people like to be teased, yes, they even take offense if they are left to themselves and not taken notice of. This may be true, yet there is no one who finds a joke or pleasantry enjoyable if it is mixed with gall. Those who are inclined to pass a joke at the expense of another, or enjoy teasing others, should be very careful not to overstep the bounds of charity and should have the proper sense of judging what will be within the limits of legitimate amusement and what will rather hurt and offend another. (135)

In other words, teasing does have a place in religious community, even as a work of charity. Anyone who has been in religious life knows that sometimes humor is the safest vehicle for fraternal admonition and one of the quickest means of deflating those who struggle with temptations to vanity.

Audemus Dicere

I probably think about things too much, but lately I've been reflecting a little on the introduction to the Our Father at the beginning of the Communion Rite. Probably for most of us it's not a big deal, just a transitional phrase to get from one part of the Mass of to another. Some of this, at least from the point of view of the priest, probably has to do with the usual arrangement of American sacramentaries, in which the prayer after the Our Father is on the top of a new page. Since most priests know the Our Father, it is usually this page that one turns to after the doxology, and so the introductions to the Our Father are rarely consulted.

I think most of us do this introduction ad lib, or at least with some phrase that we have made habitual for ourselves, even though it's not one of those places where the rubrics allow for 'these or similar words.' I've always done this myself, with some introduction that is close to, or incorporates parts from the actual text in the sacramentary, but not following along exactly. Some of this comes from early experiences offering the Mass; as a new priest, there's a great relief in having arrived at this moment in the liturgy, and with that feeling one feels a bit more loose moving forward.

I've often said something like option A, Let us pray with confidence to the Father in the words our Savior gave us, or option D, Let us pray for the coming of the kingdom as Jesus taught us. I don't know why, but lately I've started to wonder about the theological adequacy of these statements. Maybe it's because one of the other priests here in the friary always introduces the Our Father with a version of the classic introduction: "Faithful to the Savior's command, and formed by the Word of God, we dare to say..."

What bothers me is this sense of the prayer 'that Jesus taught us' or 'the words our Savior gave us.' Yes, Jesus teaches us to pray the Our Father, but does he not also command us to offer the whole of the Mass? I worry that these introductions could import a subtle distinction between the Our Father as the prayer that is from Jesus, as opposed to the rest of the Mass.

Maybe hanging out with students has made me overly sensitive to such a thing; sometimes I perceive in them impious understandings of the faith having crept in as ordinary assumptions. I was speaking to one beginning theology student about the Old Testament. When I asked him, 'Isn't the Old Testament about Christ?' he responded that the early Christians had reinterpreted it as such. As if Christ came to exist because the 'early Christians' dreamed him up! And yet sometimes such assumptions, which belong properly to the unbelieving and confused world, can find their way unquestioned into the ordinary discourse of the theological classroom.

That's why, if I'm going to invite people to pray 'as Jesus taught us' or 'in the words our Savior gave us,' I'm going to do it before Mass begins, in reference to the whole of the prayer and sacrifice Jesus Christ gave us and commanded us to offer, including the Our Father.

In any case, this is another question that will be moot when the new translation goes into effect. There are no longer options for this moment in the Mass, only At the Savior's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say:

June 8, 2011

From My Confessor: Feeding The Animal

"As spiritual as we might become, we are still also animals. And the animal man has needs--food, water, shelter, and rest for sure--but also things like beauty, play, pleasure, friendship. Of course these needs have to be attended to within the limits of divine law, reason, and our state in life if we want to be happy. But they must be attended to nonetheless; sometimes subtle temptations can get us to ignore them. We do so at our peril. If we don't feed the animal, soon we will find that the animal feeds on us."

Latin, Language, and Revelation

Over the last six years the presence of Latin in my life has been accelerating. Before the summer of 2005, there was almost none. Now there's a lot. Knowing that I needed to pass the dreaded Latin exam of the famously cantankerous Iraqi Jesuit Fr. Stanley Marrow in order to complete the STL degree I started working on in the fall of 2005, I spent a good amount of that preceding summer trying to learn. I still remember the examination: two hours to translate Gaudium et spes 29-30. I didn't finish, and was sure that I had failed. I was genuinely surprised to find out that I had passed.

That same fall I saved up some of my "day off money" and ordered the typical edition Liturgia Horarum, thinking that it would be a good way to get some regular practice. In our communities we usually only pray Morning and Evening Prayer in common, so as I approached my diaconate ordination in the fall of 2006 I was working on making sure I was praying the rest of the hours each day on my own.

Then, in 2007, just two months before I was ordained priest, Summorum pontificum appeared. When I read it, I understood that the faithful were given the right to ask for the Extraodinary Form, so I thought I had better familiarize myself with it. So I started to attend a Latin Mass, when I could, on Sunday afternoons.

Now, having been transferred out of full-time ministry back into studies, I'm spending the best hours of my days reading theology in Latin. When I can on Sundays I sing with a local chant schola.

In these ways Latin has become a big part of my life, stemming mostly from the community's decision to bless my idea of pushing myself to get the STL, and ordering those breviaries.

This phenomenon of Latin in my life leads me into some theological reflection sometimes. I make no apology for praying in Latin; Vatican II is clear that Latin is the ordinary language for divine worship in the Roman rite. Nevertheless, there are some deeper theological questions that arise for me.

First of all, I think that one has to say that all human language as we know it is relative. Language as we have it now, especially in its diversity and perhaps also in its ambiguity, is only as old as the confusion at Babel. I imagine that we all still know the original language that was spoken before this, but we don't know that we know, or we have forgotten it. A language, like Latin for example, might be venerable or sacral or whatever, but it's still relative and exists only because of the fall of humanity from original blessing.

Nevertheless, there seems to me to be another theological question that moderates this first point. It has to do with the relationship of revelation to culture. We Catholics like to talk about the 'inculturation' of the liturgy or even the teaching of the faith, but sometimes I feel like there are assumptions made here regarding the relative arbitrariness of the cultures from which we have received divine revelation. God called Abraham, but is it accidental or constitutive for revelation that he lived in the frameworks and assumptions of the culture from which he came? Did the Holy Spirit lead Peter and Paul to Rome on purpose because it was in God's plan that western Christianity should be assisted by some the culture, polity, and liturgical culture of the Roman Empire? Is the conversion of Constantine a historical accident or a purposeful work of divine Providence? I have come to think that some of our conversations about inculturation presume the thinner theological opinion about these matters, namely that such things are accidents of history rather than constitutive of revelation in some way. But I wonder if such an idea that human culture is an entirely fungible medium into which the faith can be superimposed really takes the incarnation seriously. To get back to the original point, all these years after the passion and death of the Lord, is it an accident of history that the Mass as we have today in the 2002 Missale Romanum is in Latin, or is it how God meant it to be? I think we usually presume the former answer, but anyone who says that should go back and read Benedict XVI's infamous speech in Regensburg, in which he makes the deep claim that the translation of the Old Testament in Greek in the inter-testamental period was continuous with the work of divine revelation. Again, as I say, I also wonder if the thin claims about the relationship between culture and revelation take the incarnation seriously. That the Son was incarnate at a particular time and place, within a particular culture, speaking a particular language or languages, cannot be an accident, and nor are these things easily separable from the revelation of God which He is.

June 7, 2011

Breaking Up With First Fervor

In one of the places I've been along the way there was a diocesan priest in the neighborhood who always seemed unhappy. One of the friars there knew the priest a little bit, so I asked about him. "You know what he told me once?" said the friar, "That he's never gotten over the loss of his childhood faith and the first fervor in his vocation." It struck me as very sad.

The loss of one's first fervor can be very hard. There can be a lot of confusion and interior vertigo, what John of the Cross calls the 'dark nights.' A healthy grieving and letting go are necessary. Nor is it a one-time thing; someone may think that he has passed out of his first fervor only to realize later that he hadn't really dealt with the loss at some deeper level. There's a sense in which a spiritual person is always passing out of first fervor, in the same way that an adult always remains the child he was in his family of origin.

But to manage all of this in a healthy way is critical to spiritual growth. If we have not let go or grieved well, we can continue to indulge the part of ourselves that pines away for the clarity, energy, and excitement of our time of first fervor, distracting us from the grace and work of the current moment in our journey.

For whatever reason, the romantic metaphor works for me. My first fervor in my conversion and my religious life was like a fun and energetic girlfriend. She took me to new places and introduced me to new experiences. She was sweet and attractive. But, as time went on, troubles started to appear in the little spiritual playground of our relationship. I began to see how she was possessive and exclusive; our relationship was a spirituality that didn't lend itself to begin shared with others. She had no interest in children; ours was a relationship just for us, a spirituality just for me to enjoy. More than anything, she couldn't seem to handle prayer when it began to cease having a lot of feeling or affective reinforcement. As prayer began to turn into the 'uninteresting wilderness' (as Thomas Merton called it) she started to break up with me for good.

I was a little lost at first, but over time I worked through it. At this point, coming up on nineteen years baptized, having spent the majority of that time in religious life, I look on my first fervor with fondness, knowing that it was the right relationship at the time, but without any longing to go back.

Not to be on a Mr. T. Experience kick, but this song captures a little of my attitude toward my first fervor in religious life:

June 6, 2011

History of the Concept of the Soul

I had totally forgotten about this song. When I happened on it again this afternoon, it made my day. You don't have to agree with everything, but the very idea of putting footnotes into a song, how can you not love that? Listen for the "Ibid" at the very end.

Mr. T. Experience, The History of the Concept of the Soul

Homer didn't have a comprehensive word for mind.
the psyche and the conscious self had not yet been combined.
He understood events as repetition from the past,
and individual consciousness was not a part of that.
But early Greek thought played a role in the complicated history
of the concept of the soul. (1)

By the time of Plato these ideas had taken shape.
The Phaedo and Timaeus are works which demonstrate
the consious separation of the knower from the known
and the dual nature of the body and the soul.
Modern thought was possible:
the complicated history of the concept of the soul.

Pythagoras and Orphic doctrines all came into play,
because Plato was a mystic in his own Platonic way.
The pre-Socratic Naturalists saw things in terms of "stuff".
But Plato's metaphysics showed that this was not enough.
This is the incredible complicated history of the concept of the soul.
Rock and roll! (2)

(1) For an interesting discussion, see E.R Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, (Berkeley, 1953), pp. 45-150.

(2) ibid.

To Stand In Your Presence And Serve You

The other day I heard a priest mention how he doesn't speak this section of Eucharistic Prayer II as it is presented: We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you. The people are kneeling, after all (at least in the United States), so how can it make sense to say that they are standing?

I have heard this complaint a number of times over the years, and just as often I have heard the text changed to something more like be in your presence and serve you.

I'm not ranting about the changing of one little word; it seems to me like something more troubling is at work here. How is it that someone who has just let his voice work through something as deep and mysterious as consenting to let the Lord's speech pass through him to speak a little bit of bread and a cup of wine into the Body and Blood of Christ then cannot abide to speak the verb 'stand' in a metaphorical way?

After all, 'to stand' is a verb which we are constantly and routinely using in figurative and metaphorical ways, even across cultures and languages. So how is that liturgical speech, which one would hope had some preeminence among the sorts of our speaking, is not even given the benefit of the ordinary flexibility and depth of language?

I think it speaks to the standard traditionalist complaint about the loss of mystery and transcendence in the liturgy. Not that the usus antiquior is the answer; the Extraordinary Form can be celebrated in small-minded and wooden ways as well.

On the theological level, we have to remember that just because we insist on certain words as a way to guarantee that we fall within the window of orthodoxy, it doesn't mean that the referents of these words are precisely defined. I know that I have to say that the Blessed Trinity is three persons and one deity, or that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures hypostatically united, but to say exactly what these words mean is another story altogether, and a long one at that. Theological speech delineates boundaries more than it establishes what some of the other sciences would call precision.

Further, we should not shrink from symbolic or metaphorical speech in our prayer out of fear for the charge of 'it's just a symbol' or 'it's just a metaphor.' These are the complaints of those who live in a reduced and small reality, in a world in denial of the spiritual. As any reflective person knows, symbols and metaphors can be extremely powerful.

In any case, such priests will be happy with the new translation, which resolves their difficulty, though probably without meeting their complaint: ...giving thanks that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you.

June 5, 2011

Postquam hostem et inferna

I have to admit it. I love to sing. So I was happy this morning when the choirmaster announced that for a communion meditation we would sing Adam of St. Victor's sequence for the Ascension, Postquam hostem et inferna.

It begins:

Postquam hostem et inferna
spoliavit ad superna
Christus redit gaudia
angelorum ascendenti
sicut olim descendenti
parantur obsequia

"After despoiling enemy and hell,
Christ returns to joyful heights,
ascending as before he descended,
attended by the angels."

That's very loose. As always, translation improvements are welcome in the comments!

June 4, 2011

Retrieval and Respect

I came across this over on Celledoor Miscellany.

A priest-friend of Paul VI, as quoted in Life magazine, March 20, 1970:

"After the turmoil following the Vatican Council, it will take two or three generations to reconstruct Catholicism."

Well, here we are folks, and we have a lot of work to do. In the context of religious life, I would prefer a different term than reconstruction. Retrieval, maybe.

Nevertheless, the more I converse with folks who seem to regard themselves as part of this project or retrieval, and I include myself, the more I think we need to be careful about our spiritual attitude toward those who have preceded us.

Our spiritual mothers and fathers in religious life are the ones who stayed when many others left. They stayed because they believed in our vocation, and found in their liberation from former oppressive structures a spirituality that sustained them. This can be hard to appreciate for us who converted or reverted the faith in flight from the vertigo of the relativism and aimlessness of the world; our spiritual parents were liberated from structure and thick notions of absolute truth, while we were liberated to these things.

But this does not, and should not prevent us from appreciating the spiritual energy that must have been felt by what is now the older generation, and from acknowledging that Holy Spirit was in it for them. Yes, they dismantled a religious culture perhaps without realizing how destabilizing it would be to put nothing in particular in its place, but we too one day will leave our own particular shortsightedness as a thorn in the side of our spiritual children and the work of our historical moment incomplete in some way.

A while back a youngish traddy was telling me about how he had approached and made fun of an older religious sister who was protesting for some liberal cause or other, as if he wanted me to approve of such a thing. I should have scolded him.

Yes, we have a lot to recover, a lot to retrieve, even a culture to rebuild. But the rightness of our historical task does not invalidate that of our parents, the fruits of whose liberation even the most ardent traddies enjoy in many ways.

For example, anyone who has gone to his pastor or even his bishop, trying to enforce his right to the Extraordinary Form as declared in Summorum pontificum, has the 'Spirit of Vatican II' to thank that he can even imagine doing such a thing.

June 3, 2011

Prayer to St. Charles

It seems to me that St. Charles Lwanga and his companion martyrs are under-recognized patrons and under-utilized intercessors for our time, martyred as they were, in part, for resisting a situation of the sexualized abuse of power.

Most High, Glorious God,
through the intercession of St. Charles,
help us to bring healing to the legacy of sexual abuse in the Church and the world.
May the wisdom of the Cross overcome every abuse of power.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.

June 1, 2011

Priests At Confession

Today I did myself a favor and went to one of the days of recollection for priests offered here in Boston.

The first part was a holy hour. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed and we prayed Midday Prayer together. Then there was a little conference given by one of the priests. Before Benediction at the end, there was an opportunity for confession. Confessors arranged themselves in the various corners of the church and sanctuary. I went to confession myself, but when I got back to my pew I had trouble settling down to quiet prayer. I tried the rosary, but that didn't work either. Maybe it was too warm, or maybe I was socially anxious about the rest of the day.

Not being able to pray, I just sat and watched the priests go to confession. There was reflective music playing, so there was no danger of hearing anything. I just watched. It turned out to be a beautiful and encouraging reflection.

One priest approaches the other. They greet each other like any pair of colleagues, an exchange that might occur in any setting. But then it changes. The penitent sits, and both heads are lowered as a confession is spoken softly.

This hunkering down, it displays an entrance into sacred time, a departure from the customs and boundaries of the world. The words that are spoken in confession and the conversation that follows are at the deepest level of secret. How much of the spiritual life depends on a certain sublime secrecy! The utter Simplicity of God meeting the solitude of the singular creation of an individual human soul!

I watched, over and over, the intimate secret of grace defeat the isolating secrecy of sin.

Then, from this conversation of two Christian souls, something new emerges. One raises a hand over the other. For a moment they have ceased to be peers. One is in authority and judgment over the other. But just as this gesture terminates in the sign of the cross made over the penitent, so this judgment terminates in the self-sacrificing, incarnate Word, a God who wills to let go of everything it ought to mean to be divine--in our human imagination--in order to free us from our chosen misery. So what we call a judgment in this context is not a judgment to which the sinner is subjected, but a proclamation of the Risen Christ, who Himself is the judgment against sin and the tangle of passions and frustrations Christian tradition calls 'the world.'

Then, absolution proclaimed and received, the sacred time closes up again. The two men shake hands as a sign of their reentry into the ordinary time and space of the day.


Twitter is a funny business. Over the past couple of days I've gained about sixty new followers, all because of what is becoming my most successful tweet ever:

"I find it funny that most priests complaining about the new translation are the same ones who change the words we have now."

When I say that this tweet was successful I mean that it has been "retweeted" by others to all of their followers. I often get a retweet or two for pithy assertions and off-beat sayings, but this one has been retweeted fifty times. When one's tweet thus reaches out into Twitter through this retweeting, that's when potential new followers become aware of you.

It was an idle comment, for sure, but one that I meant. Mostly it was about amusement. As I listen to priests complain about how unspeakable, unprayable, unintelligible, exclusive, and unpastoral the new English translation of the Mass is supposed to be, I can't help but notice that the priests who complain the most are the ones who most often need to adjust the liturgical texts we have now. So, on the one hand, if they really like the translation we have had all these years, why do they feel the need to adjust it? On the other hand, what are they worried about, since they will probably 'adjust' the words of the new translation in the same way they have been doing up to now?

So the issues are deeper than translation, or perhaps the deeper issues come to an expression in the problem of translation. The tweet reveals that underneath arguments about what is pastoral or not, prayable or not, are deeper arguments about the nature and purpose of liturgy, the authority of the individual priest with regard to the givens and tradition of divine worship, and even the concept of truth.

As I have been saying for a while, it's the clergy who will have the hardest time with this transition, not the people. Last Saturday when I was visiting with my parents I went to morning Mass at the local parish. Twenty minutes. No general intercessions, no sign of peace. The priest banged through Eucharistic Prayer II from memory, without ever turning the page from the preface. Probably he's been doing that for years. That's exactly the sort of priest for whom the new translation will be a jarring experience.